Shedding the Sheds

As the concert industry restructures, fans and artists are scaling back.

The White River Amphitheatre kickoff of Lollapalooza 2004 was set to be the biggest national music event of the year: two days, two stages, dozens of alt-rock acts, from veterans (PJ Harvey, the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Morrissey, Wilco) to up-and-comers (Carina Round, the Walkmen, the Polyphonic Spree), with some electronica (Basement Jaxx) and hip-hop (the Coup) to spice things up. It was the most ambitious lineup in the festival's history—and of what looked to be a heavy summer touring season.

Then, on June 22, less than a month before the tour's inaugural date, the festival was abruptly canceled. The reason? No one was buying tickets—something that hobbled several other summer tours, like Ozzfest, Norah Jones, and Dave Matthews, as well.

There are several good reasons for Lollapalooza's bust. Most of the headlining acts appealed to an over-25 crowd who weren't particularly interested in standing outside all day just to get a glimpse of their heroes. Not only that, the kind of rock that Lollapalooza hawks has relatively little currency compared to hip-hop, and even its loyal audience has shrunk.

"The thinking seemed to be that if you got the 4,000 people [in each market] who liked the Flaming Lips and the 4,000 people who liked the Polyphonic Spree or Modest Mouse, that you'd get 8,000 people," says Pete Greenberg, who books the Crocodile Cafe. "But it's actually the same 4,000 people who like all three [bands]. I just don't think people want big festivals anymore," says Greenberg. "I think they want a smaller, more intimate approach. I work at a club, though, so I have to say that."

But you don't have to work in a club to notice what's happening. Put simply, the dedicated pop audience seems to be moving away from larger venues to smaller ones. "The concert business isn't collapsing, but there is a restructuring going on," says David Meinert, who co-owns the Mirabeau Room and manages several bands, including Maktub and the Presidents of the United States of America. "Artists are choosing to play places like the [Chateau Ste. Michelle] Winery or the Pier instead of the Gorge or White River." And their fans are more than happy to follow. "You're not getting ripped off every time you turn around," says Meinert. "I bought a beer at the Gorge and was stunned [at the price]."

Festivals haven't lost their fan base completely: Ozzfest and the Warped Tour have continued faithfully for close to a decade. But older fans seem more willing than ever to go to the mountain rather than waiting for it to come to them—the big package draws aren't tours like Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair but festivals like Indio, Calif.'s Coachella, Manchester, Tenn.'s Bonnaroo, and Seattle's Bumbershoot.

Locally, nontouring packages have done just fine, particularly artistically. "This year's Endfest has a great lineup, and Bumbershoot consistently does a terrific job," Greenberg says. But, as he notes, "You lose some of the connection. You share music with 300 people instead of 3,000 people, and it's going to change how you perceive it."

Part of the change has to do with the expansion of rock's active audience. "I think the people who used to go to club shows were a little bit more into the bands, were doing things like reading about them," says Scott Giampino, who recently became the Triple Door's booker after a yearlong stint at the Showbox. "In the last 10 years, it seems more like everyone goes to shows. People who'd have only seen Journey at the Enormo-dome in 1980 would come [to the Triple Door] to see Laura Love. There's more music out there and more clubs, and they're more accessible, as opposed to the daylong ordeal you get with an arena show or festival."

Meinert points to the infrastructure of the music industry's more corporate areas as the main source of the problem. "House of Blues and Clear Channel, the two big concert promoters, charge incredibly high service fees and ticket prices, and are not paying the artist very much of that money," he says. "It used to be that when a band would tour, they would [ get up to] 60 percent of the gross [profits]. I've seen bands at major venues across the country offered 25 percent of the gross."

Additionally, Meinert says, the longtime concert-industry standard of 10 percent of merchandise profits going to the venue has been upped by corporate-run venues to 25 percent. "[Merchandise] is how bands make money," says Meinert—from scrappy punks crossing the country for the first time in a van to mega-stars like U2, whose early-'90s tour profits derived entirely from T-shirt sales. How clubs make money is another question. Though not downbeat about the state of the business, Giampino is cautious. "Overall, I'd say local clubs are doing good but not great right now," he says, adding, "summer is traditionally a bad time for clubs."

Still, Meinert is optimistic that places like the Triple Door and the Mirabeau Room can thrive in the current environment. "Places that are independently owned tend to treat bands far better than big chains," he says. "The people in the corporations who run these things come in thinking they should be getting these huge salaries, like in the software industry. They don't realize they're in the music business and there's a sacrifice you make for doing that."

The sacrifice seems to be one that music fans are willing to share, though. "There are still lots of people going to shows," says Meinert. "They're just going to lower-priced venues.

Michaelangelo Matos' Fall Favorites

Depends on what you know

Formed five years ago by Village Voice critic and Flyboy in the Buttermilk and Midnight Lightning author Greg Tate, and modeled on Miles Davis' early-'70s electric albums, Burnt Sugar create a sprawling, dense, heady, sometimes sloppy, but usually intriguing jazz-funk-rock-R&B-carnival-music hybrid. Sound odd? It's actually pretty inviting, though finding your way through it all may take some time. Nevertheless, albums like 2001's Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1 and 2002's triple CD That Depends on What You Know are good road maps, and live they can, and will, go anywhere. Sept. 17. Lo-Fi Performance Gallery, 206-254-2824.

Redneck woman, hardworkin' man

It's not every country act that can stand up alongside Brooks & Dunn onstage. With a sturdy catalog topped by last year's stellar Red Dirt Road, not to mention a terrific live rep, they're a hard act to open, let alone follow. But that's where Gretchen Wilson may come in. Here for the Party is not just the Nashville debut of the year but its best mainstream pop record so far; similarly, no one has yet made a better single in 2004 than "Redneck Woman." Will her live moxie equal that of her album? Will she blow the headliners off the stage? The Puyallup Fair waits with bated breath to find out. Sept. 23. Puyallup Fairgrounds, 253-841-5045.

Connection is made

The German techno group Mouse on Mars—programmers Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner and percussionist-vocalist Dodo Nkishi—make music that's as cuddly as post-rave dance music gets. Their early albums skittered and woofled (note: Onomatopoeia is mandatory, not optional, when describing MoM's music) with an absentminded grace, but since 1999's Niun Niggung, they've gotten a little more pop-wise without losing what made them unique, as demonstrated on the new Radical Connector. Oct. 1. Chop Suey, 206-324-8000.

97 Sauce

After a three-year hiatus that included a mildly diverting but ultimately unsatisfying solo album by lead vocalist-songwriter Rhett Miller, Dallas-via-L.A.'s Old 97's have returned, with plenty of the rawness that longtime fans resented Miller's The Instigator for lacking. Drag It Up (New West) plays to the band's strengths—not least among them the fact that Miller isn't the only singer-songwriter in it. Guitarist Ken Bethea sings his first-ever lead, and Murry Hammond, the band's bassist, handles a few as well. Oct. 19. Showbox, 206-628-3151.

Top 'hop

For the past couple years, it seemed like De La Soul might be history. Sure, they toured incessantly—DJ Maseo's been a frequent presence at local hip-hop nights, and they played a fun set at Bumbershoot last year. But with the collapse of Tommy Boy, their longtime label, the most consistently excellent record makers in hip-hop looked homeless. Not anymore—their seventh album, The Grind Date, is out later this month on Sanctuary Urban, and features appearances from Common, MF Doom, Sean Paul, Ghostface, and producers JayDee, Madlib, and Seattle's Jake One. Nov. 15. Showbox, 206-628-3151.

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