It's still early going but already 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year for music festivals in North Texas. Much has changed in the past couple years, thanks in no small part to the recent hiatus of 35 Denton, which had led the way for local fests for several annual festival cycles. 35 Denton is set to return next month, but in its absence events like Oaktopia have continued to grow and flourish. But now there's a new dark horse in the running.
Thin Line Fest is already the biggest independent documentary film festival in all of Texas. It's been at it for eight years, but only last year added a full-on music component to the equation. This week, Thin Line takes over Denton for five whole days, and what differentiates it from festival neighbors 35 Denton and Oaktopia is its minimalist sensibility: There will only be 30 bands playing Thin Line this year.
"It's definitely a case of quality over quantity," says Thin Line director Joshua Butler. "I would much prefer a more exclusive, cohesive group than a huge bill." He's using the same size music budget as he did last year when he booked 100 bands, but this time he's distributing it amongst a bill that's one-third the size. It's an easy-to-manage fest that will showcase bigger artists in smaller, more intimate venues.
Butler was spurred on to incorporate music into Thin Line in direct response to the vacuum left by 35 Denton's departure. Butler says he's typically involved music in the fest, but only as a supplement to the movies. What he hadn't foreseen was just how quickly his own lineup would balloon, thanks to the sheer number of acts that 35 Denton had historically booked and spread across a wealth of local venues.
While Butler has no regrets about how it turned out last year, he streamlined things for his second go-round. Now Thin Line occupies Dan's Silverleaf, Hailey's and Banter Bistro for nearly a week, with a big-name headliner each night. The careful venue selection makes Thin Line a quintessential Denton festival; it not only draws from North Texas talent, but also provides a crash course in its venue scene.
Thin Line continues to swim against the tide by following a structure it initially developed as a film festival: You not only get to see big local acts and artists, you also get to interact with them on a personal level, at events ranging from panel discussions to guest appearances. The pairing of documentaries with musicians feels appropriate, as both can be raw and self-revealing.
A perfect embodiment of this crossover is the film Midlake: Live in Denton, which catalogs the journey of a band that is inseparable from Denton. Part documentary, part concert footage, it bridges the gap by not only showing the relationship between music and film, but also offering the opportunity to talk to the band's members and the film's directors after the credits roll. This blurred boundary between artist and audience, which would be nearly impossible with more than 30 bands in the lineup, is what defines Thin Line.
Booking for the alternative crowd has been handled by Bryan Denney, who primarily sets up the alternative and rock-oriented acts that come through Dan's Silverleaf. Before that, he was the main talent buyer at Rubber Gloves. Thanks to Denney, Thin Line features an eclectic set of artists -- some local, some not -- that includes Black Joe Lewis, Jessie Frye and Seryn. Butler wants to appeal to the typically older crowd for film festivals while also drawing in new, young attendees.
Intriguingly, this year's lineup also has a flawless hip-hop showcase. Booked by Denton MC Chris "AV the Great" Avant, it's headlined by Devin the Dude and features locals like Blue, the Misfit and AV himself. For Denney and AV, Thin Line presents a unique opportunity to connect various disciplines of creative expression. AV met Butler while working on a segment for local television, and Butler called him up when he decided to introduce music to Thin Line last year. Although AV's focus is hip-hop, he also booked many of the EDM acts.
"People swear there's not a hip-hop scene in Denton," Avant says, shaking his head. "Which I just don't get. People down the highway think that, but they just don't know yet." That's peculiar, given that hip-hop acts play Rubber Gloves and Hailey's all the time. But if Avant has anything to say about it, people will get hip soon enough. He's been given the chance to put acts from Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth together in a showcase at a destination festival.
Granted, Thin Line isn't the first festival to bring a strong hip-hop roster to Denton; hip-hop has been at the core of Oaktopia's identity from the beginning. But in straying from the mantra that a bigger festival makes for a better festival, Thin Line offers up a distinct alternative to its neighbors. As Butler sees it, there's no need for an arms race; he'd rather maintain the small, curated nature of his fest and focus on growing the pedigree of acts in the future.
"I don't want to just make it bigger, I want to see it develop as people realize what it provides for Denton," Butler says. "I think we've found the right balance between size and substance."
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