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Lollapalooza's Marc Geiger: You call it Walmart, I call it the Superbowl

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Though the original vision for Lollapalooza came from Perry Farrell, the Jane's Addiction vocalist has long partnered with one of the most powerful men in the music business to make the concert a reality.

Super-agent Marc Geiger is a vice president at Beverly Hills-based William Morris Endeavor, the company run by Hollywood giant Ari Emanuel, brother of former Chicago congressman turned presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and model for the character of Ari Gold on "Entourage."

As a William Morris press release describes him, "Geiger is the consummate music industry insider, having worn the hats over the years of concert promoter, talent agent, record executive and Internet pioneer... [He also] was instrumental in the formation of the now legendary alternative music festival, Lollapalooza."

From 1991 through 2003, Geiger was one of several agents booking Lollapalooza in its original incarnation as a traveling day-long concert. That came to an end in 2004, when a two-day bill that was to have included Morrissey, Modest Mouse, the String Cheese Incident and the Flaming Lips was canceled because of poor sales three weeks before the start of a 16-city tour.

In Geiger's words, Lollapalooza was broken and it needed to be fixed. The following year, he and Farrell entered a 50/50 deal with Austin, TX-based concert promoters Capital Sports & Entertainment, now C3 Presents, to reinvent the concert as a weekend-long "destination festival" based on giant European shows such as Reading and Glastonbury. C3 already was running a similar concert, the Austin City Limits Festival, in Texas.

"We created a partnership for two reasons," Geiger says. "One, they were in festival-build mode. Two, we were in festival-fix mode. Frankly, I didn't care what city I worked with them in. I just happened to think they do a great job."

The new Lollapalooza wound up in Grant Park, and in the last five years, it has remade the concert scene in Chicago. All the while, Geiger has mostly declined to talk about it, in part because of an inherent conflict of interest: As a talent agent representing dozens of top bands, he must negotiate the biggest fees possible for those acts from Lollapalooza, the festival he co-owns, as well as from competitors such as the Pitchfork Music Festival or the Warped Tour.

Geiger and I briefly met at Lollapalooza this year during the set by the NewNo2, Dhani Harrison's band and one of his many clients. He made reference to my criticisms of Lollapalooza as lacking vibe and a vision and being overly corporatized. "Keep it up, criticism is good," he said. A few days later, he emailed me.

"We should do a post Lolla/historical/how did Lolla get here Q&A," Geiger wrote. After the jump: the highlights of that 90-minute interview.

Lolla '09 beer tent A_lo-rez.jpg

Lollapalooza 2009; Sun-Times photo by Marty Perez.

Q. I'm surprised you want to chat, Marc: You've kept a low profile in the press about Lollapalooza since it came to Chicago.

A. What good is it for me to be out there? It's not about us. Plus, every time you go into the press, you get your hand slapped. I'm fairly provocative and straightforward.

Q. I can relate to that.

A. I think it's less about me chatting and more about a couple of things I wanted to make sure we spoke about. When you are doing your normal music criticism analysis, when somebody judges it on the front end, they don't realize that the back end-supplier--it all comes out of the same meat warehouse. There is a fine steak house and there is a burger joint, but it all comes out of the same meat factory. I'm sort of joking, but I was seeing the contrast between Pitchfork and Lolla, and in my own sick, perverted way, I wanted folks to know, A.) It's all from the same meat factory, and B.) There is some thought behind who goes where and why. They are all artists and they all have timing of why they should be where and when.

When somebody judges the front end of the restaurant--or a festival, in this case--what you don't see is what it would have been if certain artists had said "yes." People kind of think, "Oh, this is all by grand design." In fact, what happened was that the best-laid plans [fell apart] when two artists pulled out--one [Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys] after getting cancer. Then you end up with what you end up with. Not necessarily because you didn't want to have Deerhunter and the Decemberists or whatever else, but they played Europe that year and you had to come up with something else. So there is much more of a boring, practical set of reasoning behind some of this than one might think.

Q. Anyone who follows the concert industry knows that.

A. But you would be surprised! Bottom line: I love contrast and dissenting opinions. I just wanted to have a chat with you... You're pointing all of the arrows at C3, and that's not always fair. You need to point some in my direction.

Q. O.K.: My biggest complaint about Lollapalooza is that there is no aesthetic vision. It's just a big smorgasbord--a musical Walmart on the lake.

