No matter how large the memory of Woodstock looms over the American consciousness, music festivals are not a U.S. phenomenon. Or, rather, they didn't used to be.
The Coachella Arts & Music Festival didn't start until 1999, the same year riots and rapes at the retooled Woodstock cast doubt on the future of festivals, period. Four of the nation's largest music festivals--Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza (which started in 1991, then was canceled in 1998 and revived in 2003) and Vegoose--didn't exist in 2001.
For a nation of 300 million, the U.S. boasts only four major secular music festivals with a tradition of more than a decade: Seattle's Bumbershoot, New Orleans Jazz Fest, Milwaukee's Summerfest (aka The Big Gig) and San Diego's Street Scene.
Until recently in the U.S., 'people thought festivals and they saw the fires of Woodstock in their eyes,' says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of concert-industry trade magazine Pollstar. 'The festival culture in Europe is very well established because they didn't have the modern arenas that we have in the United States. So if an artist wanted to play in front of a lot of people, they had to do it outside in the summer.'
Since 2002, the number of major U.S. festivals has doubled while attendance at amphitheatre shows has dipped big-time. Many music industry insiders say it's not a fleeting trend: huge, multi-day music festivals are the future of the U.S. concert business.
'Festivals are hot, and hopefully they get hotter,' says Michele Scoleri, Bumbershoot's director of programming. 'We've been doing this a very long time, and now we get to enjoy the ride.'
'It's obviously a time when festivals have reached a critical mass,' says Rick Farman, a partner in Superfly Productions, which co-produces both Bonnaroo and Vegoose.
Even industry players who aren't affiliated with the market agree: It's a race to grab up as many festivals as possible.
A balk in the park
San Diego promoter Rob Hagey started Street Scene in 1984 as a two-stage community event that featured roots acts like Los Lobos, The Neville Brothers, The Blasters, Robert Cray and X. The event doubled as a marketing campaign for downtown San Diego, which at the time was known more for muggings than for upscale clubbing.
Although Street Scene grew in size each year, the lineup remained diverse--jazz, blues, rock, Latin, reggae, rock, roots--until 2004.
'I know Rob was having trouble making money,' says Chris Goldsmith, talent buyer at Solana Beach's Belly Up Tavern and a former agent who supplied bands to Street Scene. 'He had to make some changes in the programming to make money. Maybe it could've evolved as this mix of roots music. But the reality is that San Diego ain't that hip.'
That's why 2003 performers like Yonder Mountain String Band, Buckwheat Zydeco and Radio Mundial weren't invited back the following year. Instead, Hagey went with big-money, mainstream rock and hip-hop acts like P.O.D., Ludacris, Jack Johnson, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World and The Killers. He also made the event all-ages for the first time since 1994.
From a business standpoint, it was a good move. Street Scene pulled in a record 105,000 people in two days, breaking its own record of 100,000, set back in 2001. Unfortunately, downtown San Diego was experiencing a similar explosion. As one insider explains, 'The business owners used to welcome [Street Scene]. But once downtown was revitalized, it really hurt businesses. The Chamber [of Commerce] and the Gaslamp Association started to galvanize against the event.'
Downtown San Diego, in essence, no longer needed Street Scene's brand of public relations. Conveniently, the area's development also meant there was no room for a festival of its size. Squeezed out of the Gaslamp, Street Scene moved to Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley for 2005 and 2006. While Hagey and his production company did an admirable job of transforming the venue--and the stadium's expansive parking lot made for easy stage-to-stage access--many fans grumbled, calling it 'Parking Lot Scene.'
Despite big-ticket headliners (Pixies and The White Stripes in '05, Tool and Kanye West in '06), sales took a nosedive. As one source close to the Street Scene camp said, 'Qualcomm was not the answer. It had no sex appeal. I knew [Hagey was going to sell the event] before the last Street Scene.'
