“Not Impressed” with Sloss Fest’s Inaugural Line-up
With just the lineup announced, inaugural fest in Birmingham, Alabama has a few problems to still work out
My reaction to the Sloss Music & Arts Festival line-up? Not impressed.
Almost immediately, I am whipped with social media hickory switch for being on the wrong side of public opinion.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t like looking like the pessimistic Debby Downer whenever something good rolls around. Especially when it comes to things pertaining to the place I call home. I love my hometown. It doesn’t have the glitz, glamour, fair-balance and deep pockets of other metro cities, but it is strongly unique in its character and identity. Lately Birmingham has been getting some major buzz for being a respected music hub and for being an incubator for bubbling bands. It proved to be the perfect training zone for the Alabama Shakes, and the same can be said for St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Both artists have taken a bite of the fame monster. Both took heed to my careful advice for good bands with Alabama ties. If you’re f*cking good or you’re think you’re good enough, cut an album and hit the road. That’s right; leave this poverty-stricken state and pray you discover gold on the road. Somewhere, out there, you’ll develop a fan base and you’ll come back home all the wiser.
It might come as a surprise to some outsiders, but Birmingham has a music scene. But for those who live in the Birmingham city limits, the one thing that Birmingham has been screaming for the longest is the return of a major magnetic music festival. Since City Stages bit the dust back in 2009, the race has been on to try to develop some type of successor.
2015 arrives and in comes Sloss Fest. Finally, in Birmingham’s history, something comes along that has the ballsy cajones to try to trump the forgotten past and blow away the rest of the attention. Good luck on that, Sloss. The only music festival deserving of a four-star rating in the state is Gulf Shores’ Hangout Music Fest. And although it is relatively young, the resort-like festival has been the only thing on our radar to even try to clobber the likes of Coachella, Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo. Judging from the near-perfect graphic design and layouts of the website and smart multimedia marketing, you can tell a substantial amount of time and resources went into the preliminary work for the inaugural fest. So there’s a lot of optimism going into Sloss. The fact that it celebrates the city’s treasured history at one of the state’s top-secret historical sites makes this even more attractive, particularly for residents of the city.
After the announcement of the lineup was made, I jotted down as many positive things about it as possible.
Promoters seem to know the market they’re playing with. When first developing a regional event like this, it’s important to create a following and then feed them what they want. Afterwards, especially as your budget grows, you then have room to grow. But it’s always risky business on the first year of a festival because the audience you lure in first becomes the foundation for the whole thing. And they are coming for the bait. Hey, you are what you eat. You toss out a slew of punk bands, and you’re going to attract punkers. Sloss’s lineup manages to do some things right. Much of the list reads like a respectable second-tier lineup for big festivals. Modest Mouse, Band of Horses, Cage the Elephant and The New Pornographers are all worthy of ticket sells, proving to be decent draws on the summer festival circuit. Electro duo Purity Ring has a fresh sound that I personally enjoy. These acts haven been booked at the majors, so Sloss Fest gets props for bringing these sweaty souls to the Magic City.
There’s also a respectable showing of Birmingham-based groups like St. Paul & the Broken Bones and Lee Bains & the Glory Fires. Both acts deserve to be on the big stage, since they’ve worked their feet to the bones by touring religiously across the country. St. Paul, who did Hangout and Bonnaroo last year, is actually booked for Coachella this year, so pulling out the welcome mat for our hometown heroes are always good news.
Arts? Please Explain
I know music is art. But when you separate music from art in your festival tagline, there must be a good explanation to it. We still are waiting to hear what the “art” part will be. Will it be like Coachella “art” or just a few booths showing off canvas paintings from local artists hungry for a quick sell? Or will Sloss get a 21st century makeover? I’m hoping on the latter.
Where’s the Headliners?
Let me be crystal clear. Modest Mouse, Cage the Elephant and The New Pornographers are very good acts. But they aren’t headliners. So what happened?
Where’s the recent Grammy award winners and nominees, like The War on Drugs (who will actually be playing at Iron City), St. Vincent and Sam Smith (who will be performing at this year’s Hangout, which is right down the street)?
Oh, and what happened to Vampire Weekend, who “postponed” their show last year due at Sloss due to inclement weather. Concert organizers with Red Mountain Entertainment hoped that the band would re-schedule. We haven’t heard one iota from them since. They would have been the perfect headliner for Sloss, since it would definitely fulfill their end of the bargain. Red Mountain Entertainment is one of the festival organizers, so our fingers are crossed that this will be a weekend for vampire lovers.
The festival does have a slot on their most recent flyer suggesting that a “headline artist” will be announced soon. Fest organizers need to seriously consider booking any of these acts in order to make it a fucking big deal: The Black Keys, the Strokes, My Morning Jacket (already playing the BJCC in August), Foo Fighters, Jack White. While they are at it, sprinkle some more soul on it: Fitz & the Tantrums or Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings will be just fine.
