Philly region catches a wave of summer music festivals

Metallica will headline Orion Music   More at Atlantic City’s Bader Field.
Metallica will headline Orion Music More at Atlantic City’s Bader Field.
Posted: June 04, 2012

Jay-Z and Pearl Jam on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Metallica at Bader Field in Atlantic City. Jack White and the Black Keys in Dover, Del.

And scores of other bands besides. This summer, the outsize, multiday music festival that has held sway over the concert business for a decade — and has mirrored the genre-hopping tastes of fans in the digital age — is finally breaking big in the northeastern United States.

Every year, fans are lured to destination gatherings such as Coachella in the California desert, Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., and Lollapalooza in Chicago. This season, though, three new fests with ambitions to become annual affairs will see to it that Philadelphia-area music junkies seeking a total-immersion experience won’t need a plane ticket to go along with their festival pass.

The Metallica-headlined, hard-rocking Orion Music + More will crank it up in Atlantic City on June 23-24 on the decommissioned airfield with 37 other acts, including country tough guy Eric Church, indie-pop band Best Coast, and Jersey rockers Gaslight Anthem.

On July 20-22, the Firefly Music Festival, a camping festival, will take place at the 87-acre site of the Woodlands of Dover International Speedway in Delaware, with headliners White, the Black Keys, and the Killers joined by more than 40 others, including the Flaming Lips and John Legend.

And on Labor Day weekend, the hip-hop-to-dubstep-to-indie-rock three-stage Budweiser Made in America fest will set up shop in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "in the heart of the city," as co-headliner Jay-Z put it in an interview last month. So far 18 bands have been announced, including soul man D’Angelo and Philadelphia singer Santigold, with more big names expected.

Music festivals have thrived in the iPod shuffle age in part because they offer ticket buyers the chance to discover new music at a price that usually rivals that charged by a single top act. And the fests expose bands to crowds who might not be familiar with their music.

"When I go to a festival, I want to see some bands that I know, and hopefully some others I’ve never heard of," says Metallica front man James Hetfield. His band will play two landmark albums in their entirety, Ride the Lightning (1984) and Metallica (1991), on successive nights at Orion. (The latter, also known as "the Black album," will be played in reverse order with the signature song, "Enter Sandman," coming last).

Hetfield, speaking last month from Oslo, Norway, said Metallica was inaugurating its own festival, "first of all, because we can." He said the idea of mixing metal bands such as Sepultura and Suicidal Tendencies with favorites such as New Orleans’ Soul Rebels Brass Band — while also displaying his and others’ collections of custom cars — was partly inspired by European rock festivals.

"I think the Europeans are more likely to look at a festival as an event, rather than ‘My favorite band is playing,’?" the singer says, referring to the long-standing tradition of festivals like Glastonbury, in England, and Pukkelpop, in Belgium, which influenced Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell when he launched Lollapalooza as a touring U.S. festival in the early 1990s. "We’re trying to bring a little taste of that here."

Made in America will also span genres, catering to the open-minded music fan. "I’ve always believed in good music over bad music," says Jay-Z. "I believe in two sorts of music. And the lines that separate us: I don’t believe in that. That’s for people who need to easily define what they’re hearing."

Coachella and its kin

Festivals accounted for five of the top 10 grossing concert events in North America in 2011, according to Pollstar, which monitors the industry. (And that doesn’t include Bonnaroo, which does not report to Pollstar.) Coachella, which pulled in almost $25 million in one weekend in April 2011, topped the list, whose only non-festival names were U2, Paul McCartney, and Kenny Chesney.

And this year, the festival business is expanding. Coachella, which drew 90,000 a day in 2011, doubled in size.

The explosion of Electronic Dance Music, or EDM, and the genre of dubstep has led to multicity fests such as the Electric Daisy Carnival, which feature acts such as Skrillex (who is on the Made in America bill) and Bassnectar (playing Firefly).

Smaller fests are growing, too, like the Roots Picnic, which has grown from one day to two and was to take place this weekend on the 6,500-capacity Festival Pier. WXPN’s Xponential fest is spreading this summer to Camden’s Susquehanna Bank Center from adjacent Wiggins Park in July.

Despite the success of the model, promoters have faced obstacles, says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni, in bringing mega-fests to the northeast corridor. He says that is "mostly because of the lack of suitable sites. … There have been some stumbles in trying to get festivals launched in Philadelphia and New York. But they’re coming together this year."

Geoff Gordon heads the Philadelphia office of Live Nation, which is presenting Made in America and the Roots Picnic, both of which were named as being among the 20 essential music fests in North America and Europe this year by taste-making music site Pitchfork. Gordon said fests such as Coachella and Bonnaroo "are great and really successful. But they’re not always superconvenient." Before striking a deal to put on the Jay-Z-curated fest — which Live Nation hopes will draw 50,000 people a day — "we looked a long, long time for a location suitable for the mind-set of a Northeasterner. That was what was important: To make it as easily accessible as possible." Tickets went on sale May 23; the $99 two-day quickly sold out, and the remaining tickets were going for $135.

‘Glamping’ in Delaware

By contrast, Firefly, presented by Chicago’s Red Frog Events, which specializes in steeplechase-like "Warrior Dash" running events, will be a rural camping festival, like Bonnaroo.

"We saw the opportunity to put on a grander-scale music festival on the East Coast," says Red Frog’s Greg Bostrom. He says the proximity to population centers from New York to Richmond, Va., favored Dover over more than 60 scouted sites. "We want to be a destination festival."

Firefly tickets are available only as three-day passes, for $195. For an extra $145, four people can camp. Or festival goers can go glamping — a combination of glamour and camping, with an air-conditioned tent and queen-size bed for a mere $1,500 additional.

The Delaware fest, which plans to be an annual event, touts what it says will be top-of-the-line craft brews and food. All of the fests, including Made in America, whose amenities are still in planning stages, promise to present the full "festival experience."

"What’s important is an environment the fans like," says Bongiovanni, adding that "from an artist perspective the bigger festivals are very important: when they start booking their calendar, they start filling those dates in and then book the rest of the tour around it." But overall, for fans, he says, "Music may not be the most important part of it. It’s the social aspect that these kids are going for. If they have a good time, they’ll be back."

Skateboarding in A.C.

Orion, in Atlantic City, will feature a skateboarding ramp and show films chosen by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

"What really sells the tickets for the next year is the kids tell their friends, ‘This was really fun, it was a blast,’?" says Charlie Walker of Austin’s C3 Presents, which is producing Orion and puts on Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits fest. (Orion tickets are $90 a day, with two-day passes $150.) Lollapalooza will draw 100,000 a day this year, and ACL will attract 70,000.

Walker says Orion is at Bader Field, where he expects 25,000 to 30,000 people a day, and building from there — because of Dave Matthews, who brought his Caravan fest there last summer.

"Dave paved the way," Walker says. "Atlantic City is central for a lot of people, and it has a lot of hotel rooms. It has a lot of things going for it." (Jam band Phish will also play Bader Field, June 15-17.)

In 2007 and 2008, C3 had hoped to put on a large fest in the Philadelphia area, first in Fairmount Park and then in Vineland, N.J. It was stymied, among other reasons, by a collapsing economy. "We kind of got the rug pulled out from us financially," Walker says. "It wasn’t a great time to expand. Now I think everything’s settled down a bit."

Looking ahead, Hetfield says, he "would love for [Orion] to become an established festival that people know that they can come to, and it’s going to be good. That even if they don’t know what they’re going to see, they know it’s going to be quality, and they can come and hang out and see some interesting things while they’re there. That would be the dream."

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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