It’s a bittersweet weekend for American music festivals. On Thursday, Lollapalooza will return to the skyscraper-lined confines of Chicago’s Grant Park for its 14th incarnation as one of America’s premier destination festivals. Three days later and 1,200 miles away at the Coral Sky Amphitheater in West Palm Beach, FL, the Warped Tour will end its streak as America’s last remaining ’90s touring festival with a final day of punk, ska, and (presumably) tears.
While truly comprehensive accounts of the impressive runs of Lollapalooza and Warped Tour, as well as the decade-long history of ’90s touring music festivals, could fill two different (and equally essential books), a brief look at the festivals’ shared origins in the soon-to-be-bygone American touring festival scene is certainly in order.
It began in 1991 when Perry Farrell changed the game. Inspired by England’s Reading Festival (as well as the shambolic tours of the Grateful Dead and the well-received Monsters of Rock packages that crisscrossed Europe and America in the late ’80s), Farrell launched the first Lollapalooza as his own band’s farewell tour. Looking back on that first edition in a 1999 column for Rolling Stone, critic David Fricke noted that Lollapalooza offered “a spirited deconstruction of the tired, old-school summer-tour aesthetic,” one that “[celebrated] the emerging motley strains of ’90s alt-rock culture with the inclusive vibe of Bill Graham’s old rock-blues-etc. bills at the Fillmore.”
Though Jane’s Addiction kept their promise to break up (at least for a few years), Lollapalooza stuck around. With the addition of a fully booked side stage for the festival’s second edition in 1992, Farrell and company had unwittingly established the blueprint for what we now think of when we think of ’90s music festivals: a diverse mix of established headliners and up-and-coming bands, along with a bazaar’s worth of vendors and attractions, traveling around the country and bringing their subcultures with them.
That mobility was one of the festival’s greatest strengths and the biggest advantage of ’90s festivals as a whole: started in the pre-social-media age and not tied to a single destination, the traveling festival was free to bring a pre-packaged sampler version of music scenes from the world’s cities and cultural centers to communities in which such scenes didn’t exist. In Lollapalooza’s case, that meant taking urban rage and political unrest on tour, tapping into what critic Jon Parales described in 1996 as “the contradictory cliquishness of American culture: the determination to be an individualist without losing too many friends.”
However, that was just one of many possible festival visions. From its initial edition, Lollapalooza begat loads of copycats and competitors, each offering their own blueprint for a mobile subcultural community with music at its center. The earliest and (at least in terms of ticket sales and perceived threat to Lolla’s supremacy) most successful was H.O.R.D.E. Short for the incredibly clunky “Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere,” H.O.R.D.E. emerged just one year after the original Lollapalooza, but unlike the politically tinged iconoclasm touted by its predecessor, H.O.R.D.E. was built on an updated version of Woodstock’s hippie togetherness for the post-Reagan generation. Founded by Blues Traveler’s John Popper, the festival caught some initial flak for its backward-looking feel-goodness; in his write-up of the 1992 New York stop, critic Peter Watrous sniffed that “if Martians had come on Sunday night and swept the Jones Beach amphitheater and its audience away to some other planet, prep schools would be in deep trouble” before describing the experience as “[filling] a need to hear musical exploration and the kind of authenticity in which performers actually play their instruments and punk and rap don’t exist.” The festival, as these things usually do, succeeded in spite of the naysayers.
If you weren’t into new-era jam bands or Jane’s Addiction, though, that wasn’t an issue. By the late ’90s, there was a touring festival for nearly every possible subcultural configuration you could fit inside an amphitheater; a non-exhaustive list reveals options for fans of the blues (the House of Blues Barnburner Tour), proto-woke hip-hop (Smokin’ Grooves), celebrating women in rock (Lilith Fair), Grateful Dead bootlegs (Further Festival), the Celtic Tiger economic boom (Guinness Fleadh), Hot Topic (Warped Tour), or even the hard rock and metal reaction that Lollapalooza inspired (Ozzfest). Many of the most successful were run or curated by artists: in addition to Popper and Farrell, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir looked after Further while Sarah Mclachlan acted as the creative voice of Lilith Fair. Almost all offered a vision of community and escape that might be coming to a town near you.