A. The aesthetic is creature comfort. It's not supposed to have a color. Does Taste of Chicago have an aesthetic?

Look, if you walk into a house decorated by a guy, he's going to have a great TV, a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi computer system and access to porn. You're going to criticize that he doesn't have any curtains and that nothing matches... You have a couple of males in a room who can barely dress themselves, but they're really good organizationally; that's the issue. What's the aesthetic? The design? This thing is defined by two things: the site--with Chicago, the lake and Grant Park--and the artists. I say this in a fun way, but we're a bunch of white straight males who could barely dress ourselves. Interior designers are either female or gay, and there is a reason for that. I'm joking, but I'm not. If there is an aesthetic, the aesthetic chosen right now is....

Q. Frat boy?

A. No! It's actually men and women in general. It's practical and pragmatic generalizing. I'm being a generalist here, but I think what C3 does better than the other person is make sure that when you're hot, you can cool off, and if you need water, you're not getting gouged.

Q. That's all good, but as a music lover, should that take a back seat to the music?

A. But the booking... I answered that early on. The booking is a factor of a number of things when you land on a [particular] weekend. When someone around the world starts another festival that has nothing to do with what you're doing and they draw 40 acts because the artists want to go to Japan this year, that answers half of your lineup issues. Do the readers in Chicago really care if someone was overseas? No. They just want to see X band.

Q. But the original Lollapalooza did have a distinct musical vision, at least from 1991 through 1995. Things only started to unravel when Metallica headlined in 1996.

A. To be honest, this [Lollapalooza] has more identity. I'd rather hang out in Grant Park any day and then go to the Metro for an after-show than go to a shed in Tinley Park. That's why I thought it was time to kill that thing [the original Lollapalooza]. I thought it was a broken model. As the audience got older, who over age X wants to sit out on the lawn at an amphitheatre?

Q. Well, who wants to stand in the dust at Hutchinson Field all day?

A. The people who trudge around there love it; it's a once-a-year thing. It's Grant Park; everybody loves it! But there needs to be criticism and we need to be shot apart and poked at, and it's not just Lolla: We [William Morris] supply all of the festivals there, and we supply 25 percent of the shows that play the city.

You have to understand--and I think this is probably the answer to everything you're talking about--we realized [the old] Lolla was broken. The consumer experience was broken, and we had to get new, fresh energy into the thing. Charlie [Jones of C3 Presents] sent us something, we created a partnership to build this thing in a different way and we didn't even have Chicago in mind at first. We zoomed in on Google Earth and we went to find a great location and great marketplace that would embrace and love a festival. It was a bit like the Olympics, but on a smaller scale. You're looking for the right-size city that wants to embrace you, give you a lease and not threaten what you're doing, and a marketplace that would love to have something. It took us a year, and Grant Park happened to be the winner. It wasn't, "We're going to Chicago and we want to disrupt everything."

Q. I'm sure it wasn't. But the festival has been here for five years now, and its contract with the city extends through 2018. Yet it still isn't really part of the Chicago music community. You don't even have an office here.

A. O.K., so "poof," tomorrow that happens. Then what? What if we opened an office and C3 opens an office? What happens? I go to the Cubby Bear and Uptown Lounge and re-connect with Sue Miller [co-owner of Lounge Ax, which closed in January 2000]?"

Q. You talk to the people who live here, you understand what the Chicago aesthetic is and you become part of one of the most vibrant musical communities in the U.S. That's not an idealistic thing; music happens here 365 days a year, not just the three days of Lollapalooza.

A. And that's why I surround myself 365 days a year with those people, talking to Nick [Miller at Jam Productions], [Joe] Shanahan [at Metro] or whoever it might be.

I care about healthy music scenes; that's part of my job. I love the Pitchfork festival; they are great and it's brilliant. I look at it and go, "O.K., so you're going to play here one year, there the next year." The city of Chicago is going to get a lot of looks at great artists. That's what I give a f--- about. Different ticket prices, different parks, different ethos. Certain people wouldn't be caught dead here [at Lollapalooza], while a 45-year-old who grew up with Depeche Mode wouldn't even know what Pitchfork is. So there are different strokes.

Natural selection is that people get old. Trying to stay young and having Botox injections isn't becoming. We're being Walmart and accepting it and allowing Pitchfork to thrive. We're supplying them! Gee, it's fantastic! Contrast! Keep growing! It's about the city! There is more music! To me, that is the whole story.

Q. Listen to what you just said: "We're allowing Pitchfork to thrive." Is that your place?

A. Look, Clear Channel [now Live Nation] said, "I don't allow an indie radio station in place or a big old promoter." Talk about Mafia bosses, inside pay and people not allowing this! I'm addressing your concerns. What I'm saying is that there is not a bone like that in my body, and the same with the people working on this project. That is why I picked these partners: Because there is an understanding of what a healthy ecosystem has to be.

