Rock In Rio’s Mixed Reviews

Rock In Rio USA concluded its inaugural run in Las Vegas with Bruno Mars on the main stage late May 16, and whether it was a success likely depends on whether one considers a glass half empty or half full. Or if not the glass, perhaps the event’s capacity. 

Photo: John Davisson/Invision/AP
Fireworks explode at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds in Las Vegas.

From May 8-9 and 15-16, Rock In Rio USA said it notched 172,000 attendees – 82,000 the first weekend and 90,000 the second – for artists including headliners Mars, Taylor SwiftNo Doubt, and Metallica.

While the numbers are respectable, some critics pointed out that the venue capacity is 80,000 per day and the official attendance figures pencil out to about half that. Other artists appearing on the lineups included John LegendEd SheeranLinkin ParkManáFoster the PeopleDeftones, Jessie J, Charli XCX, and Joss Stone.

After some initial opening-day, logistical glitches it appeared Rock In Rio USA met expectations of its backers, including Rock In Rio founder Roberto Medina, partner SFX and others.

“Many people were not believing that we would be able to do what we did,” Rock In Rio USA EVP Roberta Medina, who is also the daughter of Roberto, told the Las Vegas Sun. “Sponsors, media, fans, even some bands were not believing we could make this happen.”

Industry critic Bob Lefsetz is one of those non-believers. He published a Lefsetz Letter May 17, two days after the festival concluded, calling Rock In Rio USA “a disaster” and “a dead zone,” drawing fire from Global Entertainment CEO Randy Phillips, who was a consultant for Rio In Rio USA.

Statistics distributed after the curtain came down at Rock In Rio USA touted numbers in addition to attendance: Fans from 47 states attended, with 82 percent of all attendees from the U.S. and only 15 percent from Las Vegas itself, showing hope for establishing itself as a destination festival.

Intended to run every other year, Rock In Rio USA is scheduled to return in 2017. While skeptics were privately – and, in some cases, publicly – placing bets against a return to Las Vegas, one thing Roberta and Roberto Medina will not have to worry about is building a new venue from scratch.

In partnership with the MGM Grand, Rock In Rio USA leaves behind a fully functional, year-round concert venue for staging non-competing events when Rock In Rio isn’t in town. The MGM Grand Festival Ground by most accounts was a success on its own, with an easy-to-navigate layout, shopping, food and beverage locations and a zip line flying over the stage area. There were problems, to be sure. Many questioned the decision of Medina and Rock In Rio to have its announcement press conference in New York City rather than in Vegas, or even Los Angeles.

Critics pounced on what could fairly be called a lack of continuity: splitting the weekends up by genre, a branding conundrum of the name “Rock in Rio” itself for an event that is neither all-rock nor in Rio, and a lineup lacking the kind of blockbuster headliner to set it apart from any number of festivals in a near-saturated market. In an exchange of emails published by Lefsetz May 19, Phillips was given the opportunity to counter the criticism, though Lefsetz appeared unmoved.

“Since this was the first year, the permits were for a capacity of 65,000 and the place was packed for Bruno (Mars), so I am not sure that capacity is even realistic,” Phillips wrote, adding that the lower permitted capacity meant that RIR sold about 75 percent, rather than 50 percent, of its available tickets.

“Almost all” of the higher-priced VIP tickets sold out early, he said. “Roberto [Medina] and his partners, Yucaipa, SFX, Cirque du Soleil, and MGM Resorts gave me the impression that this year was round one in a championship prize fight they intend to win, which is the best analogy I can make for an event designed for the Vegas market. It is never a bad thing for our industry when another buyer joins the ranks and fans are given more choice, not less, of how and where to consume music,” Phillips wrote.

Rock in Rio in Brazil historically is one of the world’s largest and longest-running festivals, and has expanded into Portugal and Spain. On Medina’s wish list are future Rock In Rio events in Asia and India.