Bloomberg may not be required reading for too many music fans, but last week it published a fascinating article that painted a rather grim picture of the current state of the music-festival business. Using one of the nation’s flagship fests, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, as a proxy, the article argued that Bonnaroo’s dwindling attendance – reaching a new low point last year, a reported drop of 46 percent from 2011 – is just one sign that tough times have descended on the festival business at large: “If one of the premier North American music events can’t make money, trouble might be contagious.”
A little later, it added, “The closures and strains all point to a glut of festivals, promoters and agents say, with the least creative promoters suffering the most."
This unfortunate forecast strikes closer to home than many people may realize. To date, Bonnaroo is the largest music festival acquired by Live Nation, making it part of the same live-entertainment octopus as Houston’s own Free Press Summer Fest. That festival sold its majority interest in December 2015 to C3 Presents, the Austin-based promoters who also control Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, FPSF founder Omar Afra of Free Press Houston told the Houston Press last June. A majority of C3 was itself acquired by Live Nation in December 2014 for a reported $125 million; the year before that, Live Nation completed a deal with Insomniac, producers of Las Vegas’s Electric Daisy Carnival and the new Middlelands festival, which is scheduled for May on the grounds of the Texas Renaissance Festival.
All of this is to say FPSF’s transition from being an independently run outfit to a franchise festival has not been smooth in the least. Besides holdover complaints about unreasonable ticket prices, its first year under the Live Nation/C3 umbrella was marred by the death of an 18-year-old girl from The Woodlands; FPSF’s second straight relocation to NRG Park due to flooding at its traditional home of Eleanor Tinsley Park, where it is scheduled to return on June 3 and 4; and mediocre reviews of both the lineup and the festival, even including one from the now-unaffiliated Free Press Houston itself. Keep in mind that was the year after FPSF's controversial booking of R. Kelly drew national attention, and not necessarily the good kind.
Advance promotion of this year’s festival, which is set to announce its lineup at 10 a.m. Wednesday, has been noticeably muted compared to past years, suggesting FPSF is either playing it cool as a way of mitigating diminished expectations, or perhaps keeping a low profile while waiting to spring a badass lineup many fans here believe is overdue. (Hey...it could happen, maybe.) With all of that in mind, the Press asked our panel to suggest some acts that might help FPSF recapture some of the positive buzz that has eluded it in recent years, as well as any other adjustments that might make its ninth year into a more pleasant festival-going experience.
BORN ON THE BAYOU (PLEASE)
In order to redeem itself, FPSF will need perhaps its strongest lineup since its inception; otherwise it will always be seen as that music festival that used to be ours. Live Nation will need to book a strong headliner, like Chance the Rapper or Twenty One Pilots, and a few throwbacks — maybe the likes of blink-182 or Jimmy Eat World — and, finally, some locals. To reiterate, some local love would be not just nice, but necessary. Houston's music scene is ripe with diligent talent, and if FPSF wants to maintain its favor in the eyes of the fans who helped build it, its inclusion of Houston artists is paramount. Here's hoping we see some on the lineup tomorrow morning. MATTHEW KEEVER
One of country music's most current and exciting acts, Maren Morris is on the verge of wide-reaching popularity. Nominated for four Grammys and taking home the award for Best Solo Country Performance, she's already a household name for country fans — but she hasn't yet reached other audiences as she likely will. What this means for FPSF is that they could still book her before she completely blows up. Morris, with a crossover sensibility that is more Kasey Musgraves than Faith Hill, would be embraced by Houston with open arms. Her single "My Church" would be a festival favorite. Girls would wear their best boots for this show. SELENA DIERINGER
Let's see how FPSF responds to the criticism for the lack of female talent during the past few years. Courtney Barnett would be a perfect start to open the gates for female artists returning to the lineup. The cynical Aussie with the lo-fi sound is a perfect fit to take up camp for an early-afternoon performance. The witty, left-handed guitarist has never graced our fine city, but seems to enjoy Texas anyway, playing many dates and festivals like Levitation, Sound on Sound and Fun Fun Fun Fest. Plus, after she performs, there are plenty of plants to keep an "Avant Gardener" busy along the bayou in June. JACK GORMAN
BE REAL ABOUT DRUG USE