Q. What about the fact that because of Lollapalooza, the schedules at most local clubs are a fraction of what they used to be from May through October?

A. There is no question that it's a bit like a mini-atom bomb when Lollapalooza comes here and half the bands are getting paid more than they normally get to play in front of more people, and during that time, they can't play other shows in the market. That is a reality for a city that has a big festival. The real difference is that a lot of festivals are done out in the boonies; it doesn't have as big an impact on the city. This affects the Metro, Aragon, Vic, Riv--wherever. For people who have been trying to bring great artists to those rooms for years, yeah, there is a hole around Lolla and Warped. There is a hole around Pitchfork. There is a trade-off. I don't know what to do about it except continue.

Q. Well, you could eliminate the radius clauses for all but Lollapalooza's headliners, allowing the artists to play elsewhere in the market during the summer for fans who'd rather see them in a club or theater than at an outdoor festival.

A. When you sell out a couple of years in a row, you don't want to be arrogant in any way, shape or form. But then you have to look at it and say that if Lolla wasn't there and you had all of those shows in the clubs, if we're looking at it from a dollar spent by the consumer standpoint versus all of those bartenders and people who work at the clubs, the consumer would have to go out to 15 shows to see a fraction of the bands. They wouldn't have as much musical knowledge, background and enrichment, and they would have had to spend seven times as much, plus the parking and individual drinks to get anywhere near the same musical input they get from Pitchfork, Lolla or anything else.

I'm more at a global level, so I don't fly into any one city in my head. I'm thinking of how the music business is changing and where it needs to go. I've been more focused on that for 15 years: How the pricing distribution is going to change, how to connect with the audience, how to give higher value and how to help artists.... I'm thinking about the live music and digital music scenes staying robust. I'm not down at the local level there on that front.

Q. But there is no global music scene without a thousand vibrant local scenes. We've already seen the impact of Live Nation both in radio and in live music; the global mega-corporation controlling the industry is one vision of the future. Should there be one or two companies doing to music what Walmart did to retail?

A. The question is always to separate the wheat from the chaff. ... Chicago has embraced [Lollapalooza] and made it their own. It's become a big deal. I come to town, and I am swelling with pride. If it's Walmart, it's a well-organized Walmart. The city is fantastic, the venue is fantastic, the way people have embraced it is fantastic and it all makes it more important than it maybe should be. Hopefully the bands match up to that. This year was not my favorite year for an artist year. But for each year, you cannot bring back the best of everything from the previous years, because then you get criticized for not moving forward.

I personally wake up asking, "How do we get 140 meaningful bands when we just have done 500 or whatever over the last few years?" To not be repetitive, to stay current, to bring the best bands to a bigger setting--that's the focus. I'd rather give, even in a soulless Walmart, someone who is spending $200 something more of value to go home with. That's more where my head is at.

You know, if you call Lolla Walmart and I call it the Superbowl or the World Series, I'm not sure we're that far off.

This year, for the first time earlier than at any point since it came to Chicago, Lollapalooza already is selling advance tickets for the festival in 2010--without naming any of the acts (which are not booked until early in the new year) or even specifying the dates. These "early-bird three-day passes" are available for $175 each at www.lollapalooza.com.

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13 Comments

Good interview. I enjoyed his reasoned responses to many of your previously expressed concerns. He has an interesting perspective (on things like the radius clause) since he's promoting individual bands as well as the festival(s).

And Jim, if you think people would rather head out to the boonies and hang out at a terrible shed like Tinley Park instead of walking around Grant Park and either staying at a hotel nearby or hopping on the Red Line to go home, you really are out of touch with most concertgoers in the city.

nice interview Jim, great to hear Marcs views. Chicago has many wonderful music institutions and now we have the best summer fest Lollapalooza. no aesthetic ? how about the amazing backdrop of the skyline & the lake. coupled with easy public transportation and hundreds of hotels & restaurants this is a win for many chicagoans. C3 wrote a check for $1.6 million last year to the city of Chicago. how much did Pitchfork pay the city ? how come radius clause never comes up when you discuss Pitchfork ?
because its apples and oranges , both fest are great for the city and music lovers

What? No. False choice. The question isn't "is Lolla '09 better than Lolla '04?". It's "is Lolla '09 a net positive for music in Chicago?"

