Image Credit: David Bergman/Getty ImagesThe initially triumphant return of Lilith Fair has been hampered this summer by low ticket sales, cancelled shows — 10 cities were dropped yesterday — and headliners like Norah Jones and Kelly Clarkson pulling out of the fest. We spoke to Lilith co-founder Terry McBride today in hopes of figuring out what’s plaguing these ladies, if there’s more trouble yet to come, and whether it’s really as bad as it looks.
Entertainment Weekly: There had been some speculation that the shows you cancelled yesterday had been cancelled for a while, at least according to Norah Jones’ manager.
Terry McBride: No, see, this is where the press creates its own situation. Some of the media in Calgary said the Calgary show was cancelled, and then the media promptly got on Lilith because there was about an hour and a half line to get into the venue. The venue, having read the press, thought no one was going to show up, so they’d cut back on staff. So the media is sitting there criticizing Lilith for having long lines, that they themselves created. So I just sit there and go, Unless Lilith Fair says something is cancelled, it’s not cancelled. But if the media says it, it becomes truth.
Then what was the truth? When were those dates cancelled?
We had let certain camps know that we were looking at cancelling shows. Just as a heads up. It’s the professional, polite thing to do. Hey, you might want to look at other options. These shows are not cancelled yet, but we’re looking at them on a daily basis. So rather than just catching everyone by surprise, we were very professional about it. So then a journalist goes in there thinking she’s being an investigative reporter, and ultimately comes out and says these shows are cancelled, which they’re not. Probably the most bizarre thing for us is that some of those shows, the ticket sales were actually quite brisk. Then that news story gets picked up by the local media as truth, and ticket sales just stopped.
Did that same message go out to the Kelly Clarkson camp, that her shows were at risk, or did she pull out for an independent reason?
Again, we were frank with everybody. The thing is, because of the way that Lilith is structured, if Kelly’s on for a number of dates and then she loses some of those, it might not make sense for her to do the rest of the dates, just economically. It’s kind of the nature of Lilith.
Did you try to get larger artist commitment from people, and get them on for more than four or five dates?
That definitely makes life easier. You always start with a wish list. And we had a great wish list. Then people who are interested come back, but then they themselves have their own touring plans. It becomes this massive jigsaw puzzle.
Announcing the whole lineup as a block led to some dismay when people learned that only one or two of those artists were actually going to be in their town.
Well, I mean, I would ask you: When you announce 100 artists, do they think they’re going to play at each show? There’s no possible way. And it’s no different than how it was done 10 years earlier. The media will make their own assumptions. When I look at each of these shows, and who’s on those shows, even if it’s not the exact lineup that you in your head wanted, they are spectacular lineups for great value. Any of those top three artists could charge exactly what Lilith is charging for their own concert. And here you are seeing all three, plus eight others. It’s massive value.
A lot of people have been complaining about the initial ticket price, or the fact that they paid the initial price, but could have gotten seats for $10 if they’d waited a few weeks. Was that a Lilith or a LiveNation decision?
That’s a LiveNation decision. I understand what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to put bums in seats. Lilith had really good ticket scaling, from pricey to not so pricey. When I have lawns in the $25 range, that’s very similar to what I had lawns at 10 years ago.
How do you feel about partnering with LiveNation at this point?
I think they’re good partners, but they’re having to deal with a huge economic turndown. Look at almost every single tour. This is not specific to any one tour right now. Every festival is getting hampered, some are getting cancelled outright, some have ticket sales that are way less than what anyone was thinking would happen.
Yet Austin City Limits sold out before they announced the lineup.
But that’s a situation where that’s a specific concert in a specific city. It’s not the same as a traveling tour.
Could you do Lilith as a destination festival?
We said from the start that we were going to do a traveling festival for two years, and then shift it to a destination. We said that a year ago. The bottom line is, we’re going to have 23 to 24 concerts that are going to do really well. There’s not too many people doing that right now.
So you don’t anticipate any further cancellations right now?
No, none. Zero. We wanted to get all of those out there, for the ability to say, Look. No matter what the media says, there won’t be any more cancellations.
Specifically in terms of Austin: I guess the venue never got announced, and tickets never went on sale?
We never put the show up. We announced the city, but we couldn’t find the right situation. We’re very cognizant of trying to put Lilith in the right venue. We couldn’t find the hold to make the Austin show happen.
I also heard you’d sold as few as 2500 tickets in some locations, especially Edmonton. Can you confirm?
