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The Rise of Summer Music Festivals

Coachella Music Festival

This weekend, California’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival kicks off the summer music festival season with some of the biggest names in the business—and they’re all heading to a polo field southeast of Palm Springs. In the 1990s, rock shows such as Ozzfest and Lilith Fair hopped between every metro amphitheater in the country, but some of today’s most popular music festivals are multiday concert events held in deserts, gorges and big-city parks. With their kooky names and sometimes eclectic rosters, these extravaganzas are big business: Coachella’s 50,000 daily visitors, at an average of $90 per ticket, can bring in a cool $4.5 million, and that’s not counting merchandise, food and campsite fees. Yet, in a year where spare cash and affordable travel options are scarce, are music fans willing to ante up hundreds of dollars for a weekend under the stars with their favorite bands? Even before the stock market crashed last fall, many of 2008’s festivals experienced growing pains and slow sales as the result of new competition and talent overlap, and with the economy tanking, this year isn’t looking all that much better.

Still, Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor in chief of concert trade publication Pollstar, says, “I think most of the festivals are going to do just fine. As a value to fans, it’s hard to beat a multiday ticket to something like Coachella, compared to your normal two- or three-act arena show.” And in an effort to boost summer 2009’s bottom line, layaway ticket plans, work exchange programs, free seminars and a rare appearance by a Beatle are just a few of the clever tricks promoters are pulling out of their hats to combat the gloomy economy.

The Destination Festivals With flushable toilets and filtered drinking water, this new breed of music fest has little in common with your parents’ Summer of Love gatherings—even if reigning hotspots Coachella, Bonnaroo and Sasquatch make noble attempts to channel Woodstock’s juju. Each is miles away from the nearest city, and the experience of being there is as important as the music itself (which makes it easier for fans to justify a $249 four-day pass to Bonnaroo, camping and parking included). The Langerado Music Festival was an early casualty this February because of sluggish ticket sales and a change in venue from an Indian reservation in the middle of the Everglades to Miami’s Bicentennial Park.

But Paul Tollett, founder of Coachella, says his event is on target to match last year’s numbers, thanks in part to 19 percent of the fest’s tickets being purchased through a layaway plan instituted by promotion company Goldenvoice. “We had a good portion of people use it,” Tollett says, “so we’re offering it on all the festivals that we’re doing this year [including Stagecoach and All Points West].” The plan, which allowed concertgoers to buy tickets with either 50 percent or 10 percent down and the remainder in installments, took a little of the bite out of Coachella’s $269 three-day pass for music fans.

Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and Michigan’s Rothbury are offering similar payment plans, but although their lineups boast Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, respectively, only Coachella scored Paul McCartney. “It seemed like a great idea,” Sir Paul wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “I like that it’s in the desert, I like that it’s the first festival of the year, and everyone I talk[ed] to told me it was the coolest festival.” As for cachet, Tollett reckons it can’t hurt to have a Beatle on the bill: “I’m sure [it affected ticket sales], because he’s never played a festival in America before.”

The Big Five Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Dates: April 17–19 Location: Indio, Calif. (146 miles east of Los Angeles) Cost: $269 (plus Ticketmaster fees) for a three-day pass; $55 for onsite camping (three days); $99 single-day pass; layaway plan ended April 1 Headliners: Paul McCartney, the Killers, the Cure, Morrissey, Paul Weller, Leonard Cohen Crowd vibe: Music critics, 30-something hipsters and their cool, younger siblings; college kids; some young families Hippie-meter: 5 out of 10 Rule: No stuffed animals Differentiators: Its own iPhone app: a self-updating “Coachooser” for automatic stage times, an interactive venue map, a GPS “friendfinder,” photo folders and more; a filtered water program: buy a $10 container and receive free cold, filtered water for three days

Stagecoach Country Music Festival Dates: April 25–26 Location: Indio, Calif. Cost: $129 (plus Ticketmaster fees) for a two-day pass; $50 for onsite camping (two days); $79 single-day Saturday pass; layaway plan ended April 1 Headliners: Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Reba McEntire, Kid Rock, Kevin Costner Crowd vibe: Big hats and boots, kids, readers of alt-country site, Kid Rock’s fan club Hippie-meter: 3 out of 10 Rule: No musical instruments Differentiators: Kids 14 and under can get into the general-admission area free; VIP tickets for assigned seating in front of the “Mane” stage can run upwards of $799 per person

Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge Dates: May 23–25 Location: George, Wash. (150 miles southeast of Seattle) Cost: $66.50 per day if you purchase before May 18, otherwise $76.50 per day; $95 weekend camping pass (includes vehicles) Headliners: Kings of Leon, Jane’s Addiction, TV on the Radio, Nine Inch Nails, Ben Harper Crowd vibe: Indie insiders, ex-punks, bearded boys, college kids Hippie-meter: 7 out of 10 Rule: No binge-drinking devices Differentiators: Beautifully designed Web site and Facebook page with discussion groups; venue is a gorgeous amphitheater along Washington state’s Columbia River

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival Dates: June 11–14 Location: Manchester, Tenn. (66 miles southeast of Nashville) Cost: $224–$249 for a four-day pass that includes camping and parking (except for RVs or other oversize vehicles); payment-plan sign-up available until May 1; no single-day tickets available Headliners: Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Phish, Lucinda Williams, Snoop Dogg, MGMT Crowd vibe: Artsy types, jam-band fans, partygoers, alt-country wannabes, college kids Hippie-meter: 8 out of 10 Rule: No Silly String Differentiators: A café, a cinema and a corporate tent for every taste, from MLB’s “Bonnaroo Baseball” (a batting cage) to Garnier Fructis’s “Bonnaroo Salon” and the “Arcade Discotheque” (powered by Xbox 360)

