Been Caught Stealing... Our Money and Our Rights

Been Caught Stealing... Our Money and Our Rights

The signs are unmistakable as you walk through downtown.  In fact, the closer you get to the lake, the more they slap you in the face.  The cold, gray chain-link fences, the almost Orwellian jumbo-trons, an absurd police presence--even for Chicago--all underpinned by the giant blue and orange sign reading “Lollapalooza.”

Since permanently returning to the scene five years ago, Lollapalooza has retaken its place the festival of festivals.  If every summer brings a veritable panoply of outdoor mega-concerts--Bumbershoot, Pitchfork, Rock the Bells, Bonnaroo--then Lolla is the keystone of the whole crowd.  Swarms of music lovers from all over the country (and even the world in some cases) will be descending on Grant Park this weekend for three days of the fest’s lineup.  

And who can blame them?  This year’s lineup really does seem to provide something for everyone.  Between three days and eight stages, audience members will take in indie faves like Spoon and Arcade Fire, hip-hop newcomers BBU and Nneka, mega-stars Green Day, a reunited Devo, the inimitable Lady Gaga and about 150 other acts!

And yet, for many of us who cherished the label “Alternative Nation,” those of us raised sometime after hip-hop’s “Golden Age” and before “alternative” became anything but, Lolla gets harder and harder to swallow every year.  The prices, the restrictions, the craven cash-chasing.  Each year you wonder how much more they can get away with.  And every year you get an answer.

There’s a beautiful passage in musician Mat Callahan’s excellent book The Trouble With Music where he puts forth an idea that is at the same time simple and elusive--that festivals are the place where music comes alive among the masses:

“It is... in the festival where all participate in singing and dancing that music and dance first manifest their rejuvenating potency.  In considering all the dimensions of the question of music and society, one is constantly drawn back to this ground, this earth, upon which all else is constructed.  What music proclaims and calls forth is the potential for another, better world.  Its effect is to transport from this place to another place without physically leaving this place, and it achieves this first and foremost by uniting and inspiring the dancing multitude, transforming it into a collective body.”

Most music lovers may not articulate this, but on a gut level, they get it.  Even as album sales decline amid a stagnant economy and persistent unemployment, tickets to music festivals are up.  This, despite a ever-increasingly exorbitant price for tickets.  A one-day pass is $90.  Three-day passes run well over $200.  When the fest first kicked off in the early ‘90s, they were about $30.

No doubt the scale of the festival is exponentially larger than it was in those formative years.  Ignored, however, is the overall increase in average ticket prices, which have more than doubled over the past decade and a half.  It’s a trend that goes hand-in-hand with the consolidation of behemoth ticket-sellers.  With Ticketmaster and Live Nation now merged into a veritable monopoly, with unprecedented control over the entire process of promotion and ticket-selling, it’s a trend that will most likely continue unabated.  It’s no secret that to big-time promoters, and to Lollapalooza’s partners--Budweiser, Sony, Toyota and Citibank among them--a festival of this scale is commerce before entertainment.

According to the Chicago RedEye (one of Lolla’s media partners), outside food and drink are of course prohibited from being brought in.  Little wonder why; there stands a killing to be made through the notoriously overpriced food, booze, and even water.  

Also verboten from Lollapalooza is any kind of professional recording equipment and, notably, cameras with detachable lenses.  Recently, an article in the Chicago Reader examined the issue, and related stories of fans caught “sneaking” such cameras into Pitchfork and escorted off by security.  Once again, it’s par for the course, yet another sacrifice audience members are frequently asked to make if they want the privilege of seeing their favorite artists live.

But as the Reader article points out, the parks that Lolla and Pitchfork hold their fests in are public property, maintained by tax dollars--areas where photography and recording are supposedly protected by the First Amendment.  Organizers for the concerts maintain that they have the right to dictate the terms of what their audience can and can’t bring in.  Why?  Because they paid.

What’s at stake then, isn’t just the right of people to take pictures on public property.  It’s the wholesale siphoning off of public resources to private hands.  Residents of Chicago are all too familiar with the pattern.  We’ve seen it with schools, parking meters, and now, with our parks.

Perhaps most sick about all of this--the overpriced tickets and food, the limitation on what you can and can’t bring--is that it’s come to be expected.  According to some assumed logic, the trade-off of money and rights for live music is a fair one.  In reality, it's a development that only comes when corporate power goes unchecked for so long.  And while the experience people crave at music festivals may be as fundamental to our emotional wellbeing as food and water are to our physical survival, there is no reason we should entrust any of these to forces that put profit before people.  The $12 burgers are a testament to that.  

Folks may be willing to tolerate a certain amount of bullshit for the love of the music.  But that same love (or rather the exploitation of it) is precisely what sets off the kinds of violent explosions that marred Woodstock ‘99.  Farrell and company would do well to remember this, especially as most people are finding fewer and fewer dimes to scrape together.


Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies ( and writes the column of the same name for the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics,, CounterPunch and

He can be reached at