SoundTown and Minnesota's music festival fatigue

Photo by Erik Hess
Basilica Block Party 2012 did not have trouble drawing a crowd.
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SoundTown 2012 has been canceled
SoundTown 2012 statement: Ticket threshold wasn't met

SoundTown 2011: A first-ever adventure in Somerset

It's been almost a week now since word broke out that the SoundTown Music and Camping Festival is cancelled this year, just two short weeks before the gates were set to open. But even now there's something that feels inevitable about how the whole situation shook itself out -- not inevitable that the festival would get cancelled, per se, but that it would be one extreme or the other. It would be complete failure, or complete success.

From the time that Somerset Amphitheater owner and general manager Matt Mithun launched the concept last year, there were plenty of grandiose ideas and lofty ambitions. SoundTown would be a bonafide destination festival, the Upper Midwest's answer to Coachella and Bonnaroo. Even after the understated first installment last summer, the promises never wavered.

With the SoundTown dream, at least for now, seemingly dead, there could be more at stake than just missing out on a chance to see Radiohead or the Tupac hologram live and in person. (Too soon?) What if the Twin Cities actually can't support such a concept? Or what if we're simply too over-saturated with festivals and other summertime shows, in general?

Not surprisingly, Mithun struck a remorseful tone in the few comments that he's given since last Wednesday. In the official statement announcing the cancellation, he rather bluntly put the cause down to the fact that "the ticket threshold wasn't met." Speaking to the Current's Andrea Swensson that same day, Mithun was a little more reflective, admitting, "I think the execution, to be honest, I don't know if we went about it quite right and built the hype like we could have."

(Mithun was unavailable for comment when contacted for this article.)

It would seem, in hindsight, that any number of factors probably contributed to SoundTown's eventual cancellation. Ticketing was certainly a factor, with confusion surfacing in recent days about the ordering process, and the unusual fact that the camping charges were separate from the actual admission fees. But from a broader perspective, it seems the event suffered more generally from an inability to clearly define itself and from an anemic promotional push.

Photo by Ben Clark
SoundTown 2011 was a great time -- for the small crowd in attendance.
From the very outset, nobody seemed to be quite sure what the hell SoundTown was even supposed to be. It was in Somerset, yes, but it wasn't "Somerset;" it was "SoundTown." It also wasn't Soundset. And, to help things along, Mithun threw Summer Set into the ring earlier this year, which happened to be on the same weekend that SoundTown had been last year--SoundTown having switched dates this year. With My Morning Jacket and Slipknot also playing during the month of August, some bands playing at Somerset this summer weren't even sure which bills they'd signed on to!

At the same time, in spite of the fact that Mithun had joined forces with JAM Productions in organizing the event this year, and even gotten a boost from the Current, SoundTown kept a rather low profile in terms of publicity. A stronger effort to help define the show, plus a more aggressive marketing strategy, certainly wouldn't have hurt. Little wonder, then, that there was also a degree of skepticism that tended to accompany mention of the festival, and its ability to follow through on its high expectationss.

All of which is a shame, not least because SoundTown should have had the tools to succeed. The reception to last year's event -- aside from worries over the small turnout -- were largely enthusiastic about the renovations that Mithun and Co. had undertaken on the festival grounds. With space for 40,000 people, plus the fact that Minnesotans (and yes, even Wisconsinites) seem endlessly game for summer activities like festivals and camping, thanks to the winters, it all seemed promising enough.

It's perhaps inevitable, then, that while the organizers dropped the ball somewhere along the line, there are still questions about the larger implications of SoundTown's demise. After all, the worry remains that Minnesota simply can't support a top-line, destination music festival. More worryingly, with events like Rock the Garden, Soundset, the Basilica Block Party, and now River's Edge, in addition to the dozens of free block parties, it's possible that Twin Cities music fans are just plain over-saturated.

Flip Arkulary, a Minneapolis-based promoter and musician who works with venues around the country, thinks listener fatigue is a real problem. "I think people are getting tired. I think it is pretty over-saturated," he says. Over the past couple years, he's sensed that attendance has been down at many of the music events he visits around the state. "People are kind of broke right now, and there's so much to pick from. There's 10 or 15 events every day I could go to, and sometimes I just want to stay in."

One issue Arkulary points to is the specific demographic that SoundTown catered itself to. With bands like Jane's Addiction and Florence + the Machine headlining the festival after having just played in the area in recent months, plus a slew of bands like Best Coast and Phantogram that have a cache with indie rock fans but potentially little broader appeal, the lineup had some definite limitations, despite its general strength.

"I'm seeing a lot of events drawing on the same artists, and on the national level too. Jane's Addiction is playing everything this summer," explains Arkulary. Contrast this with events like Soundset or the Basilica Block Party, which regularly draw strong crowds by catering to completely different audiences from your average, over-inundated indie fan -- in this case, hip hop fans and Cities 97 listeners, respectively. "For those quote-unquote scenes, that is a much more special event than one of the ten indie rock block parties or indie rock festivals you and I can go to within 300 miles of Minneapolis."

It's true, too, that many of us -- including those of us in the press -- sometimes lose sight of the fact that indie rock remains something of a minority, and that a station like the Current doesn't, in fact, have the largest listenership in the Twin Cities. When you look at how successful River's Edge was this year with its Dave Matthews-meets-Tool-meets-Flaming Lips lineup, and then consider the fact that an event like Knotfest is selling well while SoundTown struggled, and the point gets driven home a bit more.

All the same, it hardly seems like we're in the midst of a crisis. Even if an out-of-the-way event like SoundTown seems to struggle around here, there's no denying the general health of the music scene. So it's possible that the one could be an issue while the other is doing just fine. The problem might lie more in the concept of a "destination festival," with the likes of the Rothbury Festival in Michigan and 10,000 Lakes here in Minnesota both disappearing in the past few years. Perhaps it's simply more practical to start up an urban festival at this stage, particularly in this economic climate.

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