North by Unrest: Chris Flemmons Wants To Put Denton Music on the Map With NX35-If it Doesn't Kill Him First
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.
"If all the wristbands sell," Flemmons says, "then we'll have enough money to cover our costs, but there's no way for us to bank on the fact that it will be a sellout." (While admission to The Flaming Lips/Midlake portion of NX35 was always planned to be free, to attend the remainder of NX35's programming and concerts, fans must purchase wristbands. And those with a wristband will have priority access at the concert venues over walk-ups.)
During the meeting, Booker tells Flemmons to send the Lips' camp the NX35 financials. After that, Booker would talk with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. With dark skies above and rain pelting the windshield, Flemmons drives back to Denton after the meeting, knowing he's inching closer to a potential PR disaster. This is all happening at a time when Denton's music scene has been riding a wave of recent signings by out-of-state labels like Waaga Records and national and international media attention, ranging from Paste Magazine's 2008 nod for "Best Music Scene" to repeated mentions on U.K. blogs such as 20 Jazz Funk Greats.
If Flemmons fails now, he fails big. And he knows it.
"Denton is in a good place right now," he says after arriving back in town that afternoon. "So, it's not a good time to make it look like we're a bunch of fuck-ups."
NX35 may have launched its first four-day conferette last year in Denton, but the event had been percolating in Flemmons' mind since 2002. In 2005, Flemmons organized an afternoon party in Austin during the week of SXSW. The idea was that the party would feature somewhere between six and 10 Denton acts and performers who Flemmons thought deserved to be seen by a wider audience. It seemed like pointing people in the direction of Denton, located on Interstate 35, was a good idea, thus the name North by 35.
"It seemed overambitious and daunting at the time to try to pull it off here," Flemmons says. "So, we started the afternoon parties in Austin to try and build the name a little bit. But the plan was always to eventually have North by 35 be in Denton."
Flemmons thought it would take two years. It ended up taking four. And, last year, it took Flemmons close to six months of working 20-hour days, six (and sometimes seven) days a week to pull it off. He enlisted nearly 50 volunteers from within Denton's music community to help with everything from ad sales and promotion to planning and organizing. Most of the volunteers drop by the office to help out for a few hours after working their full-time jobs.
"It does feel self-abusive at points, and you also start to question what it is you're doing," Flemmons says, pausing briefly before answering what exactly he is doing. "We're really just trying to do something to better the town. That's the big thing. And, really, we're hoping to draw some attention to Denton from outside of the area."
As the founder and frontman of The Baptist Generals, who've been performing and touring for more than a decade, Flemmons had learned the ins-and-outs of the music festival circuit, both stateside and overseas.
"Last year, it was just a first-year event," Flemmons says. "But it was tremendously rewarding. At the end of all that, I was extremely exhausted. I spent, like, three weeks in bed recovering and watching box-set DVDs. But it was rewarding because afterward there was a whole lot of momentum for and interest in putting something like this together."
When Flemmons says rewarding, he doesn't mean money. After he and the volunteers worked from August 2008 through March 2009, the inaugural conferette turned a $200 profit. "I was just glad to end up with the shirt on my back," he says. "When it was all over, I was still driving my car around with the brakes metal-on-metal."
Flemmons says he started pawning instruments and recording equipment to pay the bills before landing a gig helping Oak Cliff barbecue joint Smoke put together some impressive local shows. But it wasn't long before Flemmons had to shift all of his focus back to NX35. How has this year compared with last year? During the run-up to last year's NX35, Flemmons used birthing imagery to describe the process of organizing the first-year event, but this year, from the moment organizers announced The Flaming Lips show, Flemmons says it was like jumping off a cliff.
"Once you announce a show like the Lips, there's no going back," he says.
Nearly every wall of NX35's apartment-size headquarters has been taken over by floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, and The Flaming Lips show gets its own section. The north wall holds a gigantic calendar charting the 200-plus bands scheduled to participate in more than a dozen venues near downtown Denton. That's a substantial increase from last year's 124 bands in nine venues, making this year's event a few bands larger than the first SXSW back in 1987. This year, Pitchfork referred to NX35 as SXSW's "baby cousin." It's an apt description. Last year's SXSW featured more than 1,900 artists on more than 80 stages, and while NX35 is put together by nearly 100 volunteers working after hours and weekends, SXSW employs a crew of 70 full-time staffers.
