VIP packages are increasingly popular at large music festivals. Really, who wants to swelter in the Houston heat with the rank and file when you can plunk down an extra $100 or so for all sorts of premiums — preferred seating and parking; free food, beer and often liquor; private autograph sessions and meet-and-greets with the artists; and, perhaps most important, air-conditioning and sweet, sweet shade?
It's safe to assume nobody pays $250 for one of these VIP deals expecting to spend the night (and most of the next day) in jail. But that's exactly what happened to one Houstonian at the first Rock the Bayou festival this past Labor Day weekend.
This man, a 43-year-old art-gallery owner, musician and events planner, asked that his real name not be used, so we'll just call him Joe. Joe bought four VIP passes to the festival Friday, but suffice to say he found Rock the Bayou's definition of "VIP treatment" somewhat lacking.
Rock the Bayou 2008
First of all, Joe says he really only wanted to see Alice Cooper Sunday night, but was unable to find single-day passes available anywhere on Rock the Bayou's Web site. Promoter Ali Fazeli of online ticket brokers the Fazeli Group, for whom Rock the Bayou was its first major event, maintains single-day passes were made available about two weeks before the festival.
Then Sunday, Joe says he noticed a sign at the gate advertising VIP passes for the remainder of the festival for only $85, as well as people upgrading general-admission tickets to VIP for $30. Fazeli defends this practice as "prorating," which makes sense — the festival was half over at this point, and with attendance drastically less than expected, he was trying to cut his losses any way he could. (On-site upgrading of GA to VIP is not unheard of at festivals like this.) Still, Joe says he's upset because people like him who paid full price for VIP weren't given that option, and could have saved a lot of money.
"They didn't tell anybody they were going to do that," he says. "I didn't want to go Friday or Saturday — I wanted to go Sunday."
Frustrated, Joe decided to leave, and figured he might as well sell his VIP pass. Unfortunately, the man he approached turned out to be an undercover cop, who arrested him for scalping — even though he was selling it at much less than even its $85 face value.
This shouldn't have happened for any number of reasons, but mostly because scalping (or any ticket resale, above or below face value) is not illegal in either the city, county or state.
"We don't specifically have a scalping ordinance, and we never have," says Randy Zamora, a prosecutor with the Houston City Attorney's office. "If you're going to walk around and sell stuff not from a fixed location like a storefront or a business, you're required to get something called an itinerant vendor's license."
The reason, Zamora adds, is so someone who buys something from one of these vendors will have at least some chance of locating them should something go wrong with the merchandise. Someone like Joe selling an extra ticket or two he doesn't need (and especially not trying to profit from it) is fine, Zamora says.
"We're not trying to be Draconian in our enforcement of the laws," Zamora says. "But if you have someone who goes up to the window and buys 500 tickets, and now they're walking through traffic backing things up trying to sell [them] — you don't need to do that."
Noise ventured out to Rock the Bayou for a few hours Saturday afternoon. I can't quite say I enjoyed myself — I was having a hard time coming down from Friday night's A-plus Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show at The Woodlands, and in general I enjoy big outdoor festivals less and less as I get older — but none of that was the festival's fault.
Mostly, Rock the Bayou was about what I expected from a first-year festival. All four stages had good sound, and bleedover from one stage to the next — a perpetual problem at outdoor festivals — wasn't much of an issue, mostly because all the bands were loud enough to drown out any background noise.
I did enjoy some of the music, particularly Great White's bluesy, AC/DC-like set and a fierce boogie-metal trio from Austin called Snakeskin Prison. Dokken I could have done without, especially when lead singer Don Dokken introduced one song as being about "always choosing the wrong bitches."
Food and drink seemed reasonably priced — the same bottle of beer sold at Astros games for $8 was $6, most of the food averaged around $5 and bottled water was $2. There were some fun vendor booths, like an oxygen bar and a company that airbrushes pictures of popular adult-film actresses onto skateboards called, of course, "Ride Your Favorite Porn Star."
Not having VIP access, I can't speak to the amenities in the VIP tent, though several commenters on Rock the Bayou's message boards mentioned things like no free soda or water, no big-screens in the tent and no air-conditioning. (Overall, the comments were pretty evenly divided between "rocked" and "sucked," though tending positive.)
