To launch a music festival, you have to capture the attention of a public that’s already flooded with festival announcements. In this regard, and only in this regard, the first and final Fyre Festival succeeded. On April 27, 2017, throngs of people who’d paid $1,500 per single-day ticket or $12,000+ for a VIP package at the self-described “Coachella of the Bahamas” arrived on the island of Great Exuma expecting to be treated to luxury housing, fine dining, and sets by the likes of Disclosure, Migos, and Blink-182. Instead, they fought over tents and ate plain cheese sandwiches as the performers bailed en masse. Disgruntled tweets from Fyre went viral even before the organizers “postponed” the two-weekend event the morning of April 28, the day it was scheduled to begin. Within the week, festival organizers were hit with the first of nearly a dozen class-action lawsuits. In March 2018, Fyre founder Billy McFarland pleaded guilty to wire fraud. He’ll be sentenced in June.
As colossal a disaster as Fyre was, at first it looked like an aberration—at the time, the music-festival market seemed able to support several large, multiday events every summer weekend across North America. But in June 2017, the New York Times asked if the market had peaked after the two companies behind Canada’s Pemberton Festival declared bankruptcy and canceled it. Several similar music-focused attractions bit the dust that summer, and in August, Pitchfork reporter Marc Hogan surveyed the wreckage: among the casualties were IowaStock, Karoondinha in Pennsylvania, and the UpNorth Music & Arts Festival in Michigan.
By the end of September, two Chicago fests had pulled the plug. On September 5, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority canceled the inaugural Get in It MusicFest, a one-day event that was to feature Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Lupe Fiasco on September 16 at Guaranteed Rate Field. And a week before the September 23 date for Aahh! Fest, Common Ground Foundation general manager Tamara Brown scrubbed the event, which launched in 2014 and had already skipped 2015.
I’ve often wondered about the health of Chicago’s music-festival ecosystem. Every summer the city has so many that it needs to import people to attend them all: you can take your pick from government-supported celebrations of genres important to the city’s history (the Blues Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Chicago House Music Festival), large block parties where you can see high-profile national acts for a small donation (Wicker Park Fest, West Fest), and big-ticket blockbusters that entertain audiences larger than the population of Crystal Lake (according to the 2010 census, that’s a mere 40,475 people, less than half a single day’s crowd at Lollapalooza). In April a piece in RedEye claimed that from May through early October, Chicago hosts 150 festivals (though it counted nonmusical events such as Illinois Craft Beer Week). Clearly, Chicago loves its fests. But can the city keep making room in its heart for all of them?
Early this year, I started to have doubts. In March, the metal and hard-rock fest Chicago Open Air announced it was going on hiatus, and it’d only existed for two summers. Reggae Fest Chicago, which likewise debuted in 2016, announced last April that it wasn’t coming back in 2017, and to all appearances it’s staying gone this year. When Brown announced the cancellation of last year’s Aahh! Fest, she suggested that fans mark their calendars for September 15, 2018, but I’m skeptical—the festival’s Twitter account hasn’t posted anything since then, nobody at the foundation has answered my e-mails or calls, and fest founder Common is headlining Mamby on the Beach in June.
Even the mighty Lollapalooza gave me reason to worry. For the past few years, the megafest has sold out weekend passes before releasing the name of a single artist on its lineup—usually in a couple hours, if not less. But this March, those same passes took eight days to sell out, even though C3 Presents announced the full lineup the day after they went on sale. (Single-day tickets for Thursday and Sunday were still available at the time of publication.) Lolla had appeared so untouchable that even this modest slowdown felt like a dire harbinger—if its dominance was weakening, even incrementally, what would happen to Chicago festivals with less clout? Was there a crash coming?
I wanted to take the temperature of the local festival ecosystem, so I turned to the folks behind the scenes. I spoke with 14 organizers from ten large music fests. (To help you keep track of who is who, they’re all listed below.) I stuck to bigger-ticket events, though it did eventually become clear to me that concerts by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and local street festivals do affect the larger players.
I couldn’t get hold of everyone. After reaching out several times to Lollapalooza, I was told by a PR representative that “We do not have anyone available.” I called the company behind Open Air Chicago, a Los Angeles outfit called Danny Wimmer Presents, so often that eventually I got hung up on. But I heard back from enough people that I was able to get a much better understanding of how Chicago came to be home to such a colorful, diverse, and crowded festival scene.