But when it began in 1987 and SXSW was under the umbrella of the Austin Chronicle, things were a little different. Roland Swenson, SXSW managing director and one of the event's founders, says in the early days SXSW didn't have an office or any employees.
"It was just a few of us after we'd get off at the Chronicle," Swenson says by phone from SXSW headquarters. "But the most important thing that we did was spend a whole lot of time planning it and coming up with a plan of how to launch it. But it was still like catching lightning in a bottle."
The founders knew that they wanted to promote Austin and the local bands, but they also thought that for it to succeed they needed to draw in people from other cities and other music scenes. So, they went to a lot of the alternative weekly newspapers and got them to sign on as co-sponsors. They ended up booking 200 bands in 12 clubs and had about 700 people registering for the conference, which was about three times more than they expected.
"For the most part, we kind of flew under the radar of the city for a long time," Swenson says. "It wasn't until the early '90s when the event got too big to ignore."
The first thing that happened was the fire marshal started enforcing the max capacity of the clubs and venues. At that point, Swenson says, SXSW planners realized they needed to start working with the city early on to avoid problems. Not long after that, the city government figured out how many people were coming to Austin, and what an economic boon the festival really was for the city.
"We were fortunate that...as South by Southwest grew, Austin was also growing, adding more hotels downtown, a new airport. And many new nightclubs and restaurants opened in the '90s," Swenson says.
First published in 2002, Dr. Richard Florida's best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life spawned a series of similar books that developed Florida's ideas on urban development. Since the book was released, it's steadily found its way into the hearts of city planners around the nation. His general theory posits that the economic growth of a city depends on the city's ability to attract and retain a population of young, creative types, like artists and musicians.
"I like to tell city leaders that finding ways to help support a local music scene can be just as important as investing in high-tech business and far more effective than building a downtown mall," Florida writes in the book.
Back in 2005, Denton's then-Mayor Euline Brock handed out at least 25 copies of Rise of the Creative Class to city officials. Elected in 2008 and up for re-election now, current Mayor Mark Burroughs acknowledges that some of the ideas set forth in the book have trickled down and been adopted by various parts of the city government.
"There's no doubt about it that it has been a motivator for many who have been involved in our long-term Denton plan, our 20-Year Plan, our Downtown Development Plan," Burroughs says. "And many players have bought into Richard Florida's vision and what the arts and entertainment scene can do for a city. To basically enmesh the advantages of having thriving arts and entertainment within your city can create a vibrancy that you cannot get any other way. We have the raw materials. What we have lacked, if anything, is enough display cases for our art. And that's what a big part of NX35 is, is creating a display case for the region's music talent for all to see."
Burroughs and many in the city's government have been behind the idea of NX35 from the get-go—at least on paper. And there's a good reason for that. Burroughs says that for two out of the last three years, Denton has been one of the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country with more than 100,000 population.
"Denton is exploding," Burroughs says. "And it's time for Denton to be exploding in another way—in the music scene. Because I think that the music scene will help solidify Denton's identity as it grows, because that's important too. You need to maintain your identity, your uniqueness, and the music scene is just part and parcel of what makes Denton a wonderful place to be. By and large, only people from the region and some music circles have really known that up to now. And I think NX35 will get the rest of the world to sit up and take notice."
It's not exactly a secret in certain indie genre circles that Denton has a thriving music scene. And the city has taken to branding itself as a music Mecca of sorts, what with an image of musical notes floating over the downtown's historic Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum on the city's Web page. After all, Denton is home to the University of North Texas' well-known College of Music, which is home to the first-of-its-kind, internationally applauded Division of Jazz Studies. Then there's the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
From the rock music pumping out of Andy's Bar to the soft strumming of a young duo busking on the square, if you're downtown, then avoiding live music on the weekends is impossible, but Burroughs says there's more to it than that.
"Once you've lived here you know that this town breathes music," he says.
Mike and Jenny Seman moved to Denton in December 2003 after living in Los Angeles for eight years. "We were looking for a change," Mike says. "And at the same time, it was getting incredibly expensive to live in our neighborhood and, to be honest, most of the city, so it was a two-fold thing." After visiting Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Minneapolis and other areas, they ended up picking Denton.
