Why Can't New York Throw A Decent Music Festival?

by BILLY GRAY · February 25, 2010

    After just two years, All Points West--the New York area's only halfway successful attempt at a summer music festival--is in jeopardy: unless things come together quickly, it's unlikely to return at all. Why can't a cultural powerhouse like NYC host the type of event Manchester, Tennessee handles without a hitch?

    All Points West promoter AEG Live hasn't ruled out the possibility of a three-peat at Jersey City's Liberty State Park this summer. But while big-name festivals like Coachella (another AEG-organized shindig) and Bonnaroo unveiled killer lineups over the past few weeks, APW hasn't booked a single act. Explains AEG talent buyer Mark Schulman to the Times:

    “There is no question that our biggest challenge is finding suitable headliners, and it has been more challenging this year than in the past. No final determination of any kind has been made for 2010.”

    That's a bit of a head scratcher, since APW booked marquee names like Radiohead, Coldplay, Vampire Weekend and the Beastie Boys over the last two years (and even snagged Jay-Z as an 11th-hour substitute for the Beasties when they backed out for health reasons).

    Industry veterans are skeptical, with many of them saying it's already too late in the game to pull off an event of APW's size. Band manager Frank Riley said that "without a clear headliner in place at this point, it seems unlikely that the festival will take place in August 2010."

    Why is it so hard to have a music festival in or around New York? The city, and particularly Brooklyn, teems with buzzed-about bands. And the area's huge population (including many music fanatics) should be enough to ensure crowds.

    But there are obstacles:

    Too many people, too little space: NYC and environs are maddeningly crowded enough as it is before bringing in the tens of thousands of people who schlep to the country's preeminent festivals. (Bonnaroo gives 80,000 people an excuse to travel to Manchester, TN--Population 8,294--every summer.) Obviously, there's not enough open space in the five boroughs to accommodate such massive crowds, leaving concertgoers at the mercy of unreliable, packed-to-the-gills public transportation to take them to the sticks. (APW veterans constantly bitched about the ferry, PATH and light-rail trains needed to reach what was, despite the tunes, still Jersey City).

    Then again, festivals have recently thrived in major cities like Chicago (Pitchfork, Lollapalooza's reanimated corpse) and Austin (Austin City Limits, South by Southwest).

    Summer Competition: As anyone who can afford to flee the city's oppressive summer humidity heads upstate or out east, savvy poor folk who stick around are treated to a killer roster of free outdoor cultural events. You've got the Jelly Pool Parties in Williamsburg, Shakespeare in the Park and not-free-but-cheap performances at the Prospect Park Bandshell and Central Park Summerstage). And don't forget the tea party revival at bashes like Sunday Best and P.S.1's Warm-Up that keep the cool kids dancing all day and (early) night. On that note, there's also:

    New York's Arguably Incomparable Year-round Calendar: Austin's live music scene might rival or top New York's.  Chicago's got stage and comedy stalwarts like Steppenwolf and Second City. And Indio, California (Coachella's stomping grounds) boasts the annual...Indio International Tamale Festival. But few places in the country begin to compare to NYC when it comes to an eclectic, round-the-clock cultural calendar.


    The Ghost of Woodstock: (Upstate) New York lays claim to the grandaddy of all music festivals. And its intimidating legacy really can't be duplicated; Woodstock's namesake successors in '94 and, more disastrously, '99 cemented that. So it's understandable that even 41 years later, local organizers are reluctant to try.

    All Points West's gloomy future is bad news for its organizers and local music fans, but may be a sign of New Yorkers steering clear of too much of a good thing.