This weekend, the first annual Bull City Summit was scheduled to launch. Merging music, art, science, and technology, the festival promises festivalgoers a unique experience with “leading and breakthrough creatives, musicians, technologists, scientists, researchers, artisans, and entrepreneurs alike,” according to its website.
If its structure feels aligned with that of Moogfest—the multiday conference and festival, formerly in Durham, that honored Moog synthesizer inventor Robert “Bob” Moog—it is because both festivals have UG Strategies founder Parag Bhandari in common. In 2018, Bhandari joined the Moogfest team for a short tenure, though the following year, the festival, steeped in logistical issues, canceled its 2020 dates.
On the surface, Bull City Summit has many of the shiny things a festival needs to survive: an array of sponsors and partners, aesthetically pleasing marketing, local partnerships, a user-friendly website, and engaging keynotes and workshops. Still, on March 21, just a few days before the festival was set to launch, it was postponed.
Over email, Bhandari says that though Bull City Summit was ready to move forward from an infrastructure perspective, ticket sales suggested consumer hesitation about in-person events.
“That’s not unusual in these times, and also it’s a year-one event,” he wrote the INDY in an email. “So, we pivot.”
The festival is now scheduled to take place September 15–18; all music-related events, however, are still moving forward with evening live music showcases Thursday through Saturday, with tickets priced at $20 per show. The festival’s delay speaks to the difficulties of getting a festival off the ground—something that was difficult even before the COVID-19 pandemic—and invites a close look at the future of festivals in the Triangle. Because, amid difficulties and current restraints, the local music and event scene continues to blossom, and local event planners continue to roll with the punches.
In recent years, festivals have surpassed being trendy. The seeming profitability of festivals has come a long way from its DIY origins to attracting A-list celebrities and large corporate live music promoters. The public is often well aware of the number of attendees at some of the world’s largest festivals. In 2021, despite the risks of the pandemic, Rolling Loud Miami hosted 75,000 people; Travis Scott’s disastrous Astroworld saw 50,000; and, prior to the pandemic, Coachella saw on average 150,000–250,000 festivalgoers each year, grossing $67 million to $117 million in ticket sales.
Here in the Triangle, festival attendance has varied widely over the years. With a solid decade under its belt, Hopscotch, for instance, has had its attendance reported at around 25,000 a year. During Moogfest’s four-year run, it averaged about 10,000 music and tech lovers. And in 2019, at its inaugural event, J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival drew an impressive crowd of nearly 40,000. This year, the festival—which is produced by ScoreMore, the same promotion company behind Astroworld—is expected to surpass its first attendance record.
Of course, when considering the success and profitability of festivals as big business, attendance numbers aren’t all that matter, nor do they reveal all there is to know about profit margins. The majority of festival expenses come from talent—including artist fees, riders, and travel and lodging expenses—as well as security and insurance. It’s easy for festival expenses to surpass the revenue they accrue in ticket sales and sponsorships.
In 2011, when Coachella announced it was expanding from one to two weekends, the festival founder and producer Paul Tollett explained that he was “approaching the supply-and-demand issue in his own unorthodox way.” For Coachella, in securing talent for two dates, the hope was that the first weekend could cover production and overhead costs; the next weekend would create an opportunity for actual revenue.
Beyond having a vision, making a festival happen takes follow-through. In 2017, the world gained a front-row seat to that fact when it witnessed, in real-time, the massive flop of Fyre Festival, the luxury festival that wasn’t. The year after Fyre Festival tanked, Durham experienced its own version of that event with the NC Hip Hop Festival. Though two other locally grown festivals—the DURM Hip Hop Summit and Beats n Bars Festival—had cultivated community roots with artists and hip-hop heads alike, the NC Hip Hop Festival website, which is still available online, heralded itself as “NC’s largest festival showcasing the best in Hip-hop and R&B from across the world.”
Its flyer, released that summer in 2018, was packed with the names of hip-hop legends and local artists—among them Nas, Phonte, and Petey Pablo—some of whom were never officially booked or even aware of the event. And though a few artists did attend, the festival didn’t end up having a stage, and they performed instead on a platform a few inches off the ground. Artists and fans took to social media to express concerns.
“My name, as well as several other dope acts, was on the flyer advertisement for this festival,” wrote Lena Jackson, a rapper based out of Raleigh. “I wasn’t there, and I know many of the other acts weren’t either, or were screwed over before/after they got there.”
One former festival partner, Heather Mandelkorn, president of the Holistic HipHop Collective, went so far as to create a Facebook complaint to gather consumer complaints. Mandelkorn, based outside of the state, had been brought on to help book talent. Over the phone, she described the event as a festival that was “out to profit off the culture and not ensure a well-produced event occurred that represented hip-hop and NC in the best manner.”
In response to the backlash, festival organizers Alicia and Elijah Vick issued a formal apology and solicited feedback via a community survey. Although their website lists a festival date for 2021, it is not clear whether the Vicks produced another event.
When thinking about the future of festivals in the Triangle—especially in an uncertain post-vaccine landscape, and with a mind toward planting sustainable roots—there are plenty of ongoing questions about how to create and measure festival success.
“In order to sustain a large-scale festival in this area, all stakeholders such as city/council entities and businesses should provide money, resources, and infrastructure, but also consumers should buy tickets early and encourage others to visit and enjoy the festival,” says Cicely Mitchell, co-founder of the Art of Cool Festival and past president of the Art of Cool Project. “Success is relative to the stakeholder. I’m sure the festival owners measure success by ticket sales and profit and loss. City and council entities likely see success by economic impact. It just depends on the stakeholder. The audience may measure success by the experience they had.”
Echoing the importance of city and community support, K97.5 radio host and Carolina Waves CEO Miriam Tolbert adds that “continued interest is required. Great lineups and curation. Activities and attractions outside of just the festival itself. There need to be innovative and new concepts, proper planning, and promotion.”
Curators John Laww and Dasan Ahanu point out that a unique experience is key.
“For a festival to survive, it has to offer a distinct experience,” says Ahanu, cocreator of the Hip Hop South Festival, an initiative of Carolina Performing Arts’ Southern Futures that is scheduled to run April 22–23 in Chapel Hill. “It can’t just rely on the musical acts. Curation is important. The music may draw attention but that will ebb and flow. It’s the experience and the way it’s laid out that will have people talking and planning to come back.”
Laww is the founder of the DURM Hip Hop Summit and the former producer of Beats n Bars. In addition to prioritizing the festival vibe, he says, “having a consistent group of hard-working people organizing helps a ton! Folks go to festivals to have a shared memory, or to feel they’re a part of something bigger than them, or simply to sing their favorite song with a few of their friends. The atmosphere is what will create that memory. And if it’s dope, folks will come.”
Surveying the Triangle’s festival hits and misses, another key question comes to mind: Is it the best geographical fit for festival culture?
Bhandari, the founder of Bull City Summit, is confident that Durham is a good fit.
“[It’s] the reason why we invested into saving Moogfest in 2018, [it] was also for the City of Durham and the potential here for events like that moving forward,” he wrote over email. During the early stages of the pandemic, Bhandari’s company produced events like the Live! in the Lot music series in the parking lot at Motorco Music Hall and last July’s pilot for Durham Summer Wine & Food Festival. Both were successful, despite the pandemic odds, and the number of attendees suggests that people in the Triangle are eager for more.
But the biggest case to be made for cultural festivals in the Triangle, of course, is that rich culture already is here. Perhaps with the right programming, production, and curation, a new season of successful festivals is just around the corner.
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