Mike is a research associate at the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington and an NX35 volunteer. If there's one guy locally who knows what all this means for Denton, it's him. He's working on his Ph.D. in urban planning and public policy, focusing on the intersection of music and urban redevelopment.
"I couldn't say that NX35 is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Denton music, because I don't have a crystal ball," Seman says. "But it is a significant event in [Denton's] progression toward its future as a creative economy. We are four hours north of Austin, and when you think of music and you think of urban areas, you think of Austin immediately, because the city has been very successful in marketing and branding and supporting themselves that way. And NX35 and the city's involvement could help Denton to go in that direction.
"We'd visited Denton because Jen's sisters and brother lived here," he says. "And it was so much fun. The people had a reckless exuberance for life like we hadn't found anywhere else. And music was such a big part of the culture and, being musicians, that was the biggest thing for us. That's what sold us on moving to Denton."
Dan's Silverleaf is a bar and venue decorated like a 1960s cantina, but owner Dan Mojica may as well have a buzzing neon sign above the entrance flashing: "The Boardroom." Why? Because come sundown on any given night of the week, Mojica's bar plays host to a revolving cast of band members and musicians from the ranks of Denton's music scene. (If you ask a Denton band's members where they want to meet you for an interview, odds are the one-word reply will be "Dan's.")
In August 2009, Chris Flemmons and Midlake's Eric Pulido were at Dan's Silverleaf shooting the shit when Pulido suggested to Flemmons that NX35 should try to get The Flaming Lips to play in Denton. That conversation went on for about six weeks. It was an innocent enough idea that quickly started to take on a life of its own when negotiations with the band started sometime in September.
Soon, the dream of throwing a free show on a closed portion of Hickory Street in downtown Denton made it from the planning stages on bar napkins to computer mock-ups on Flemmons' laptop. But NX35 couldn't start promoting the show until they had the official word from the Lips' camp confirming the concert.
Denton's rumor mill was buzzing more than a month before the official announcement, which came on December 17 after a listening party for Midlake's The Courage of Others. After the crowd listened to what the Dallas Observer would later call "arguably the most important record ever to come out of Denton," Pulido announced to the crowd that Midlake would be playing with The Flaming Lips as a part of NX35. Within hours, tweets went out and blog posts went up repeating the news.
Finally, the NX35 crew could start trying to attract bands and sponsors to the conferette with The Flaming Lips as part of the appeal. At 41, Flemmons was confident that he needed some young blood to help out with the booking of the event.
He knew if this year was to be a success, then they needed to up the ante by bringing in lots of national acts in addition to The Flaming Lips. To help out with the booking, he tapped Matthew Gray of Matthew and the Arrogant Sea (who books shows for Dan's Silverleaf), as well as reaching out for help from local music blogs, like DayBowBow and WeeklyTapeDeck.
"I had a blast last year," Gray says. "But I felt that this year we needed to pick up where Chris left off by bringing in some higher-profile acts. And Chris knew that he didn't know who the fuck to try to bring in."
For Gray, bringing in acts that will draw from outside the area was a big consideration. "We really believe that North by  helps support the local businesses because it brings people from outside of the area into our downtown and to the bars and restaurants and shops. And we'd like to think that once they see it they'll want to come back."
Take, for example, Jaime-Paul Falcon, who launched DayBowBow a little more than a year ago. Living in Dallas since 2007, after spending three years in Houston, Falcon says that NX35 helped him learn more about the local music scene. Falcon says he had caught some occasional shows in Denton, but last year's festival helped a lot of people, himself included, to see what Denton had to offer by way of musicians and the city itself.
Just two months after last year's NX35, Falcon booked his first show at J & J's Pizza in Denton. For NX35, he nabbed HEALTH and Indian Jewelry for starts, but he admits that it's an intimidating task. "I wake up every morning, and I freak out, and I'm like, 'Oh my God! Why am I a part of this? How did this happen?'" he says by phone, taking a break from his own all-day one-year Blogoversary Party held at Dan's. "It's scary some days, and other days it's like, well, I guess somebody decided that I could handle it."
