At Coachella in April, you could have watched bands like Arcade Fire and Outkast while standing in a huge field amid thousands of music fans. Or you could’ve paid $3,250 to get shuttled to the side of the stage from the nearby air-conditioned safari tent, which has a couch with throw pillows, wooden flooring, a queen-size bed and electrical outlets. You’d be able to drink from a private bar, use a private restroom, swim in a private pool and get advice on the next band to check out from a personal concierge. “There’s a lot of, like, fake VIP-room bullshit happening at this festival,” Win Butler of Arcade Fire told the crowd during his band’s set. “Sometimes people dream about getting into places like that. It supersucks in there, so don’t worry about it.”
It’s just one example of music festivals catering more and more to rock’s one percent. At Bonnaroo in June, well-off fans can opt for the Roll Like a Rockstar package, which for $30,000 per group gets you a bunk in an air-conditioned tour bus and three gourmet meals a day. At the Alabama festival Hangout, the beach in front of the main stage is dotted with $1,600 hot tubs. At New York’s Governors Ball, a cabana for 16 people costs $30,000, including free beer, “light catering,” air-conditioned bathrooms, access to four lounges and a concierge. “It’s so not rock & roll,” says Andy Cirzan, of Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions. “You’re sitting in 90-degree heat and watching some asshole sitting in an air-conditioned tent getting a pedicure.”
VIP packages can make the average festivalgoer feel like a second-class citizen. “When I look at the VIP section, I see people folding their arms, looking serious,” says Alex Chorosevic, a 22-year-old Purdue University graduate who attends Lollapalooza regularly. “It’s like they paid $1,000 to say, ‘I have more money than you.'”
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Adds Andrew Savage, singer and guitarist for Parquet Courts, “If somebody chooses VIP at a festival, they’re probably not totally there as music fans. It’s like watching the Knicks from one of the glass boxes at Madison Square Garden with the nice snacks. Music seems to be going more in that direction.”
Promoters say that the VIP setups help offset high headliner fees (as much as $4 million, according to concert-business sources). But those top-billing acts sometimes have to look out into the crowd and see half-full VIP viewing areas, which happened at Stagecoach this year. “That’s not a good look for the artists,” says Fielding Logan, touring manager of Eric Church and the Black Keys.
VIP packages for concerts began in the early Nineties, when stars, promoters and Ticketmaster executives created a “golden circle” program for high-priced prime seats. Over time, the gap between the cheapest and the most expensive tickets has grown into airline-style “dynamic pricing,” a way of separating first class from coach, to the point that regular tickets for the upcoming Beyoncé–Jay Z stadium shows cost as little as $35 and platinum seats cost $1,750. Festivals adopted this idea roughly a decade ago, at prices that seem almost reasonable compared to today’s packages: Bonnaroo’s VIP tickets then cost roughly $600, including showers and a buffet, and though Lollapalooza’s cabanas cost as much as $75,000, they were designed for 75 people. As prices have risen, though, VIP packages have come to account for five to 10 percent of a festival’s overall revenue – as much as $5 million per weekend, according to sources.
Marketers say they work hard to design high-end “experiences” that avoid the appearance of dividing the grounds into social classes. Lollapalooza recently replaced its large stage-side cabanas with less-conspicuous Lolla Lounges scattered throughout Chicago’s Grant Park. “What we want is the opposite of being on a plane and walking past the people in robes and slippers on your way to 42B,” says Dan Berkowitz, founder of CID Entertainment, which produces VIP programs for Bonnaroo and others.
As music sales continue to plummet, VIP sections have become accepted as a necessity by many artists and managers. “Festivals are a huge risk to put on,” says Buck Williams, agent for Widespread Panic. “Selling off sponsorships or VIPs is a way to get through.” “The genie’s out of the bottle, and it ain’t coming back in,” adds Tony Margherita, Wilco’s manager.
Still, some festivals, including the Warped Tour and Wilco’s Solid Sound fest, get by without selling any VIP tickets. “We don’t have to extract every dollar,” says Margherita.
This story is from the June 5th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.