The festival folks
The key players in this story and their affiliations
Michael Berg Managing partner at Silver Wrapper Productions and cofounder of the North Coast Music Festival (August 31-September 2 in Union Park)
Brian Griffin Talent buyer for React Presents’ Spring Awakening Music Festival (June 8-10 in Addams/Medill Park)
React Presents general manager
DJ and lawyer who helps organize the Chosen Few Picnic (July 7 in Jackson Park)
Former React Presents partner and cofounder of the North Coast Music Festival
Senior director of festivals and activations for Pitchfork
Cofounder of Riot Fest (September 14-16 in Douglas Park)
Founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival (July 20-22 in Union Park)
React Presents general manager and talent buyer for Mamby on the Beach (June 23-24 on Oakwood Beach)
Tim and Katie Tuten
Co-owners of the Hideout and organizers of the Hideout Block Party (which may or may not be happening this year)
Owner of event production company Metronome and cofounder of Ruido Fest (June 22-24 in Addams/Medill Park)
Owner of Joe’s on Weed Street and Joe’s Live, who cofounded the Windy City Smokeout (July 13-15 at 560 W. Grand)
Talent buyer for Reggae Fest Chicago
To understand how the current festival ecosystem evolved, it’s important to remember how easy it is for Chicagoans to throw their own big parties, whether in public parks or on residential streets. You can host a picnic in a park for up to 100 people, with a permit for amplified sound, by spending just a little more than the cost of a four-day Lolla pass ($335) and doing some paperwork. The Chosen Few Picnic & Festival now attracts more than 50,000 people, but it grew out of an annual Fourth of July reunion barbecue that the Hatchett family started decades ago behind the Museum of Science & Industry. In 1990, the first time Chosen Few DJs Tony and Andre Hatchett brought the whole collective to spin at the barbecue, fewer than 50 people came. The Hideout Block Party also launched rather informally in 1997, to celebrate the first anniversary of co-owners Tim and Katie Tuten buying the club. “The first time, we did it as a thank-you, a celebration of ‘Oh, we made it a year,’ and as an excuse to bring our friends up from Austin,” Katie Tuten says. “Over the years, the party just grew organically from the bottom up.”
In Chicago, big street fests preceded by a few years the arrival of large, music-focused outdoor events such as Pitchfork and Lollapalooza—Wicker Park Fest, for example, celebrated its 15th year in 2018. “We wouldn’t be where we’re at—any of these big music festivals—without [street festival organizers] setting the tone,” says Ruido Fest cofounder Max Wagner. Street fests also offered bookers practical experience they could use if they moved on to larger events—Michael Berg, who helped launch the North Coast Music Festival, was a talent buyer for Wicker Park Fest for several years, and as a managing partner at Silver Wrapper he still books for the Taste of Randolph.
When Pitchfork the music site launched Pitchfork the festival, it was originally inspired by street fests too, though it positioned itself as serving an audience that they generally didn’t. “What if there was another event that catered to music culture and indie-music culture? Nothing was like that,” says founding festival director Mike Reed. “It was a totally different thing to get into the industry—it wasn’t an industry.”
Reed also looked to the Village Voice‘s free Siren Music Festival, which brought indie rock to Coney Island, and to London-based All Tomorrow’s Parties, which ran an international series of artist-curated, anticorporate, modestly sized festivals. (Both are now defunct.) Pitchfork’s fest technically debuted in 2006, but the site had already helped book the Intonation Music Festival the year before. For Chicago festivals, 2005 turned out to be a momentous year: that summer Lollapalooza rebooted as a destination in Grant Park after failing as a traveling event, and in the fall Riot Fest launched, taking over the Congress Theater for two days.
Before closing in April 2013, the Congress would help incubate several summer festivals, not just Riot Fest. Wagner was a talent buyer for the Congress, as was his Ruido Fest cofounder Eduardo Calvillo, and the job brought them into contact with Latinx alternative artists. “When we worked there, we’d always [said], ‘The folks who are into rock en español and appreciate this form of music are a great crowd, and there should be a festival for them,'” Wagner says. When Lucas King helped launch Spring Awakening, he was a Congress talent buyer too—and an employee of React Presents, which owns the festival. It started in 2008 as an indoor event at the theater, but eventually it “outgrew its home,” according to React general manager Pat Grumley. Spring Awakening moved to Soldier Field in June 2012—and that September, Riot Fest took its first step outdoors, presenting one night at the Congress and two days in Humboldt Park.
After 2012, with each passing year more new festivals seemed to be scuffling over the few remaining summer weekends. The Windy City Smokeout debuted in 2013, Aahh! Fest in 2014, and Mamby on the Beach and Ruido Fest on the same weekend in 2015. Spring Awakening moved to Pilsen’s Addams/Medill Park in June 2016, so that the park was hosting a large festival every month of the summer—Ruido in July, the inaugural Reggae Fest Chicago in August, and Hip-Hop Summerfest in September.
“It’s the most crowded market of any market from coast to coast,” Berg says. “The fans and the community here are inundated with options all summer long.”
