Chasing a different rabbit
I had a minor epiphany last week. It’s hard to call it a real epiphany, because it’s been festering since late last year. One of those moments you can feel creeping in over a long period, but just can’t exactly decide what it is. For me, it was the sudden desire to change up my annual routines.
Maybe you’ve been in that moment. It seems we all pull our heads up at some point and notice we’ve been doing the same thing for far longer than we meant to. While working in a creative arena, what one minute is a great new adventure eventually becomes worn paths that have started going in circles.
I’m extremely fortunate to get to do what I do. I spend half of the year helping design and re-design radio built for the people, and the other half of the year going around to festivals to dig up interesting conversations. For the past five years, it’s been a set path. But even the greatest parties can start to feel like a drag.
Last year, I decided to drop Lollapalooza from that route. I outgrew the audience, the bands on the bill felt shallow, and the ones who were worth anything had the attention of a slew of other media outlets, so having any kind of deep conversation was out of the question. It felt like a waste. So we passed up the ticket to Chicago and headed back down to the Austin City Limits Festival, where the crowds were calmer, the bands in a better mood and the competition less.
I was having a similar dilemma with this year’s SXSW setup. I’ve been starting off the festival season in Austin for eight years now. If you’ve never been, the usual comparison is to Mardi Gras — except add 3,000 bands, every piss-drunk spring-breaker imaginable, and the discovery that if a building has an outlet, it’s now a venue.
The first few years are exhilarating, like going to Times Square for the first time. But like anything else, it just gets old: the miles of walking from one club to the next in time to see 10 minutes of a set in a packed bar, and then an interview with an artist who just finished three days that included 11 performances and 53 interviews. I’ve had a lot of fun and accomplished some great things I’m really proud of, but it was time to pull the plug.
Now back to that minor epiphany. This country has seen an explosion of festivals over the last decade. If you’ve got an even halfway accessible mid-size city, you, too, can have a festival. In the big picture, it’s all proved pretty ridiculous. Many are cookie cutter and gone as fast as they debut. I don’t know what kind of effect this has on the industry, but it comes across as lame for the promoter and the city.
(This is a good point to commend the folks behind Forecastle. Not only does it have its own brand, but it’s also more than proved the test of time, and it’s still growing.)
The flip side of that coin is that it’s opened the door for niche festivals, ones that can cater to a smaller audience and really do something special. I’m personally excited about Big Ears in Knoxville. It’s full of innovators, cult icons and revolutionaries, and it presents its own challenge when it comes to getting a good interview. It’s a different kind of conversation I’ve never done, which brings a nice case of nerves. And that’s awesome.
It’s also a chance to stop chasing the same rabbit every other dog in the race is after, and a chance to get off of my routine. I’m not good at routine; it makes my brain itchy. Some people depend on routine, but I start to get a little wily after I’ve passed the same signpost for the 20th time. Change is good. It’s uncertain, scary and intimidating, but aren’t those the crazy feelings that make the adventure fun? (Well, that and succeeding.)
I’m really looking forward to what can happen this year. Why spend time doing something you don’t want to? Here’s to hoping you’re finding a new path worth walking, too.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.