Lazerfest: The People’s Choice5/8/2013
Lazerfest. Even if you’ve never been to it, you know what it’s all about. It’s big, it’s loud, and, to hear the folks at Lazer tell it, “it’s the best time of the year.”
Every year, thousands of people pass through the turnstiles, but what are their experiences actually like? I sat down with a few Lazerfest vets to get their unvarnished thoughts on the fan experience at central Iowa’s largest rock festival. They had some complaints, a lot of great memories and a few fuzzy recollections.
Disclaimer: Each fan’s experience at something as large as Lazerfest will, of course, be unique. So it shouldn’t be assumed that each fan’s perspective will be every fan’s perspective. The quotes and anecdotes below are presented as a cross-section of the fan experience at Lazerfest and, as always, your mileage may vary. Also, we’ve withheld last names throughout the piece in an effort to protect the wildly foolish and the blatantly guilty.
Location, location, location
Lazerfest is big. I mean, really big. There are certainly events that draw in more people, but not many of them do so in just one day. The biggest issue that causes is that there are few spaces available to host such an event. So it’s moved around a bit over the years.
It became clear early on that Waterworks Park — home of the inaugural Lazerfest more than a decade ago — wasn’t going to cut the mustard as a permanent site. So in 2003, the event moved to the Indianola Balloon Grounds.
“The Balloon Grounds are great,” said 33-year-old Daniel, a veteran of seven Lazerfests. “There’s a lot of space out there. A lot. It’s controlled enough to at least give the impression that everything’s under control, but there’s also a lot of space and a lot of ways for people to bend the rules a bit if they really put their minds to it.”
“I lost my virginity at Lazerfest,” confessed 28-year-old Monica (four Lazerfests). “That was in 2003. I’m not going to try and say that’s my proudest moment, but every time I go past the Balloon Grounds now, there’s that association. We’re still friends, so I’d call it a happy Lazerfest memory.”
Now some lucky couple can have that same memory when they drive past Boone’s Central Iowa Expo, where, as of last year’s festival, Lazerfest is now calling home. It’s a move that was met with more than a little disapproval among some Des Moines fans.
“That place sucks,” said 24-year-old Parker (two Lazerfests). “Not even so much because of anything wrong with the place itself, but just because it’s in Boone.”
“Who wants to drive all the way out there?” Monica agreed. “If Lazerfest dies, I think that’ll be what kills it.”
While any rumors of the festival’s demise are probably greatly exaggerated, if shear attendance numbers are any indicator, the move to Boone could be viewed as a misstep in the planning of the event.
Lazerfest 2010 marked the first time that the event had filled the Balloon Grounds to its 25,000-person capacity, according to coverage by The Des Moines Register, and Lazerfest fared almost as well the next year, with 22,000 tickets sold. But the event’s first year in Boone marked a dramatic decline in attendance, with that same newspaper reporting an approximate 15,000 people attending. To be sure, 15,000 people is still considerably more than attendance at the typical I-Cubs game and would still make Lazerfest one of the most heavily attended events of Iowa’s summer calendar.
Comparably, the Register has 80/35’s first year at 30,000 people over that weekend. But 80/35 is a two-day festival. LazerFest is just one.
“I think that if you look at where the concert industry specifically is now versus two years ago, and look at where the economy as a whole is, I think the concert industry is just in a different place now,” said Lazer brand Manager, Ryan Patrick.
Patrick believes the advantages provided by the Boone location more than outweigh the disadvantage of the slightly longer drive.
“The biggest motivation behind the change from Indianola to Boone was the grounds itself. We were limited in what we could do (in Indianola). You’re dealing with the rolling hills and stage placement and, of course, the parking situation. When you had bad weather (at the Balloon Grounds), you were pulling people out of the mud. We don’t have that problem in Boone, because the Expo is set up with proper drainage.
“I love the (Boone) grounds. I think there’s a lot for both us and the fans to like. The ground is flat. In years past, your body knew when you’d been at Lazerfest because of the hills. (Boone) is set up for dealing with large groups of people and for handling the weather that sometimes crops up.”
Let the music set you free
The whole reason anyone shows up to Lazerfest in the first place is to see the bands. And there’s no doubt that the event has done its level best to bring in quality talent. Over the past decade, Rob Zombie, Slash, Avenged Sevenfold, Papa Roach, Korn, Buckcherry, Kid Rock and a host of other nationally recognized acts have graced the Lazerfest stages, along with notable locals like Slipknot, Index Case, Minderite and Dead Horse Trauma.
“There’s no other way to see as much quality rock and metal in this state,” said five-time veteran Donald. “When I went for the first time, I was 15. I cut my teeth on Lazerfest. I learned what I liked by getting up close to that stage, getting dirty and listening to Corey Taylor tell me about life. Even the older bands — and I know people bitch about the older bands sometimes — that was all part of my musical education. I saw Stone Temple Pilots there, which led me to Nirvana, which led me to Hüsker Dü. Live music shapes people.”
But, indeed, Lazerfest has taken its share of criticism over its lineup choices — something from which no major festival is immune.
“People are always going to complain,” explained Daniel. “The only way to please everyone is to book every band in existence. And then people would bitch because there were too many bands.”
“It’s been hard to get excited the past couple of years,” Parker admitted. “Which is another reason why the move to Boone is such a big thing. If you don’t care about any of the bands, but it’s in Des Moines or Indianola, you might still go, because, what the hell? It’s Lazerfest. But now it’s like, ‘I’m gonna drive twice as far to go see Halestorm for the 87th time?’ ”
“People complain, especially this year and last year, about the headliners being washed up or whatever,” added Daniel. “So what? Slash is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, man. I’m supposed to pretend like it isn’t awesome to see him play live just because ‘Appetite for Destruction’ isn’t new?”