The festival glut creates a lot of competition, which has required many promoters and organizers to target musical or cultural niches in order to survive. Spring Awakening showcases a broad spectrum of electronic music, while North Coast offers mostly jam bands, dance producers, rappers, and R&B singers.
Because of this specialization, many of the organizers I spoke to don’t see other local festivals as competition but rather as part of an industry-wide effort to cultivate the largest possible audience for live music. Sometimes even festivals courting the same crowd can reinforce each other: For years the Chosen Few Picnic was the city’s only major event dedicated to house music, but when DCASE supersized its free Memorial Day weekend house music party this year, Chosen Few DJ Alan King didn’t see it as a threat. “Frankly, we’re happy about any event in this city where house music is being promoted and opportunities are being provided for house music DJs and performers,” he says. “We’re behind it 100 percent.”
The Windy City Smokeout’s closest competitor is Live Nation’s Country LakeShake, a three-day June fest at Huntington Bank Pavilion, but Smokeout cofounder Ed Warm says their relationship is amicable. “We work with them and they work with us,” he says. “We view it as two entirely different festivals.” Warm is one of the city’s great supporters of country music—in 2017 the Academy of Country Music named him promoter of the year for the work he’s done with Joe’s Live in Rosemont, and he recently bought beloved Uptown country dive Carol’s Pub, shuttered in 2016. “Rising tide raises all the ships,” he says. “We want to see all the festivals do well.” And the Windy City Smokeout is doing well: Warm says it drew 4,000 people in 2013 and more than 40,000 last year.
Not everyone has had the same success navigating the crowded marketplace. In April 2016, Subterranean and Beat Kitchen owner Robert Gomez, Kickstand Productions, and Optimum Events launched Reggae Fest Chicago. Jump Up! Records owner Chuck Wren and Kickstand talent buyer John Ugolini had about three weeks to assemble a lineup, and they landed legends such as Toots & the Maytals and Lee “Scratch” Perry. The event filled a void in the summer festival landscape (only Riot Fest also reliably books reggae), and Wren thought it had promise. “We all knew most big fests don’t make money in their first year,” he says. “I think the partners wanted to go into year two with more of the ‘let’s break even’ mentality, and when some of the sponsors didn’t come back in the way they wanted, that’s why they didn’t come back in year two.”
Wren believes that the profusion of street fests that ask for donations at the gate makes things harder for new commerical fests with modest means. When you can see, say, Ian Svenonius’s reunited “gospel yeh-yeh” band the Make-Up at West Fest for $5, how eager will you be to take a chance on an unfamiliar one-day festival that costs $37.50?
“It was an amazing deal to see Toots—there were people who whined about the ticket prices,” Wren says. “Well, if one of these acts headlined HoB, that’s a $30 ticket.” And because so many Chicago fests have successfully become annual events, Wren discovered, some people assumed it would be no big deal to skip Reggae Fest in 2016—they could always go the next year. “It wasn’t even fathomable to thousands and thousands of people that if they didn’t go this year, maybe it won’t be back next year,” he says. “That hurt us.”
For midsize events such as Mamby on the Beach, the crowded midwestern festival circuit has disadvantages. Artists book further in advance each year and favor the largest festivals with the deepest pockets. “There’s not an infinite amount of talent out there—it gets narrower and narrower and narrower every time you start booking the festival,” says Matt Rucins, a general manager at React who helps book Mamby. “It’s the biggest difficulty we have. You think you have this artist in mind, you have the flow of the festival in mind, you go after all your first choices, and then 20 percent of them are available.”
With demand for talent going up and the supply more or less constant, festivals around the country have started offering artists more money. Riot Fest cofounder Mike Petryshyn thinks bookers’ behavior sometimes borders on ridiculous. “The last couple years, stuff we were going for, so-and-so promoter elsewhere in the U.S. will pay double just to have a band,” he says. “And we’re like, ‘OK, go have fun with that.'”
The corporatization of the festival circuit and the increasing difficulty of booking several stages for multiple days have led to a solution of convenience, where in any given summer the same acts seem to play every big event coast to coast. Thankfully, most Chicago festivals appear to be immune. Earlier this month Pitchfork surveyed the top 20 North American fests (including Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival) and listed the 20 most ubiquitous acts of summer 2018. Seventeen of them will play Lolla. “That’s fine and dandy, but we’re a different kind of festival,” says Petryshyn. “We always want to have bands that aren’t doing other festivals.”
