Nostalgia alone cannot keep any festival afloat. Lilith Fair found this out the hard way.
The Sarah McLachlan-headlined extravaganza scrapped 10 dates last week, including an Aug. 16 stop in Dallas, amid a cloud of bad press. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, co-founder Terry McBride lashed out at media for distorting the story, all while glossing over the simple fact that a significant number of Lilith shows had been downgraded from their original venues -- never a good sign.
In all, it's been a rather cruel summer for the music business. A string of big shows -- Rihanna, Christina Aguilera; even the fledgling Country Throwdown tour -- all fell victim to sluggish ticket sales and a glut of concerts crowding the calendar. Since CD and digital music sales can't sustain the industry's outmoded ways, more bands than ever have taken to touring in a desperate effort to scrape up cash.
Yet closer to home, things could hardly be better for local musicians.
A steady stream of terrific albums has stretched well into the summer, not to mention new releases from artists such as Daniel Folmer, the Hope Trust, Toadies and Calhoun, which all expect to release CDs this year. It's a sustained embarrassment of riches unlike anything I've seen in three-plus years of living and working here.
Although there was a spate of band breakups early this year, many of the splintered groups have coalesced into promising new outfits, such as Foe Destroyer and Bravo Zulu.
Even Deep Ellum is, arguably, at its strongest since its mid-'90s heyday, with an astonishing 20 venues operating. And although Fort Worth awaits the fate of the Ridglea Theater, Lola's Saloon Sixth looks mighty sharp with its new back patio space, and there are exciting spaces such as the Where House and the Gallery at Landers Machine Shop brimming with tremendous potential.
So, why such a sharp contrast between the major leagues and the minors?
Put simply, freedom. The major labels and their attendant festivals don't work anymore. In 1997, when Lilith Fair was first launched, MTV was still playing videos, radio could still have an impact on an artist's career and the Internet was only just gaining traction. A then-burgeoning artist like Fiona Apple or Patty Griffin could (affordably) tour the country, playing to thousands upon thousands of potential fans.
Thirteen years later, though, it takes online buzz or word of mouth via social networking sites to get most musicians' careers going -- not a one-day buffet like Lilith. Frankly, it's an archaic model, a way of forcing music upon people that doesn't allow for discovery, the watchword of consuming sound in the 21st century. These days, people embrace recommendations from friends, stumbling upon an artist online or even hearing a band in a commercial (just ask Phoenix, the Ting Tings or Band of Horses; each act earned notoriety for scoring ads).
Multiband touring festivals, with their hefty per-ticket price tags, don't really allow for connections on an intimate scale.
That's the lesson that the major-label music industry is still struggling to learn: In an era of increasingly fractured interests, people are still looking for a sense of intimacy and community. At most local shows, you're able to walk right up to someone who just finished performing and engage them in conversation. Between constantly updated Facebook pages and personal Twitter accounts, the proximity to the people onstage is unprecedented. (It's also not as much of a risk for people to plunk down $10 to experience three or four bands, many of which -- at least in North Texas -- blow most A-list acts out of the water.)
Despite its dinosaur status, the festival model will persevere, simply because it still makes money, in most cases. But promoters and record labels would do well to learn a few lessons from the fate of Lilith Fair and think about something other than the bottom line. What is it people really want out of a concert experience?
The answer to that question is down here, away from the boardrooms and trade publications, on the stages at the Granada and Lola's Saloon Sixth, where bands like the Beaten Sea or the Burning Hotels are really shaking things up. Even a weekend spent diving into all that North Texas has to offer musically will demonstrate that.
The wealth of talent is almost enough to make you forget all your troubles -- even you, Sarah McLachlan.