America's Small Cities Are Betting Their Second Act on Festivals

SXSW festival attendees in Austin, Texas. Image via Getty

“People were commenting, is that the real Migos that’s gonna be there or is that the Arkansas version of Migos?” laughs Terry Stewart, former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame CEO, who is now one of the people getting Migos to play a show in El Dorado, Arkansas.

Yes, the real Migos—“Bad and Boujee” Migos—are coming to the city of El Dorado, Arkansas, population 18,339. And so is the band Train, country star Brad Paisley, ZZ Top, and Ludacris, to name just a few, all to perform over five days for the city’s grand opening of a new downtown area on September 28. Considering Migos are Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers, have played major festivals like The Meadows and Drake’s OVO Fest, and even earned an Emmys shout-out from Donald Glover, it’s understandable that El Dorado’s residents might be surprised at an appearance in their small town.


But the line-up in El Dorado is programmed by a handful of ex-entertainment executives, which include Stewart and former House of Blues general manager Dan Smith, all of whom have been trying to make the once prosperous oil boom town “boom again.” Whereas before the town flourished through oil exploration and manufacturing jobs, this time around they hope to make the city attractive to young, hip, millennials in the most 2017 way possible: by upping their arts culture and throwing a lot of festivals, flower crowns not included.

The $100 million revamp includes a new 8,000-capacity amphitheater and a renovated auto company showroom that will now become a music hall and cabaret lounge. The press release for the revitalization writes that El Dorado is “hoping to join the ranks of Marfa, TX and Woodstock, NY.” And while Stewart assures me that the five-day event is not a festival (even though the talent may suggest it), the space El Dorado has created will hopefully host “five to six festivals a year,” some the city creates and others that exist already which will take place there.

“We want to build a reputation that this is a hip place to be,” Stewart says.

It’s not news that places like El Dorado are currently in a desperate state of flux. For years, small cities and towns in the once thriving Rust and Sun Belts have been enduring a period of economic crisis and reinvention in the face of deindustrialization. As a result, many of these cities, including El Dorado AND Baltimore, have had trouble maintaining population growth.


The next step for small cities is, in essence, a rebranding. While it’s been reported that millennials are one of the more city-obsessed generations, the generational love affair with huge, prohibitively expensive cities like New York is a trend that’s ending as young people grow increasingly fed up with high rent and dwindling job prospects. For smaller cities looking to attract these urban center expats, there are unmistakable branding and economic benefits to hosting artists like Migos or The Chainsmokers in the town center: suddenly these cities are staging the exact kind of cool cultural events young people want to be around and will travel far to attend.


When Bobby Zappala decided to start Pittsburgh’s Thrival Festival, which has included headliners like The Chainsmokers, Wiz Khalifa, and CHVRCHES, he did so because he realized the city had changed a lot since he was a kid growing up there.

“The classic model for the ’90s Pittsburgh kid generation is that you were probably going to end up marrying someone from here, and when you had a good run in a bigger city you would come back here,” he says. “But you weren’t seeking out Pittsburgh as the land of opportunity.”


That sentiment is apparent in Pittsburgh’s population growth, which has been nosediving the past few years. The city reportedly lost 8,972 people between July 2015 and July 2016, but is somehow attracting recent young college graduates according to census data. Zappala was inspired to start Thrival in 2013 because he didn’t think enough people understood that Pittsburgh was becoming a cool place for young people to live in.

“Most of the conversation that was driving Pittsburgh in marketing around was making it look like it was still an old steel town and it’s not,” he says. “So I thought, let’s try and change the messaging with a [festival.] The idea was to build something that was kind of like South by Southwest.” Thrival Festival takes place in the city’s old, rustic Carrie Furnaces, something that only helps with the festival’s branding. “What’s more ‘Midwest Rust Belt City’ than these old mills?” Zappala says.


The SXSW inspiration is a common threadline for cities that hope festivals will become an essential part of their image. In 2014, Austin, Texas had a high concentration of millennials—1.2 times the national average, according to Nielsen—and its population of young people has only continued growing in large part because of the city’s attractive music and arts scene. Over the course of four decades, SXSW slowly transformed Austin from an average college town to the home of one of the biggest music festivals in the world and a place for rising artists to make their mark.