But hey, let’s deal with the other problems on board.
Not Enough Diversity
Preppy, college-leaning hipster white folks, you’re safe. There’s plenty to indulge in here. But if you’re looking for a slice of off-kilter diversity, you’re not going to find that here. There’s no pop. Not enough indie soul. No EDM. And booking Tyler, the Creator? Gosh, the indie hip-hop rebel is only booked just to create a bizarre social media firestorm. He’s the token black guy planted on a list totally dominated by a sea of second-tier white rock bands. People will be there just to hear how many F-bombs (both f*ck and f***ot) he can say in a single sentence (or to see him act up like he did at SXSW), especially since he has no hits in his catalog. When compared to surrounding festivals, the lineup is as lilywhite as they come. And maybe that was done for a reason. They probably assumed whites are the only ones willing to support an inaugural festival at an old closed steel mill in the middle of July. Assumed, I said.
Recycled Mid-Tier Festival Acts
Many of these acts have already lit up the 1,000-standing room-only capacity room of Iron City. In the very short time that the popular music room has been opened, it has already booked Band of Horses, Big Gigantic and Primus. The positive thing about Sloss is that the outdoors will allow the audience size to swell. But if you know anything about the sweltering Southern heat in July, you’ll be experiencing some of the uncomfortable madness that comes with Bonnaroo.
On top of that, the small lineup of Sloss looks like it was ripped from the pages of nearby festivals. Now let me state that there’s nothing wrong with imitation. To Atlanta’s Shaky Knees, the Sloss lineup is quite flattering. Although no music festival has the official blueprint to perfection, Sloss comes off looking like a miniature-size kid’s meal…with no headliner.
Questionable Ticket Prices
You can go to other festivals and see the exact same artists. No lie.
Three days at Shaky Knees is $199. You’ll see acts like the Strokes, Wilco, the Avett Brothers, Social Distortion and James Blake. It’s not ferociously diverse, but Shaky Knees – a relatively young fest – built themselves on the backs of indie, Americana and alternative. Now the Atlanta festival is starting to flex its muscles into harder rock, while opening up the floodgates to other genres and sounds. Booking Trombone Shorty, Preservation Jazz Hall Band and TV on the Radio speaks to some of their interests in building diversity.
Another good example of getting more bang for your buck: The three-day Beale Street Music Festival, another relatively young music festival experience, is bringing Lenny Kravitz, Ed Sheeran, Hozier, Paramore, Ryan Adams and CCR legend John Fogerty. George Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic possee will hit the stage, and so will string superstar Lindsey Stirling. Oh, and there’s another point to make – you’ll also see a few of the acts that Sloss is bringing, including Cage the Elephant and Band of Horses. Ticket value for the 3-day showcase: $95. Single day passes are just $40.
Let me clearly stress that you don’t see the diversity of the other fests on the roster of Sloss. Nor do you see the fairness in ticketing. There could be some very important reasons as to Sloss’s $105-$225 price tag ($325 for VIP). Not enough sponsors and investors – pretty sure that’s the main problem. One of the good things about Sloss Fest is the prices are not ballooned to the max like Cask & Drum, a Birmingham music festival that is so boochie that it caters to Over the Mountain dwellers and wine tasters. That one-day festival, which booked its first real main festival act last year (the sampling mashup deejay Girl Talk; Drive-By-Truckers – a Birmingham favorite with Alabama ties was also there), possessed only 11 acts and had a ticket value of $30; VIP experience came with a $125 price tag. For one day and with very little music to chew, those prices proved to be completely outrageous. But the prices of Sloss are still a bit unfair when compared with nearby getaways. You might as well take a trip to Shaky Knees or ride on up to the farm at Bonnaroo. At least for $300 bucks, you’ll get a chance to act like a musical glutton at a diverse buffet. This year you’ll be able to devour the likes of Billy Joel, Mumford & Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, the War on Drugs, Tove Lo, Gary Clark, Jr., Florence + the Machine, Earth, Wind & Fire, Run the Jewels and My Morning Jacket. $300 for Bonnaroo is a better deal than what Sloss offers.
In case you didn’t get the memo, Sloss Fest is also organized by AC Entertainment – co-producers of Bonnaroo and the Forecastle music festivals.
Lacking Drawing Power
I tell outsiders that it’s easy to fall in love with Birmingham. The people, the food, the history, the off-kilter mix of small town values with liberal-thinking concepts. But Sloss has to do a very good job in alluring outsiders and potential tourists in to see to this new kind of experience. Selling the idea is probably going to be the hardest job for promoters. So far, Birmingham music lovers and Birmingham Mountain Radio listeners are sold. Heck, why shouldn’t they be? Right now they don’t have another summer festival to fully embrace.
What’d I Say is a public opinion series focusing on recent events featuring commentary from our team of skillful writers and guest bloggers. The opinions expressed at this forum are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the parent company HiFi Magazine.