Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The MDF Crisis Point, or, Build Your Own Stage In A Field About It

Right now, about every underground metalhead in the populated part of the 95 corridor -- and a fair number from other parts of the Western Hemisphere and the world at large -- is freaking out about this. I'm not, because I wasn't going to MDF this year, but I'm still concerned about the implications this has for festivals in the US.

The hiatus that NEDF has been on since 2009 is likely to be permanent for much the same reasons: changes in venue management that lock the festival out. The MDF team are allegedly on top of this and shifting operations to a backup venue, but this only punts the problem down the road. As long as your festival is happening in someone else's building, you remain able to do it only at their sufferance. If they decide "screw this, we're not making enough money as a bar, we should put a Jimmy John's franchise here instead", you'll be off again looking for someplace else to put up your fest.

With the way festivals are in the US, it's not surprising that organizers accept this; most of them book regular shows as well and are thoroughly accustomed to venue operators being fly-by-nights not committed to any kind of continuity, and to hunting up new venues to book DIY bands into as bars fail or change concept. The problem is that festivals are different from normal shows, and treating them as multi-day normal shows has a negative influence on their long-term success. The rituals of place and surrounding circumstance are important in building community around a festival, a core of people who will show up regardless of the bands (well, as long as the bill doesn't totally suck), and changes in this will shake up the community -- hence the assurances from the MDF team that the new venue is going to be close by Sonar. It would go a long way towards ameliorating these problems, though, to start and run festivals not out of existing bars, but on fields or disused airstrips.

Yes, it's expensive to rent/build staging, hire PA, pay security, and there's no guarantee of success, but taking festivals open-air is an adaptive choice in the long run. Rural private landowners are a lot more likely to stay around than urban landlords; the alternate uses of the property besides a pasture/camping ground/festival infield are a lot more reduced, and if they were interested in selling up for development, they'd probably have done so in the last real-estate boom. Rural law enforcement may be more amenable to working with the fest rather than getting stuck in on the "shut it down, shut it down" train -- and in any case, they'll be no less amenable than urban law enforcement can be. It may be an ask to get people to camp out, but all things considered it's cheaper, even if you have to buy camping gear, than to stay over at an indoor festival unless you're sleeping ten to a room or in your van at a highway rest stop.

The only lingering caveat in all of this is that every single camp-in open-air metal festival that's been bruited about north and east of Newark in the last five years has come to nothing: cancelled and/or moved inside. Loudfest was one day at a (terminally empty) stadium; Coos County Chaos Fest is fading into memory. Something is killing open airs, whether insufficient organization or unnecessarily adversarial local authorities or a mix of these and other factors. Thing is, indoor 'fests' have a lot of the same problems and less of the upside.

As NEDF showed, there's room for another underground festival north of Maryland, especially with how NEMHF has gone. CCCF demonstrated that at least at one time, metalheads in the northeast were willing to tent out and thrash it up. I firmly believe that an open air metal festival could be successful again in this part of the world -- provided that it can be successfully organized, allowed to happen, and repeatable. All we need is land for a couple dozen to a couple hundred people to tent on, space for them to stand, 8-10 bands over two nights, and someone to put up the financing for it at the start. Maybe not for this season, but now's the time to look ahead and see if NEDF or CCCF can't get revived -- or some other festival started -- outside, somewhere it'll stay.

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