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

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

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.

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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