If it felt unsustainable, that’s because it was. For Lollapalooza, the cracks in the facade began appearing as early as 1993. That year, as the festival found itself beset by competitors and bumping up against the diminishing returns associated with attempting to replicate the cathartic anger and exhilarating novelty of the first two festivals, Parales declared, “Lollapalooza is becoming a habit: spring break for the alienated” before concluding that “the people who put on the Woodstock festival were smart: They didn’t try an annual sequel.”
One of his articles that year was titled “Is Lollapalooza Losing Its Outsider Status?”, and unlike most headlines containing a question mark, this one violated Betterridge’s law by being answerable with a resounding “yes.” Despite frequently booking bands that (thanks to the post-grunge signing spree) made their homes on major labels, Lollapalooza was built more explicitly than most festivals on a rejection (or at least wariness) of the mainstream in general and the corporate world in specific. That ethos, stated or otherwise, made it even more difficult two years later when Lollapalooza 1995 (retroactively called “Alternative nation’s last stand” in an oral history from The Washington Post) — despite having “looked like an institution” while simultaneously booking a solid lineup that included Sonic Youth, Hole, Cypress Hill, and Pavement — failed to sell out most of its dates and was outdrawn by H.O.R.D.E. for the first time during the two festivals’ coexistence.
That relative failure hastened the sense that Lollapalooza needed to change. And it did. For the worse. The big switch started when festival founder Perry Farrell abandoned his own creation, skipping out on Lollapalooza to start the ENIT Festival, a conceptual tour described as “the Earth’s bar mitzvah” that had trouble finding booking dates because of Farrell’s insistence on concertgoers planting trees throughout the festival grounds. Lollapalooza, meanwhile, began running into the same problems that plagued the post-Altamont festivals of the early ’70s; Neil Strauss notes that, in advance of the 1996 edition, America’s preeminent festivals “had trouble finding sites to book because of concerns among some city councils, park officials, and police departments about traffic, noise, and other drawbacks of a hard-rock bill.”
The execs solved that problem by going even bigger. Despite decrying the prevailing strains of alternative music as “such shit,” Marc Geiger and his crew secured larger-than-usual venues for what Strauss called “a slightly punked-out version of Monsters of Rock, the heavy-metal package tour that flourished in the 80s.” In his own review of the ’96 festival, Parales went further, declaring that “this year, Lollapalooza’s arteries hardened” and noting that the choice of “stadium pros” Metallica as headliners indicated the festival’s newfound willingness to embrace money over principles (or left-of-center artistry).
Perhaps the biggest (and most intractable) problem stemmed from Lollapalooza’s own success; what earned its initial acclaim as a counter-cultural rejection of suburban squareness now found itself squarely in the mainstream. When your “outsider” subculture is large enough to get parodied by The Simpsons (as Lollapalooza was during the seventh season episode “Homerpalooza,” which aired on the eve of the ’96 festival), you’re probably sunk.
Lollapalooza returned in 1997, but the damage was done. That year, an anemic lineup led by headliners forgettable enough (Tricky? Orbital? James? Bueller?) to earn the fest the pejorative “Lousy-palooza” from Rolling Stone’s Blair R. Fisher marked Lollapalooza’s final ignominious appearance of the ’90s; just seven years after revitalizing the live music industry, the 1998 edition was scuppered after failing to secure a headliner. (Rumor had it they were turned down by everyone from Jane’s Addiction and Green Day to Marilyn Manson and Radiohead.) Co-organizer Ted Gardner said they’d be back the next summer (his exact words were “we shall be the Phoenix”), but Fisher was back with the same story in 1999, this time adding that “some insiders believe that’s a laugh-apalooza.” (One band manager was even harsher, claiming that “they didn’t cancel it, it never got resurrected […] so, it’s something of a misnomer to say it was canceled. The attempt to revive the patient was unsuccessful.”)