Mostly, though, Rock the Bayou just felt terribly, terribly empty, done in no doubt by the weather — both the normal stifling September heat and humidity and Hurricane Gustav, then stalking the Gulf. That's what Fazeli chooses to believe, anyway.
"You couldn't go around the Loop or any other major highway without signs flashing 'hurricane, hurricane, hurricane,'" he says.
Overall, Fazeli estimates Rock the Bayou sold between 18,000 and 19,000 tickets (GA and VIP), and drew crowds of around 16,000 on its heaviest days of Saturday and Sunday. The grounds were configured to accommodate around 30,000 people per day, and other estimates by friends of Noise who went were considerably lower.
"The whole concept for this as a first-year festival wasn't to make money," Fazeli says. "I don't think there's ever been a first-year festival that's made money. Lollapalooza lost money its first three years, Coachella lost money its first three years, Bonnaroo lost money the first couple of years they were in business. Every major festival loses its first time around, and I was fully prepared for that."
The other major reason for the light attendance, of course, is that none of Rock the Bayou's artists have near the draw they used to, up to and including headliners like Alice Cooper and Sammy Hagar. Part of that boils down to who was available — Fazeli says more contemporary artists like Papa Roach and Buckcherry had already been through Houston this summer, while other artists who might have drawn a more alternative crowd (The Cult, Billy Idol) either declined his offer or were unavailable.
"We looked at a lot of different bands we were going to put on," he says. "But the idea for the show was to shed light on a lot of these rock bands that started it all."
Fazeli, who has owned and operated Online Tickets for more than 20 years, is determined to do Rock the Bayou again next year, with plans to diversify the booking and get stronger headliners, mentioning acts like KISS and Jack Johnson. Furthermore, despite speculation that the Fazeli Group might work out some sort of arrangement with local music-promotion giants Live Nation and the Messina Group, he's determined to do it on his own.
"This is our project, and we're going to run with it," he says. "They definitely don't make it easy for us, but we made it through it."
If Rock the Bayou is going to succeed without partnering with Live Nation or Messina, Fazeli is going to have to find some other allies. He could get Underground Garage host Little Steven Van Zandt — or better yet, ex-KLOL jock Outlaw Dave — to curate one night.
Another idea would be to recruit local clubs to book the smaller stages — a Continental Club stage, a Fitzgerald's stage, a Dan Electro's stage, etc. — and then rebook the acts that play them for after-parties at those clubs either that night or others during the festival. The artists could certainly use the extra dough.
It probably won't be easy for Fazeli to convince some of the bands he wants next year to risk their relationships with Live Nation or Messina and play Rock the Bayou. But there's one great lesson about the music business: Bands tend to go where the money is. Brilliant, I know, but extremely effective.
Thus, Rock the Bayou's future success depends almost entirely on the size of Fazeli's bank balance, and how much of that he's willing to part with. The online-ticket business, though, is booming, one of the few with its head safely above the current economy's brackish waters. So is live entertainment in Houston, for that matter — the "music scene" here is just as much about who's selling out Toyota Center and The Woodlands as who's not selling out Walter's or Rudyard's.
And Houston already has a big music festival at Fannin and 610. It's called the rodeo. Interestingly enough, Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman wrote last week that rodeo officials are also considering staging their own multi-day music festival at Reliant Park sometime next summer.
Even so, Houston can probably handle another one, if not at AstroWorld, then somewhere else. Fazeli says he's got an agreement with the landowners for next year, but still may wind up moving it. No matter — it's a big city.
Rock the Bayou deserves a second chance. Why not? If it gets one — Fazeli says he's "absolutely" doing it again next year — things are almost guaranteed to run more smoothly, because they always do after the first year. Whoever he winds up booking, the lineup will surely be more diverse; it'll have to be.
But just as much, Joe — who was indeed charged with failure to possess an itinerant vendor's license — deserves to have his "scalping" case tossed out of court. It would be nice if Fazeli kicked in a pair of VIP passes for next year's festival, too.
"The music was really good — I enjoyed all the bands," Joe says. "I was loving it until I got arrested."
Suggested Rock the Bayou 2009 Main Stage Lineup
Night 1: '70s and '80s hard rock/metal
Night 2: Little Steven Presents...
Iggy Pop (Stooges optional)
Carbon/Silicon (Mick Jones of the Clash's new band)
Night 3: Saturday Night in Texas
Night 4: '90s Night
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Alice in Chains