Kings of Leon — really? Unfortunately, yes. This year, Kings of Leon — a jejune, idle impression of a Southern rock band — headline the second day of the Outside Lands music and arts festival, which runs this Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 14-15) in Golden Gate Park. Commercially successful and artistically vapid, this choice of acts ends Outside Lands' two-year run of mostly excellent, always-tolerable headliners.
The festival arrived in 2008 with Radiohead filling the first day's headlining spot — an enormous achievement. Some dude named Beck landed farther down the bill. On Outside Lands' second-ever day, Tom Petty headlined; on its third, Wilco — a dad-rock band that is nonetheless more exciting than most of the acts this year — didn't even make the top of the lineup. In 2009, Pearl Jam (whoa) and Dave Matthews Band (whatever) capped the bill, with fiery acts like Modest Mouse and M.I.A. playing earlier.
Follow me here: Radiohead, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam ... Kings of Leon? As the Southern arena-rockers might say: That dog don't hunt. Kings of Leon simply don't have the pull of the past years' headliners. The most exciting band on the bill is Furthur, a reuniting of the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, who deserve to play to thousands of people in the park perhaps more than any other two musicians alive. And while the festival has a few other eyebrow-raising acts — the Strokes, Phoenix, Al Green, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros among them — much of the lineup isn't terribly exciting.
I'm not alone in feeling this. In the days after the Outside Lands bill was announced, the festival's Facebook page was assaulted by dozens of comments per day asking, both more and less kindly, what went wrong. Speaking with showgoers over the past few months, I haven't found a single person stoked about this year's lineup. And those who work professionally in the local music scene will admit privately that it's a disappointment.
Certain details of the festival seem to indicate things aren't going well: Outside Lands got a day shorter this year (the Friday shows were nixed); prices were slashed from $90 to $75 for single-day tickets only weeks after the lineup was announced; and a recently released schedule shows the festival has one fewer stage this year, with two stages now crowded onto Speedway Meadow.
On top of this, the president of festival producer Another Planet Entertainment was quoted in the Chronicle in June saying she was "scared to death" about how the festival would turn out financially. The cynic in me wonders whether the promoters' worries are why I've noticed advertising for the event creeping up in new places: on TV, at Giants games, even on Heineken posters in my local liquor store.
But the promoters aren't solely at fault for the lackluster lineup. Anyone involved in producing big music festivals will tell you that trying to book the artists you want is a crapshoot each time. The explosion of music festivals in the wake of the success of Bonnaroo and Coachella has made it even harder to book the few truly iconic bands, both because each festival is less unique, and because artists tire of the stress of playing them.
"I think there has been a somewhat of a backlash against the big festivals by the artists," says Jordan Kurland, the co-owner of Noise Pop and the Treasure Island Festival and a professional manager. "You look at lineups, and it almost doesn't really matter — every festival has the same headliner. ... I think [bands] just got burnt out on it." Kurland says he tried to book LCD Soundsystem for two years before the band finally agreed to play at this year's Treasure Island.
Even the folks putting on Outside Lands don't sound totally satisfied. "Every event that you've ever been a part of, you go in with your dream things. And never has that ever happened," says Rick Farman, who founded Bonnaroo and who produces Outside Lands with Another Planet. "We got a lot of the bands that we really wanted to have this year, and some we didn't. That's the nature of event programming."
I take that comment as promoter code for "I know it's not awesome, but it's the best we could pull off." Farman and the rest of the Another Planet crew know who the good bands are — they booked them for the last two years — but they can't admit that this lineup is lacking in them. Asked what they thought of the lineup, Farman calls it "solid." Then he starts talking, revealingly, about the expanded food and wine offerings at Outside Lands, and the festival producers' long-term perspective: "When you're in the business of event producing, especially festival producing, you really don't get too hung up on each particular year."
Farman also says ticket sales have picked up. Outside Lands brought in roughly 130,000 people in 2008 and 100,000 people in 2009, according to its PR firm. A spokesman wouldn't release numbers of tickets sold this year, but says "we're expecting similar attendance as in 2009" — after cutting the single-day price by $15.
As for the flowering of advertisements around San Francisco, Farman says Outside Lands is spending less money on ads this year than last — but says it is trying TV ads for the first time. He vehemently denies that the higher-profile advertising is related to sluggish sales, and says the "scared to death" quote in the Chronicle was taken out of context.
If Farman is right — and I hope he is — this year's Outside Lands lineup may someday be a fly-sized stain on a decades-long record of strong bills. But that doesn't change how I feel about Kings of Leon or the rest of the bill one bit.