What 35 Denton Could Learn From Oaktopia

If you build it, will they come? Denton music fans attending Oaktopia in 2013
If you build it, will they come? Denton music fans attending Oaktopia in 2013
Ed Steele

In the fall of 2011, I got a gig as an in-house scribe for 35 Denton. It wasn't paid, save for a complimentary wristband to the four-day festival (which is damn near a golden nugget for any young music fan). One of our tasks leading up to the festival's weekend in March was trodding around Denton and asking strangers what they thought of the recurring announcements for bands on the fest's bill. Walking up to strangers is generally a more terrifying experience than being the last mother with a Playstation 4 in Walmart on Black Friday. To make matters worse, most people had no goddamn idea what a 35 Denton, Julianna Barwick or Cities Aviv was.

Looking back on this, having a festival where people don't know the names of a few esoteric bands on the bill is one thing. It's acceptable and expected. But the main acts in 2012 -- Built to Spill, Jesus and the Mary Chain, The Raincoats -- aren't hot tickets for the fest's intended audience, the 18-35 year old set.

However, when a bunch of young people in city limits don't know the hip in-town festival exists, in a place that champions its music culture, you have a problem. 35 Denton in 2013 was plagued by rain, and when the downpour hit, which was a sure sign that Noah had his arc perched somewhere nearby, the logistics of the event got confusing and hectic. Still, the iteration felt like a success. It felt like more people were aware than the year before and checking out the festivities. It felt like growth was inevitable -- until news broke that 35 Denton would take a year off to rebuild, regroup, rebrand.

During that sabbatical, along came Oaktopia, a grassroots festival founded and cobbled together by two twenty-something Denton enthusiasts, Matthew Battaglia and Corey "S. Good" Claytor. It was a little disorganized. If asked, Claytor and Battaglia would confess that they really had idea how to put a festival together. Just wingin' it. Oaktopia, has more of a do-it-yourself, for-us-by-us spirit than FUBU.

Its first year was a successful one. There were a series of house parties, all shut down by cops, in which everybody stood ass to crotch in some person's humid home. The person(s) in question, conned into letting a bunch of odd and random people (colloquially referred to as Dentonites) inside their humble abode thanks to an insatiable desire to party or just be plain old cool. Since its inception, Oaktopia has been the subject of buzz and excitement in Denton. The fest's success inspired Battaglia and Claytor to beef Oaktopia up a bit: Two days instead of one, more music, more arts, a beerlympics and other random activities that the youths are sure to love.

This is where Oaktopia shines, unflinchingly grasping the attention of the 18 to 35 demographic, and not really giving a fuck about trying to be a massive thing, at least at this point in time, because who's to say the guys in charge won't attempt unwisely do so down the line? A relatively small fest championing local acts (pop and rock) and fostering a healthy music scene is something Denton hasn't had since NX35.

If you aren't familiar, part of the reason awareness of 35 Denton was small is because it's never really known how to sit still. It's had to pee really badly all these years.

Back in the distant past of 2005, 35 Denton was born as NX35, a SXSW showcase in Austin that was meant to put a spotlight on bands further north on interstate 35. In 2009, founder and Baptist Generals' drummer Chris Flemmons brought the thing home and named it NX35 Music Conferette. Still, the goal in mind was showcasing Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth talent. In 2010 the Flaming Lips performed at North Texas Fairgrounds as a part of the festival earning a spot in many Dentonites' hearts with a much-heralded performance. In 2011, another name change took place, 35 Conferette, and bigger-named acts came through with stellar performances. 2012 saw the final (final?) name change, to 35 Denton.

At one point, presumably 2010 or 2011, 35 Denton decided it was going to attempt to be a nationwide destination festival. This is a difficult task considering how niche the bills were, which looked like an fervent Pitchfork reader's iTunes most played list. Generally, there was little about a 35 Denton bill that said, "Hey, let's make this thing a thing that's very eclectic." One of the reason's Coachella is so successful is that it's a place you can find Kanye West and Phosphorescent and Arcade Fire and Ty Segall and Skrillex. It attempts to accommodate everybody.

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If 35 Denton ever wants to be what it markets itself as being (or markets itself to one day become), a destination festival that middle class to rich white millennials travel to every year, it has to be a little bit more permeable when it comes to trying to sell wristbands. Though an inability to have a few big names on a bill who aren't Generation X or slightly buzz bands, like marquee rappers or DJs, is most likely cognitive dissonance with young people's taste, it could be a money issue. If that's the case, get Mark Cuban on the line or something.

Or learn something from the young guns at Oaktopia. Really focus on trying to get millennials to purchase wristbands by putting most of the focus on local acts and random young people things. What's attractive about Oaktopia is that it basically gives the feel that the fun is as, if not more important than, the music itself.

Denton's most sustainable music festival, the Arts & Jazz Fest does the inverse extremely well: Rather than being the hottest party in town, it's a quaint little family event. And when we talk about Denton, we forget that altruistically, it isn't this wonderland of music and bars. it's a suburb with a few pockets of cool. Oaktopia is undoubtedly one of those pockets. As was 35 Denton. It just thought it was a lot cooler than it actually was.

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