“There used to be more local bands,” said 37-year-old Denny, who hasn’t missed a Lazerfest. “I mean, look at 2003. Index Case, Facecage, On a Pale Horse. Sure you can argue that people go to Lazerfest to see the big guys, but part of the fun is seeing these local bands that you love rocking out on this huge stage with Staind or Rob Zombie.
“But the last few years they’ve thrown in the one token local band, and the rest is all touring acts.”
But Patrick says the culling of local bands from Lazerfest’s lineup is something that’s come about through careful consideration and research. The intention was not to exclude local acts from participating, but rather to consider how they are spending everyone’s entertainment dollar.
“The festival has evolved,” he explained. “You look at different (options), and you look to put out what people feel is the best bang for their buck.
“Will there be a time when we’ll have a stage for local bands again? I’d never say never.”
And while it may be true that Lazerfest has its share of travelling vendors that set up shop along with the touring acts, the festival has boasted local vendors on site in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Then there’s the parking lot “vendors.” Though music is the main attraction, some people look to enhance the experience. It’s not always legal.
Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll
“Make no mistake,” said Donald. “People get fucked UP at Lazerfest.”
For all its size, Lazerfest has been a generally trouble-free event. Police calls naturally spike the day of the event, but the vast majority are general disturbance calls or drunken/disorderly. Severe outbreaks of violence are rare. Drugs, on the other hand…
“I’m not going to call it Woodstock or anything,” said Denny. “But if you want (drugs), you can find it. The first year in Waterworks Park was like Sodom and Gomorrah.
“I can’t imagine going to a Lazerfest straight,” added Parker. “My first year I did mushrooms, but that’s really not the right place to be shroomin,’ so I switched to weed. But I’ve got friends who get coked to the gills before they even go in.”
“I went to my first Lazerfest rolling on (Ecstasy),” Donald said. “You think of E as being more of a rave drug, but it really just amplifies whatever. Add a little Jack to the mix, and you’ve got a pretty good time going on in your head.”
“The music is great all by itself, but some people just like to kick life up a notch,” Denny said.
If that’s true, then the Monday morning hang-over probably had little to do with Lazer moving the event from a Sunday to a Friday this year. Fans can blame Mom for that.
What a difference a day makes
“Moving Lazerfest to Friday is some straight-up bullshit,” declared the ever-blunt Parker. “I mean, Sunday was a little funky, because you’ve got to go to work the next day. But now it’s on a day that most people have to work.”
As stated, Lazerfest traditionally has taken place either on a Saturday or, as is more often the case, Sunday. This year, however, the event has been moved to Friday, May 10, so as not to interfere with Mother’s Day — a move that some fans viewed with full-throated disapproval.
“Look at the people who mainly go to the festival. Look at me,” said Denny. “We’re not the kind of people who tend to have our weekdays off work. We’re union workers, fast food employees, retail wage slaves. I’ve got a desk job downtown, so my choice is to either bail out on a day’s pay or miss half the lineup.”
But Patrick says the fans’ opinions were part of the strategy this year.
“We’ve done the shows on Sundays in the past and one of the vibes we’ve gotten was, ‘That’s the day I spend with my family.’ Each year when we do the show, we send out a survey and try to get some feedback. Obviously we don’t hear from everyone who attends, but we get a large number of responses. Mother’s Day was one issue raised, and this year we had an opportunity to move the date to a day that seemed like it might be a better fit for the majority of our fans.”
That’s little consolation to some die-hard Lazerfest fans, however.
What about the ever-present Denny? Will this be the first year he misses Lazerfest? It’s a decision that’s causing him genuine conflict.
“I don’t know, man,” he says, shaking his head sadly. “I mean, I guess it’s not a big deal to anyone else if I show up or not, but this is the thing I look forward to every spring.”
Where’s the love?
One thing these fans seem evenly divided on is what the fans mean to the festival. Naturally, the ticket sales and attendance are what drive Lazerfest. If people stop showing up, the festival will stop happening; nothing exists in a void. But how much of an obligation to the average fan does Lazerfest actually have?
“It just feels like they’ve really gone out of their way lately to let the fans know that they don’t matter,” said Monica. “Or at least the fans in Des Moines. They’ve moved the festival an hour outside of the city. They’ve gotten rid of most of the local bands. Now they’ve put it on a weekday. I don’t know what crowd Lazer is trying to attract with these changes, because it isn’t anyone I know.”
Patrick assures that the personal grievances fans like Monica have are expected as Lazerfest experiences its natural growing pains, and the festival’s twists and tweaks over the years are merely part of its evolution.
“When you put these (events) together, you try and do it so you can make the biggest group of people as happy as possible,” countered Patrick. “You’re never going to please everyone, but you always look to satisfy the largest amount reasonably possible.”
And to that end, Lazer continues to be enormously successful. Make no mistake about it, Lazerfest is still a huge draw. The hardcore fans flock to buy tickets as soon as they can and likely already have taken the time off work. And it’s clear just from listening to Lazer for an afternoon that the station considers this its marquee event of the year. And for Denny — and thousands like him — the festival remains a highlight on the calendar.
“For me, it’s still the best game in town,” he said. “There’s nobody doing anything else like this. 80/35 is the biggest show of the year, but it’s all indie acts and jam bands, and that’s all it’s probably ever going to be. And people can bitch about the (Des Moines Music Coalition) all they want, but until somebody else gets off their ass and makes a Des Moines Rock Coalition or whatever, Lazerfest is the only alternative. And for what it is, it’s a pretty amazing time.” CV