Music festivals are a tough business. It's hard to make them stick. Organizers don't usually expect to break even for the first five years, often longer. Even if a festival survives, it's not the end of the story. Maintaining what you have often means expanding your model and your audience. But for many festivals, that goes against what makes them great in the first place.
Exhibit A: Fun Fun Fun Fest, which took place last weekend at Auditorium Shores in Austin. Now in its ninth year, its voluminous credibility is built on its status as a small, well-curated event. But while this year's installment was an overall success, there were hints of a festival that's hit a crossroads.
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The weekend got off to a bad start, though that wasn't entirely the festival's fault. Software issues caused the computers to repeatedly crash on Friday, leaving fans caught in long and slow-moving lines. By late afternoon, the wait for will call had stretched to over three hours, a situation especially painful for people who shelled out $85 plus fees for a one-day pass. (Not that the $195 weekend-pass holders were thrilled either.)
To their credit, Transmission, the organizers of FFF, responded to the situation by eventually letting everyone in the door essentially on good faith, and for the rest of the weekend there were no further issues. In their statement-slash-apology, they alluded to the difficulties caused by their change of location -- Auditorium Shores is undergoing remodeling, meaning the layout was different from 2013 -- but that was only part of the problem. Even without the technical issues, the box office seemed way under-staffed.
Exact numbers on attendance haven't been released yet, but it's almost certain they were higher than they've ever been. It was only three years ago, after all, that the festival moved to Auditorium Shores from the much smaller confines of Waterloo Park, expanding not only from two to three days but also incorporating the FFF Nites in the downtown clubs. Saturday in particular was very full. Not surprisingly, then, it was on Sunday, when the crowds had thinned out a bit, that the weekend seemed to hit its proper balance of a relaxed, end-of-season festival with plenty of space to move around.
That, after all, is what's supposed to make FFF so great. It's a small-to-midsize fest with a little bit of everything: Music, comedy and side attractions (wrestling, skateboarding, table tennis, bean bags and the like), plus good beer (from Shiner) and liquor. Its strengths lie in the details, the most important of which remains the music, which draws heavily on tastemaker-friendly indie bands and, more unusually, metal. It's a blend few festivals serve up, including Austin City Limits and SXSW.
Yet for all that, the core of this year's lineup felt disjointed. Part of that, again, wasn't exactly the festival's fault: Death Grips, Guided By Voices and Death Cab for Cutie, all supposed to feature prominently, canceled. Then again, those first two bands are notorious for being unreliable, and while the last wasn't exactly exciting (they failed to even sell out KXT's Summer Cut over the summer), they were still intended to be co-headliners. Foreseeable or not, these remained miscalculations.
The remaining lineup fell a little flat, too. Much like ACL this year, the headliners at FFF -- Judas Priest? Modest Mouse? Neutral Milk Hotel? -- were heavy on nostalgia, light on currency. Sure, many of those selections were bands you'd never find at ACL, and the stages were broken down conveniently along rough genre lines, but the package didn't veer that noticeably from the model of the big festivals from which FFF supposedly separates itself.
But that's what happens when a festival grows the way FFF has in recent years: It can no longer rely on young, up-and-coming bands to build its lineup because it needs to sell more tickets, so it falls back on "name" artists to help broaden the appeal. Much like criticisms that have been leveled against SXSW in recent years, there was little to actually buzz about. Those efforts to split the difference made FFF feel like a festival that's a little unsure of its identity, or at least in a state of transition.
Compare that to a festival like ACL. It's a popular one to criticize, thanks to its emphasis on Top 40 artists, an unabashed corporate presence and huge crowds, but it's a festival that knows exactly what it is: a big, populist event with mass appeal. Crucially, it books bands that are often made to play big stages, which is just as important as music-snob cred. (It's no coincidence many of the "best" sets at FFF took place in the clubs at night.)
All of which leaves FFF in a curious spot. As the small, accessible festival in Austin, it can make an almost de facto claim to being the best in the state, the one in-the-know fans prefer to its larger counterparts. And, much like the city itself, the festival doesn't really need to be cutting edge in order to keep its status; so long as enough people want to be there, it can coast on its reputation. No doubt people will be more than ready to shell out for tickets again in 2015, and it's safe to say the future of FFF is secure for years to come.
What's harder to predict, however, is whether it will remain the "cool" festival it's been in recent years or whether it will become just another of the many that Austin has to offer. Chances are it will be the latter. As ACL has demonstrated, simply being a good or even great event is no guarantee of being the "it" festival. Some of that depends on what direction organizers try to take FFF in the coming years -- will they try to keep it small, or continue to grow it? It may not be quite the same festival it once was, but as this year's growing pains reinforced, it's a ways off from moving up to the next tier.
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The fact of the matter is that, whether you're a band or a music festival, it's hard to maintain a buzz. Without that spontaneous, low-expectations energy, some of the magic gets lost. And as ACL and SXSW can attest, there's always another upstart to come and steal your thunder.
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