When Woodstock took place in '69, big music festivals were a rare and special thing. Today, nearly every major city has a generous handful of annual festivals representing a variety of genres. Dallas-Fort Worth has Spillover, 35 Denton, Oaktopia, Lights All Night, Homegrown Fest, Untapped, JMBLYA, and that's not close to all. Needless to say, the announcement of another festival, no matter how great the headliner, is rarely cause to bat an eye.
That's why it's remarkable that a festival taking place Friday through Sunday in Houston, Day for Night, has lit up social media and inspired people from all over the country, and even the world, to purchase tickets. Seventy-five percent of ticket sales for the art and music festival, which runs Friday through Sunday and will feature a rare performance by Aphex Twin and an art installation by Bjork, are from outside Houston.
"It was our hope that we would garner a strong outside-of-Houston attending base, but we never figured that 75 percent would come from out of Houston, so we’re pleasantly surprised," says Omar Afra, one of the festival's producers as well as the founder of alt-weekly Free Press Houston.
Afra had been working on Free Press Summer Fest, which he calls a "pretty standard summer music festival," in Houston for nine years when he and his creative team began tossing around ideas for a new festival. In their conversations, he found himself bored by the typical festival template and looking for a way to bring art into the mix to liven things up.
"Frankly, we’re not necessarily innovating here, but we’re correcting a mistake in the music industry in the last 40 some odd years," Afra says. "At some point art and music were disassociated and we’re really looking to authentically reintegrate them."
It's an interesting concept, but even Afra knew that the festival couldn't survive on that alone. To distinguish a festival in this crowded market he'd also have to come up with rare musical acts. In Day for Night's first year, Afra landed performances from New Order and Kendrick Lamar. With only one year under its belt Consequence of Sound has already ranked it the third best music festival in the world, ahead of Lollapalooza, Coachella and Glastonbury.
"There’s a lot of bands that play the festival circuit and they travel and basically do a festival tour," Afra says. "We’re glad that festivals have given a lot of bands social revenue in a time when record sales are shrinking. That said we don’t want any of those bands that are playing every other festival. We want to create special moments that you wouldn’t otherwise see."
So what strings did Afra pull to get Aphex Twin to give his first U.S. performance in 23 years at Day for Night? He says it was only a matter of persistence. "My last festival I was partnered with some music industry sacred cows and I would go to my partners on the regular and say, 'Well, what about Aphex Twin this year? It will be such a big deal.' I was always shot down with, 'Oh, it won’t work. He won’t play.'
"A couple years ago I started pestering Aphex Twins’ agent, so really it was about persistence and not being dismayed by getting unanswered emails. Eventually after a whole lot of prodding — maybe just to shut me up — they said, 'OK, let’s make this happen.'"
In addition to Aphex Twin, the 2016 iteration of Day for Night will also include sets from Bjork, Butthole Surfers and Run the Jewels, as well as over 60 other music acts. Bjork will also be bringing a five-room virtual reality installation, placing her in the company of 15 other visual artists. That's a lot of action for a three-day festival.
The Day for Night team also strove for diversity in their lineup, with "curveball" sets like the one by film composer John Carpenter on Saturday night. Of the lesser known acts Afra recommends festival goers check out Lightning Bolt, "a two-piece bass and drum outfit with pretty strong punk rock tendencies as a matter of performance energy."
Houston has produced plenty of famous musicians including Beyoncé, Kenny Rogers, ZZ Top, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, but this is the first time in recent memory that the city has attracted international attention for a music festival. Afra says that Houston makes a great music destination and it's about time.
"Why not Houston?" he asks. "It’s soon to be the third largest city in the country. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country. There’s a ton of people moving here. The arts scene is enormous."
Tickets to Day for Night aren't cheap, at $170 for the least expensive weekend pass, but music lovers from Dallas are finding ways to make the trip.
“It’s the week after finals for me — I’m in school for engineering. I’m trying to do this as cheaply as possible but used the fest as my ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’” Krissy Heishman says. “I was thinking about selling my ticket though, because I could really use the money and the combined entry and lodging and gas was daunting, but a close friend offered me a place to stay and a ride down which was really swell of them to do.”
Philip Washington, aka well-known local DJ Cygnus, says he doesn't usually attend festivals unless he's playing. He'll perform at before- and after-parties at the festival, but he agrees this festival is special, and he's particularly looking forward to seeing Aphex Twin.
"Even though I know it’s likely going to be a DJ set, I’m a huge fan of live hardware electronic sets," he says. "The brutal honest truth is that Aphex Twin is the reason everybody’s losing their minds about this [festival]."
Washington adds that Day for Night's visual art emphasis is also a big draw for people. "Another reason why there's a lot of interest in this festival in particular is the huge array of visual installments that are kind of like larger-than-life video and audio art installments. It's not things you just stand and look at; they change based on your behavior and what you do with your body. It’s more than just music; it’s a compete audio-visual experience. That sets it apart from other festivals."
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It's becoming increasingly common for musicians to be billed with artists working in other mediums at shows and festivals. This happens in Dallas frequently. The recently ended DIY series Vice Palace often incorporated performance art into its bills, house shows in Dallas regularly have poets or comedians taking the mic between sets, and the monthly Dallas Ambient Music Nights are just as much about the video projection artists as the music.
"Where it’s going now, especially in the community in Dallas, is much, much larger than even David Bowie could have predicted. In the '90s, he said the artist and the performer will become less and less a focal point of an event and it will almost be that the performer is there to accompany the audience," Washington says. "The places where I go, anyone who is interested in any kind of artistic endeavor is going to be contributing — people who do sculptures, people who do music, people who DJ."
Before it has even taken place, Day for Night is already an unqualified success and Afra and his team are planning its third iteration next year. The lineup will be released in September.
Day for Night takes place Friday, Dec. 16, through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Barbara Jordan Post Office, 401 Franklin St., Houston. Tickets start at $170 at dayfornight.io.