SoundTown and Minnesota's music festival fatigue
Basilica Block Party 2012 did not have trouble drawing a crowd.
Photo by Erik Hess
It's been almost a week now since word broke out that the SoundTown Music and Camping Festival is cancelled this year, just two short weeks before the gates were set to open. But even now there's something that feels inevitable about how the whole situation shook itself out -- not inevitable that the festival would get cancelled, per se, but that it would be one extreme or the other. It would be complete failure, or complete success.
From the time that Somerset Amphitheater owner and general manager Matt Mithun launched the concept last year, there were plenty of grandiose ideas and lofty ambitions. SoundTown would be a bonafide destination festival, the Upper Midwest's answer to Coachella and Bonnaroo. Even after the understated first installment last summer, the promises never wavered.
With the SoundTown dream, at least for now, seemingly dead, there could be more at stake than just missing out on a chance to see Radiohead or the Tupac hologram live and in person. (Too soon?) What if the Twin Cities actually can't support such a concept? Or what if we're simply too over-saturated with festivals and other summertime shows, in general?
Not surprisingly, Mithun struck a remorseful tone in the few comments that he's given since last Wednesday. In the official statement announcing the cancellation, he rather bluntly put the cause down to the fact that "the ticket threshold wasn't met." Speaking to the Current's Andrea Swensson that same day, Mithun was a little more reflective, admitting, "I think the execution, to be honest, I don't know if we went about it quite right and built the hype like we could have."
(Mithun was unavailable for comment when contacted for this article.)
It would seem, in hindsight, that any number of factors probably contributed to SoundTown's eventual cancellation. Ticketing was certainly a factor, with confusion surfacing in recent days about the ordering process, and the unusual fact that the camping charges were separate from the actual admission fees. But from a broader perspective, it seems the event suffered more generally from an inability to clearly define itself and from an anemic promotional push.
SoundTown 2011 was a great time -- for the small crowd in attendance.
Photo by Ben Clark
From the very outset, nobody seemed to be quite sure what the hell SoundTown was even supposed to be. It was in Somerset, yes, but it wasn't "Somerset;" it was "SoundTown." It also wasn't Soundset. And, to help things along, Mithun threw Summer Set into the ring earlier this year, which happened to be on the same weekend that SoundTown had been last year--SoundTown having switched dates this year. With My Morning Jacket and Slipknot also playing during the month of August, some bands playing at Somerset this summer weren't even sure which bills they'd signed on to!
At the same time, in spite of the fact that Mithun had joined forces with JAM Productions in organizing the event this year, and even gotten a boost from the Current, SoundTown kept a rather low profile in terms of publicity. A stronger effort to help define the show, plus a more aggressive marketing strategy, certainly wouldn't have hurt. Little wonder, then, that there was also a degree of skepticism that tended to accompany mention of the festival, and its ability to follow through on its high expectationss.
All of which is a shame, not least because SoundTown should have had the tools to succeed. The reception to last year's event -- aside from worries over the small turnout -- were largely enthusiastic about the renovations that Mithun and Co. had undertaken on the festival grounds. With space for 40,000 people, plus the fact that Minnesotans (and yes, even Wisconsinites) seem endlessly game for summer activities like festivals and camping, thanks to the winters, it all seemed promising enough.
It's perhaps inevitable, then, that while the organizers dropped the ball somewhere along the line, there are still questions about the larger implications of SoundTown's demise. After all, the worry remains that Minnesota simply can't support a top-line, destination music festival. More worryingly, with events like Rock the Garden, Soundset, the Basilica Block Party, and now River's Edge, in addition to the dozens of free block parties, it's possible that Twin Cities music fans are just plain over-saturated.
Flip Arkulary, a Minneapolis-based promoter and musician who works with venues around the country, thinks listener fatigue is a real problem. "I think people are getting tired. I think it is pretty over-saturated," he says. Over the past couple years, he's sensed that attendance has been down at many of the music events he visits around the state. "People are kind of broke right now, and there's so much to pick from. There's 10 or 15 events every day I could go to, and sometimes I just want to stay in."
One issue Arkulary points to is the specific demographic that SoundTown catered itself to. With bands like Jane's Addiction and Florence + the Machine headlining the festival after having just played in the area in recent months, plus a slew of bands like Best Coast and Phantogram that have a cache with indie rock fans but potentially little broader appeal, the lineup had some definite limitations, despite its general strength.
