July’s mega-concert stampede

Four big festival tours = three subculture gatherings + two dance parties + one stab at eclecticism

EDITOR’S NOTE: After the Vibes section in this week’s edition went to press, CL learned that the Wotapalava tour has been postponed until next year, according to event creator Neil Tennant, due to the last-minute withdrawal of Sinead O’Connor. Tickets will be refunded at the place of purchase.

Most of the year, the stars come out once the sun goes down. But in the summer — in amphitheaters around the country — stars emerge much earlier, showing their faces in broad daylight. Music acts hit the road together, presenting their wares to a voracious audience that figures more is better and extreme is the name of the game. We live in an era of all-day saturation, a music carnival tradition that goes back almost 50 years but whose modern equivalent saw the light of day circa 1991.

Since freakrock flower-child Perry Farrell saw his awkwardly named seed, Lollapalooza, germinate, blossom and eventually wilt, every group who considers putting on a large-scale traveling festival has used Lollapalooza’s seven-year run as their model for both what to do and what not to do. Marci Weber, manager to Moby as well as one of the organizers behind this year’s inaugural Area:One tour (which kicks off July 11 at HiFi Buys Amphitheatre) believes a dissatisfaction with the homogenous nature of commercial music has built up throughout the late ’90s. That, she says, created an appetite for the diversified line-up Area:One offers — including Moby, OutKast, Incubus, the Roots, Nelly Furtado and top DJs including Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox.

When it comes to radio and record stores, Weber says, “everything is so compartmentalized. We’ve found that [the organizers of Area:One] have a broad range of tastes and want to put them together because we’re not alone — we think there’s a lot of people like us. And it’s very similar to what Lollapalooza tried to do when Perry [Farrell] first brought it out. I think they really tried to change the perception of music and bring many different kinds of genres together.”

Others in the industry, however, preach caution when considering how broad to book their bills. The music booking arm of Creative Artists Agency, a powerful Hollywood firm, has been instrumental in organizing the other three of the four major festival tours visiting Atlanta this summer. They include the well-worn metal-oriented Ozzfest (July 7 at HiFi Buys Amphitheatre) — whose stages this year host Black Sabbath (featuring Ozzy Osbourne), Crazy Town, Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson, Papa Roach and Slipknot, among others — and the Vans Warped Tour (July 25 at HiFi Buys Amphitheatre), which features extreme sports exhibitions in addition to high-energy rock.

The third, a new creation called Wotapalava (July 15 at HiFi Buys Amphitheatre), was organized with the Pet Shop Boys (who conceived it with Elton John) to be subtly gay-oriented and promote everyone’s right to a good time. “The name kind of expresses the philosophy,” says the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, “because it’s an old English slang term that means ‘what a fuss about nothing.’”

Darryl Eaton, a music agent at CAA, is credited with co-creating the Vans Warped Tour, which started in 1995 and now is the oldest of the current summer tours. It’s also the only one of the big four not associated with an artist/ringleader (Ozzfest is linked to Ozzy Osbourne, Area:One to Moby and Wotapalava to the Pet Shop Boys). According to Eaton, lessons he learned from Lollapalooza and the jam-band oriented H.O.R.D.E. tour have helped the continued prosperity of the Warped Tour — which this year includes 311, Rancid, Jimmy Eat World, Less Than Jake and Kool Keith, plus a large cast of young, punk-oriented bands.

“Part of the reason for the demise of Lollapolooza was that they were very much on the cutting edge,” says Eaton, “then all of a sudden they keep developing to try and get bigger and bigger — bringing in Metallica and other bands to get a broader demographic. H.O.R.D.E. went from jam bands and Blues Traveler — bands very true to their followers — then went outside their core demographic, so fans no longer felt like the person standing next to them at the concert was their kind of person. At some of these tours, like Ozzfest, there’s a definite sense of community within the people who go. Same with the Warped Tour and Wotapalava. I think the communal aspect of these festivals is the defining aspect.”

Where Wotapalava, Ozzfest and the Warped Tour can be reasonably assured of attracting its target audience, Area:One faces the greater challenge because it lacks a specific focus. Area:One’s organizers are counting on there being enough fans of diverse music out there to constitute a sort of anti-subculture subculture.

Says Area:One’s Weber, “We’re as much inspired by Lollapalooza as we are by many of the European Festivals we’ve spent the last few years working on. There’s a wonderful array of music at these festivals — there’s a tent for world music, hip-hop, trip-hop, progressive, trance, straight-ahead rock, alternative. There’s no problem with mixing so many different types of music all together and I think it inspired us to do the same thing here.”

