Music festivals now offer VIP options, including massages and gourmet food. But is it rock 'n' roll?
Chicago — For the approximately 150,000 fans pressed into Grant Park last weekend, Lollapalooza wasn't just a music festival – it was a full-contact endurance test. The temperatures soared on Friday, and the rain swept in on Saturday. The crowds were large; the lines were long.
But on a small hill overlooking the AT&T stage, a few lucky concertgoers stretched out on white couches and reclining beach chairs, sheltered from the sun and rain by umbrellas. They dined on catered food and drinks, provided by a restaurant downtown. The service was complimentary.
So were the massages.
And the blue portable toilet, that bane of the modern festival experience?
Forget it. Each restroom was an immaculate, air-conditioned trailer, filled with an array of high-end soaps and hand sanitizers.
Sick of the mosh pits and the long-distance views, hundreds of music fans forked over extra cash to join the party at this year's "Lolla Lounges," Lollapalooza's new luxury seating options.
They came, they saw, they dined. And they stayed out of the mud.
In the past year, fans have shown an increasing willingness to pay more – lots more – for a taste of luxury, and a respite from the madding crowds. In June, the pop artist Prince made news by charging over $3,000 per couple for a private show at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Tickets for a summer concert series in the Hamptons, featuring Dave Matthews and Billy Joel, run about $3,000 – per person. And next month, when Genesis arrives in Philadelphia, VIP booths for the band's show at the Wachovia Center will retail at $3,500.
Concert promoters have responded to the soaring ticket sales by beefing up their luxury options, even at festivals long known for providing a decidedly middlebrow mixture of mud, sun, and camaraderie. This year, for instance, Austin City Limits will charge almost $2,000 for weekend VIP access. Bonnaroo VIP access went for $1,125 per person.
At Lollapalooza, a three-day pass to the Lolla Lounge cost concertgoers $1,700 for three days. Private cabanas with "climate-controlled comfort stations" – for you and 74 of your closest friends – amounted to $75,000.
By comparison, the average fan shelled out $195 for his or her three-day pass.
"In our society in general there's a mass affluence – luxury goods across all spectrums," says David Goldberg, the executive vice president of Ticketmaster. "We tend to find that the customers for [VIP access] aren't necessarily just wealthy folks. A lot of the times it's a husband that wants to do something special for the wife or family."
Ticketmaster does not work directly with artists. The company sells packages presented by its clients – a rock venue, for instance, or a stadium. But recently, Mr. Goldberg says, he has watched those packages attract more attention from music fans.
"It's nothing that's terribly new," he adds, pointing out that luxury tickets have long been a staple at sporting events. Now, though, those options are "proliferating down ... to a lot of different types of concerts."
Inside the Lolla Lounges, many fans said the weekend was a short, expensive vacation at one of the best concerts in the country. Some had their tickets passed down from their employers, or from generous friends. And some were there to splurge on themselves.
"I'm 45 – I'm too old to be down there," jokes Denver attorney Kathy Young, as she watches a show by Australian rock group Silverchair from the Lounge. She pointed down to the field in front of the stage, where thousands of fans were jammed into tight proximity – a mass of elbows, arms, and sweat. "Here you're more comfortable – you get everything you need."
For promoters of festivals like Lollapalooza, it's a race – ratchet up the luxury quotient for patrons such as Ms. Young, and watch profits soar. As Autumn Rich, who headed the VIP sections at Grant Park, recently told Rolling Stone: "We want premium seats to be more rather than less expensive."
But not everyone was enamored by the rarified air at the Lounge. For some "regular" ticket holders, VIP areas ignore the true spirit of the concert experience.
"It's a little like watching a concert on DVD," says Trevor Best, a dreadlocked 20-something from Midland, Texas. Mr. Best had driven to Chicago with a friend, and spent much of Saturday parked contentedly on the grass. "Up there, you don't see the show like you're supposed to see it – you're sort of segregated."
Caught in a middle of a sudden rain shower on Saturday, Bryan Buchs, a Milwaukee native, suggested that the Lolla Lounges seemed to be "mostly for people who want to say they've been to the festival. But they haven't actually been out there to see it."
Lollapalooza organizers planted one Lolla Lounge alongside each of the two main stages, allowing pass holders a view at the big-name acts. The luxury cabanas, which were stationed on the south end of Grant Park added special viewing platforms, with a clear visual line to the gigantic stage.
Patrick McEneaney, a Chicago native with Lounge passes, says he loved being able to enjoy "all the free stuff, but you do miss being the scene out there."
The 2007 festival was a grab bag of stages – in addition to the large main stages, there were scores of smaller venues, all scattered throughout the park. Pass holders could wander out of the Lolla Lounges for shows by lesser-known bands, and dodge back in to get a killer view of headlining acts.
In a review of Lollapalooza for the Chicago Sun-Times, music critic Jim DeRogatis suggested that the placement of the VIP areas may have actually detracted from the quality of the festival.
The organizers, he wrote, should "cut down on the obnoxious corporate hype and snooty VIP areas, which claim the best parts of the park at the expense of the average paying customers."
On Saturday night, as the rain whipped in over the Chicago skyline, it was easy to see what Mr. DeRogatis meant. Thousands of fans had pressed to the north of Grant Park, angling for a view of popular rock outfit Interpol. There was little breathing room on the lawn, but at the Lounge, backlit by a row of yellow lights, fans could see clearly onto the stage.
Still, regular ticket holders like Prashant Desai seemed happy with their lot. Mr. Desai sat on the lawn in a collapsible lawn chair, a beverage in hand. Asked about the VIP area, he laughed.
"They'd have to bring back Jimi Hendrix for you to get me up there."