LOLLAPALOOZA Alternative rock wasn't really looking for this much success


Has success spoiled Lollapalooza?

At first glance, the question seems almost ludicrous. How could Lollapalooza (which arrives Tuesday at the Charles Town Races in Charles Town, W. Va.) be a loser when it has already focused mainstream media attention on bands as outre as Babes In Toyland? Who could possibly carp over an enterprise that will bring a variety of alternative rock acts to an audience whose numbers are likely to exceed 1 million nationwide?

Start with some of the musicians on the tour, like Fishbone bassist Norwood Fisher, who complained to Rolling Stone that "there should be a little more hip-hop involved in the mix."

Add in music critics, some of whom have lamented the seeming conservatism of this year's lineup, which is built around such MTV-approved acts as Primus, Arrested Development, Alice in Chains and Dinosaur Jr. (see "Who's Whooza" for a complete rundown).

Even singer Perry Farrell, who originally masterminded the Lollapalooza juggernaut, has cause for complaint. Farrell recently griped to the English music weekly Melody Maker that Lollapalooza's sales clout was turning the tour into a money-making exercise for major-label marketing experts.

"Even I started slagging it," Farrell was quoted as saying. "Artistically, it hasn't reached its zenith."

When the first Lollapa looza Festival lumbered onto the summer concert circuit two years ago, success seemed the last thing its creators had in mind. As imagined by Farrell and his manager, Ted Gardner, Lollapalooza's blend of non-commercial music and countercultural entertainment was intended not as a marketing coup but as an oasis of cool, a welcome respite for those with no interest in mainstream megastars like Whitney Houston or Guns N' Roses. This wouldn't be a show with big stars and lots of little fans; it would be a gathering of peers, playing to an audience of equals.

Needless to say, Lollapalooza's philosophy flew in the face of industry wisdom. Traditionally, package tours have operated on a strict more-for-your-money basis, meaning that box-office success depended on the number of big names on the bill. But Lollapalooza had no names -- or none that meant anything to mainstream pop fans, anyway. Instead, its lineup relied on such cult-audience attractions as Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Body Count and the B. Surfers.

So why did so many fans turn out to see this motley assemblage? Because what Lollapalooza ultimately offered its audience was a sense of community. This wasn't just a show, but a full-blown alternative environment, one that augmented its out-of-the-mainstream music with equally radical food, crafts, culture and politics.

Forget the usual T-shirt-and-a-beer approach to rock-show concessions. At Lollapalooza, fans found handmade jewelry, organic food, even a touring underground bookstore. For many in the audience, Lollapalooza's rich and varied program was proof of just how strong the alternative culture really was.

For the music industry, however, Lollapalooza had a different significance. Previously, alternative rock was considered a fringe market, music that could be sold to college kids and club-goers but was of little interest to anyone else. But Lollapalooza offered evidence to the contrary. Not only did it outdraw most of the established stars on tour that season -- attracting 430,000 people and raking in some $10 million -- but it significantly boosted sales for the acts involved, particularly Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails and Farrell's own band, Jane's Addiction.

Last year's tour did even better, grossing $19 million and playing to more than 800,000 in what was, for most touring acts, an utterly dismal summer. Even better, the backwash from Lollapalooza '92 pushed albums by Ministry and Soundgarden up the charts, and made major stars of Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In short, Lollapalooza permanently altered the industry's status quo. No longer would alternative rock be seen as an underground enthusiasm; observers nowadays consider it the very future of rock and roll. But that puts the festival in an awkward and unexpected position. Because how can Lollapalooza be a serious challenge to the music industry hierarchy when it so obviously is part of that self-same power structure?

Just look at the degree of corporate affiliation among this year's headliners. Whereas three of the seven acts on the first Lollapalooza tour were independent artists, all eight of this year's headliners have major-label deals; half, in fact, are signed to Sony Music. One even won a Grammy earlier this year -- not exactly an alternative music badge of honor.

Further, there seems relatively little daring involved in assembling the acts. Only two of the eight bands on tour -- Tool and Rage Against the Machine -- could rightly be considered newcomers, as everyone else on the bill has at least a couple albums and EPs to their credit. (Front 242, in fact, has a seven-album back catalog.) And the musical mix is so similar to that of Lollapalooza '92 that some have suggested the booking was merely a matter of sound-alike substitution, swapping Primus for the Red Hot Chili Peppers (the punk funk slot), Alice in Chains for Soundgarden (the Seattle grunge slot), Front 242 for Ministry (the industrial slot), Arrested Development for Ice Cube (the rap slot) and so on.

Unknowns on second-stage

True, Lollapalooza '93 is giving exposure to a host of worthy, little-known acts, including Sebadoh, Tsunami, Mercury Rev, Royal Trux and Unrest. But it offers no more than three "unknown" bands per show, restricts them to second-stage status, and limits each to a mere smattering of dates along the tour's eight-week itinerary. (At Charles Town, the Second Stage stars are Cell and Mosquito.)

But what really bugs the alternative crowd is Lollapalooza's slow crawl toward mainstream respectability. Because as far as these fans are concerned, major-label acts, larger venues and bigger crowds are merely symptoms of what's wrong with Lollapalooza. The real sickness lies with the fact that the festival has become well-enough established that even mass-market magazines like Entertainment Weekly boast cover stories promising an "Insiders' Guide to Lollapalooza!"

And if reading EW counts as being "inside," hard-core alternative fans want out.

It's worth remembering that, at root, alternative rock is less a matter of style than of stance. Like the first wave of punk rock fans, the core alternative crowd has little interest in upbeat melodies, slick production or instrumental virtuosity. Instead, their interest lies with ragged intensity and bare-wire emotion, qualities more readily found in raucous clangor than in carefully modulated harmony. And though part of that stems from the anyone-can-do-it aesthetic of punk, overall it has far more to do with the way noisy, edgy, inaccessible sounds ensure that this music will never reach the mainstream.

Because the mainstream, frankly, is what this crowd wants an alternative to. That's why the core crowd automatically turns against underground acts once they hit the big-time. After all, they think, how good could R.E.M. albums be when half the frat boys at State U. listen to them? And while no one likes to see their favorite artists starving (or, worse, quitting music in frustration), the alternative aesthetic sees worthy obscurity as being considerably more noble than MTV stardom.

Rave reviews

How all this will ultimately affect Lollapalooza as an institution is hard to say. So far, Lollapalooza ticket sales have been going gangbusters across the country (though tickets for the Charles Town show were still available as of last week). And despite occasional complaints from the rock press, the current show has garnered mostly rave reviews.

What happens next, though, is anyone's guess. It's possible that nTC next year's Lollapalooza will be even more major-label directed than this one. On the other hand, it might end up being "a 12-hour rave," as Gardner suggested to Rolling Stone.

In either case, whether it continues to drift toward the mainstream or hews to more alternative notions of cool will ultimately have less to do with industry trends than with audience interest. And there's no telling how long that will hold.

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