Rothbury Music and Arts Festival Dates: July 2–5 Location: Rothbury, Mich. (200 miles west of Detroit) Cost: $249.50 for a four-day pass that includes camping and parking (except for RVs or other oversize vehicles, which require a $125 RV pass); layaway program ended April 15 Headliners: Bob Dylan and His Band, the Dead, Willie Nelson, Black Crowes, Ani DiFranco Crowd vibe: The tagline says it all: “A sustainable camping festival revolution celebrating music, art and action.” I.e., peace, love and fighting The Man Hippie-meter: 10 out of 10 (Did we mention that the Dead are headliners this year?) Rule: Your car will be subject to search if you leave the premises and return Differentiators: A cool work-exchange program called Green Team; you pay for a pass on your credit card, sign up and then show up to work three shifts as a festival volunteer, and your credit card will be refunded at the end of the festival (online registration required; first-come, first-served basis)

Park Life: The City Festivals Not really into mud and camping? You’re in luck; there are plenty of music fests in cities across the nation, in venues as varied as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Milwaukee’s Marcus Amphitheater. As for cost, New Jersey’s All Points West is on the layaway bandwagon, with three-day passes starting at $199, whereas Milwaukee’s Summerfest, billed as “The World’s Largest Music Festival,” relies on a low entrance fee ($15) for family activities, vendors and small-stage performances, with additional costs for tickets to amphitheater shows. The urban festivals are doing more for kids than their rural counterparts this year: many offer half-priced or reduced fees for those under 18, and Lollapalooza even allows kids 10 and under in free when accompanied by an adult ticket holder.

New Orleans’s Essence Music Festival, held in July, announced its lineup earlier in the year than usual and is seeing surprisingly strong ticket sales. “[Sales are] continuing to outpace sales from this time last year,” festival general manager Joy A. Collins wrote in an e-mail. Then again, Essence does offer what might be the year’s best deal, the Essence Empowerment Seminar Series. Before Beyoncé or John Legend hit the stage at the Superdome, you can spend the afternoon at a nearby convention center listening to Bill Cosby, Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner, CNN’s Roland Martin and Donna Brazile, and others—all at no charge. And in 2009, free is the only price that can’t be beat.

The Big Five Summerfest: The World’s Largest Music Festival Dates: June 25–July 5 Location: Milwaukee Cost: $8–$15 festival admission daily; concerts on small stages are included with admission; concerts on main stage at Marcus Amphitheater require additional admission (tickets can be purchased separately through Ticketmaster and range from around $8.50–$85) Headliners: Bon Jovi, Conor Oberst, No Doubt, George Strait, Asher Roth, the Fray, Judas Priest Crowd vibe: Teens, weekenders, big-haired Bon Jovi fans, a few cowboy hats and Gavin, Kingston and Zuma Rossdale, perhaps? Hippie-meter: 3 out of 10 Rule: No kites Differentiators: A live Summerfest Webcam that allows you to live vicariously through other attendees, if you’re sick or can’t afford to make it

Essence Music Festival Dates: July 3–5 Location: New Orleans Superdome Cost: $153–$544.50 for a weekend pass; single-day tickets $51–$200 Headliners: Beyoncé, John Legend, Lionel Richie, Maxwell, Anita Baker, Al Green, Ne-Yo, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings Crowd vibe: Lionel Richie fans and their kids, music critics, NoLa natives, teens who idolize Beyoncé Hippie-meter: 1 out of 10 Rule: Standard dome concert etiquette Differentiators: From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, participate in the Essence Empowerment Seminar Series (free and open to the public), featuring Bill Cosby, Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner, CNN’s Roland Martin and Donna Brazile, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Malaak Compton-Rock

All Points West Music & Arts Festival Dates: July 31–August 2 Location: Liberty State Park, N.J. (on the edge of New York Harbor, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty) Cost: $199 for a three-day pass (plus Ticketmaster fees); $89 for a single-day ticket; layaway plan available Headliners: Coldplay, Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Tool, Echo & the Bunnymen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Crowd vibe: Bridge-and-tunnel crowd, hipsters who couldn’t afford to get to Coachella, music-industry types, indie kids Hippie-meter: 2 out of 10 Rule: No camping Differentiators: New York City skyline views can’t be beat.

Lollapalooza Dates: August 7–9 Location: Grant Park, Chicago Cost: $190 for a three-day pass (plus fees) Headliners: TBA, check Web site April 21 Crowd vibe: Rock-and-roll families, self-professed punks, hipsters, lots of tattoos Hippie-meter: 2 out of 10 Rule: No moshing, crowd-surfing or stage-diving Differentiators: Kids 10 and under get in free if accompanied by a ticket-holding adult (no limit to the number of kids per adult—up to discretion of front-gate ticket staff)

Outside Lands Dates: August 28–30 Location: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Cost: $199.50–$225.50 for three-day ticket; layaway plan available Headliners: Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Beastie Boys, Incubus, Black Eyed Peas, M.I.A., Jason Mraz, Ween Crowd vibe: San Francisco hipsters, photographers, bearded boys, mod hippies Hippie-meter: 5 out of 10 Rule: No fireworks Differentiators: Outsider art exhibit; “EcoLands” interactive elements: watch performers on a solar-powered stage, eat sustainably at the organic farmer’s market, educate yourself on energy efficiency, calculate your carbon footprint

(Photo courtesy of Coachella)


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