The Flaming Lips‘ road manager, Chris Chandler, is staring at his laptop, going over the band’s summer plans. “We’re gonna hit the European festivals in June, then come to the States and hit the American ones in July and August,” he says. Ten years ago, such a plan would have been impossible – what American ones? But with the advent of events like Coachella and Bonnaroo, bands like the Lips are abandoning traditional tours in favor of America’s budding festival circuit.
“Bands are playing more special events as opposed to just doing the ‘forty-city tour,'” says veteran promoter Paul Tollett, who in 1999 launched the trailblazing Coachella festival, which is set in the California desert and focuses on alt-rock. “When I talk to a band now, I don’t have to convince them about the concept. They’re pretty much getting hit up by everybody.”
While U.K. events like Glastonbury and Reading are institutions, large-scale American events didn’t really exist before Coachella. But as the U.S. touring industry has struggled to profit off three-act amphitheater tours, promoters have launched multiday Euro-style festivals across the country with as many as 100 acts per bill.
Like the Pixies last summer, the Lips are the kings of this year’s circuit, with an itinerary that includes stops at Washington’s Sasquatch! festival, Southern Comfort Music Experience in Philadelphia and Atlanta, Wisconsin’s Hedgpeth Festival, Cleveland’s Kuyahoga, Chicago’s Lollapalooza, Kansas’s Wakarusa and Austin City Limits, with just a few solo gigs sprinkled in. “The money at a lot of the festivals is really good,” says Chandler. “You play one of these festivals where people come in and see you from two or three states around, and you can make in one day what you would make in two weeks driving around.”
Death Cab for Cutie have also built their summer around the festivals. “It’s becoming more respectable,” says singer Ben Gibbard of the band’s fest-heavy itinerary, which includes stops at Sasquatch!, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. “I like the European model. I didn’t think it could necessarily work in the U.S. because the territories aren’t as close together, but it’s exciting.”
Adam Zacks, who launched Sasquatch! as a rootsy one-day fest in 2002, expanded it this year to three days, drawing an estimated 50,000 people to rural Washington to see Nine Inch Nails, Beck and the Flaming Lips. “It’s been a slamdunk from the get-go,” he says. “We came at a time when the touring festivals – Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, the Horde Festival – had kind of run their course. What really needed to happen was to have destination festivals linked to the culture of the region,” As is the case at European festivals, the U.S. events often involve camping, a feature that Lips frontman Wayne Coyne especially appreciates. “People like having a little bit more of an experience attached to the concert,” he says. “You can see why it works. You’ve got the mountains, you’ve got us, you’ve got LSD, you’ve got your girlfriend. You don’t need much else. I love the festivals.”
This story is from the June 15th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.