"Raleigh smells vaguely of donuts." -Style Weekly reporter Vernal Coleman on Facebook
Downtown Raleigh did smell like doughnuts, but there wasn't a cop convention in town. Rather it was the second annual Hopscotch Music Festival, Sept. 8-11, a mostly powdery white affair that showcases the laid back, easy-to-club-hop nature of the city itself, as well as the intriguing musical vision of festival directors, Greg Lowenhagen and Grayson Currin, marketing director and music editor at the Independent alternative weekly-the festival's owner.
This year's festival, which had its own mobile app, featured more than 135 bands spread over 13 different sized clubs and outdoor spaces.
I've been to both Hopscotch festivals now and my reaction is mixed, leaning heavily toward the positive. This is certainly a fun, well-organized festival, laudably oriented toward the music lover with no extra hassles. The crowds are generally more mature, age 28 and older, friendly and well behaved-not puking or fighting. The low-key presence of police and bouncers and the so-fresh-and-so-clean nature of the city, even past 2 a.m., make this a breath of fresh air for Richmond concert veterans.
I mean . . . this is one clean city. There are garbage people everywhere, always working, and downtown denizens are friendly. It feels like a small town where you could eat doughnuts off the ground.
Hopscotch could use some more variety in terms of the bands and the crowds, though. Currin, a friendly guy recognized by his thick beard and wispy hair as he rides his bike between venues, is aware that most of Raleigh's black population, about 30 percent, are not in attendance at a festival that takes over the city for four days.
"Hopscotch began as a way to expand the brand of the Independent," Currin explains. "In our market, the most active audience, and the most active groups of artists are, speaking broadly, indie rockers. ... That idea, which has expanded beyond white people making music, is a lot of what there is here. That's a lot of what I'm interested in as a listener. But I think that whole scene has room for a lot of different things."
Part of the problem is the long-suffering state of hip-hop in Raleigh.
"The hip-hop community here has not been very good since Little Brother [a former duo] broke up. There's a lot of really bad rap in the Triangle honestly," Currin says. "So, I don't want to put limits on our audience, but it is certainly a lot of teenaged to 40-year-old Caucasian folks. That's the core. But we're really interested in trying to expand our artists every year."
He definitely doesn't want the festival to become another South by Southwest for the East Coast. "Our square focus is on the fans and bands," he says. "Being flooded with industry folk is not a prospect I wake up excited about. We get excited by people we don't know freaking out over bands that Greg and I really love."
A big concern this year was making money after the inaugural fest failed to break even. But Currin says preliminary results this year indicate it will erase any losses and the festival will indeed continue. Last year, the tickets sold out on day two of the festival-this year organizers added 1,200 wristbands, raised the price, and sold out two weeks ahead of the festival. "One of our biggest things was making a bigger investment and spending more money up front to reach the audience we needed to reach," Currin says.
The festival only has only one other full-time employee besides Currin, and it doesn't spend much on promotion. Since Hopscotch is owned by a newspaper, which runs a lot of free advertising for the festival, Currin says "around 70 or 80 percent of our budget is spent on talent and making sure they're happy."
This year, the festival wasn't even using the fancy new downtown Raleigh Amphitheatre, since during the booking stages, there wasn't a guarantee it would be ready (although it actually was . . . Wilco will performs there Sept. 27).
"We really like it. It's an interesting use of space. The downtown amphitheater is a hole that runs into a hill, so it swallows the sound. In City Plaza, the sound scatters all over the city, which we also really like. And, honestly, there [are] beer sales to consider. âCause you're not going to make your money on tickets."
Hopscotch has also been a boon for the weekly itself. Last year's festival guide won a national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award and the festival has received favorable national media attention from The New York Times and Spin, among others, not to mention . . . wait for it . . . "indie cred."
"This whole thing is a reputation thing. The Indy has been around a long time, it has brand, it has a stock," Currin says. "It's basically us using that to create a new experience for people here. I think it has given the Independent some new life."
In the first glance at this year's lineup, I only recognized maybe about half of the music, much of it appeared to be local or smaller touring groups-and practically all of it was likely to be found in music-critic collections. You had your avant black metal and noise (Liturgy, Oxbow), post punk (Swans), indie darlings (Vivian Girls), '60s garage rock (Black Lips), grizzled indie veterans (Guided By Voices, J. Mascis), white hip-hop (Yellawolf), and underground hip-hop (Beans) as well as more mainstream critical faves such as the Flaming Lips and Drive By Truckers.
If I had to guess, I'd say a band requirement would be a good review on Pitchfork in the last three to five years.
But for those who appreciate independent music, and whose tastes run the gamut from shoe gaze and pop to garage rock and whatever happens to be officially deemed hip by today' tastemakers, the festival always has worthwhile acts to catch. And you're often likely to hear a regional group that surprises you, as I did this year with Raleigh's own Peter Lamb and the Wolves, a band that played one of the best Tom Waits covers ("Temptation") I've ever heard to close their set on a high note.
The way that Hopscotch works best: Smart people buy V.I.P. passes ($155) for the entire weekend, which means you don't have to wait in line at any club-you can go in as soon as someone comes out (for a packed venue). Those attempting to buy individual tickets that night have a rougher go of it, if they're even available. Certain other passes have to wait in lines. There are other ticket packages available, but I'd say the V.I.P. is ultimately the best deal. The other stuff adds up quick.
It's probably easier if I run down the entire weekend as if I were writing a journal, throwing in some comments on food and atmosphere for anyone considering a visit.