In its five years, the Lollapalooza tour has come in for a lot of criticism and second-guessing. That goes with the territory for the traveling summer festival, which has become the definitive rock showcase of the '90s.
But its organizers weren't prepared for the intense criticism that has followed the recent announcement that Lollapalooza '96 will be headlined not by the kind of alternative-rock act that has anchored the past tours, but by hard-rock giant Metallica.
They're surprised because they saw the booking as exactly the kind of change-up the tour needed to stay fresh. Metallica may be metal, they reasoned, but it had always stood apart as a band that was charting its own course. That independence sounded right for a tour that has made a point of mixing styles, with rap, funk, industrial and a variety of more conventional rock acts generally sharing the bills.
And some observers agree.
"I think it sounds cool," says Lisa Worden, music director of alternative-rock station KROQ-FM. "I always like to see new twists. And though we don't play Metallica, I think half our listeners listen to them."
Others, though, were indignant.
Many fans called KROQ to heap scorn on the bill, which is also set to include the hard-edged alternative band Soundgarden, punk pioneers the Ramones (making their farewell appearances) and neo-punk band Rancid.
Members of the music industry who participate in an America Online chat devoted to the business also lambasted the lineup. Many said it sounded closer to the head-banging Monsters of Rock tours than to the "alternative" manifesto associated with Lollapalooza. Others see Metallica's commercial success as incompatible with Lollapalooza's image as the home of the underdogs and outsiders.
"I listened to [Metallica] in the 8th grade," wrote one online commentator. "But Lollapalooza isn't metal. Them playing would be blasphemy."
Marc Geiger, a co-founder of Lollapalooza, is exasperated by such reasoning.
"That's as closed-minded as everything Lollapalooza was always trying to fight against," says Geiger, senior executive of American Recordings. "If people want to look at it as just a testosterone-rock festival, they'll miss a good show. I can't believe this society is so segmented. We'll still fight to mix it up."
There are still 10 or more acts, including second-stage bands, to be announced (as are dates and locales), and some of the ones under discussion would, in fact, give the bill a particularly eclectic tone. Among them: PJ Harvey, who has declined three past invitations but, according to Geiger, is considering joining this year; the Cocteau Twins, the Scottish band known for its dream-like sound; English techno duo Orbital; and two rap acts--Grammy winner Coolio and the hot, young Fugees.
A new feature is also being added that practically guarantees to mix things up: a "guest" slot in which surprise artists would join for just one or several dates. Artists being courted range from Neil Young, Lou Reed and Patti Smith to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and country-bluegrass youngster Alison Krauss. Organizers also hope to give the second stage a more prominent role than it has had in the past.
"Last year the first artists to confirm were Sonic Youth, Pavement and Beck, and we got criticized that it was all indie-rock," says Geiger, sitting in the small office at his Encino hilltop home with another festival co-founder, William Morris agent Don Muller. "This year people say it's all hard rock. When we announce the rest of it, it will be just as round as ever."
Geiger and Muller originated Lollapalooza with rock musician Perry Farrell, leader of Jane's Addiction and now Porno for Pyros. The festival's governing committee also includes Farrell's former manager Ted Gardner, William Morris vice president Peter Grosslight and Lollapalooza tour manager Stuart Ross.
Love it or hate it, the 1996 lineup is virtually guaranteed to be a hot ticket. A bill of Metallica and Soundgarden alone could probably sell out the 30,000- to 50,000-capacity sites, mostly open fields, Lollapalooza will be playing.
That's two to three times the size of the venues on last year's tour, which grossed a healthy but unspectacular $12.8 million in ticket sales. Geiger and Muller acknowledge that ticket sales are a consideration in booking Metallica. For one thing, production costs will be $350,000 more for each date this year.
"Field shows cost a lot more to produce, so you have to have a lineup big enough to support that," Geiger says.
But the main reason for signing Metallica, they insist, is to avoid repeating the tone of past years.
"Metallica is merely one step in one direction," Geiger says. "We want to be doing this for a long time, and after we have 10 or 15 years under our belts, then you can look at it and see the whole picture of all the kinds of music Lollapalooza has offered."
One prominent skeptic is Farrell, who owns the name Lollapalooza.