It was true. Street Scene's indie days were over. But before he sold it, Hagey made one last attempt to find his 23-year-old project a home. On Dec. 7, 2006, he went before the Balboa Park Committee with a proposal to hold the event amid 1,200 acres of city-owned greenery.
Holding Street Scene in Balboa Park seemed to make sense. All but two of the nation's largest festivals are held either in city parks, on fairgrounds or on a godforsaken farm in the middle of nowhere (Bonnaroo). Bumbershoot is held in the Seattle Center, which, like Balboa Park, was built around the turn of the century to host a world's fair.
Hagey was roundly rejected. Reports in the Union-Tribune made it seem as if he were one instigative chuckle from being laughed out of the room. Committee member Vicki Granowitz was quoted as saying, 'You couldn't pay the park enough to have this event.'
When revisiting the topic last week, Granowitz--who has now become the chair of the committee--explained, 'Did you ever see the map of what they're proposing? Oh, you've got to see it. They proposed taking the entire Sixth Avenue lawn and closing Laurel Street. The western edge of the event would be the middle of Sixth Avenue--all fenced in. The center of the city would be gridlocked.'
When asked if there was consideration of Street Scene's role as part of the city's cultural identity, Granowitz replied, 'It's a private enterprise, not a nonprofit. We have large events at the park, and most of those are either nonprofit or they somehow have been with us a long time and are part of our culture.'
Granowitz pointed out that, unlike the Gaslamp, Balboa Park is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Plus, she maintained, people who choose to live downtown are expected to tolerate a certain amount of noise. The community around Balboa Park, on the other hand, didn't sign up for 'a rock concert in the middle of a residential area.'
Granowitz doesn't come across like the fun-squashing conservative she seemed in the Union-Tribune article. Most of her reasons are logistical--noise, traffic and conflicts with other park events (outdoor concerts, plays, museum exhibitions). One of her points, though, is totally subjective: she believes the event doesn't 'fit the character' of Balboa Park.
The Belly Up's Goldsmith offered a counterpoint: 'They have 70 planes flying directly above them every hour at Balboa Park--I think the residents are used to a little bit of noise. If Rob would've been able to get Balboa Park, I don't think he would've sold [Street Scene].'
Regardless, Granowitz makes very clear that in its current form, Street Scene will not happen in Balboa Park. Not in 2007. Not ever.
After the park's rejection, Hagey was ready to sell. But who would buy it? The event had lost its namesake home (the 'streets' of San Diego). Attendance had declined two years in a row. It seemed in the midst of a massive identity crisis, possibly on its last legs.
Despite the dwindling value of the brand, there were interested buyers. Viejas looked into the idea, but the numbers didn't add up. AEG Live also struck up talks with Hagey. Then, on April 9, it was announced that Rob Hagey Productions had partnered with L.A.-based Live Nation. Though the specifics of the deal have not been disclosed (Hagey didn't respond to CityBeat's requests for comment), it's believed that Live Nation purchased a large majority of Street Scene and that Hagey serves in a minor role as a consultant.
Goliath's immediate bruising
Live Nation, a spin-off of Clear Channel Communications, is the world's largest live-event company. In July 2006, it purchased House of Blues, thus gaining control of five prime San Diego venues: Coors Amphitheatre, Cox Arena, SDSU Open Air Theatre, 4th & B and, of course, HOB's downtown location.
Some viewed Live Nation's acquisition of Street Scene in doomsday terms--an out-of-town corporation taking control of an independently owned, local festival. Others saw added value--with Live Nation's massive buying clout, surely Radiohead and The Police and [enter dream band here] would be coming to Street Scene 2007, right?
In any case, Live Nation suffered immediate headaches. The first struggle was finding a location. Nick Masters, the company's Southern California president, explored countless options. Earlier this year, Masters told CityBeat that his ideal was the 60-acre San Diego Polo Field on the western edge of Rancho Santa Fe, a spot similar to Coachella's. But a Polo Club representative said this week that it's impossible--the community of Rancho Santa Fe mandates all new events on the premises be focused on 'equestrian activities.' Masters even considered golf courses but realized semi-trucks wouldn't be able to navigate the rolling landscape.