No. Edmonton had 6500 people. Calgary had like 9,000. Vancouver last night had 10,000. The venue fit 10,000. These are just people who are really focused on the ticket sales. And my challenge for the media is, Get off that. Why aren’t you talking about the charities, or the fact that seven million people voted for the local talent search? Lilith is more than a music festival. And all you’re focused on is ticket sales. Everyone who’s been to the first three shows has gone away with a smile. Please. People. My open letter to the critics was, Come to Lilith, and then see if you want to criticize it afterwards.
Was the vibe of Lilith something that was specific to the ‘90s, and not as easy to recapture today?
You’ve gotta come to the show. You’ve gotta witness what’s happening. It’s unbelievable. Just look at all the fans tweeting.
Who are some of the acts you’ve seen succeeding so far?
Grace Potter, Kate Miller — awesome. Absolutely awesome. I mean, Kate Miller, on her first show, completely sold out of her whole tour’s worth of CDs. There’s all of those sorts of stories happening that no one’s picking up on. You’ve got Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland going, “Hey, I don’t think anyone’s picked up on the fact that, 11 years ago, in Atlanta, I was the talent search pick. Here I am now on the mainstage. You don’t understand what happened. I was unknown then.”
In our roundtable for the magazine, [Lilith co-founder] Sarah McLachlan told me she feels the tour this time is more of a want, and less of a need. How has that changed its fortunes this summer? She referred to how once you couldn’t play two women back to back on the radio. You couldn’t have two women on a tour. Those things aren’t problems anymore.
I would disagree. Have you looked at the Triple A radio charts recently?
Women dominated radio in general last year. Beyonce and Gaga and Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift…
All Top 40. Triple A is actually album music. It’s not Top 40 singles. It’s those artists who make compelling albums.
So the goal was not to get those Top 40 people out on the road, but in fact to expose people —
To really good music, that has really deep meaning. And that’s not to say the other ones don’t have deep meaning, but let’s be honest. Top 40 radio is not about deep meaning.
I wonder if that’s a big misinterpretation of what’s going on, when we were asking, Well, why isn’t Gaga on this tour? Or Beyonce? You weren’t going for that?
No, we asked Gaga. We asked Beyonce. We asked them. They are valid too. Katy Perry almost did it. It just didn’t work with her life scheduling. We asked everybody. We’re not trying to be music critics here. But if you look at Top 40 as a measure of success, you’re kind of looking at something narrowly. There’s more music than just Top 40 music. My whole point is, We’re three shows in. The first show was supposedly cancelled, but 9,000 people showed up. It’s an amazing show. The fans are absolutely loving it. It’s relevant. Concerts doing 9,000 people a night right now are actually really successful concerts.
It must hurt when the show was supposed to be booked at the 15,000 seat venue, but now it’s at the 9,000 seat venue. It’s hard to spin that in a positive light.
For us to go into a green space costs an absolute fortune and sometimes does not deliver the best value. People here in Vancouver saw we moved it from Pitt Meadows to Ambleside Park, a smaller venue — that must have been because we had weak ticket sales. That’s not the truth. The truth simply was that we realized about eight weeks in, people in Vancouver thought that Pitt Meadows was two hours away. People don’t go to Pitt Meadows. We moved it because [Ambleside] was a much better site for people in Vancouver. We made the mistake of putting it in Pitt.
Was that the same issue in the other cities where you’ve moved the venue, like Edmonton or Minneapolis?
Minneapolis was really a case of cost. The cost of going into that green space was just huge. And here we are trying to keep ticket prices down. We’re criticized if we do the right thing, and criticized if we do the wrong thing.
Are you reaching your goals in order to bring it back next summer? And what have you learned in terms of planning?
We’re reaching our goals, cause we’re gonna do 23 or 24 amazing shows. That is a great goal, considering the economic conditions, and considering that other tours are just getting cancelled outright. Are we bringing it back in 2011? Absolutely. Are we going to learn from the lessons of this year? Absolutely. Do I know what all those lessons are? No. We’re like three shows in. We’re like 10 percent of the way in. I think we’re going to look at each marketplace, and when we go to book next year, we’re going to be very cognizant of what we’ve learned. There’s not a national lesson here. There is a community-by-community lesson. But it will be much easier to sell Lilith next year, because you’ll have nine to ten thousand people that have been blown away. There will be no hesitation coming back.