By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's all come down to this. All the months of hard work and planning, all the bookings and meetings with Denton city officials, sponsors, band managers and promoters just to get North by 35 up and running again. No musician in his right mind should have to suffer through all those meetings, and there are those who say Chris Flemmons is not in his right mind to take on a project as big as North by 35. But for him it was a mission, a crusade. Now, if he doesn't fix things by tonight, it could all fall apart.
It's Sunday morning two weeks before the March 11-14 music festival, and Flemmons is driving about 20 miles outside Oklahoma City. He's alone in his thoughts, but not in his car. Brunswick, his 12-year-old mutt and constant companion, is along for the ride. They left Denton earlier that morning in a rental car because Flemmons is convinced that if he doesn't meet face to face with the manager of The Flaming Lips, the festival's headliner and big draw, he can kiss the biggest rock spectacular Denton's ever hosted goodbye.
But he doesn't even have an appointment.
Flemmons hopes that by showing up in person he can work out some sort of deal with the Lips' management because, while booking The Flaming Lips proved a huge coup for the second-year event, it also meant a last-minute venue move to accommodate the potential crowd. That unforeseen move caused NX35's costs to skyrocket, and Flemmons doesn't know if NX35 will be a sell-out. Flemmons has to tell the band that there won't be enough money to meet a down-payment deadline. If some sort of deal can't be reached, then NX35 will have to cancel the band's show.
It all seemed like such a good idea a few months ago, so doable. A repeat of last year's successful, four-day, walkable music event around the heart of downtown Denton, only bigger, much bigger. A Saturday-evening stage featuring Oklahoma acts The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Denton's own Midlake was hands-down the largest draw that Flemmons and Co. had booked for this year's North by 35 Music Conferette.
Flemmons added his made-up word "conferette" to the title last year as a tongue-in-cheek riff on the festival's diminutive size and less-refined persona, playing off other much larger music festivals like Miami's Winter Music Conference and Austin's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. Last year's NX35 garnered mostly positive media buzz, though some criticized it for relying too heavily on local bands, but this year the goal of the event's programmers was to avoid those slights while still featuring a large percentage of homegrown acts.
And, though it's still called a conferette, this year's festival and its lineup have been catapulted into the national spotlight, thanks to keynote speakers like producer, sound engineer and Shellac member Steve Albini; attractions like Bucks Burnett's Eight Track Museum; and acts such as The Flaming Lips, HEALTH and The Walkmen.
While this year's NX35 has booked more than 200 acts in more than a dozen venues around downtown, Saturday's promised free show featuring The Flaming Lips is without question the event's main attraction. Flemmons knows that losing his headliner could trigger a domino effect and possibly cause NX35 to lose bands or, worse, sponsors.
The dream of bringing The Flaming Lips to downtown Denton for a free concert started as a confetti-filled vision birthed in beer and nicotine, and less than two weeks before showtime the vision was flailing in a complex web of venue changes, deadlines and lost sponsorships. Making matters worse, the mounting costs of staging the event had the NX35 spreadsheet hemorrhaging red.
By Sunday afternoon, the dream had transformed into a surreal nightmare. But, after a barrage of text messages between Midlake's Eric Pulido and the Lips' manager, Scott Booker, Flemmons manages to get his appointment.
With a sit-down scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Flemmons pulls into a Motel 6. After he and Brunswick check in and settle down in the room, Flemmons powers up his laptop to start writing an open-ended press release—one either confirming the show's occurrence or bemoaning its demise—that would go live soon after the meeting with Booker.
"I had a hard time writing it," he says. "The words wouldn't come."
The show seemed fated to one of three options. The first and grimmest would be to cancel The Flaming Lips. The second option would be to renegotiate a pricier deal with the Lips, which would allow NX35 to charge admission to the show in an effort to cover the mounting costs of hosting an event estimated to attract up to 15,000 fans. In the third, miracle option, some sort of agreement could be reached in which the Lips came to town for less money, which would mean NX35 would have enough to cover its expenses, and the show would stay free.
Naturally, The Flaming Lips' dramatic stage show doesn't come cheap. But, because NX35 was agreeing to host the concert as a free, open-to-the-public event, the amount of cash required to bring the band to town was significantly reduced.