On April 10, Live Nation announced it had come to terms with the Del Mar Fairgrounds to hold the event.
This was news to folks at the fairgrounds.
'They actually rolled out the announcement before it was a topic for our board members, [who] found out about it online,' says fairgrounds spokesperson Kina Paegert. 'Discussions had begun, but I don't think [Live Nation] necessarily knew there was a board of directors who needed to sign off on it. There was a learning curve.'
The fairgrounds' board of directors eventually approved the deal, but not until June 5--a lengthy process that some say interfered with Live Nation's ability to book talent.
And talent booking was by far the largest obstacle for Street Scene '07.
Having taken over in April, Live Nation's staff had only five months to identify, negotiate with and secure some of the biggest names in popular music. (Ideally, all acts would be booked in two-and-a-half months, in time for pre-sale tickets). In relative terms, Live Nation started looking for bands at the point when both Bonnaroo and Bumbershoot have a majority of their lineups locked in. Most bands had already scheduled summer tours.
In June, The White Stripes and Smashing Pumpkins--two viable headliners for Street Scene--announced they'd be playing in San Diego around the time Street Scene was scheduled. However, they'd be playing at Viejas-operated Embarcadero Marina. (The White Stripes have since canceled their tour, and the Pumpkins have moved to Live Nation-operated Open Air Theatre.)
On June 18, the initial lineup was announced. Headliners included The Killers, Panic! At the Disco, Air, Arctic Monkeys and Muse. Viewed in a vacuum, it was a fine bill. When compared with Street Scenes of recent years, it was not. And few would claim it's in the same class as Lollapalooza (Pearl Jam, Daft Punk, My Morning Jacket) or Austin City Limits (Bob Dylan, Björk, Wilco, Arcade Fire).
Masters admitted publicly that he hadn't gotten what he wanted. He told the Union-Tribune that attempts to land The Police and Coldplay were unsuccessful. Another industry source said an offer went out to U2, but no dice.
Not surprisingly, ticket sales were slow. Real slow. Two-day tickets and VIP packages went on sale June 23. Del Mar's Paegert says that only a total of 931 had sold by Aug. 3--the day Live Nation announced it was moving the event, again, to Coors Amphitheatre.
While fans were nonplussed by the move to Del Mar, they seemed truly offended by the downgrade to Coors. What was once a festival that twisted through the heart of San Diego's budding urbanity was now slated for an amphitheatre in Chula Vista--the same type of venue that most festival operators (including Bonnaroo's Farman) blame for bland live music experiences.
'Sure, I'd love to watch Spoon, Muse, Social D or the Supersuckers tear it up,' says local musician Michael Rennie. 'But is it worth four hours in traffic to cram into a cement semi-circle and watch abbreviated sets? Nah. I'd rather wait until their next solo tours.'
However, the move was a necessity. First, a poorly attended event at the spacious fairgrounds would be a glaring failure; the more 'intimate' Coors could make 10,000 people look like a decent gig. Second, Live Nation owns Coors Amphitheatre, which means it could save on production costs. The deposit the company forfeited when backing out of the fairgrounds was a small price in comparison to the savings.
Live Nation was essentially conceding that Street Scene 2007 would be a financial bust. Damage control was in effect.
The bigger question was--why bother at all? Why would Live Nation buy a sagging brand and suffer through a financial disaster in its first year? Why not just pull the plug?
The fight for the future
For years, summer has been considered the 'festival season' in Europe and 'amphitheatre season' in the United States. Live Nation was the first to corner the market in Europe with partner company Mean Fiddler, which is behind the massive Leeds and Reading festivals.
Meanwhile, AEG--the No. 2 live-event company in the U.S.--managed to get a leg up domestically, with stakes in Coachella, Jazz Fest and, as of last February, Bumbershoot. Other players, such as C3 Presents (Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza) and the partnership of Superfly and AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo, Vegoose), have seen similar success Stateside.
