Lollapalooza is all grown up
BY MARK KONKOL Writer at Largefirstname.lastname@example.org August 1, 2012 7:52PM
Fans of Death From Above 1979 anticipate the start of the concert on the Bud Light stage Saturday August 6, 2011 during day two of Lollapalooza in Grant Park. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
65% of those stayed 3 or 4 nights
2012 projected occupancy
Chicago tax revenue
Other spending to produce show
Updated: September 3, 2012 1:09PM
When Lollapalooza was a traveling punk-rock circus with a funny name back in 1991, no one could have predicted what it has become — a nearly $100 million tourism boon on Chicago’s front lawn.
Even when Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza was resurrected in 2005 as a two-day destination music fest in Chicago, there wasn’t a hint it would gobble all of Grant Park, add an extra day of music, quadruple ticket sales and sell out nearly every hotel downtown.
It has been a bumpy ride.
Concert promoter C3 Presents has been criticized over how it handled garbage pickup, severe weather and its involvement in a clouted deal to avoid paying city and county amusement taxes by using a charity — the now-defunct Parkways Foundation — as its lead organizer. There was fallout in the early years after local rock clubs complained fest bosses had exerted music-industry clout to keep festival bands from playing in Chicago during the summer months bookending the concert.
Last year, heavy rain and crushing crowds turned the turf into a giant mud pit, forcing the park district to close sections of Grant Park to the public for months. And who can forget that a minor dust-up in 2006 over promoters billing the fest as “fully baked” — slang for being high on marijuana — and passing out souvenir rolling papers, the kind commonly used to roll joints.
These days, Lolla is viewed as one of the biggest urban music festivals in the world, and has cemented itself as the cornerstone of Chicago’s summertime cultural offerings.
The first weekend in August once was among the slowest summer weekends in Chicago. Now, Lolla gives the city an economic shot in the arm that rivals major trade shows and conventions. Hotels fill up and rock venues benefit from Lolla-sponsored “after shows.” Restaurants in the South Loop, downtown and River North are preparing for a lucrative rush.
The city’s take is not bad either. This year, Chicago and the park district stand to rake in nearly $6 million in tax revenue and its share of ticket sales. And Lollapalooza promoters aren’t giving away those kitschy rolling papers, but starting Saturday — the day Red Hot Chili Peppers headline the bill — possession of small amounts of marijuana becomes a ticketable offense.
Glitches aside, the tax cash will come in handy this year as Mayor Rahm Emanuel tries to close the city’s projected $369 million budget gap.
A very busy weekend
After fits and starts as a traveling show, Lollapalooza settled on making Chicago home in 2005.
It was not by accident. Bigger towns — New York’s Central Park, for example — could easily host a Lollapalooza-sized festival.
“But that town doesn’t have the festival culture Chicago has,” C3 Presents partner Charlie Jones said. And getting around New York, not to mention navigating the Big Apple’s City Hall bureaucracy, was not welcoming.
Here, C3 Presents fell in love with Grant Park and former Mayor Richard Daley’s administration that was willing to help make the festival plan work.
After doing research, Jones determined Chicago was so dead on the first weekend of August because historically those were the hottest days of the year. On Aug. 6, 2005, Lollapalooza’s first weekend in Chicago, temperatures hit 104 by the lake. At least two people were hospitalized for heat-related illness.
But about 65,000 fans turned out for two days of shows and that was success enough for seven years of encores — and a deal to keep Lollapalooza in Chicago until 2021.
“Because of the transformation of the event,” Jones said, “that weekend has now become the busiest weekend of the year.”
Each year, Lolla promoters booked bigger bands and a more diverse lineup that crosses musical genres ranging from hard rock to techno, pop stars to kiddy rock and hip-hop to performance-art punk rock. And the size of the festival grounds and attendance increased. So did ticket prices, along with the cost of beer, festival grub and concert T-shirts.
Boost for hotels
A study of Lollapalooza’s patrons that pegged the festival’s overall economic benefit to $99 million — an estimate that City Hall and tourism groups agree with — also found that last year about 80 percent of Lolla’s revelers don’t live in Chicago.
And in 2011, 54 percent of people who bought tickets booked hotel rooms.
That’s a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Most of those music fans booked rooms for three- or four-night stays, according to an independent study of the festival’s economic impact by Austin-based AngelouEconomics.
In 2010, hotel occupancy during Lollapalooza hit a low of 77 percent. Last year, hotel occupancy hit nearly 98 percent. And this year, downtown hotels are nearly all booked, according to Choose Chicago, formerly the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau.
“We were booked to the max three weeks after Lollapalooza announced its dates,” Hyatt Regency general manager Pat Donelly said. “Lollapalooza is great for our business. I wish it was here every weekend.”
Other venues get in on act
When Lollapalooza first came to town, C3 Presents forced major touring bands agree so-called “radius clauses” that prohibited bands from playing shows near Chicago for a certain amount of time in attempt to get fans of those bands to buy festival tickets.
That didn’t go over well with owners of local music venues who rely on big name bands to sell out their clubs. Now, Lollapalooza has teamed with local venues to promote festival bands at “after shows.”
“It was a little shaky for the first couple years, but Lolla became less exclusive and more inclusive,” said Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro/SmartBar music venue.
During the summer months, the best touring bands often skip club gigs to play at Chicago’s top music festivals, Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, Shanahan said.
“This could be a $100 million weekend for Chicago,” Shanahan said, “and this city needs it right now culturally and financially.”