Likewise, the question isn't "is it better to pay for 15 separate shows or one big show?". There are a total of zero people in Chicago who would pay to see everyone who played Lolla '09 this year on separate bills. The question is, "how bad is it that Lolla prevents people from being able to go see Bat For Lashes in a club setting, and does a massive $250+ show in a field make up for that?"

@Chip C re: radius clauses. It's just my guess, but he likely doesn't have as much of a problem with Pitchfork because of the sheer numbers. I can't break down the time frames for the radius clauses for each festival (i.e. I don't know Pitchfork's time frame), but Pitchfork has less impact on the clubs' booking. Pitchfork has 40 acts in their show, Lolla has well over 100. Lolla has acts that would certainly sell out an Aragon Ballroom, Riviera, or Chicago Theatre and maybe even the Allstate. Pitchfork (with the exception of maybe the Flaming Lips) doesn't.

As for "how much Pitchfork pays the city"....I'm sure they pay for their licenses (land use, liquor, and otherwise). The majority of what that $1.6 million dollar check C3 likely pays for is repairing the damage of so many people swarming the park with heavy foot traffic and Budweiser for three days. If "what check did they write the city?" is your criteria, you might as well attack neighborhood street fests and the Hideout Block Party as well. Because according to you, quality is measured in what check someone writes to the Chicago Park District.

Speaking of Budweiser....really, we have f---ing Goose Island here. That's infinitely better than Budweiser. With Budweiser they might as well just use the urine from the port-o-johns. And don't use the "it's affordable" argument. I know many people who get by frugally who still invest in their beer. Don't use the "but they're sponsors and pay for the fest!" argument either. You know what other companies have money? Hard liquor companies. Another solution? Lose a stage, there is too much sound bleed anyway.

Lolla does not prevent people from being able to go and see any bands with the radius clause, it just postpones it. And I think he's absolutely right - the artists would be stupid to not take the extra money offered for the Lolla show. They are trying to make a living.

Jim:

Lollapalooza has always offered early bird tickets for the following year without naming any of the bands, these tickets traditionally sell out in minutes.

Kudos to Marc for a great interview and good to see you donning the C3 Presents hat in your video update from Grant Park this year.

Happy to have a matching C3 Presents t-shirt sent to your attention, just need an address.

J. Graham Hickey

Great interview Jim. A couple things, though. As the previous commenter mentions, Lollapalooza has typically offered both $60 "souvenir" passes and slightly-cheaper-than-regular-price "Early Bird" tickets for at least the past several years, all offered before any bands have been mentioned. This year is different because they're offering them now, as opposed to in the spring. I can't help but wonder if the prices will be raised significantly, or if C3 needs some quick cash for something.

Also, dates for next year have been announced (Aug 6-8th, 2010). You mentioned you found out about the ticket sales from Chicagoist, too. Doesn't C3 send you press releases any more? If not you should sign up for the e-mail blast, so that the blogs don't scoop ya.

Very good exchange. Jim, thanks for continuing to be the bulldog in Chicago, always questioning the status quo and not pulling your punches. And thank you for being a professional and printing Marc's remarks. His views and reasoning were somewhat enlightening (in a positive way). The art of the interview is so often lost in music journalism as too many writers think their opinions hold more weight than the subject at hand and/or the person actually being interviewed. Let the person being interviewed have his or her say once questioned, and then let the chips fall where they may. A good interview will have different readers drawing different conclusions, depending on each readers' sensitivities.

Hey Jim

Just to further clarify (as I thought it didnt come out as communicated) When you ask....so "you are allowing Pitchfork to thrive". I realize that was an attempt to show that we were controlling or heavy handed in our selling or blocking others out of the market. Let me be CLEAR. All of us love all of the differing music festivals and choices that a vibrant market like Chicago has. What I was saying is that we actively support and supply all of the clubs, arenas, festivals etc etc and that is part of our job. The key point is some sense of timing and strategy per artist to grow them and their audience and give the fans MULTIPLE opportunities to see them in differing settings....

Sometimes its the best thing for the band to headline a Double Door, sometimes its perfect timing to play on Pitchfork (If they will take and book the artist), sometimes its right for the artist to play Lollapalooza and sometimes they arent available. In a perfect world sometimes they do ALL of those things and their audience grows. But we insist its all about consumer choice, whats right for the artist and different strokes for different folks. (btw, if you have ever booked an artist on Pitchfork, you would know it's THEIR choice who they want to book not ours) and that's part of their greatness. Their strong opinionated views on editorial and programming have further shaped the market and grew music culture......

Jim- But there is no global music scene without a thousand vibrant local scenes. We've already seen the impact of Live Nation both in radio and in live music; the global mega-corporation controlling the industry is one vision of the future. Should there be one or two companies doing to music what Walmart did to retail?

Jim, my whole point here is you have a city with LOTS of choices already! The clubs are amazing, all the festivals are excellent and differentiated and you have LOTS of choice and no consolidation. Live Nation is only 1 factor in Chicago. The city has Jam, Shanahan, Live nation, C3, Pitchfork and a few others. That ensures choice, differing views and NO consolidation. start worrying when they start going away and NOT selling tickets. Come sit with me at a global level and look from an artists vantage point and you would understand more easily that the job is to optimally match an artists career and timing with the country/city/venue

Marc

Marc Geiger is one of the smartest men in the music industry. He has great insight for both the business side and the art. In a business where most executives are ripe for criticism I have nothing but praise for Geiger.

Marc, no one doubts that you love music and appreciate a vibrant scene…..but you’re missing the point. Your whole point about having lots of choices in this city is undercut by the amount of non-existent club/theatre shows during the summer. If Lollapalooza truly gave me, as a consumer, choice then I could have actually chosen to either go to Lou Reed playing a theatre show or Lou Reed playing Lollapalooza this summer. As it stands, I didn’t have that choice. Your definition of “choice” is having a lot of clubs/theatres and promoters for those clubs and theatres. That variety is meaningless if over 100 of the acts for that would fill those clubs and theatres throughout the summer are packed into a few days. Lollapalooza is well run for what it is and you should be proud (and yes, we know our skyline rules), but my choices (more precisely, lack of choices) this summer in Chicago revolved around whether or not someone throws a bone to a club for an after show concert. I wouldn’t say that Jam, Shanahan, Live Nation, C3, or Pitchfork merely existing while an entire summer’s worth of music is packed into three days is tantamount to having viable options. Fine, I have viable options several months before and after the radius clause’s effect….you know, the several months when it’s not the biggest touring season of the year.

If you want me to choose your festival instead of a club, then give a viable alternative. Lollapalooza is trying to do many things at the same time but it all adds to a very mediocre to poor concert experience. There are enough facilities, food, etc. and C3 clearly has the logistics of putting on a live show down cold, but that really means nothing when so many acts are packed in so tightly that I end up paying for shortened sets. In short, stop having one big Vegas revue and you’ll have a better show as a whole.

To analogize to Walmart……..Target is a better store because they haven’t lost sight of the fact that people want a good shopping experience instead of loosely contained riots for a cheaper price.

Re: Radius clauses in festival contracts...

Maybe I missed it, but why is nobody considering the artist and their management when considering the issue of "choice"? If an artist wants to play a club, they say no to Lollapalooza. If they want to play Lollapalooza, they say no to Metro, Bottle, Mutiny, wherever, and only for a few weeks/months, tops. Their decision, and it's generally a no-brainer, even for the most indie and fan-focused artists: play Lollapalooza. Don't point fingers at C3/Geiger for creating that choice, and don't feel betrayed by (favorite band name) for choosing to play to a bigger audience for as much money as they might otherwise make all summer (I'm guessing).

Mind your history: the radius clause is standard fare for popular artists and bigger venues. I don't recall DeRogatis taking issue with Ravinia for keeping Elvis Costello (or whomever) from returning to town any time soon. And some of our favorite artists can sell out venues of a certain size b/c they don't play there every weekend; smart agents and promoters make sure that artists don't get overexposed.

And though it might be tougher for some of the bigger artists to get away with, some of the more creative/indie-minded bands still managed to squeeze in a club show while in town. I know I'm not the only person who saw No Age/Deerhunter/Dan Deacon play at the LSA. How they got away with it I do not know, but it was pretty neat to see.

This petty, "angry consumer" crap is so... pedestrian. Boring. Respect an artist's choice. The market determines many of the options available to musicians, but the musicians and their management can determine so much about how the market works, what they want to make available, et cetera. Fans are smarter than you think. I think.

And re: C3 becoming a part of the local music scene? Global economy, take it or leave it. I don't recall DeRogatis demanding that Peter, Bjorn, and John move to Chicago to somehow give their music more meaning for Chicago fans, or to make their t-shirts more valid, or whatever...

And re: DeRogatis' name. Is that a pen name? DeRogatis? As in Derogatory? If so, I tip my hat to you, Jim Derogatory. Perfect pseudonym for a professional critic. Cheers!

Anyone calls anything “pedestrian.”

The beer sucks, the shortened sets suck, and the constant walking around completely sucks.

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