Lollapalooza wasn’t alone. By the summer of 1997, festival fatigue was in full swing. Strauss noted 11 festivals in the New York area alone that year and spent much of a later column, like other critics of the time, tracing the problems befalling festivals around the country; the most serious included financial mismanagement (“This summer, saying you run a touring rock festival has become like saying you enjoy burning money“), the proliferation of local radio station fests that came with the (alleged) willingness to offer increased airplay to bands who played at a discount, a lack of audience enthusiasm in the face of an oversaturated schedule, and a finite number of big-name bands that resulted in fests with too-narrow niches and not enough headliners to go around.
Faced with these headwinds, nearly all of the major touring festivals of the ’90s folded before the decade’s end, including H.O.R.D.E., Further, and Smokin’ Grooves in 1998 and Lilith Fair and the Guinness Fleadh in 1999. Only Ozzfest and Warped Tour thrived into the 21st century. Only one of those is still with us today … for a few more days at least.
In one of his final 1997 summer festival pieces, Neil Strauss predicted that “if the festival circuit is truly in its death throes, a few tours will no doubt survive (because, like energy, pop culture never dies, it only converts into nostalgia).” He cited Lollapalooza (right, eventually, and in a different form) and H.O.R.D.E. (wrong, save for a one-night-only revival in 2015) as the two most likely candidates, but neither one can claim the same kind of longevity as Warped Tour.
After spilling some serious e-ink recounting all the reasons why most touring festivals failed, it’s equally important to consider how Warped Tour succeeded. That success shouldn’t be understated. When it stages its final touring appearance this Sunday in West Palm Beach, the Warped Tour will have spent 24 summers on the road. The final metrics contained within those years are impressive: 988 festival dates performed across 167 cities in 35 states and 10 countries, in world cities (London, New York City, Sydney, Berlin) and places where fests don’t usually go (Fargo, ND; Nampa, ID). No other festival can claim those numbers, either.
Since announcing the festival’s impending exit in November of last year, Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman has made the media rounds, shoring up his festival’s legacy and reminding everyone of the reasons why they liked it in the first place. Lyman’s as close as one can come to a festival lifer; before spending the last quarter-century as the head of Warped Tour, he worked on the first four editions of Lollapalooza.
During interviews, it becomes clear that, whether he intended to or not, Lyman modeled his own festival after both the best parts of those Lollapaloozas and the cautionary tales of the rest of the decade’s failed festivals. The festival never chased money; tickets were kept deliberately cheap, and, according to Lyman’s interview with Billboard’s Chris Payne, the festival only made money on tickets once, in 2005. “If we turn a profit, it’s going to be from sponsorships and merchandise,” Lyman said, before revealing that he’d also turned down offers to buy the fest from outside parties interested in keeping it afloat.
Neither did Warped Tour chase critical approval. Though the tour’s preferred subgenres experienced periods of widespread popularity throughout the festival’s run (especially the aforementioned 2005 edition, which, as Payne pointed out, featured “Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance […] on the main stage all summer, while simultaneously they were breaking on MTV and Top 40”), it never sought the kind of approval from musical gatekeepers that might inspire a hasty, ’96 Metallica-level booking error.
Most of all, though, for good and bad, Warped Tour may be remembered for its success in building, and often failing, its own community. One of the reasons Warped Tour retained its commitment to bring the festival to both full and sparse areas of America’s musical map was simply that Lyman’s audience was too young to travel very far anyway; Warped crowds routinely aged in their teens rather than twenties, and the festival’s willingness to keep itself available and on the road is a big part of what made it so durable and beloved. Many attendees of earlier festivals built the kind of indelible memories that happen so naturally in your youth at one of the festival’s stops, and many, such as NPR’s Ann Powers, have returned as chaperones for their own children in recent years. This kind of intergenerational baton-passing comes with both joy and, increasingly, anxiety.
