How to improve Lollapalooza


August 13, 2006


From their first appearance in Chicago two years ago, Austin, Texas-based concert promoters Capital Sports & Entertainment have said their goal is to make Lollapalooza the best destination festival in the country -- overshadowing and perhaps replacing Bonnaroo, Coachella and others -- and doing the vibrant local music scene proud.

The massive scope of the fest -- which promoters say brought an average of 60,000 concertgoers per day to Grant Park to see 130 bands on eight stages for three days last week -- essentially precludes any other concert of its size from gaining a foothold in Chicago, and it has had a major impact on the live music scene here, prohibiting most acts on its bill from performing at other venues during the summer season.

In the days following last weekend's second fest, I interviewed 13 local concert promoters, club bookers, band managers and music industry professionals, all of whom attended the fest. Because many did or hope to do business with Capital Sports, I agreed not to name them so they would be free to offer their frank assessments of where the concert fell short and how it can be improved. The following represents their comments and my own.

1. Fix the sound problems

Although efforts were made to improve from last year, sound bleed between stages continued to be a major problem, with many quieter acts -- Iron & Wine, Feist, Aqualung, the Shins and Patti Smith, to name a few -- overpowered by louder acts nearby. The sound quality also was erratic, especially at the northern stage in Butler Field and during the spotlight performance by Kanye West in Hutchinson Field. In some cases, this may have been the fault of the artists' personal sound crews, but they may not have had enough or any time for proper sound checks.

2. Make it easier to catch back-to-back sets on far-flung stages

Grant Park is an exquisite venue, but it isn't without problems. Capital Sports can't change the layout, but it can do more to address the difficulties. If you were watching a band in Butler Field and wanted to see the next group in Hutchinson Field, you faced a 20-minute walk, which meant you missed a lot of one performance or the other, since set times were consecutive.

Solutions include staggering show times in the north and south or scheduling 15-minute breaks in between. Also, while VIPs could take the "Festival Express" -- a six-minute golf-cart ride between stages -- there was nothing similar for paying fans. Setting up trams such as those at the Morton Arboretum would not be difficult or expensive.

3. Consider fewer stages

The promoters' mantra was "Too much music isn't a bad problem to have!" That wasn't true if sound bleed drowned out your favorite artist, or if you wanted to catch two performances at the same time, such as the much-anticipated shows by West and Manu Chao. A possible fix is limiting the fest to one major stage each at the far ends of Butler and Hutchinson fields, with two smaller stages in the middle near Buckingham Fountain.

Some experts suggested a more thematic approach to booking: Put like-minded jam bands at one stage all day and hard-rockers or power-pop groups at another. But that doesn't solve another complaint: that there wasn't enough of what made the original Lollapalooza so memorable -- the mix of divergent acts and the ensuing surprises. The Lollapalooza of the '90s only had two stages: one main platform and a smaller side stage. Sometimes less can be more -- at least when every act that is booked is a great one.

4. Place some limits on the corporate sponsors

All of the Chicago experts and dozens of readers who e-mailed me after the fest thought the advertising was ubiquitous and obnoxious, from the companies that bought naming rights to the stages (to the consternation of some artists who played there) to the marketing teams roaming the site handing out placards that became instant trash.

Sponsorships may be inevitable and inescapable, but they can be done in a more tasteful and low-key way. Sponsors could be limited to hosting useful sites -- like the misting booths or air-conditioned Internet access tents -- or they could be constrained to giving fans something they might actually keep, like baseball caps or free water bottles. (Many fans didn't realize that a car company was a sponsor of the Pitchfork Music Festival, unless they chose to investigate the demo model parked in a corner of the festival site, and the drink company that was another sponsor was handing out free -- and welcome -- samples of its beverage.)

5. Lollapalooza needs to become part of the Chicago community

Industry experts say the festival is at least a $15 million business annually, yet Capital Sports has no Chicago office. It made some attempt to work with local scene-makers -- witness the handful of after-shows at some clubs -- but it hasn't done enough to become part of the tapestry of the city's diverse musical community. (See sidebar.)

One reason: Many local music insiders say Capital Sports continues to harbor ambitions of bringing the fest to other cities in the United States and Europe. Their consensus: Lollapalooza is the only major pop-music festival Chicago is going to get, so Chicago deserves the best Lollapalooza possible -- and it should remain unique to Chicago.