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Chicago Has Hit Max Festival Capacity

React Presents mounts its fourth music festival in the suburbs this fall, leaving behind it a trail of traffic jams and co-opted parkland.

Lolla bubbles over.   Photo: Travas Machel

Wednesday afternoon, concert promoter React Presents announced that its annual Halloween party Freaky Deaky will move from the Aragon Ballroom to 30,000-capacity Toyota Park in southwest suburban Bridgeview. The event will also expand to three stages, 75 bands, and three days (October 30 to November 1). That’s right: With Lolla a week in its rearview and autumn barely a month away, Chicagoland just got another music festival.

Which, really, is plenty. Freaky Deaky is React’s fourth major festival in the Chicago area, and its second since being bought last year by concert giant Robert F.X. Silverman (who more or less corporatized radio in the ’90s). The electronic/hip-hop fest joins React festivals Spring Awakening at Soldier Field, North Coast at Union Park, and the also new Mamby on the Beach at Bronzeville’s Oakwood Beach.

On top of its own competition, React’s four horsemen join Chicago staples Lolla, Pitchfork, and Riot Fest (also formerly an indoor event). Oh, and there’s a street fest every weekend.

That React had to move Freaky Deaky to the suburbs to grow seems like indication enough that Chicago has reached maximus festicus; never mind that they’re operating in the wrong season entirely (outdoors). On top of strange timing and place, at least five artists playing Freaky Deaky have appeared at other Chicago festivals this summer (Bassnectar, Vic Mensa, Hermitude, Flying Lotus, and Logic). Meanwhile, as festivals grow and usurp more and more bands, smaller clubs struggle to fill their bills through the summer.

Of course, demand is demand, and Freaky Deaky could very well sell out. Much like Spring Awakening, it’ll go off in a big metal stadium in the middle of a parking lot, and few will be worse off for it.

But what’s harder to ignore are the public spaces, most of them in poor neighborhoods, that festivals abuse as they multiply—Union Park, which North Coast and Pitchfork close to West-Siders for days each summer, and Oakwood Beach, which Mamby closed to Bronzeville residents for a week in the middle of beach season last month.

And that’s to say nothing of the communities that have spoken up: Uptown residents successfully chased Wavefront Music Festival from Montrose Beach in 2014 only to have a Mumford & Sons show noisily mounted in its place this summer. And Humboldt Parkers booted Riot Fest from their park this spring on charges of pulverized parkland and clogged thoroughfares, only to have it land in harder-off Douglas Park.

Using poor public spaces for pricey private events is the trend, too: Aside from Spring Awakening at Soldier Field and Lolla, which gets exclusive access to Grant Park under a sweetheart deal with the mayor (whose brother Ari runs the talent agency that co-owns the fest), no major music festival operates in a neighborhood that’s more than 80% above the poverty line. The incomes per capita in North Lawndale (Riot Fest), Humboldt (Riot Fest), Oakland (Mamby), Uptown (Wavefront), and the Near West Side (Pitchfork/North Coast) are $12,034, $13,781, $19,252, $35,787, and $44,689 respectively.

Which is to say it’s not the residents losing weeks of park access who are doling out hundreds at Chicago’s late musical buffet. But for promoters, that’s apparently a small price to pay so their clientele can party in the sunshine.

Like any bubble, the fest craze will burst. Already Rahm has warned that if Riot Fest does the same damage in Lawndale that it did in Humboldt, it’s out. Moreover, as the tectonic plates of the music biz continue to shift, fewer acts could be able to support a festival crowd at all. Writes Greg Kot in Monday’s post-Lolla Tribune: "If the notion of a festival headliner becomes obsolete, it might also become time to rethink the very notion of a music festival, itself a carryover from the 20th century music business.”

In his version, the mega-fest goes extinct with the 20th-century demigods able to headline it (Metallica, Paul McCartney). But with contemporary artists like Arctic Monkeys and the Black Keys selling out Lolla in recent years, a dearth of happy homes will more likely be the mega-fest’s downfall. There’s an infinite supply of bad radio rock out there—and, at least in Chicago, a wealth of college kids who will pay for it—but if Riot Fest is any indication, the communities willing to host are growing scant.

Better yet, the consumer wises up. There are a lot of good artists playing Freaky Deaky—but most of them can be seen for $20 with 1,000 people rather than $160 with 30,000.

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