"I'm seeing a lot of events drawing on the same artists, and on the national level too. Jane's Addiction is playing everything this summer," explains Arkulary. Contrast this with events like Soundset or the Basilica Block Party, which regularly draw strong crowds by catering to completely different audiences from your average, over-inundated indie fan -- in this case, hip hop fans and Cities 97 listeners, respectively. "For those quote-unquote scenes, that is a much more special event than one of the ten indie rock block parties or indie rock festivals you and I can go to within 300 miles of Minneapolis."
It's true, too, that many of us -- including those of us in the press -- sometimes lose sight of the fact that indie rock remains something of a minority, and that a station like the Current doesn't, in fact, have the largest listenership in the Twin Cities. When you look at how successful River's Edge was this year with its Dave Matthews-meets-Tool-meets-Flaming Lips lineup, and then consider the fact that an event like Knotfest is selling well while SoundTown struggled, and the point gets driven home a bit more.
All the same, it hardly seems like we're in the midst of a crisis. Even if an out-of-the-way event like SoundTown seems to struggle around here, there's no denying the general health of the music scene. So it's possible that the one could be an issue while the other is doing just fine. The problem might lie more in the concept of a "destination festival," with the likes of the Rothbury Festival in Michigan and 10,000 Lakes here in Minnesota both disappearing in the past few years. Perhaps it's simply more practical to start up an urban festival at this stage, particularly in this economic climate.
Nate Kranz, general manager at First Avenue, for one, doesn't think so. "There are lots of destination festivals that do rely on camping and things like that," he insists. "Part of me wonders if SoundTown was a little caught in the middle: Is it a destination camping festival, or just a little bit out of the city, so you can drive there and back?"
What's more, Kranz points out that, while there are benefits to putting on a show in a city -- particularly in terms of resources, as well as easy access and cheaper travel expenses for the audience -- that fact can still go both ways. "Different communities allow different things. The Somerset rules are lax because they're dying for the extra business out there," Kranz observes. "There are challenges in Minneapolis, too," he adds. "There's lots of neighbors and other people that you have to keep happy, and hurdles you might not have elsewhere."
So, much to the chagrin of the eager writer looking for a scoop (ahem), the moral of the story may well be not to overreact. (Imagine that.) Fair enough. But there are still some important lessons for local promoters and music lovers to think about in this brave post-SoundTown world. The most important of those might to consider how best to use our resources, in order to insure that the music scene continues to thrive and also to grow.
"I love living in a city that's full of arts and culture, and I'm all for having as much as possible," says Arkulary. "But I think this music scene has really ballooned and almost feel like an age of austerity is coming, where people start pulling back, being more frugal with where they perform, and frugal with when they go out to events. I think there's going to be a real premium placed on why your event is better than another happening the same night."
It's hard to argue with Arkulary's point, in large part because of the potential benefits; focusing on making your events as strong as possible, whether you're a musician or a promoter, is only going to help the local scene market itself that much better, here and at large.
Kranz, meanwhile, looks at things from a slightly more pragmatic standpoint: Whether or not there is anything like audience fatigue, there reality is that festivals are here to stay, and local promoters better figure out how to deal with it. Case in point is the festival First Ave is planning for next summer at Minneapolis' Parade Stadium -- just north of the hallowed Rock the Garden festivities that Walker Art Center and the Current sold out 10,000 tickets in 2012 in just over an hour.
Photo by Erik Hess
"It's a fact that when bands are playing festivals it takes them out of the clubs," Kranz says. "Talk to any guy in Chicago about how difficult their summers have gotten between Lollzapolooza and Pitchfork, being the big ones, and they'll tell you that really takes a lot of business that would otherwise be in the clubs, to some extent."
Of course, First Ave is in a better position than most other venues in being able to start up their festival in response, so it's easy for Kranz to say that. But just the same, the management showed good business sense in delaying the festival's planned-for 2012 debut until next year. "By the time we got through the process, we didn't feel we could put on a festival at the level and quality we expected of ourselves," Kranz recalls. "The worst case scenario would be to force it and have a bad experience, and then the people aren't excited about it the next year."
That last point has some extra resonance these days, given the memories of SoundTown's rushed debut last year. It's impossible to say now, and all too easy to question in hindsight, whether it would have been better to wait the extra year. In the meantime, there will be plenty of time to reflect on what has -- and, more importantly, what won't--happen out in Somerset this year.
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