“The world’s biggest music festival.”
The producers of Rock in Rio aren’t being immodest when they use that designation to promote their 30-year-old event, which is held in alternating years in Brazil, Spain and Portugal. Its North American debut will take place in Las Vegas over the next two weekends as Rock in Rio USA, for which a 40-acre site on the Las Vegas Strip has been purchased and built - price tag: $25 million - into an elaborate and permanent open-air venue called City of Rock. (Ticket information appears at the conclusion of this article.)
In 1985, the inaugural edition of this hugely ambitious festival drew nearly 1.4 million people to Rio de Janeiro for 10 days of music. The lineup included Queen, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, George Benson, AC/DC, Brazilian singing star Gilberto Gil and more than two dozen other acts.
With a daily attendance cap of 85,000, the four-day Rock in Rio USA will be smaller, but no less ambitious. It has a budget of $75 million, which covers performers’ fees, marketing, the construction of the festival site and installation of infrastructure that includes underground electrical cables, data transmission lines and pipes for water, sewage and ahem! beer. The 40-acre site occupies the former recreational vehicle campground for the adjacent Circus Circus hotel and casino.
Friday and Saturday’s Rock Weekend lineup features No Doubt, Metallica, Linkin Park, Foster the People and Maná. It will be followed by the Pop Weekend, May 15 and 16, featuring Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and (his ailing voice permitting) Sam Smith. Single-day tickets and two-day passes are available for both weekends, along with an array of VIP options.
Yet, despite being a massive success since its inception, “the world’s biggest music festival” was inspired as much by politics as music. The event’s 1985 debut came as the 21-year reign of oppression by Brazil’s military dictatorship was mercifully coming to an end and democracy was on the rise.
Rock in Rio
When: 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and May 15 and 16
Where: City of Rock, on the Las Vegas Boulevard Strip (adjacent to Circus Circus), Las Vegas
Tickets: General admission is $169 per day and $298 for a two-day package; VIP packages start at $498 per day.
Phone: (800) 745-3000
Game-changer, or major gamble?
Roberto Medina, Rock in Rio’s visionary founder, brightens when discussing Rock in Rio’s pending Las Vegas debut, which qualifies both as a potential game-changer for North American music festivals and as a major gamble in a city where gambling has long been a way of life.
“It’s our first time here, but it’s very important for the Rock in Rio brand to come to the biggest country for business and entertainment in the world,” Medina said.
“At Rock in Rio, the people who attend are the stars, not just the musicians. It’s a big, 12-hour-per-day party. And America is so important for me. Because, if you are not in America, you are not global.”
Medina partnered with MGM Resorts International and Cirque du Soleil to build the City of Rock. He is also working with concert industry giant SFX Entertainment. Rock in Rio USA’s corporate sponsors include Mercedes-Benz, a company not previously known for its involvement with pop-music festivals.
Medina expressed dismay that corporate sponsorships are less prevalent here than in Europe and Brazil, where a beer company kicked in $20 million to promote a new product at the first Rock in Rio. But he is optimistic that Rock in Rio USA will thrive and is already committed to staging repeat editions of the festival in Las Vegas in 2017 and 2019.
“We’ve performed three times at Rock in Rio in Lisbon, and it’s one of the top three rock festivals in the world,” said Mike Shinoda, the DJ in rap-metal band Linkin Park. “We’re really looking forward to how they translate this into a festival here. There’s a magic to what they do.”
In Las Vegas, Rock in Rio will offer attractions that should help set it apart from Coachella, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Lollapalooza and the other annual festivals in the U.S. with which it is competing for audiences and top music talent.
These attractions range from a 600-foot zip line for festival-goers to check out the action from above to three “rock streets.” The streets will showcase the music, food and culture of three countries, specifically, Brazil, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. There will also be a Ferris wheel designed to resemble a roulette wheel, along with a festival-opening main stage performance both weekends by Cirque du Soleil.
No cash, no camping
To ensure that fans don’t have to choose between competing acts, the performance times on Rock in Rio USA’s two main stages will alternate. More novel still, the festival will be a money-free zone, at least in a manner. Rather than use cash to purchase food, drink and merchandise, attendees will use pre-paid wristbands.
Unlike Coachella and Bonnaroo, there will be no camping at Rock in Rio USA. This is because the promoters want to present a more upscale experience and, conveniently, because the festival is within walking distance of 80,000 Las Vegas Hotel rooms. Shuttle bus service passes, priced at $25 per weekend, are available on the festival website.
Initially, Rock in Rio ticket-buyers could only purchase two-day weekend passes. In an effort to boost attendance, single-day tickets went on sale in mid-April, priced at $169 each. Tickets have been bought by music fans from 47 states in the U.S. and more than 30 countries.
The Coachella and Stagecoach festivals in Indio, which are both held each April, draw 20 percent of their respective audiences from San Diego County. Rock in Rio USA hopes to draw a sizable portion of attendees from this region as well.
“San Diego is very important to us,” said Roberta Medina, who was six when her father launched the festival in Brazil and is now its production coordinator. "(San Diego) is close to Las Vegas, an easy drive, and San Diego has a nice Brazilian community. We won’t be focusing on Brazilians in the U.S. But, of course, it’s natural they will come and the San Diego market is very relevant for us. Our main focus will be California, although we’ll communicate to the whole United States.”
Another focus for Rock in Rio USA will be a target audience also coveted by Las Vegas casinos: Affluent attendees who want to splurge and are willing to pay for extra luxuries. The price for Rock in Rio USA’s VIP cabanas - which can seat between 10 and 15 people and include drinks and a dinner platter from chef Wolfgang Puck - range from $6,000 to $15,000 per day.
“Those VIP prices are catering to an upper-echelon clientele, but we’re talking Las Vegas,” said Gary Bongiovanni, the publisher of Pollstar, the concert industry’s leading weekly publication.
“Rock in Rio has a good talent lineup all four days. The question is: Will people come to Vegas to see it? The challenge for Rock in Rio is to translate the international popularity they have into something here in America, where the brand isn’t as well-known. And the truth is, most festivals struggle to make money in their first couple of years. But Roberto Medina has a very successful track record, so I’m not sure I’d want to bet against him.”
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