Paul Tollett, the man behind the giant, weekend-long music showcase festival All Points West, which is taking over Liberty State Park in Jersey City this coming weekend, has learned a bit about holding giant, weekend-long music showcase festivals in New York, and what can go wrong.
“We felt there were a lot of things we didn’t like about last year,” he told The New York Observer in an interview this week. “I walked around as a fan and stood in those lines, and when you go stand in that line, you get mad, and even if it’s me. I don’t want to wait. Who would want to have to go through that?”
Last year, he had 27,000 people “going through that” on Friday, 30,000 on the headlining day, Saturday, and 22,000 on Sunday. From the noise coming off the Internet, it might have been a million.
Last year, the fest’s debut featured two nights headlined by Radiohead and many other impressive bands, but also endless lines for food, pain-in-the-ass ferry and parking problems and what lots of people thought were draconian restrictions on beer drinkers (small, prisonlike drinking pen, five-beer maximum). “All Points Worst” was the festival’s most prominent epitaph on the Web.
Some sample threads on the festival’s official message board in the year since have read like a summer-camp burn-book: “Sneaking In,” “The Stages Should Face The Opposite Direction,”
“How dumb is this ‘green’ deal?” “All Points West Sux” and, of course, “Paul Tollett is a D-bag.”
Mr. Tollett might have been the main candidate to get it right: He’s the mastermind behind California’s Coachella Festival, after all. He oversees Goldenvoice, which produces some 300 shows a year, and along with AEG Live puts on APW, Coachella, Stagecoach, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival, among others. But with local grumps—that is to say, New Yorkers—he’s found that keeping an ear to the message boards is all-important.
“We read the message boards and the emails, and people complain or give advice,” he said. “Some of it is very negative. You can do everything right and there’s still 12 people for whom it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen, but you watch and you can see what makes sense. Enough people have a problem and it might be a real problem.”
Mr. Tollett expects similar attendance numbers this year, but he says he’s ready for them.
“The first year of Coachella, we didn’t have any lines, but that’s only because we didn’t sell any tickets!”
In place of last year’s third stage (which produced more noise interference and confusing schedules) is a tent where comedians (among them Tim & Eric, Janeane Garofalo and Eugene Mirman), DJs, electronic acts and smaller bands will perform. The Renegade Craft Fair is also along for the ride.
The pain-in-the-ass trip should be relieved somewhat by public transit discounts. But the biggest test will be at the beer garden, which is going to be larger, with shorter waits, a shady location and views of the stages.
Of course, this is New York, and major bands come through all the time. It’s the specific location—“within sight of the Statue of Liberty and ground zero”—that provides its greatest attraction and also its greatest drawbacks: drinking restrictions on federal property, the security considerations that go along with holding the event at a prominent national site. Overnight camping? Forget it.
So you’ve got to put together one hell of a lineup.
Headliners this year include Tool, Coldplay and Jay-Z (a last-minute replacement for the Beastie Boys), and other performers include Echo & the Bunnymen, My Bloody Valentine, MSTRKRFT, the Black Keys, Fleet Foxes, Neko Case and more than 65 other artists.
What’s new this time around is a bit of pandering to New Yorkers, trying to brand the fest with local flavor peppered into each day, “with the Beastie Boys—and now Jay-Z is in there—and
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, MGMT and all those bands. It’s very friendly to the area,” Mr. Tollett said.
The Economics of Eclecticism
But there are other reasons the list swerves from contemporary hip-hop to British New Wave and shoegazing acts of the 1980s and 1990s, from jock-fave balladeers like Coldplay to nightclub punkers like Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
For a time, it was hard to get bands to play a festival in the U.S. Mr. Tollett started Coachella in 1999, two years after Lollapalooza had crashed and burned and the same year Woodstock traded the last of its peace-and-love legacy for fire, violence and rape. It wasn’t a great year for festivals, and Coachella lost $800,000.
The following year ran at a loss as well, but somehow Mr. Tollett managed to turn things around, and Coachella has been one of the country’s biggest and best-loved festivals ever since, in part because of attention to lineups as well as lines. As the ’00s progressed, bands started warming again to the idea (and the large payoffs) of playing festivals.