To a smaller but significant extent, though, Area:One and Wotapalava do in fact target a subculture — rave kids. They’re far from the first attempts at attracting electronic music fans: Moby, along with Aphex Twin and Orbital, took part in 1993’s See The Light tour, and Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell attempted a short-lived ENIT eclectic, electric festival. But unlike the failed attempts of the past — anyone remember the Big Top tour? — organizers are approaching electronica fans as well-rounded individuals, not musical segregationists.

Both Area:One and Wotapalava balance artsy live acts with prominent DJs spinning records, though where Wotapalava focuses on songwriters (Magnetic Fields, Rufus Wainwright) and disco-influenced, gay-identified pop acts, Area:One leans toward cutting-edge beat-oriented artists and gives higher billing to its DJs — treating them as featured performers rather than between-set filler. That’s another gamble, given electronic music’s still underground stature in the U.S.

The Pet Shop Boys’ Tennant defends this embrace of DJs. “In Europe, club culture is completely mainstream and I think it’s getting that way in America as well, to be honest,” he says. “I know students in America are as liable to be into Sasha and Digweed as they are some sort of rock band. When we were touring a couple years ago we became very much aware of this. So Wotapalava reflects that, and as I say it’s a party, it’s a good time and for that, you gotta have dance music.”

But dealing with a subculture that is still as insular and sensitive to cooptation as ravers might prove tough for a mainstream festival. For instance, a debate recently took place on the Lunar Magazine forum (a website dedicated to Atlanta’s party culture) about whether a Ford banner hung at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival was too high a price to pay for three free days of music. While Area:One is not free, it faces a similar need to court sponsorship in order to keep costs reasonable.

“We tried to be very careful of the people that we worked with,” says Weber of Area:One’s sponsors. “But the enormous cost of putting something like this on has been daunting. We wanted to bring the kids the talent we thought they’d want, but highlight some of the people we think are fantastic. In order to bring talent like this together it costs a lot of money and no one’s going to give you an open checkbook. So we had to work with people we felt comfortable with, like Intel. To us, they are totally PC [pun intended?]. We’ve taken other sponsors — Ford is trying to show their energy-efficient car. I don’t have a problem with it. They’re just trying to make an energy-efficient car and trying to promote it — it’s better than the gas guzzlers. If we didn’t have sponsorship, tickets would have to be $300 a piece. We were sensitive to all the artists and what they are promoting and what they are associating themselves with, because we come from the punk era. I worked with bands like the Clash and I’m very sensitive to what we’re promoting and associating ourselves with.”

Globe-hopping DJ Paul Oakenfold was asked to be on Wotapalava before he chose to tour with Area:One (as well as a smaller late-summer festival, Mekka, featuring DJ Danny Tenaglia, Roni Size and De La Soul). He also sees the situation as an inevitable and hardly unpleasant way for electronic culture proceed.

“They say that every kind of music sells out,” says Oakenfold, who has weathered criticism for touring with U2 and scoring for television and film (including the recent Swordfish). “I’d expect that really. Yet there’s always going to be an underground side to every type of music to keep integrity. There’s room for everyone. I think this is the next level, but I still think there’s a fair way to go. Dance still has to get on radio to crossover mainstream.”

Of course, there’s no telling whether dance music will get on commercial radio and whether Area:One and Wotapalava will become the institutions the Warped Tour and Ozzfest have become — or whether perhaps Perry Farrell will return to reclaim the playing field he laid — but Eaton stresses the key to success remains loyalty.

“We’ve always said with the Warped Tour,” says Eaton, “we never know how long it’s going to last — and it will last as long as people keep coming. Same with the Ozzfest. Our group believes you should be true to your fan. Deliver an unbelievable show at a fair price kept at a reasonable level. That’s what will keep it going.”

This summer, at least, kids have plenty of things to get them going.

Ozzfest 2001 is Sat., July 7. Gates open at 10 a.m. and tickets cost $49.75. Area:One is Wed., July 11. Gates open at 3:30 p.m. and tickets cost $40.50. Wotapalava is Sun., July 15. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. and tickets cost $31. The Vans Warped Tour is Wed., July 25. Gates open at 12:30 p.m. and tickets cost $25. All shows are held at HiFi Buys Amphitheatre, with tickets available through Ticketmaster.??