The Truth About Lollapalooza

The author at Lollapalooza 2008 as shot by Clayton Hauck

I’ve never paid to see Lollapalooza in its current incarnation in Chicago

The first year a friend got me in to the Lollalounge through a radio contest she won, and each subsequent year I’ve had press access. I’ve read and written countless previews and reviews of the festival, and it wasn’t until this year that I realized each and every one was basically flawed. Sure, they tackled the bands appearing, and attempted to capture the vibe, but they never really grappled with the most primal question surrounding Lollapalooza; should you go?

You see, most reviews you’ll come across are written by folks like me. We get in for free, are granted access to amenities 99% of attendees are not, and – this is most important – we come from a vantage point of relative privilege since most critics have probably already seen the vast majority of the bands appearing at Lollapalooza. What does this result in? Well, usually you end up reading uniform reviews semi-complaining about the line-up, flagellating the festival and the bands involved for sponsorship issues, gripes about ticket prices, and much hand-wringing over the infamous “radius clause.” Oh, and if you’re lucky, you get some griping about drunk meatheads, sound bleed, and general overcrowding. (And, yes, every once in a while, you get honest-to-god reporting on isolated incidences.)

The thing is, all those write-ups sort of miss the whole point of Lollapalooza.

To the average person, all of the above doesn’t mean shit. Look, let’s say you like only 10 of the 120 or so acts appearing at Lollapalooza, and let’s say of those 10, 4 are headliners. If you were to see those 4 bands alone in an alternate “shed” or arena sized venue, you’d be paying upwards of $50 a piece, before Ticketbastard even hit you with their own charges. By that math alone, you’ve already made out with a relative bargain.

And the line-up? Who the hell can legitimately gripe about a 120 band line-up? Sure we heard gripes there wasn’t enough local talent, but last time we checked, Lollapalooza was an international destination festival and we just happen to be its base. By that virtue, shouldn’t the festival bookers be more interested in a diverse line-up and not be beholden to sticking a couple Chicago band on the bill? I’d love to see more Chicago acts play Lollapalooza, but I’d like to think they got on the bill through the virtue of their music and their draw rather than because the organizers were guilted into including them. Right?

Sponsorship issues? Well, if Rage Against The Machine and Radiohead can play on the AT&T stage, I don’t think there are any sponsorship issues. I’m just as old school indie rock as the next grouchy music critic, and I actually remember the ‘80s and the corporate-directed anger that lay within that decade, but at this point, in this climate, the point is moot. I have no problem seeing a logo plastered across the stage if it means that logo is partially lowering ticket prices through subsidization. More importantly, does anyone actually think the current generation of concert attendees even notices sponsors anymore after navigating websites festooned with pop-ups, banner ads, and other various attempted attention-getters they’ve already learned to tune out?

I’ve also heard Lollapalooza is killing the local music scene through its “radius clause,” or the contractual obligation it asks of its band not to play shows in the Midwest for months before and after their Lollapalooza appearance. Now, this is a gripe I used to buy into, having been a local promoter in the past, and having seen the summer scene dry up over the last few years. This year I realized something important though; the local scene isn’t drying up because of Lollapalooza, it’s drying up because of heavier inter-club competition and a dearth of bands large enough to actually command large followings over repeat performances. This year any band playing the festival that I wanted to see play in a small club ended up playing a small club later on in the evening. And some smaller bands seem completely unaffected. For instance locals OFFICE ended up playing during the Pitchfork Music Festival weekend and are also appearing at a local street festival next week. Well, so much for that draconian “radius clause” choking the smaller working indie talent, huh?

And finally, here’s the most important thing every single review seems to miss; people go to Lollapalooza to have fun, and to check out a few of their favorite bands. By the sheer virtue of the size of the festival we applaud the bookers for including a wide swathe of music, and hold out hopes that many attendees end up stumbling across a new favorite band playing some other stage as they make their way to the next ticked box on their personal schedule, and from a critical standpoint that’s all I can really hope for. I think it’s incredibly silly and short-sighted to slight a festival of Lollapalooza’s size for booking acts they hope will draw a crowd. Not to mention any line-up that includes Dierks Bently, Amadou and Mariam, Explosions in the Sky, Spank Rock, and Kanye West can’t exactly be called either predictable or generically mainstream.

And the folks at the festival had fun. Even those that had to wait in line and pay for beer, wait in line to use a porta-potty, wait in line to struggle through the crowd watching Girl Talk, and wait in line to wait in line to get into the festival. I tromped from one side of Grant Park to the other at least a dozen times each day. I waded through the masses. I waited in line for beer next to drunk frat boys. I saw indie chicks in day-glo green gym outfits camped out on bright red blankets. I say kids passed out in the shade after one to many afternoon cocktails. I saw you. And in all of this I saw a mass of 75,000 people a day having a good time, mostly getting along, and all smiling while watching either classic favorites or new musical discoveries. I saw a small city of people unwilling to consume itself, and a community hell-bent on having a good time.

And that my friends, is what makes Lollapalooza worth it, for you and for me.

You can see all of the photos the author shot at Lollapalooza by visiting here.

The author at Lollapalooza 2008  shot by Clayton Hauck

  • CMF

    Nice review. This was my third straight Lolla. It’s a bit of a pain (heat, walking around Grant park, expensive hotels, etc), but I’ve never regretted going. I’ve usually caught most of these band before at either SXSW or local clubs. Either way, its worth seeing them in the setting of a big festival with the backdrop of the gorgeous Chicago skyline. Compared to other festivals (Coachella, Bonnaroo, APW, Reading, etc), it seems Lolla every year is able to hold its own, line-up wise.

  • E

    Great article, TB! I’m the guy who usually goes to Pitchfork and various street fests primarily for the music, and not so much to drink, socialize, hookup, and whatnot. I certainly decided to go to Lollapalooza when I’ve gone for the bands, but this weekend I really appreciated Lollapalooza on a whole different level. The spectacle, the ginormous & diverse crowd is almost worth the price of admission itself. I talked to people from all over the US, Canada, and even a surprisingly large number of folks from Australia. Standing on the hill just north of Hutchinson field and watching the crowd gather for Radiohead was amazing. I saw some fantastic bands last weekend, favorites, both old and new, “buzz” bands I wanted to check out, and yes, even a few surprises. This year though, I walked away amazed by the scene and the spectacle almost as much as I was impressed by NIN. Almost.

  • Tim

    There’s a spelling mistake and a grammar mistake in the same sentence. (In the last big paragraph starting with “And the folks”) Good job editor.

  • p

    What a condescending load of crap. The average person? How nice of you to break it all down for the slow-witted, paying masses. And what’s with the picture? I’m with the guy walking by- who’s does this douchebag think he is? Hunter S. Thompson? Please.

  • p, I was merely trying to offer an honest appraisal of the festival that differed from the inherent biases infecting most other summaries, that’s all. I’m not sure how that’s condescending.

    And please, I learned top stop trying to ape Hunter S. Thompson way back in college at about the same time every other English Major realizes how cliche it is.