Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Are Certain Chicago Music Critics Still Whining About Lollapalooza?

Ever since Lollapalooza reinvented itself with the parnternship of Perry Farrell and C3 Presents and arrived at Chicago's doorstep in 2005, it hasn't exactly been welcomed with open arms by everyone. It seems every year on the heels of the festival the main music critics in town line up to take their shots, be it at the lineup, the corporate backing, or with misplaced comparisons to the Pitchfork Festival. Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times seems to annually slam the festival, or, if he must, begrudgingly deliver compliments in a backhanded fashion. Last Friday, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune was the latest to get his digs in, with a piece entitled Lollapalooza Promoters Still Searching for Chicago Identity. Kot seems to argue that Lollapalooza hasn't done enough to embrace and identify with Chicago. He writes:

But questions remain about how fully Lollapalooza has embraced and been embraced by Chicago beyond the considerable revenue it brings to the local economy. In staging the biggest annual rock festival in the city’s history on Chicago’s showcase property, C3 is held to a particularly high standard. So far it has executed a hugely successful festival with few hitches. But the organization remains at arm’s length from the city’s music community – more of a formidable interloper than a trusted accomplice.

Questions remain? Questions from whom? Probably not from those that bought the 225,000 tickets. Also, the fact that Lollapalooza has recently signed on to remain in Chicago through at least 2018 should quell any questions as to where their loyalties lie. And my guess is the last sentence in that paragraph stems from the "radius clause" that is in the contract for all of the bands that play Lollapalooza, which basically restricts them from playing local venues 90 days before or after the festival. I agree that these clauses are stupid and wholly unnecessary, but they are pretty typical for all large festivals. And the bands that play Lollapalooza never seem to have much trouble arranging an aftershow, or even playing the city a few days before or after the festival. The policy seems to be, ask the promoters if you can play, and they will let you play. If there has been a case of a band being refused a show after asking , I have not heard of it.

Not saying that I would have heard about it. I am a mere casual observer and fan of live music, I am not on the inside, nor privy to some of the politicking that goes on in certain Chicago music circles. That being said, I wonder if the bitterness directed at Lollapalooza is less about the radius clauses and more about the promoters not kissing the right asses. And I am not wondering rhetorically, I am asking because I don't know.

What I do know is, I can't think of a single person that I have talked to that has had a negative experience at Lollapalooza since its rebirth in Chicago. The main (and nearly only) complaint that comes to mind is the size of the crowd, which can make it difficult to maneuver from stage to stage. (And the off-shoot complaint, which is that the large crowd sometimes results in poor or non-existent cell phone service.)

Even more stupid, in my opinion, is this idea that the festival hasn't fully "embraced Chicago." In recent years, Chicago heavyweights Wilco and Kanye West have headlined Lollapalooza. I seem to remember Lupe Fiasco on a stage as well. And even small time and relatively unknown local acts like Cameron McGill have been included. I guess Oprah needs to be invited to appease some of these people.

I have heard others complain about the lack of Chicago "identity" at the festival. Oh, brother. Lollapalooza is stationed in Grant-freakin'-Park, under the glow of arguably the most beautiful skyline in the world. And second, does it really matter? Does the music not suffice? Last year everyone seemed to enjoy Radiohead just fine. Are you telling me it would be a much more fulfilling experience if everyone was up to their necks in stuffed pizzas and crooked politicians, too?

Everyone should just enjoy Lollapalooza for what it is, which is a world-class, three-day rock music festival that is slowly becoming a staple of Chicago summers. The Chicago identity and mutual embrace will slowly come, and the kinks will slowly go. But in the meantime, speaking as a former Chicago resident not yet 18-months removed, just feel lucky to have something so great in your backyard.

UPDATE: Almost right on cue, here is DeRogatis's annual whiny column from Saturday's Sun-Times. I am pretty sure it's the same article every year, he just changes the names of the bands.



Mike said...

I agree with you in the main, though I do not think that we should ever let success and popularity cloud potential criticism. C3 (Austin-based Lolla promoters) do seem committed to doing business in Chicago. They have the Soldier Field Concession, and the Congress Theater. Should Chicago get the 2016 Olympics, C3 will be there booking bands. So, sure there's a clear business commitment to the city. Also, in my book, any promoter (see also Jam Productions) that can compete for booking against LiveNation is something we should support.

And given the fan negative spectre of the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger, it's difficult to criticize a promoter that provides a positive fan experience. The drink prices, for instance, are more than what you would pay at Schubas or the Empty Bottle, but have you been to the LiveNation venue Tinley Park? I have, and I can say that I hate going to shows there. I was there (Tinley Park) this year for Rock the Bells, and everything (particularly seating arrangements & concessions) outside of the artist performances sucked. The worst part of the venue is how the seating prices leave large empty sections close to the stage, which saps the energy of the artists.

So, it's hard for me to feel negatively about Lollapalooza when I know that it could be much worse.

And it's not a big deal if Depeche Mode, Lou Reed, Neko Case or Andrew Bird sign 90-day deals with Lolla. They can sell out mid sized to large venues. However, there are other bands like Portugal. The Man who will be little seen at Lolla, and would really benefit from a date at Schubas or the Double Door.

I do think that Lolla could stick more local bands into those early slots, but would it really be good for them if they have to also sign that 90-day contract?

Also, I love Pitchfork more than Lollapalooza, but it's much easier buying a beer or going to the bathroom at Lolla.

Of course there are things I would love to change about Lollapalooza (number one: keep Perry Farrell off stage; number two: make the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Steve Earle headliners; number three: healthier concessions), but I largely like the event, I'm going Sunday, and there's something really cool about seeing Lou Reed playing in front of the Chicago skyline.

Alex said...

All valid points. I just feel like DeRo and to a lesser extent, Kot, are just stirring up controversy where there really isn't any, almost tantamount to ambulance chasing or something. I still like both of those guys and their respective papers and Chicago should feel lucky to have them, but it gets old. I am not saying the festival is immune from criticism based on popularity, but I don't think DeRo and Kot are very good at analyzing the festival from the average attendees perspective, which is who the promoters should be worried about.

I have not been to Tinley Park in years, '98 I believe for a Pumpkins show, and I don't remember much about the place other than that it was like every other single outdoor amphitheater in the nation.

How was Lou Reed?

Mike said...

Lou Reed: I wonder if I was in a different reality from Dero and Kot. They both liked his show, and I left after the third song to go see Deerhunter (I would have stayed if there wasn't a decent alternative.) Sweet Jane was awful. He wasn't trying to be in tempo and his band was professional. Too professional.

I loved Iggy Pop last year, but Iggy cares about performing his music live. That's not the sense I got from Lou Reed. It was bizarre watching a set of young adults and old people psyched to see a sullen Lou Reed with a competent band. Apparently that set included our local music critics.

On a side note, it was great seeing Thax open for Neko Case, even if he didn't do well thanks to microphone problems.

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