Pitchfork led the charge in proving that a midsize festival could thrive with a lineup catering to music obsessives curious about the new and unusual—the sort of people the site hopes to reach as readers. As Pitchfork’s Adam Krefman says, the booking process “is informed by something that is more than just how many tickets so-and-so is selling in the market at this time.” As Pitchfork’s coverage branched out and evolved, the festival’s roster followed suit. And ambitious locals—including the founders of North Coast—took note. “We were actually walking around Pitchfork as fans and talking about if we brought an event there to the same park,” Berg says. “Here we are nine years later.”
One factor that may be helping so many festivals thrive in Chicago is their size—with the exception of Lollapalooza, most are midsize or smaller. True, Pitchfork has a festival in Paris, and Lollapalooza has colonized Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paris, and Berlin—but Riot Fest has scaled back after briefly running satellite festivals in Toronto and Denver starting in 2013. The Toronto run ended in 2015 because Riot Fest’s Canadian partner sold to Live Nation; the Denver version didn’t return in 2017 in part because Riot Fest cofounder and producer Sean P. McKeough had died.
Even the Chosen Few Picnic, which has expanded astronomically from its informal beginnings, isn’t growing for the sake of growing. It went from one day to two in 2016, but this year it’s just one again—mainly because it’s not happening before a Monday holiday. The picnic is a marathon, running from 8 AM till 9 PM (many folks line up before the gates open, hoping to snag good spots for tents and grills), and the organizers knew better than to expect a crowd to turn out on a Sunday if they had to work the next morning. “I don’t think we had a real appreciation for what an exhausting day the Chosen Few Picnic is—to ask people to wake up that next morning, turn around, and do it all over again was maybe biting off more than we can chew,” King says. If the timing of the picnic relative to the Fourth of July works out again in the future, though, the second day could come back.
Most organizers are content with the size of their events. Pat Grumley suggests that the less oppressive scale of a “boutique festival” such as Mamby on the Beach (at most 15,000 people per day) is as much of an attraction as the lakeside setting. “It’s easy to navigate and hop from stage to stage in under five minutes, giving fans a chance to catch multiple artists and meet up with friends,” he says. Rucins likewise thinks Mamby is healthy at its present size: “Last year we sold out Saturday, and Sunday did about the same two years in a row—about 10,000 people. We’re on pace this year to surpass last year—that’s all you can ask for, is continued growth.”
Pitchfork hit a plateau several years ago with respect to how many acts it books, but Krefman says he and the team will continue to tinker with the layout. “We’ve talked about expanding it, but there hasn’t been something that’s so obvious that we’ve had to do it—it’s been a lot of optimizing it year over year and finding new corners of this tiny park that we can use in different ways,” he says. “[With] the number of festivals in Chicago these days, there hasn’t been that obvious need to double the size of the festival.”
Distinctive lineups with interesting artists go a long way, but some Chicago festivals also foster a sense of community, which not even the best-bankrolled competitor can buy away. The Hideout Block Party grew out of the passions of a group of people who’d already adopted the club as a second home. “There’s a theme that goes throughout our block parties: it’s generated by people who have an idea,” says Tim Tuten. “We want it to be something that’s special, that makes sense, that is a well-curated event, not just 20 bands that are going up and playing a show.”
For the Block Party, the Hideout has partnered with Touch and Go Records and with grassroots arts groups such as Opera-Matic, who piloted a translucent, glowing whale through the crowd during an Andrew Bird set in 2011. Last year Saturday’s bill honored several local musicians turning 60, while Sunday’s celebrated the 20th anniversary of Steve Albini’s studio Electrical Audio. The lineup is often distinguished by the presence of artists such as Bird, who got attached to the club early in their careers and are now much too popular to play inside it. The Tutens say they’ve never gone into the red on a Hideout Block Party, but they aren’t sure if they’ll host one this year—money or no money, the events are a lot of work.
The evidence I could collect doesn’t clearly point to an impending crisis among Chicago music festivals, though most of the folks who could’ve passed along bad news didn’t talk to me. Some fests have gone belly-up, but it’s not possible to conclusively blame that on market forces rather than bad luck or bad choices—and fests still seem to be failing at a lower rate than, say, tech startups or new restaurants.
One key element that drives the audience for all these events is the most obvious: they’re outdoors in Chicago, during the few months of the year when being outdoors in Chicago for hours at a time is reasonably likely to be pleasant. When Riot Fest first moved outside in 2012, says Petryshyn, it did better than anybody expected: “I thought, maybe we can get to 12 or 15 thousand or something like that, per day, outside. That was the realistic goal,” he says. “But we ended up doing 30 a day, and it blew everybody’s mind.”
Chicagoans spend most of the year waiting for the sun, and most local festivals draw the majority of their crowds from within the city. “Everybody wants to come here in the summertime and enjoy it,” Reed says. “It makes complete sense that there would be events like this—and there always have been. The nature of them change.” v