Music is everywhere in the City of Chicago. In every park and on every street corner, a stage will be set up most weekends out of the year to bring entertainment to residents of the Windy City. Especially in the last few years, festivals have been popping up and bringing more music fans into the unexplored neighborhoods year after year.
Lollapalooza has been the biggest name of the Chicago fest scene ever since Perry Farrell began to call Grant Park home in 2005 after a decade of being a touring festival. Lollapalooza used to pride itself on bringing some legacy acts and unique gets to the park, artists like Tool, Depeche Mode, Daft Punk, Iggy and the Stooges, Wilco, Rage Against the Machine, The Cars, Big Audio Dynamite, Lou Reed – artists who made time in their schedules just to play Lollapalooza. Now, there’s less disparity in headliners at major music festivals. The festival has turned to big EDM names and an unusually top-heavy lineup to continue to draw record numbers to tear up the Loop. Even Perry Farrell himself, the namesake of the EDM stage, has commented on the increase in electronic music on the Lolla lineups. The festival turns 25 years old this year, and it seems like the half-century mark has begun to wear out the gleam of the festival. Luckily, there are more festivals in the city than ever before.
The first year I went to Lollapalooza was 2009, and it was the main attraction in the City of Chicago over the summer. Festivals that existed at the time, including Pitchfork and Riot Fest, have grown tremendously in popularity, while festivals like Mamby on the Beach and North Coast Music Festival spawned and took a big chunk of the electronic and pop bookings from Lollapalooza. Some of these newer fests have been able to develop a “brand” and “sound” – for example, Riot Fest exists to please the punk crowd, North Coast bills EDM acts, Ruido Fest represents the best of alternative Latin music and culture, LakeShake Country Music Festival debuted in 2015 for the Chicago-area country crowd, and the Chicago Blues Festival and Bluegrass Festivals have their intent right in the name. It’s awesome and to the point – if you want a certain kind of music, there’s a festival for that in Chicago.
Chicago also has a great array of street festivals throughout the summer that bring in artists very similar to the majors, without the same price of admission. Wicker Park Fest are hosting The Mountain Goats and PUP in 2016; Taste of Chicago got The Roots and The Decemberists this year, artists that haven’t been at Lollapalooza since 2007 and 2009, respectively; and even the Elston Avenue Sausage & Music Fest hosted local heroes Local H this year. (Not to mention all of the wonderful neighborhood festivals that don’t hold big-name concerts, but still offer great food and fun.) Something that the local fests also do better is representing the burgeoning Chicago music scene by giving unknown artists the stage time they deserve in front of a hometown crowd.
However, the proliferation of festivals throughout the entire city is somewhat saturating the festival-going experience and making the big guy Lollapalooza less of a draw for its music and more as a destination festival with a particular “experience”. Also, the restrictive nature of Lollapalooza’s “radius clause”, or several-month guarantee of exclusivity, and the realistic expectation of how many shows one band can do in one city in one year make it harder for fans to see all of their favorite music at an affordable cost. In order for fans to get a full spectrum of music, you have to wear several wristbands or spend weekends in different neighborhoods, the latter actually being a wonderful way to explore the Chicago cityscape.
Perhaps the rising ticket prices and increasingly mainstream booking choices by C3 invite competition from both fans looking for something different and promoters looking to capitalize on an active music market. But we also see the corporate concert conglomerate beginning to feel pressure from the homegrown options. I have been told local media is no longer invited to the grounds of Lollapalooza – the WXRT sunglasses were the favorite and most useful promotional item at the fest every year, from the most beloved Chicago radio station! Lollapalooza used to be a “Chicago festival”, with Lou Malnati’s pizza, Maps & Atlases playing the Grove stage, and the CHICAGO 2016 stage dedicated to getting the summer olympics to Chicago. (In hindsight, perhaps Chicago would have been a better choice than the current situation with the Rio games.) Now, the fest has subtly moved away from representing local music and media and boasts the Pepsi Stage, Chipotle overtaking WXRT’s canopic hangout area, and Halsey/G-Eazy playing in sub-headlining slots for the second year in a row. But as long as the festival continues to make enormous economic contributions to the City of Chicago, Lollapalooza will continue doing what they can in terms of sponsorships and big-name artists. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Economic impact studies show Lollapalooza last year contributed $155 million to the city economy, including $35 million directly from the festival in taxes, fees, jobs and other revenue. In addition, the festival sponsored more than 50 concerts at 21 clubs spread across six nights.”
We see something similar happening in New York City now as Goldenvoice is trying to take advantage of the live music craze and festival phenomenon with Panorama bringing top-tier acts to the city. Bigger markets cannot avoid the competition, it seems, especially in a music industry dominated by bookers and promoters like Live Nation and C3 Presents who will continue to open their wallets and attempt to take over the smaller fests with less awareness of how fans actually feel about that. Governor’s Ball caught wind of this and challenged Goldenvoice’s attempt to host a fest in Queens the same weekend as their festival, and Goldenvoice settled for Panorama (in the same location as Governor’s Ball, but a month later) with huge names that perhaps took bigger paychecks over what the locally-based GB could offer. The organizers behind Governor’s Ball thus responded with the The Meadows which hosts a killer lineup in its first year as a fest.
Some of my favorite festival experiences have been from homegrown operations. Riot Fest in Humboldt Park gave me Pixies and The Replacements in 2013, the Summerstage series throughout New York City’s boroughs have allowed me to see Blonde Redhead, Blood Orange, and St. Vincent/tUnE-yArDs for free, the Taste of Randolph Street in Chicago were able to snatch Britt Daniel’s project Divine Fits away from Lollapalooza along with The Joy Formidable and local favorite JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. Those fests made me feel the city more than Lollapalooza had by the end of my five-year run in 2013, which is why I ultimately took a couple years off. I will be returning this year (mainly for LCD Soundsystem and Radiohead), and I expect a great time regardless.
Lollapalooza is less special for the locals and more of a nuisance, especially the working folk who now have to deal with roaming festival-goers two weekdays this year instead of one. C3 reports that the majority of ticket buyers for Lollapalooza are under the age of 30. That’s an interesting sign that I think shows people are outgrowing the festival and turning to the less corporate options that the City of Chicago offers. In fact, some of the smaller fests are better indicators of the status of a certain scene or a city’s culture. Lollapalooza will continue to sell out every year to people expecting the same old music in the same old setting, but I encourage you to explore Chicago’s other options and learn more about the city’s culture on the less-traveled avenues.
Chicago’s 2016 Festival Line-Up
June 3-5 – Do Division Street Fest
June 10-12 – Chicago Blues Festival
June 10-12 – Spring Awakening
June 17-19 – Taste of Randolph
June 18-19 – Green Music Fest
June 25-26 – Elston Ave Sausage & Music Fest
July 2-3 – Mamby on the Beach
July 6-10 – Taste of Chicago
July 8-10 – West Fest
July 8-10 – Ruido Fest
July 15-17 – Pitchfork Music Festival
July 15-17 – Open Air Music Festival
July 23-24 – Wicker Park Fest
July 28-31 – Lollapalooza
September 1-4 – Chicago Jazz Festival
September 2-4 – North Coast Music Festival
September 16-18 – Riot Fest
Millennium Park Concert Series