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Rise of the U.S. Rock Festival

Coachella, Field Day bring European-style festivals home

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Radiohead Perform as Part of "MTV2 2$ Bill" Concert Series on June 5th, 2003 in New York City.

Theo Wargo/WireImage

Andrew Dreskin, founder of the two-day rock festival Field Day, was puzzled when he moved to New York in 2001 after ten years working in the California music industry. “I didn’t understand why there wasn’t any significant open-air rock festival on the East Coast,” he says. “There was a void to fill.” Taking his lead from California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival – which this year featured the White Stripes and Red Hot Chili Peppers – Dreskin made an artist wish list that included Radiohead, the Beastie Boys and Beck. They all said yes. And, less than three weeks after the event was announced, 60,000 tickets were sold.

The success of Field Day, to be held June 7th and 8th on Long Island, is a testimony to the resurgence of the American rock festival: This year, hundreds of thousands of music fans will turn up for events such as Field Day, Bonnaroo and Coachella, which were patterned after such European festivals as Glastonbury and Reading. Unlike Ozzfest or Lollapalooza, these festivals are held at nontraditional venues – grassy fields in scenic locales including Riverhead, New York, or Indio, California – where audience comfort and good vibes are the first priority. “You’re going to be sitting on the grass watching Radiohead under the stars,” says Dreskin.

“Our company is based in New Orleans, so the Jazz Fest was a big inspiration for us,” says Jonathan Mayers of Superfly, which co-organized Bonnaroo, a three-day concert that broadens the concept of “jam bands” to include everyone from Widespread Panic, the Dead and the String Cheese Incident to the Flaming Lips, Mix Master Mike and Yo La Tengo. Bonnaroo did well enough last year to expand the franchise; this summer there will be one in Manchester, Tennessee, June 13th to 15th, and a second in Riverhead August 8th to 10th. For the Tennessee dates, Superfly sold 80,000 tickets in sixteen days, with no advertising – a success Mayers attributes to the fact that concertgoers receive three days of camping and music for around $200. “You get a lot more bang for your buck,” he says. “It becomes like a minivacation.”

Dreskin expects 40,000 people to show up for each of Field Day’s two days, which will also include performances by Dashboard Confessional, Interpol, Elliott Smith and the Streets, among others. “These festivals give the band an opportunity to play for fans who might not be familiar with Interpol but who are already predisposed to liking them,” says Interpol’s manager, Brandon Schmidt. “It’s a whole different experience from playing your own headlining show.”

Festival promoters agree that the most important thing is treating audiences with respect. “For us, it’s long-term thinking,” says Mayers. “It’s not about letting the festival become a corporate event. It’s about giving the fans more than they expect. Anyone can put a bunch of bands together. We want people coming back for twenty years.”

This story is from the June 12th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone. 

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