It’s also a festival that has a tech arm, “SXSW Interactive,” which is a template some smaller festivals want to emulate. Thrival Festival now partners with Live Nation, but it’s presented by Ascender, a tech and startup incubator in Pittsburgh where Zappala is CEO. That collaboration that has a lot in common with another Rust Belt city festival: St. Louis’ Murmuration Festival, which was started last year in a city that, just like Pittsburgh, is experiencing an overall stall in population growth.


Created by Brian Cohen, who also started the city’s LouFest, the inaugural Murmuration Festival took place at the city’s research community Cortex and included speakers on tech and science. And while St. Louis already plays host to a successful festival in LouFest, which this year boasts acts like Weezer and Snoop Dogg, last year’s Murmuration showcased artists far more south of the mainstream, such as Flying Lotus, Deerhoof and Dan Deacon, among others. “We’re often inundated with news of the city’s challenges, but Murmuration will show that St. Louis has much to be proud of,” Cohen said in an interview in 2016 about the festival.

But Murmuration Festival will not be repeating in 2017, something Aine O’Connor, who was the primary coordinator for the festival, says was due to the fact that Cortex, a tech company, wasn’t initially aware of how difficult it is be to stage an event like this. Their staff was small, and ticket sales were less than they had hoped. “We probably should have started a little bit smaller,” she says. The goal is to revive the festival again in the future when the company has the resources to do so.


“At the end of the day, a music festival is fun,” O’Connor says. “We were asking local and national people to connect really deeply to St. Louis in a lot of different ways; music is familiar.”


For the past few years journalists and music promoters have wondered when the “festival bubble” is going to burst. The headlining talent at music festivals is becoming increasingly homogenous; Chance the Rapper, for example, was set to headline 14 top festivals this summer alone. Additionally, festivals often become a flashpoint for far from new issues like sexual assault and drug overdoses. As a result, big name events like Bonnaroo and Sasquatch have seen a drop in ticket sales, and this summer the infamous Fyre—the Bahamas destination festival that is currently being investigated by the FBI for fraud—pulled the curtain back on the way festival culture has seemed to spiral out of control. At the very least, it can seem like there are just way too many of them, with new ones springing up every year and some dying before they even happen.

But the reason there may still be so many festivals popping up is precisely because it’s a viable avenue for city revitalization and tourism. As opposed to a museum or an amphitheater, festivals are appealing because of their ephemerality. Organizers can put structures up, take structures down, or close-off an area of a city for a weekend, rather than investing in pricy, years-long building projects with no guarantee on their rate of return. Big cities still struggle with festivals: for example tax-exempted Lollapalooza has faced criticism from Chicago residents for damaging its venue Grant Park and was even investigated by the state’s Attorney General for a radius clause that hurt small businesses, and issues of safety, for attendees and public spaces, are a rolling issue. But small cities looking for an economic boost still want in.


“There is something about this being a cheaper avenue for getting a kind of cultural distinction to attract new residents and hopefully new businesses, new tourists, for smaller towns or smaller communities,” says Jonathan Wynn, author of Music/City: American Festivals and Place Making in Austin, Nashville, and Newport. Such an event, he explains, can put a city “on a cultural map.”

The organizers behind events like Murmuration or what will come of El Dorado stress that the events are for locals, but they’re still pulling in talent that will get them national media attention. “In the long run we’re doing this for this town, but we have made the point to everyone that we have to become a destination if we’re going to be able to sustain the activities we have,” El Dorado’s Terry Stewart tells me. And Wynn says it’s a common strategy for festivals to want to both create a cooler environment for locals, but also want to broadcast a certain image to wider America.


“It lends a certain amount of authenticity to an event if you have it both ways—if it’s merely for tourists then it’s considered ‘inauthentic,’” he says, adding that, as a social scientist, he should clarify that authenticity as a scientific term is “bullshit.”

Wynn first began writing his book after attending a festival in a small Swedish city where he noticed the entire downtown was walled off to accommodate the event, but local businesses were still open just for attendees. The book, which focuses on festivals in three major cities (Austin, Newport, and Nashville), explores the important, symbiotic relationship between festivals and the cities they occupy, a relationship he dubbed “festivalization.” One of the festivals Wynn focuses on, the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, moved to New York briefly after a Led Zeppelin-headling 1969 show led to overcrowding and a fear of riots. In the 1980s, after the negative reaction subsided and the festival grew more manageable, it returned to Rhode Island.


“[Newport] realized that culture is really important and that tourists are valuable,” he says. “They had this kind of brand that they lost and they wanted it back.”

