Summer rock festivals flourish as tours flounder. Why multiday, multiact, outdoor concerts are the hot ticket this season

By Michael Endelman
Updated September 02, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Last summer, pioneering alt-rock tour Lollapalooza was aborted due to poor ticket sales. Reinvented this year as a two-day Chicago event in July, Lollapalooza 2005 drew critical raves, 60,000 fans, and grossed $2.9 million, according to Pollstar. The turnaround signifies a larger movement in the live music biz — multiday, multiact outdoor festivals have attained Woodstock-era levels of popularity. Hippie-friendly Bonnaroo (in rural Tennessee) attracted about 80,000 over three days in June, SoCal’s Coachella last spring boasted Coldplay and paparazzi-worthy celebs, and more than 100 bands are lined up for September’s Austin City Limits.

Why the sudden jones for festivals? One reason is the virtual disappearance of the elaborately packaged shows of the ’90s — bills like H.O.R.D.E., Lilith Fair, Smokin’ Grooves, and Lollapalooza. Only the genre-specific Ozzfest and Vans Warped tours have managed to stay afloat. Kevin Lyman, creator of Warped, blames rising expenses. ”In 1995, when we started, we didn’t have to insure for terrorist attacks,” he says. ”Liability costs are way up and gas costs are way up.” Others fault the blandness of suburban concert venues. ”I think the audience just got tired of going to the same old overpriced pavilions,” says Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips. ”It costs $8 for water, the bathrooms are horrible, it just isn’t very much fun.”

Festivals, on the other hand, offer far more acts, both big names and obscure favorites. Selection, in this iPod era, is key. ”There’s more bang for your buck,” says Lollapalooza co-producer Charlie Jones. ”You’re still paying relatively high prices — Lolla averaged $50 a day — but you’ll see 60 bands.” Lolla’s setting, in a picturesque park on Lake Michigan, didn’t hurt either. ”The difference between playing in a concrete stadium and the beautiful outdoors, it doesn’t even compare,” says Coyne. ”It becomes about the experience of the audience, rather than just about selling tickets and beer.”