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Music For The Masses

7 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel/Atlanta

Moby is a 5-ft. 8-in., ghostly white, completely bald, born-again Christian, vegan rock star. Born Richard Melville Hall, he is the great-great-great-grandnephew of Herman Melville (thus the name). He shuns drugs and alcohol and devours soy milk. His singing voice is just decent, and his biggest success to date has been an album anchored by samples from Alan Lomax field recordings. It’s safe to say that it required a certain amount of gumption for Moby to will himself into the rock-star pantheon. Even Joe Cocker had it easier.

Not content with his own unlikely act of self-creation, Moby has applied himself to reimagining the summer concert tour. Area: One, his dazzling, multigenre, multiact music festival, took to the road in Atlanta last week with the laudable goal of attracting not just a core demo of Bic-flicking heavy-metal geezers or profoundly dilated techno kids but everyone: teens, adults, blacks, whites–just plain music fans, in the old-timey sense.

The bill, handpicked by Moby, is exuberantly multiracial and gender friendly and features some of the top acts in hip-hop, pop, rock and dance music. Many industry veterans believe it will be the very definition of a noble failure. “Idealistically, it’s a great concept,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of tour industry bible Pollstar. “Whether it’s financially practical is another matter.”

Ever since Lollapalooza capsized under the weight of its own mismanagement in 1997, the summer concert season has been dominated by increasingly narrow niche tours. Ozzfest, Warped, Lilith Fair, Guinness Fleadh, Smokin’ Grooves and others have all mined a slim vein of music with varying degrees of financial success. While only Ozzfest and Warped are back this year, the concert industry trusts results over ideology; Moby and the multigenre festival tour both have to prove themselves viable. “The whole tour is an experiment,” says Moby. “We’ve put this eclectic bill together, and I guess we’ll see if people are receptive to it. If I were smart, I probably would have found out why [multigenre] tours disappeared before doing one of my own,” he says, flashing a coy smile. “Oh, well.”

Don’t let the artiste-savant act fool you. Moby is extremely shrewd when it comes to the pursuit of profit. After his 1999 album, Play, stalled on the charts because it couldn’t break through niche-driven radio playlists, Moby and longtime managers Marci Weber and Barry Taylor devised a remarkable strategy in which all 18 album cuts were licensed for commercial use. Songs from Play showed up in ads for Nordstrom and Nissan, in an Oliver Stone movie and–egad!–on Veronica’s Closet before finally muscling their way onto radio in between Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears.

Play has since gone platinum in 26 countries, and its success proves two things. First, Moby is an astute businessman willing to make commercial concessions to get his music heard. Second, the average listener has an appetite for vastly different styles of music–from Britney’s bubble gum to OutKast’s rap and funk to Moby’s edgy rock and techno–if only someone would serve them. “It’s a classic commercial approach,” says Moby. “You look at a cultural scenario and see a strange void. All of my friends’ record collections are very eclectic. Then you look at all the festivals, and…they’re not bad, they’re just one-dimensional.”

Last fall when Moby called the folks at SFX Entertainment, the world’s largest concert promoter, and pitched the idea of a diverse festival tour, they considered his business instincts, willingness to work with sponsors and overall cachet within the music industry. They held their breath and signed on.

Then came the fun part. “I remember sitting in the Newark airport on the way to Europe,” says Moby, “and just brainstorming every band that we liked, every DJ that we liked.” The list he compiled–Nelly Furtado, Incubus, OutKast, New Order, the Roots, Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox–was diverse, sonically and racially, but each name was a proven live performer. “I didn’t want it to be school. First and foremost we wanted to provide people with a great day of music outdoors. There are a lot of bands we could have gone after who make great records or fit a certain type, but they just aren’t compelling live. If you’ve ever been to an amphitheater at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, it has to be really good.”

To keep audiences focused on music, Moby’s team removed all unnecessary distractions. Hemp exhibits, piercing booths and toe-ring concessions were jettisoned. The 2,500-capacity dance tent would be air-conditioned to prevent heat exhaustion. “And no Port-o-Sans,” says the ebullient Weber. “We decided early on to try and make this an aesthetically enjoyable experience all around.”

The clean-bathroom edict means that Area: One will stick mostly to a class of large, sadly impersonal amphitheaters as it meanders about the country. So be it. At least at the debut show, at Atlanta’s regrettably named HiFi Buys Amphitheater, the grounds were sparkling, the water was plentiful and the vibe exceedingly warm. If the crowd didn’t look quite like a Benetton ad, it was hardly the usual sea of rice pudding dotted with a few conspicuous raisins. Performance times for the various acts were posted everywhere, and the artists actually stuck to them. Major sponsors, Ford and Intel, made their presence known, but not oppressively. Moby estimates that tickets would have cost $125 without sponsorship. With it, they cost an average of $40.

Of course, a music festival is only as good as its performers, and it’s here that Area: One breaks the bank. Nelly Furtado, 19, glissades across the stage with girly energy and a womanly voice. Incubus, the least tattooed and most melodic of the bands that advertise mutilation in their names, rocks hard and shows promise as a headliner down the road; and lead singer Brandon Boyd has an unintimidating charisma that the girls seem to enjoy. The Roots dutifully combines old-school rap with a jam band’s focus on craft, and Paul Oakenfold lights up the dance tent with a scalding, nightclub-worthy set that proves why he’s every bit as big as Moby in his native Britain.

Then there’s OutKast, the Atlanta hip-hop duo of Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton that may be America’s best live act. Taking the stage shirtless, in billowy, blue harem pants, a platinum wig and wraparound shades, Benjamin looks like nothing so much as a genetic-engineering accident among Stevie Wonder, Carol Channing and Yul Brynner. It’s impossible to peel your eyes away from his elastic moves, even with a trio of booming backup singers, step dancers and a catalog of big hits that had the whole place jumping.

So what’s missing? The HiFi Buys Amphitheater was pretty full but not filled. Unlike movies, concert-ticket sales take a while to trickle in; and although venues are reporting solid sales, they’re not breaking records. Area: One SFX producer Gerry Barad notes that’s partly the result of the weak broader economy but admits that the tour’s name causes confusion: “Area: One? People are asking where it is, not what it is.” Because of the genre cross-pollination, the show has fewer of those spine-tingling moments when the audience sings along as one, though when those moments do come–as in OutKast’s B.O.B. (Bombs over Baghdad), which had everyone chanting along gospel-style, “Pow-er, music, electric revival”–they tend to mean a little more.

Moby didn’t do himself any favors by following OutKast as Area: One’s headliner, but, then, he seems to know that. Taking the stage in an OutKast T shirt, he performed a career-spanning set that didn’t try to compete. He played his hits, jumped around like a pixie and worked up a serious sweat. And when it came time for some obligatory rock-star patter, he offered up anything but. “I really do hope that everyone is having a nice time.” Not exactly “Hello, Cleveland,” but, like Area: One itself, it was Moby at his most sincere.

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