“My mom nerves were based on personal experience,” said Powers, who covered Warped Tour for The New York Times in the late ’90s and ” watched a malignancy” of misogynistic and sexually exploitive behavior “sprout inside its rock and roll shenanigans.” What was “supposed to be an antidote to gnarlier festivals, creating a safe space where kids could grow up into healthy headbangers” often turned into a scene filled with toxic sexual aggression, from Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus “[suggesting] that female fans come up to the stage and sexually service his band mates” at a 1999 stop that Powers covered to the sexual assault of Candy Hearts’ Mariel Loveland revealed in a New York Times round table discussing the struggles faced by female performers on the tour to the “second chance” given to Front Porch Step’s Jake McElfresh in 2015 when the musician was allowed to play the tour’s Nashville stop despite facing charges of soliciting nude photos from a teenage fan.
Warped Tour is far from the only music festival to deal with toxic masculinity and acts of sexual violence, but it is one that’s been confronted with these issues most publicly. “I learned a lot [in 2015],” Lyman told the Los Angeles Times this June. “I wasn’t an expert on all this. But I took expert advice, and now I’m more educated. Even before #MeToo, Warped was run by women. But I realized it’s an issue that we can’t handle the way we used to.”
While both Powers and Loveland praised Lyman for his response (“We’ll do what we can to make you feel safe”), the issues that created the need for it remains; even last year, when Warped Tour booked War on Women and brought in singer Shawna Potter’s group Safer Scene to advocate for a more inclusive feminist counterbalance, the biggest headlines of the year revolved around Dickies’ frontman Leonard Graves Philips and the hate-filled onstage rant he loosed after being called out for “[making] jokes about things like how much he loves teen girls and how he would love to snort Viagra off your asses and fuck your daughters.”
There’s still time to nail it, though. Although Warped Tour will cease touring this year, and although this year’s festival lineup still lags behind those of Pitchfork, Iceland Airwaves, and the festivals that signed the Keychange pledge in support of gender-equal booking, Lyman has promised that he’ll mark the festival’s 25th anniversary next year with some kind of live celebration. Ann Powers has an idea for how that party could define not only Warped Tour’s past, but also the music world’s present: “[Lyman] could give it one more run, with women, LGBTQ, and gender non-binary folk in the headlining spots and behind the soundboards, managing the artists on any available seat on the bus. Let’s dream of a new lineup, a new paradigm, the true end of the boys’ club.”
If Lyman still has a sense of adventure, he’d do well to accept the challenge.
Change comes to everything. Even music festivals. In the cases of two of America’s most enduring fests, that change has taken two forms, both of which create different, but no less distressing, feelings of uneasiness.
For Lollapalooza, change meant adapting to the times and seeing yourself morph from a ramshackle carnival with an edge of actual danger into a boutique destination festival that’s more about #brands and $4,200 platinum tickets than it is the actual music or protests or even friendships. For Warped Tour, it meant creating a singular scene by sticking to your principles and roots, only to have the world change around you into something you weren’t equipped to wrestle with.
Maybe we don’t need touring music festivals anymore. Maybe the Coachellas and Bonnaroos and Lollapalooza 2.0s of the world are enough. It’s possible, or even likely, that the internet rendered all of this “going outside” and “making friends in meatspace” obsolete 20 years ago, and we’re all just slow to realize.
For music fans who grew up wondering when these, and all those other, festivals might show up at some dot on a map just an easy drive away from their town, change means accepting that eras have to end and that something (maybe better but, in our nostalgia-addled brains, almost certainly worse) is always just about to step in and become the new, and temporary, inevitable.