From first to last fest?
First Festival was larger than ever in 2018, but whether it returns next year is TBD
In show business, the term “break a leg” is typically used to impart good luck. For Danielle Vincent, putting together this month’s First Festival meant literally breaking her fibula so that the music-and-arts showcase for local artists could play to spotty crowds in Natomas.
After the festival was over, Vincent fell out of a U-Haul organizers rented to lug equipment in and out of the park.
“I just think it’s really funny,” Vincent said. “It’s like, ’Thanks, universe. Point taken.”
After four years of nonstop work and fitful success, is the festival still worth her limbs? Vincent is no longer sure.
On May 5 and 6, the annual Outside Lands-style fest opened the gates for its fourth iteration, this time at Tanzanite Park. With the help of a $25,000 city grant, it was the largest First Festival Vincent and her team had put on. Five stages hosted 50 local bands. A tent venue called “The Circus” had burlesque, stand-up comedy, rap cyphers and spoken-word poetry. Food and merch vendors lined the fences of the park selling pulled pork sandwiches, tie-dye shirts, henna tattoos and emu oil. Blackalicious, A Lot Like Birds, The Philharmonik and Butterscotch rounded out a rich lineup of rock, hip-hop, folk and electronic music talent with Sacramento roots.
But who was there to see it? The short answer is probably not enough people.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, Vincent said, organizers sold around 2,500 presale tickets and expected to sell 900 more at the gate. This would have matched last year’s ticket sales (3,500), and exceeded 2016’s worst showing (around 500 tickets).
Sacramento police didn’t respond to SN&R’s requests for estimated crowd sizes, but visually, there were less than 2,500 people in the park at once. Much less. Blackalicious and A Lot Like Birds, the final players on each night, performed for a gaggle of about 150 to 200 people. Most of the bands played for audiences of 20 or so peppered across the green. The park, which the city says can hold 40,000, looked mostly barren.
Vincent says around 3,500 tickets were redeemed over the weekend. Friends who didn’t go chalked up their decision to the lineup being unrecognizable or that the location was inconvenient. Then there was the competition, like the High Times Cannabis Cup at Cal Expo, which allowed attendees to smoke weed and featured megastar artists Lil Wayne and Lauryn Hill. The outdoor event drew around 25,000 people and generated an estimated $200,000 in city tax revenue, or eight times what the city granted First Festival.
Concerts in the Park also kicked off that Friday. The summer-long music series at Cesar Chavez Plaza shares similar goals to First Fest, giving a stage and an audience to local standouts. CIP is free. Tickets to First Fest were $25 per day, $42 for both days. For local music.
Vincent declined to dole out blame for the underwhelming turnout.
“I don’t think it’s the community’s fault, or the musicians’ fault,” she said. “It just so happens that there are options that are always going to be more appealing than local bands. It’s nobody’s duty to support local music at the expense of their own free will.”
Gabriell Garcia, co-owner of the downtown music venue Blue Lamp, said she’s familiar with spotty turnout to local shows.
“I like to say Sacramento is a fickle city,” Garcia said. “It likes what it likes, and it’s not sure about anything it doesn’t know about. It’s consistently inconsistent.”
She said she’s used to planning a big event only to have it overshadowed by a sold-out show by a touring act at Ace of Spades. Often, Sacramento doesn’t support its own.
“We don’t invest in ourselves, in our community members, and our music, but we’re definitely ready to spend $400 on someone who goes on tour across the nation,” she said.
Still, like many attendees and musicians SN&R spoke to at the festival, Garcia believes First Fest still has vast potential for growth.
“I hope we haven’t worn [Vincent] out, and that she can form some good partnerships to help build it and make it stronger,” Garcia said. “I know the musicians love it.”
Given the festival’s size, it’s safe to say you missed out on something you would have liked. Some highlights: A Lot Like Birds played an exuberant, grave—and bloody—farewell set with former co-frontman Kurt Travis (singer Cory Lockwood cut his face somehow). Inside the Circus tent, comedian Keith Lowell Jensen trudged through a challenging routine to the soundtrack of Vinnie Guidera & The Dead Birds playing on a nearby stage outside. Butterscotch was an orchestra by herself, emulating percussion and brass with her mouth and looping her voice into grand R&B harmonies.
Then there was Blackalicious, the fest’s hip-hop duo headliner, joined by two more emcees, Oakland’s Lateef the TruthSpeaker and Portland’s Jumbo. The freestyles and stage banter stayed Sac-themed: Blackalicious head lyricist, the Gift of Gab, billed the evening as more than a hip-hop show. It was the “return of your native sons,” he told the audience.
For Blackalicious, who met at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento 30 years ago, grassroots festivals like First Fest are crucial.
“They start out grassroots, but they get bigger and bigger,” said Blackalicious’ deejay producer Chief Xcel, after their set. “These things are key when fostering and nurturing music culture in the city.”
This year, First Fest received $25,000 in grant funding through the city’s Creative Economy Pilot Program, which awarded $500,000 in total to local arts projects to fund its homegrown creatives. It’s not clear whether the program will return until the 2017-18 budget is finalized in June, but officials are still going to evaluate the success of the current grantees. The rubric will be developed over the summer, said Mary Lynne Vellinga, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
“It will include sales, attendance and economic performance,” she said.
Regardless of how First Fest performs, Vincent is unsure if she wants to put it on again. The fest has come at a high personal cost, she said. She and her team didn’t make any money this year. The busted leg was just the icing on an unappealing cake.
“Doing this big thing is beautiful, but it’s at the expense of my humanity,” Vincent said. “I’m not trying to be a martyr for this festival, and at some point there had to be a return that justified the cost. I didn’t get that this year.”