Another new music festival, another OK lineup with a mediocre concept. Welcome to DFW.
Earlier this week, first-time Dallas festival Bulladora Music Experience announced its full lineup of bands, complemented by the rather bizarre theme of the "pugasus" — that is, a pug dressed up with a pair of wings. If ever there were a time to wonder whether North Texas has too many festivals, now would appear to be it.
The question of festival fatigue certainly isn't a new one. The Dallas Observer wrote about it in 2013. But since then the problem has become more clear — and it isn't a matter of quantity. The problem is quality.
For all the festivals that have managed to do things right, there are at least as many that seem to lack vision and, in some cases, a clear understanding of what even constitutes a festival. "If there's a reason for a festival, I don't think you can have too many. If there's a festival every weekend and they're all amazing, then there's no problem with that," says Gavin Mulloy, the marketing and creative director at Trees and The Bomb Factory. He's been a part of multiple festivals over the years, including this weekend's Spillover Fest and the Elm St. Music and Tattoo Festival, which is set to take place in May.
The problem, of course, is that they're not all amazing. "People slap the word festival on and it's really just a concert with outside vendors," Mulloy says. "I always think of festivals having multiple stages and being outside. Now that might be wrong for me to think that way, but I think those are good criteria."
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Bulladora would seem to be the latest entry that doesn't meet those criteria. Set to take place in Reverchon Park off Turtle Creek, it features a solid if not particularly inspiring lineup of indie bands like Yeasayer, whose "buzzworthiness" has tapered off since 2010's Odd Blood, and Washed Out. There will also be hot air balloon rides, "quirky lawn games" and, to go with the "pugasus" theme, a pug petting zoo to, uh, help set the fest apart from the pack. "The type of event we were craving didn't exist here, so we set out to create it," read the press release.
Recent history has not been kind to startup festivals in the area. The graveyard is filled with enough bodies to swing a Chicago election. There was the Timescape Festival at Globe Life Park in Arlington that got canceled before it happened. The same was true of NiFi Festival at Texas Motor Speedway. That's not even to mention the Deep Ellum Block Party that was canceled early last year or the Suburbia Music Festival in Plano that LiveNation pulled its support for after one year of a five-year contract at the end of 2014. None of these events seemed to have a clear identity, and their failures to even take place suggest a fundamental lack of planning.
The festivals that have made it to start time haven't fared too well, either. There was the Dallas Music District Festival, which went ahead as planned but was so woefully under-attended it was declared dead on arrival. Ditto Lone Star Texas Heritage Fest. The Music District was admittedly handicapped by rain that forced a change of location, while Lone Star made the mistake of holding theirs in a parking lot. In August. In Texas. Neither was very well promoted, but there was another underlying issue common to them both.
"People aren't realistic about what a specific artist can draw," says Mulloy. "Some of these festivals I've seen headlined by people that are like, 'That person plays at Trees.' That doesn't make sense to me."
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DMD was headlined by local blues singer Jonathan Tyler, who played an album release show at Trees just a couple months later. That's simply not the sort of draw that can support a proper music festival.
Booking is a key component of what makes a good festival work. The organizers of Timescape, NiFi and DMD all lacked previous booking experience in the area, much less experience booking festivals on that scale. "You reach out to an agent you have no relationship with and get a ridiculous price to get [that artist], so they're upside down from the get go," says Mulloy. In the case of Timescape, it was torpedoed after one of its key artists withdrew from the bill.
A number of festivals have managed to thrive in recent years, and many of the best in Dallas are in the process of growing. Each is spearheaded by an experienced booking team. Parade of Flesh's Spillover Fest is entering its ninth year this weekend and expanding from its longtime one-day format to three. Homegrown Fest, which counts the co-owner of Club Dada as one of its founders, has added a whole extra festival, which they've attributed to Old 97's but which is organizationally Homegrown Pt. II in all but name. Untapped, meanwhile, had a big year of growth in 2015, adding an event in San Antonio to its arsenal of events in Austin, Houston and Fort Worth, while nearly doubling the capacity of its flagship event in Dallas.
Each of those festivals has another thing in common: a clear identity. Parade of Flesh draws on the arsenal of punk and noise bands that it books throughout the year, Homegrown is a family friendly event that features exclusively Texas artists, and Untapped is a combination beer and music fest. Most of those failed fests never seemed so sure of themselves, as though simply being a festival was enough to sell tickets.
Starting a music festival is one thing. Starting a successful one is a completely different matter. It will always be survival of the fittest. If it really were easy to do, then maybe we would have too many festivals. "Festivals are really hard," says Mulloy. "It's hard. It's a lot of people doing a lot of work to pull in the same direction."