Music and the city
As Sacramento finally turns its head toward local arts, can a grassroots festival shine a big enough light?
This story begins in Festival Hell. For a festival organizer, anyway: the hours dwindling toward launch day. And not in Indio (Coachella), Napa (BottleRock) or San Francisco (Outside Lands). Right here, in Sacramento.
Two weeks 'til First Festival. It's a Sunday afternoon, training day for festival volunteers. But inside the Lounge, the ground zero office tucked on J Street, it's much quieter than it should be. Only three volunteers showed up for the evening slot.
“I wonder if I can just train my dog,” said Danielle Vincent, First Fest's cofounder and producer, probably freaking out a little bit, but wanting to lighten things up. Adopting a Scooby Doo voice, she added, “Yooou want me to do what?”
And there was a bright side. More people than ever had signed up to volunteer this year, and dropouts were expected in this game of festival-making. It's the fourth First Festival, after all, and this team, made up of Danielle, her husband and cofounder James Vincent, Paige Fleener, Lindsey Molineaux, Jesse Silcox, Paul Willis, Elwin Williams III and Bandbi—the festival's deer mascot—had seen worse.
But never an operation this big. Fifty bands, 10 comedians, avant-garde performers, food and merch vendors. Which meant more sound engineers, security, staff, stages, stage plots, generators, fencing, hand-washing stations, trash cans, Porta Potties. Did I mention beer? What about beer paperwork?
“I have to get this form to ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control], but I can't get this form to ABC unless A, B and C, ironically, happen,” Vincent said.
After a year of preparation, everything could go wrong in these last days leading up to May 5 and 6, when at Tanzanite Park, a grassroots, all-local weekend arts festival opens its gates again.
First Fest has spent four years building interest with growing pains. Some locals scoffed at its launch year in 2015, a one-day event at River Walk Park with around 20 bands and a local rock headliner, Humble Wolf, because of past attempts to put on a big outdoor festival, like TBD Fest, which had an all-star lineup that included Blondie and Chance the Rapper over the years, but folded amid lawsuits over nonpayment of vendors.
First Fest '15 was ultimately successful enough that Vincent and her colleagues decided to do it again. But its second year, at Southside Park, which doubled the lineup and expanded to two days, with a worthy bill including bands like Epsilona, Death Party at the Beach, Drop Dead Red (and Humble Wolf), saw an audience of practically no one for an event that size.
In 2017, the festival made its comeback at River Walk Park, where top-billing artists Oleander and rising stars including Hobo Johnson & The LoveMakers performed (no Humble Wolf), stand-up comedy was added, and a turnout of around 3,500 people over the weekend meant the festival could continue, and even grow.
Now for 2018: A $25,000 grant from the city of Sacramento, through its initiative dubbed the Creative Economy Pilot Project, made an even bigger festival possible. Added stages, more impressive billing (Blackalicious, A Lot Like Birds, Butterscotch), and more performers and amenities. The team matched that grant with around $25,000 in fundraising.
“The first three years, there was no funding,” Vincent said. “Literally nothing. The only way it got funded was by selling vendor booths and by selling tickets. That's insane. We still had to raise a hell of a lot of money, but that nest egg at the beginning, that gets you off the ground.”
And under the city's working arts and culture jobs plan, called Creative Edge, First Fest may be on the cusp at the right moment.
“This year is so different,” Vincent said. “I think we're finally coming to a time where the city, the city government, and I mean people who aren't entrenched in the arts scene every day … they're primed to want something like this now. This is the first year that heads are turning that haven't turned before.”
A city of artists
Jonathon Glus feels it too. Like many artists around town, the director of Cultural and Creative Economy at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission senses that Sacramento is on the precipice of a new era.
But what will that new era look like? Like Austin, which went from being a college town/state capital to a music hub with South By Southwest? Or Portland, which has its longstanding arts scene and is steadily investing in its nonprofit arts organizations? Or Chicago, with its recently revitalized film, fashion and music industries?
“It's still a big question,” said Glus, who's leading the development of the city's creative economy plan. “Here it's really up to us to decide where it's going.”
The goal of Creative Edge is to map a vision for the future of Sacramento's arts and culture. The priorities of that vision were crowdsourced at several town halls and forums since September. The result is a draft plan released in April, which outlines a set of goals for the city to implement over the next seven years, including providing arts education, investing in the creative sectors, creating funding and opportunities for local artists to support themselves and their work, and branding Sacramento as an attractive destination for tourists (beyond “capital city”). To name just a few.