If the Reagan era taught us anything, it's that pretending drugs don't exist (particularly at festivals) does not work. Look, we can all DARE to say no to drugs all we want...but someone at Free Press is still going to be higher than a kite, and there is a high likelihood that the people in jeopardy of health risks are strung out on a lot more than weed. If these people are afraid of being arrested, they are not going to seek help if they are in trouble. Keep the cops, but add some health booths with education and support. SELENA DIERINGER
It's been a minute since we've heard new music from Lorde, the New Zealand dream-pop powerhouse who ran up the Billboard charts in 2013. The singer has been dropping hints that her new album is in production. That, combined with planned appearances at both Coachella and Governor's Ball, suggests that she is planning a long haul through the summer festival circuit. Lorde's disenchanted anthems would be an ironic fit for FPSF, a festival notorious for the vapid hedonism that her songs critique. Nevertheless, the singer is a young up-and-comer who knows how to write a banger; having her as a headliner would garner attention while slaking the electropop thirsts of FPSF's young hordes. Plus, Lorde has the potential to elevate the critical respectability of the festival. After a few too many years of headliners ranging from the lackluster to the offensive, Lorde would be a refreshing pick. KATIE SULLIVAN
Wishful thinking, but I’d like to see The Weeknd at FPSF. He’s certainly making the festival rounds in support of his latest, Starboy, and perhaps he’s just a tinge too large for a festival of this ilk (he headlined ACL a couple of years back, after all). That said, FPSF is under new management and in dire need of a name-brand headliner to drum up interest. I can hardly think of anyone more fitting than one of the hottest names in pop music today, an artist with both cred and crossover marketability. CLINT HALE
Houston. Summer. Hot. 'Nuff said. Drape some tarps and add some shaded areas, for the love of all that is good and holy. It does not matter if the FPSF venue remains at Eleanor Tinsley or should biblical flooding drive the crowds back to NRG for the third year in a row; some shade in Houston in June is always good. SELENA DIERINGER
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE
Hey, if I’m going to dream, I might as well dream big, eh? Heck, I’d even be more than happy to see Neil perform with his latest collaborators, Promise of the Real – the band that includes Willie Nelson’s talented son Lukas Nelson on guitars; they’ve proven themselves worthy after recording the album The Monsanto Years with Young and touring with him. No Houston dates, though. A Neil Young show in Houston is really overdue, so let’s get him booked for FPSF pronto, please. Honestly, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’m really not very interested in FPSF (unless Neil Young plays it, which I don’t seriously see happening). I just turned 46 years old, so I don’t think I fit the demographic for this festival; I’m more of a classic rock fan, including old-school metal and punk, and a lot of the bands I saw listed for past FPSF lineups were groups I'd never even heard of.
No doubt some of these bands are talented, but I wouldn’t spend what to me is an expensive ticket price to see bands I don’t know; the number of groups seems overwhelming to me as well. Seems like overkill; I prefer quality over quantity. And with so many bands playing, it seems like the quality ones might get lost in the crowd. If I were going to go to a music festival, I would prefer something like the old Texxas Jam, where just six or seven or so big bands all got together to put on a rocking summer party. Speaking of summer, Houston weather is way too humid and hot that time of year, so I think any outdoor music festival should be moved to a cooler time of year. DAVID ROZYCKI
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Every FPSF has a couple of "nostalgia" bands, and what is great about The Pixies is that they can not only plug that hole but also stand alone as a current act. Should they play Free Press, this alone guarantees a more diverse crowd — many fans of this ageless act have never had a chance to see them perform live, and thanks to the resurgence of songs like "Where Is My Mind?" and Apple's penchant for using their songs in tech commercials (most hilariously "Gigantic," if you catch my drift), a whole new generation of legit music lovers would sweat it out just to see them play. SELENA DIERINGER
FPSF loves the guitar and drum duo of Matt & Kim, but it is time to push them aside for the bass and drum duo of Mike and Ben. These two Englishmen make sounds as heavy as Death From Above 1979 and as melodic as Led Zeppelin. Their bluesy garage rock is meant for the large speakers on the festival stage. It would be awesome to hear the reverb of the lusty "Little Monster" echoing off the buildings of downtown. By the time June rolls around, they should be playing a few more tunes from the upcoming album they have recently teased. JACK GORMAN