Taming Summer Music Festivals

Music festivals are heating up this summer. But while fans get ready to rock to their favorite bands, hosting such hordes can prove a minefield of logistics.

Weekend-long music fests are making a comeback in the U.S., but it's taken a few years for promoters to shake the memory of Woodstock III in 1999 when fires and rioting erupted after several hard rock acts played, according to Rolling Stone associate editor Kirk Miller.

“Instead of a field, it was black top concrete. They oversold it. It was much hotter than expected and the sanitation was supposedly really bad,” Miller said.

While music fests can bring much-needed business to small towns, problems of traffic, parking, sanitation and crowd control are commonly cited as reasons many people say "not in my backyard" when a concert is proposed.

One such festival, scheduled to take place June 7 and 8, in Riverhead, N.Y., is Field Day, a weekend-long concert headlined by Radiohead, Beck and the Beastie Boys.

Organizers have found the devil is truly in the details. With only a week to go before the stars hit the stage, the concert is on the cusp of cancellation.

“It is in a great deal of trouble,” Robert Kozakiewicz, Riverhead town supervisor, said.

Seven local environmental groups have filed suit to block the concert-cum-campout, fearing that the merrymakers will wreak havoc on the land.

“We don’t want Long Island’s premier ecosystem trashed like Woodstock,” Richard Amper, Pine Barrens Society executive director, said in a statement.

And a mass gathering permit for the festival is currently being denied due to lack of law enforcement.

“I have 74 members on my force and may need many more … around 200 officers total,” said David Hegermiller, Riverhead’s police chief.

Now, the town is in danger of losing a financial windfall. Kozakiewicz estimated that Field Day would bring in around $500,000 to the area. In fact, businesses such as hotels, restaurants and building suppliers have already “seen a positive impact due to this event,” he said. 

But not all music festivals face such obstacles. Miller said well-organized events have proven music festivals don't have to be a nightmare.  “Everything has to start with the organization,” he said.

One U.S. festival that’s managed to find the right recipe is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., held in April with headliners such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys.

“It’s a massive success,” said Miller. “They do everything right -- good bands, good set up, good price.”

Ozzfest, a tour featuring MTV’s favorite father Ozzy Osbourne and a bill of heavyweights like Marilyn Manson, is setting out for another sold-out summer. Osbourne's headed up this successful event since 1996. 

Other guitar-smashing fests include Summer Sanitarium (Metallica, Limp Bizkit),  Lollapalooza (Jane's Addiction, Audioslave) and the Warped tour (The Ataris, Rancid).

These festivals thrive because metal and punk music don't receive such heavy rotation on MTV and radio, said Ray Waddell, senior editor of touring for Billboard.

"These are outlets for this niche that there aren’t many outlets for,” he said

On the other side of the sound spectrum, jam bands are selling out fests as well. Bonnaroo, a fest featuring Neil Young and the Allman Brothers, will be staged in Manchester, Tenn., and Riverhead, N.Y.

And while rock concerts have coined terms like “mosh pit,” jam band gatherings are typically peaceful because of the crowd they attract. As Waddell put it, “They’re not really aggressive, out-of-control, pee-in-your-front-yard kind of guys.”

Of course even at well-planned events, there are glitches, but Waddell said any negative press is comparable to amusement park ride accidents: “They don’t happen that often, but when they do it gets a ton of attention."

A few sour notes can't spoil a summer of music however, and Waddell said the fun spirit of these fests creates an environment void of nasty situations.

Music fans aren’t “like the Hells Angels rolling in and tearing a town to hell,” he said. “Obviously if they aren’t prepared, there’s going to be some problems. When you start an event from scratch, there’s going to be some bugs that have to get worked out.”