For the past couple years, Oaktopia Festival has been Denton's golden child. Started by a couple of University of North Texas students in 2013, the three-day music festival has grown into arguably the best in all of North Texas, and one of Denton's few unequivocal success stories in the midst of venue closures.
But now even that is in jeopardy, with news of co-owner and primary investor John "Sparky" Pearson's exit.
"Sparky and his crew, this could never have happened as big as it did without him in such a short amount of time," says Matt Battaglia, who founded Oaktopia with his friend Corey Claytor when he was only 23. Pearson, who owns a number of restaurants in Denton including LSA Burger Co. and Barley & Board, came on board for the festival's second year in 2014. "He's a great dude. We got lucky partnering with him because the guy supports the music scene and puts his money where his mouth is," Battaglia says.
The split is an amicable one, according to Battaglia, but he admits that Pearson's contributions went beyond monetary support. Among other things, his restaurants catered each of the past three years of the festival. "He's opening four businesses, I think it is, in 2017 on top of the five or six he already owns," Battaglia says. "The festival is a lot of work when you're trying to do it yourself and not hire outside companies to run the production. We used mostly his manpower and it's just a lot of work and strain on his businesses."
Oaktopia's booking became increasingly ambitious under Pearson's co-ownership, with last year's event featuring Grammy-winner Norah Jones and one full night designated to Petty Fest. Battaglia says daily attendance last year averaged around 5,000 people. "It's harder and harder every year as you grow, especially last year. We just tried to throw the whole kitchen sink at it. We did movies, comedy, art shows, lit up the courthouse with a projector," Battaglia says. "Last year was really stressful."
Fixing the problem for Oaktopia could be as simple as finding new investors to fill the gap left behind by Pearson, but it fits in with a growing cash flow problem for above-ground music in Denton. Last year saw Hailey's Club, Rubber Gloves and J&J's Pizza's Old Dirty Basement all go out of business, followed by news in January that 35 Denton would (once again) be taking a hiatus, and Pearson has been one of the only notable outside investors to put money into the scene.
Battaglia is confident that Oaktopia will get the investment it needs — but it might not come from Denton. "It seems we'll definitely come back this year with investment. I'd be very surprised if we didn't get the investment we're looking for," he says. The festival has traditionally taken place in late September, which is still six months away. "We have two groups we're talking to in Denton and multiple groups out in Dallas that are interested."
Oaktopia may need to look outside Denton anyway, just based on what ticket sales have suggested. "It's really crazy: Even though close to 40 percent of our social media following is from Denton, we only get about one-third of ticket sales from Denton. We got about 25 percent-plus more sold out of Dallas," Battaglia says. That wasn't a new trend in 2016, either, as Battaglia says it had started the year prior when prices began to increase. "I think there's only so much money people in Denton can spend on tickets," he says.
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That, however, makes for a larger problem on Denton's part. Battaglia insists that the scene itself is healthy, given that house shows "are fucking packed" (a fact supported by events like last fall's Broketopia, a DIY festival staged for bands not invited to Oaktopia), but that's an entirely different business position from being able to support a large-scale, multi-day music festival with outdoor stages. That fact isn't lost on Battaglia: "I'm worried we've tapped out what Denton can do. Our ticket sales are right around where 35 Denton's were at before they started to have to scale back," he says, referring to the hiatus 35 Denton took in 2014.
When 35 Denton did return a year later, it was at reduced capacity, and it never really recovered. Battaglia isn't interested in repeating that sequence of events. "If we were to have to go back to just being a venue festival, then probably the festival as we know it would be done. We wouldn't be trying to take a growth trajectory anymore," he says. "Let's do the venue thing for fun with a nice group of volunteers. But there's no way to sustain the level we’re at just doing it in venues."
That's why the possibility of Oaktopia relocating to Dallas seems increasingly likely, even if still far from certain. Such a move will likely come down to new investors. Should Battaglia and co. leave, Denton would still have events like the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival and Thin Line Fest, although those lack either the big-name pop and indie bookings or sheer volume of artists as Oaktopia. More important, it would leave another question mark hanging over the future direction of Denton music.
"Of course I love Denton, and it has supported us. It's in my blood. I was born and raised here," Battaglia says. "But it's just the reality of the situation that if tickets can't sell in Denton and we want to keep the festival going, then we'll look at other places to do it."