To see just how much festivals often need cities as much as cities need festivals, you don’t have to look further than Moogfest. The festival was started in New York City in 2004 as a way to celebrate the legacy of the late Robert Moog, the pioneering synthesizer engineer and electronic musician, whose synthesizer company Moog Music throws the festival. In 2010, the festival moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog Music is based, and a one-night event morphed into a three-day festival.


In 2014, Moogfest, which had not renewed a partnership with music promotion company AC Entertainment two years earlier, had reportedly lost $1.5 million on the festival. They turned to North Carolina’s Buncombe County and requested $250,000 in grant money for the 2016 festival but were ultimately denied. Shortly after that, the festival announced a move to Durham, North Carolina, citing an inability to find public and private partners to support the festival.

“Bringing in county money is necessary and very helpful, but the largest part of our festival is funded through sponsorships from private industries largely,” says Emmy Parker, brand director at Moog Music, who cites Durham’s growing tech community, who can help finance the fest through sponsorships, as an incentive to move. “While of course it’s extremely appreciative that we have support from Durham’s city and the county, we moved also because there was more opportunity for us to get sponsorships from the district and the business community in and around Durham.”


As a result, Moogfest gets the funding it needs, and Durham ultimately gains a $7 million impact on its economy, and a boost of cool cred for hosting one of the best festivals for electronic music in the world.

“Durham is the silent partner in the festival: everyone who wants to experience the fest has to experience Durham: eat in Durham restaurants, seeing shows in Durham venues, attending workshops in downtown Durham,” Parker says. “We feel very proud that [this city] is our home and we feel like it’s our job, or our responsibility, to let the world know that the North Carolina you may see or hear or read about in the media is not all that North Carolina is.”


Roger Brooks, a tourism consultant for cities across the country, specializes in helping cities rebrand themselves as a way to grow tourism in the area. “Almost every city and town in this country was founded on either a natural resource or agriculture, fishing, mining, oil,” Brooks tells me. “But what’s your second act?”


That second act can often be a festival, as Brooks specializes into helping cities literally become “festival cities,” a transition that can be summarized through a seven-step program. The specific nature of the festival is flexible—they can be garlic festivals, quilt festivals, auto festivals—but Brooks stresses that whatever it is, it can’t just be the only thing a city does. There needs to always be something else happening—music, an art show, a performance—in a city with a big festival as the centerpiece to make it successful.

The cities that Brooks counsels, however, often want music and performing arts festivals even in a crowded market. He first mentioned to representatives of El Dorado that they should do something like a “Southern Shakespeare Festival” inspired by Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival, to which they said, “We’re not about Shakespeare, we come from an oil town.’” So instead they opted for a general, festive, performing arts atmosphere.


It’s festivals like Moogfest or SXSW, spread out across a city, that might ultimately become the blueprint for future festival culture entirely. “I think we’re going to see fewer and fewer of these destination festivals,” says Sean O’Connell, director of Alabama’s Hangout Festival. “I think we’re seeing a lot of changes in the market [regarding] whether this new audience coming up wants to do the whole tent and camp thing as much as people did before.”

“With the festival bubble there are these major corporations like Live Nation or AEG behind them and sort of creating this homogenous effect,” Wynn says. “I think the [festivals] that are supported by the community and reflect the community as a culture with distinctive qualities will survive. I could see gigantic music festivals fading and closer to home more localized festivals taking hold of people.”


But what happens when too many cities make festivals an integral part of their image remains to be seen. “In America, I mean how many places can have wineries? They got so over-built that it’s like, how does this differentiate you from every place else? Because almost every state is overrun with wineries and after while it all just blends together,” Brooks says. “If every state had their own cool festival it would be great, but if there’s one in New York City and then one in Philadelphia and then Jersey City, they’re so close together so you’re going to go to the one we already know.”

For now, festivalization might be one small, future step for small cities that are trying to reinvigorate their economies.


“El Dorado was having a hard time, as a lot of other cities were, with a population drop of 10,000 people over the last 20 years. We lost a number of industries in the mid- and late 2000s,” says Austin Barrow, President and COO of El Dorado Festivals & Events. “This is not a city that sits on its haunches and worries about a problem.”

El Dorado’s Dan Smith sums it up: “As we say here, we ain’t waiting for the next Toyota plant.”

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About the author

Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel