What next for Lakeside?

July 11, 2011

By most accounts, last weekend’s three-day Dave Matthews Band Caravan marked the successful debut of Lakeside, the former location of the United States Steel Corporation’s South Works plant, as Chicago’s newest concert site.

Here is Mary Houlihan in the Chicago Sun-Times, here is Steve Johnson in the Chicago Tribune, and here is Kate Dries elsewhere on WBEZ’s blogs.

Yes, there were some minor glitches with parking, traffic, dust, and such. But these and other accounts convey an overall positive experience for tens of thousands of concertgoers, which is all the more remarkable considering that the 170-acre site was nothing but empty dirt fields before the unlikely partnership of promoters Jam Productions and Ticketmaster/Live Nation built the temporary infrastructure from ground zero, trucking in water, power, and absolutely everything else they needed.

Mind you, I’m making no comment here about the artistic merit of the jam-happy event. I’d rather have root canal sans anesthetic while being waterboarded and forced to listen to Justin Bieber than ever having to endure Matthews in concert again, so I wasn’t there. And neither were either of my rock-critic colleagues at the Trib or the Sun-Times, both of whom yielded the assignment to other staffers.

What remains most interesting to me about this endeavor is the behind-the-scenes power play, in which normal archrivals Jam and Ticketmaster/Live Nation showed that, even if they are shut out of Grant Park by Lollapalooza’s long-term, tax- and competition-free lock on Chicago’s premiere lakefront green space, there are both geographic and musical alternatives for competing multi-day festivals in this summer concert market.

Why is this important? As I discussed with Richard Steele on “848” last Friday, the crucial summer concert season, when promoters make the vast majority of their annual incomes, has undergone a radical shift over the last decade, away from tours traveling to outdoor amphitheatres or summer sheds—much like those that Ticketmaster/Live Nation is saddled with and struggling to maintain on Northerly Island, in Tinley Park, and at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisc.—and toward mega-concerts or destination festivals that attract locals and tourists alike travelling to them.

Pearl Jam also is touring this summer with its own, much smaller mini-festival, bringing it to Alpine Valley on Sept. 3-4. It's easy to imagine that the band would have preferred playing Lakeside--especially because it might have avoided having to perform under the aegis of Ticketmaster/Live Nation there. (Maybe next summer!)

For its part, Jam tried and failed to get a piece of the festival business with its bid to privatize and remake Taste of Chicago and the jazz and blues festivals, which Mayor Emanuel may or may not revive. Meanwhile, the local company is optimistic that other events can be staged at Lakeside, at least until the real estate market revives and the proposed housing development moves forward at that site.

“This was a first-time fest in a new site that worked really well,” Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson said on Monday. “It’s truly amazing how fans embraced the DMB Caravan and the southeast side of Chicago. This is a fest site, not a ‘new concert venue,’” as some media outlets reported. But, “Jam has a long-term lease to produce more fests, which is what we are already discussing for next year.”

The promoters did not yet have or were not willing to share numbers on the exact attendance at the fest, or the revenue it generated for the city. “I am gathering numbers to tell a story about the economic impact the DMB Caravan had on the city,” Mickelson promised. But as noted in my earlier analysis on April 7—Two key differences between the mega-fests, Dave Matthews Caravan vs. Lollapalooza—the former paid 100 percent of the amusement taxes required of such events by law, while Lollapalooza’s deal with the city exempts it from those taxes, seemingly in conflict with the municipal code.

What’s more, the Caravan imposed a minimal radius clause on its acts and waived it entirely in several cases—most notably for the Flaming Lips, who played at the Aragon last Thursday and Friday and at Lakeside on Sunday. In contrast, Lollapalooza’s radius clauses are the most restrictive in the U.S., preventing any of the acts on its stages from performing within 300 miles for six months before and three months after the Grant Park shindig.

True, Lollapalooza sometimes waives its radius clauses, too, generally for its own sanctioned after- or pre-festival shows. But it’s hard to think of an example there as dramatic as the two sizable Lips shows immediately preceding Caravan. And, though the Illinois Attorney General continues to decline comment, the Lollapalooza radius clauses apparently are still the subject of an open investigation by that office into anti-competitive practices by Lollapalooza owners C3 Presents and William Morris Endeavor.

As for how long festival mania will continue to rule the concert market, it's interesting to note what's happening in Europe, from whence the festival model immigrated in the first place. Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis, for one, believes that concertgoers are getting bored with the festival smorgasbord approach--to say nothing of bad sound, steep ticket prices, costly amenities, and uncomfortable outdoor settings--and that, "It's on the way out. We've probably got another three or four years... I don't see the market will be there in the future."