By mid-February, The Flaming Lips show, while only one part of the event, had taken on a life of its own. But the dream started to unravel as the city started looking into how many people might actually show up for such an event. After Denton's city officials started calling their Oklahoma counterparts and inquiring about free shows and large festivals, based on past Flaming Lips events, the projected turnout jumped from 6,000 to 9,000 to between 15,000 and 20,000. Denton's police and fire officials took one look at aerial photos of the area downtown where East Hickory Street was to be closed off and determined that the space wouldn't hold that many show-goers.
On February 19, the NX35 blog announced that the free show would have to be moved nearly a mile and a half away from downtown to the North Texas Fairgrounds.
The following Tuesday in Denton's City Hall East, Flemmons and the NX35 operations team met around a wooden conference table with nearly a dozen Denton officials ranging from fire and police to parks and sanitation. The first half of the meeting went well, but then in the last half the NX35 crew found out that a Camel cigarettes tent that was going to be set up in a city parking lot might be an issue. Seems the city has a problem with tobacco branding being displayed in the parking lot.
What the city doesn't know, or realize yet, is that alcohol and tobacco sponsors are the bread and butter for smaller, not-yet-underwritten festivals such as NX35. Camel was supposed to have two "adult-sampling" tents set up during the four-day event, one at the fairgrounds and one near a "walkable" portion of the event near the Wells Fargo building on the square. Together the tents meant $10,000 in sponsorship money.
Then, to make matters worse, now that the possible number of attendees has been capped at 15,000, the NX35 crew started hearing the final estimates of what the city will have to charge to staff the event—approximately $9,000 for police and another $9,000 for EMTs. The festival also needed a laundry list of special event permits.
Suddenly, everything had changed.
"Move the meeting to Dan's," one of the volunteers suggested while leaving City Hall.
"Seconded," Flemmons said, and minutes later at Dan's, in the red glow from the stage lamps, Flemmons and crew reconvened.
"The details, I'm happy with," he said. "The issue's gonna be with the funding." The crew discussed what to do about the Camel tent. NX35 doesn't have any underwriters yet, so to keep afloat it depends on ticket sales, venue buy-ins and sponsorships. And, while the sponsorship money can usually be banked on, the ticket sales are never a guarantee.
"I'm worried about the money," chimed in Corey Bowe, a NX35 volunteer with past festival-planning experience.
"I'm worried about the money, but..." Flemmons paused. "I've got a couple of financial things going on that I can't really talk about right now. I mean, it's possible that we're gonna get some last-minute help."
The crew kept talking about the meeting in cautiously optimistic tones for another 20 minutes. But, after borrowing a Bic to light a cigarette, Flemmons said, "I don't mind saying I'm getting frightened."
Then on Friday night, now less than two weeks away from NX35, a handful of key volunteers met at the NX35 office. The cigarette-sampling tents were officially not going to happen. And, with down-payment deadlines for bands rapidly approaching, the loss of the Camel tent really was the straw that broke the camel's back. Every contingency plan was on the table—even canceling the show.
By Saturday, Flemmons was running out of time and out of options. He'd called Booker and left messages, and he'd thought about driving up to Oklahoma. By Sunday morning, he was on the road.
Nothing was resolved during the Monday morning meeting with Booker, who was to call Flemmons as soon as some decision from the Lips' camp could be reached. But the programs were due at the printers that night, and, if they wanted to be sure to get them printed before the conferette was under way, then they needed to be sent out immediately.
There were two versions of the program—one that included the Lips show and one that didn't. They sent the printers the one including The Flaming Lips/Midlake show.
On Tuesday afternoon, Booker contacted Flemmons by phone. The last-minute road trip to Oklahoma had paid off.
"The show's on," Flemmons said later that day. "And this is a good day, because, well, it's the first time in almost a week that the stage, and the festival, have felt secure." He declined to go into the specifics of the conversation, or negotiations, but it doesn't take a veteran band manager or booking agent to figure out that The Flaming Lips agreed to take less money for playing NX35's free show.
Finally, Flemmons is able to get back to work on less pressing issues, like distributing the fresh-from-the-printer NX35 posters, fielding phone calls from reporters and keeping Brunswick out of the office fridge. So far, Saturday is a sellout, but no one knows how much The Flaming Lips free show on Saturday will affect wristband sales for the three other days of NX35. But never mind all that. What everyone's really wondering now is if Wayne Coyne's going to bring his giant hamster ball.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.