In light of the success--as well as the sharp decline of sales for amphitheatre shows--Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino has informed the press and its investors of his company's plan to move aggressively into the U.S. festival circuit.
In 2006, Live Nation began selling off venues in smaller markets. Earlier this year, it acquired a majority stake of Bamboozle, an annual multi-day festival in New York. In his presentation at the Credit Suisse Media and Telecom Week Conference last December, Rapino expressed a desire to monetize every aspect of the live-music experience, from concessions to ticket sales.
One way to do that, says the Belly Up's Goldsmith, is to locate 'alternative venues' such as the Indio Polo Fields (Coachella) or Bonnaroo's Tennessee farm. 'In some respects, the alternate venue was created as a way to get a grip on the concessions,' he says. 'There are all of these ancillary revenue sources, where if you control the venue, you can make a boatload.'
It's rumored that plans are in the works to establish a major music festival in each of the top 25 markets in the United States. Whoever can reach a critical mass first will be able to strike exclusivity deals. In other words, they could tell an act like The White Stripes, 'Look, we've got these 20 festivals, which could fill your entire summer schedule. We'll pay you a premium to only play ours.'
If true, the race between Live Nation and AEG is on.
In July 2006, L.A.-based AEG announced it was opening a San Diego branch and possibly building a new, 6,000-seat venue somewhere in the city. It hired away all but one of Viejas Entertainment's staff, including president Steve Redfearn.
Knowing AEG had spoken with Hagey about Street Scene, Live Nation's investment makes a little more sense. Live Nation's valuation of the festival goes up if the purchase is viewed as a defensive move--whatever it takes to prevent AEG from gaining another dot on the rapidly expanding festival map.
If this theory is correct, the U.S. festival market is now a Monopoly game. AEG has Park Place (Coachella), North Carolina Avenue (Jazz Fest) and B&O Railroad (Bumbershoot). Live Nation just bought Kentucky Avenue (Street Scene) but has a ton of money in the bank and is looking for more.
It will come
So what will become of Street Scene?
Some predict Live Nation will kill the brand after this year and establish a new, differently named festival at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 2008. Others say it'll keep the name and, with more time to book top talent, bring it back with the best lineup and festival atmosphere San Diego's ever seen.
It's impossible to say for sure, since Nick Masters declined to comment for this story. One thing seems certain--the gods of the industry have decided that festivals are the future. And San Diego will have its own.
The fairgrounds will likely host such a festival, whether it's Street Scene or something else created by Live Nation or AEG. With more than 241 acres, the space is massive. It has a minor history of concerts, from the grandstand shows during the San Diego County Fair to racing season's 4 O'Clock Fridays.
In 2005, the two-day Festival Del Mar brought more than 10,000 people to the fairgrounds to see the likes of Etta James, Jason Mraz, Taj Majal and The Blind Boys of Alabama. The Belly Up's Goldsmith served as artistic director for the event and cited Street Scene's abandonment of roots and world music as part of the inspiration. But when attendance declined the second year, Festival Del Mar wasn't brought back for 2007.
Sources say Festival Del Mar simply didn't have the budget for marquee acts that can draw people to a new concept at a relatively unproven venue. With the deep pockets of AEG and Live Nation, however, a festival of Coachella-like proportions is plausible.
'A lot of people are disenfranchised from the normal amphitheatre experience,' says Superfly's Farman. 'In general, I think people are looking for more enveloping experiences. Just to go see a show for two or three hours and then go home, how much do you actually break out of your normal life for that? You're still checking your e-mail, going home and watching CNN.
'A festival is a chance to break away from the normal hustle and bustle of life and really involve yourself in something,' Farman says. 'I think that's what's made the festival culture and business successful, and it's here to stay for a long time.'
Street Scene will be held at Coors Amphitheatre on Sept. 22 and 23. Gates open at noon. $65 per day.