“What’s good about a festival is you can play it off-cycle,” Mr. Tollett said. “Touring and headlining across the country sometimes is difficult if you don’t have product. This way you can pop in, there’s somewhat of a built-in crowd, and you can do your thing, but it’s not as much on your shoulders. You’re playing for a lot of people who would never have paid to see you. That crowd of 50,000 people wouldn’t pay the couple hundred dollars to go see Paul McCartney or Roger Waters at Staples Center or whatever, but while they’re at Coachella, they figure, ‘I’ll listen to a few Beatles songs!’”
And especially in the new music economy—where touring is the only real paying gig—these opportunities are starting to resonate with current popular performers and proven hitmakers who’ve left the recording studio but appeal to a broader age range of nostalgists.
Witness performances by ’80s psychedelic New Wave phenom Echo and the Bunnymen, and ’90s shoegazing pioneers My Bloody Valentine. After all, at these prices, you’d better be able to reel in the 35-to-45-year-olds.
For such bands, doing festival gigs allows them to test new material, create a market for their back catalog and figure out whether there’s another bite at the apple before taking on expensive tours themselves—or cutting an expensive studio album.
Mr. Tollett and his team started out thinking of Coachella as a local festival, but as festivals became more plausible gigs for big-draw performers, fans began traveling from far afield to attend, and Goldenvoice began looking east.
After an affiliation with the ill-fated Field Day Festival in 2003, Mr. Tollett knew it might work.
“I could just see by the sales, the sales were just phenomenal,” he said. “And we got a call from Liberty State Park there was an opening to do something there. There hadn’t been anything there since September 11. And Radiohead had played there before September 11, and it was kind of legendary, so that seemed like a perfect fit.”
Eventually Goldenvoice merged with AEG Live, and now All Points West has its share of corporate sponsors, too, including H&M, PlayStation, Major League Baseball, State Farm, Twix, Toyota and, of course, Anheuser Busch.
In addition to the long lines, pricey bottled water and disorganization of the late ’90s festivals, overbearing corporate sponsorship was a huge turnoff to fans.
The trick? To keep the sponsorships subtle enough not to annoy the fans and still collect from both.
One potential marketing disaster was the eleventh-hour pullout of the Beastie Boys last week (Adam Yauch is taking a break to treat cancer in his parotid gland, a salivary gland in the throat, and the band will miss not only APW, but Lollapalooza and headlining gigs at the Osheaga Fest in Montreal and the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco).
“I’ve never had a headliner cancel, and that was like, ‘Oh, wow, I guess that could happen,’” said Mr. Tollett. “I didn’t know what to do. Do you just run the show without your headliner? You don’t have to give refunds because it says subject to change, but the thing is, you’re trying to gain the trust of the fans, so we decided this year to just give refunds.”
The idea of using Jay-Z as a replacement came to Mr. Tollett at once: It both fulfilled the New York niche of this year’s festival and another of the promoter’s pet ambitions. Jay-Z has played a number of European festivals, including the U.K.’s O2 Wireless and Glastonbury, and Roskilde in Denmark, but this will be his first performance at a major U.S. fest, and Mr. Tollett wants to put more such acts—headlining in Europe but not here—front and center.
“I would like to see more bands like that who came up through the system. Jay-Z, the Killers, Kings of Leon all opened up festivals in Europe but not here. How come Europe has more faith in our bands than we do?”
And it’s just possible that the European model of the big, hip, yet smoothly run festival you can count on finding in the same place each year—rather than the model set down by Lollapalooza in the 1990s—will take hold in the U.S. as well.
Mr. Tollett certainly hopes so.
“To me, a festival is just like one giant club, where you get to walk around, you don’t have to sit in a seat, you can go meet your friends and hang out with them,” he said. “You’re there and you see the Statue of Liberty and all the buildings and the sky is so incredible at night.”
All Points West takes place this coming Friday through Sunday, from noon to 11:30 p.m., at Liberty State Park, Jersey City; single-day tickets, $89, three-day tickets, $239; apwfestival.com.