First Festival, which received one of the largest grants through the Creative Economy Pilot program last year, and whom the panelists praised for having the potential to become a destination festival like TBD could have been, seems to fit the priorities outlined in the creative economy plan well, according to Glus.
“This city is a kind of raw, innovative town,” he said. “We know that this sort of thing is happening organically in our neighborhoods, and the festival really reflects that. We're trying to be a regional hub for this kind of thing. We want to really, vigorously support creative artists so that they can do what they want here.”
The grant funding also allowed the festival to hire 10 staffers, to pay installation artists both to make the art and for their supplies, and to pay the performers. And unlike Sol Blume Festival and Aftershock, everyone on the bill has roots in Sacramento, and most still work in Sacramento.
“The bands are playing on the biggest stages some of them have ever played on, and they're getting paid to do it,” Vincent said. “That is success, because people in our city make art at their own expense all day long, every day, and they work very hard. And they're always so thankful when they do have a chance to actually monetize their art. And that's what this is about.”
Where's the hip-hop?
When you put on a large fest like this one, complaints are inevitable. For example: First Fest is like Outside Lands for artists who aren't good enough to play Outside Lands, or that there isn't enough metal on the lineup, or that there isn't Coors Light. Contradictory complaints even, like the stages are too far apart and there's too much sound bleed.
The team receives them with frustration and laughs, but the complaints they take seriously fall into two categories: economic impact and community representation. When complaints arose about the high cost to attend the dismal second year (around $60 for the weekend), they lowered ticket prices in 2017.
Then there was the lack of hip-hop artists on the bill, particularly true in the first and second years, and endemic of a larger issue regarding a lack of spaces for hip-hop in the city. An issue which Paul Willis, who co-organized the hip-hop lineup with Elwin Williams III this year, knew well as a local emcee.
“There are a lot of hip-hop artists who play in Sacramento, and they'll have to travel to get some of their name recognition,” Willis said. “The stigma that Sac hates hip-hop, there's some validity to that.”
Knowing that Blackalicious was one of the headliners was exciting to Willis. In the past, few hip-hop acts in the city felt that First Fest was right for them, he said. This year there are 7 hip-hop artists on the bill, and Willis helped put together a cypher, a hip-hop tradition that evolved from rap freestyles to viral-video circle spits like Team Backpack. Nine emcees, including Willis and headliner Charlie Muscle, will participate.
“And it's not a sausage fest,” Willis said, pointing out that there are four women performing; J Ross, KARIJAY, Kaila Love and Jane The Message. What's more, it's a mentorship opportunity. Many of these hip-hop artists have never performed in a festival before, and Willis said he wants to help them make the most out of the experience.
“We saw there was a void and an opportunity for us to step into that leadership role,” he said. “To really open doors for folks.”
Cultural equity is a goal First Festival and the Creative Economy plan share. And it's also typically neglected in city arts plans, Glus said.
This year, the festival received 800 artist submissions, up from 280, though only 13 were from hip-hop artists. Vincent said it meant the festival's still wasn't accessible enough despite their good intentions, and they're hoping to change that next year.
“Part of the goal this year was to let the music community—the whole music community—know that there's a seat here at the table for them,” she said.
The most important year
So far, the fest has sold around 2,500 tickets, counting weekend passes, Vincent said. Last year, on the Friday before launch, around 900 tickets were sold. The team expects that they'll meet or exceed last year.
Whether the grant program returns next year is unclear until the city approves its 2018/19 budget in June. And as to whether First Festival's ticket sales would affect its consideration for future funding: city officials say its too early to tell, and filling parks with people is just one of many factors in making that determination.
But that doesn't mean turnout doesn't worry Vincent. She still thinks about the dreadful second year, when most bands across the festival's three stages played for to 10 or 20 people, and Southside Park looked depressingly empty.
“It's just terrifying,” she said. “It's the scariest feeling ever, thinking that a year of my life went into this, and really so much of it comes down to: Are people going to be there to see it? Not focusing on that is the main goal, because inevitably, you'll always be disappointed. Unless you're Outside Lands,” she laughed.
Still, they're proud of that year. It had beautiful stages and an eclectic lineup of local bands ranging all different genres. It was what the festival still is: a great primer on what Sacramento has to offer in terms of arts scene, and even more, a stage for the artists to play.
“I think the first year was a lot of blind luck,” Vincent said. “The second year, I think that was the most valuable year. Hands down, hindsight whatever, and it had to happen the second year. Because if it happened the first year, it never would have gone up again. And then we put it up the third year.
“And now here we go.”