Artsquest’s first indie music festival has come and gone. How did the inaugural year go?
The attendance for the first day, to put it lightly, was sparse. Kicking off the festival, locals Scott Pine & the Conifers played to a group of about 40 people on Friday afternoon in the Bank Alehouse Cinema. Their mellow rock was fine, but failed to impress the crowd.
Next up was country act honeyhoney. With elements of folk and rock thrown in, singer Suzanne Santo’s sometimes smoky voice was engaging. With a crowd that largely stayed away from the stage, Santo alternated between banjo and fiddle as the band ran through high-energy songs. With the soaring popularity of bands like Mumford & Sons one could reasonably assume honeyhoney might grow in popularity in the coming years as well.
Hometown favorites Great White Caps played in the cinema for a group of around 60 people. While the band sounded as solid as they ever have, the venue was simply not a good one for a surf rock band. After seeing the band play in a venue like The Funhouse it’s sad so see everyone so sedentary during a set that would normally encourage dancing.
Sun Airway, a Philly duo, played a melodic electro-tinged set that could’ve passed for Animal Collective B-sides. With not much action happening in the Musikfest Café during their set, the crowds were light and the scene subdued.
Jukebox the Ghost has easily the biggest crowd of the day, even moreso than the headliners Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. A lively group in front of the stage danced through the first bunch of songs including the closest thing Jukebox has to a hit, their 2010 single Schizophrenia. Noting that their drummer was MIA due to a family emergency, Xylos drummer Christopher Berry filled in for the first portion of the set. Needing to leave for his own band’s set, the band, left drummer-less, joked, “Okay, this is the end of the part of the set you can move to.” The drums were hardly missed. The band joked with the crowd and played brilliantly throughout the remainder of their set. It marked the first point where anyone in the crowd seemed to know a band’s lyrics. Given the band’s relative popularity in indie circles and homebase of Philadelphia, it’s no surprise they brought in the biggest, most festive crowd of the first day.
Headliners Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. forewent their typical race suits, instead adopting Detroit Tigers jackets to begin their set. Playing to a less lively crowd than Jukebox the Ghost, the band hit their highlights only when playing other people’s music. Dropping a shockingly good line from a Whitney Houston-stylized I Will Always Love You, the band then went on to cover both the Beach Boys and Steve Winwood. Possibly hoping to get the crowd more hyped, singer Joshua Epstein mused, “Thank you for beating Duke. I know not all of you went to Lehigh, but I fucking hate Duke.” It didn’t work. The band toiled on through the rest of their set, never themselves becoming very lively and some of their songs ending jumbled and sloppy.
The second day of the festival Artsquest fared far better attendance-wise. Crowds for non-headliners were noticeably larger and the headlining acts had bigger, more energetic crowds.
Philly band Toy Soldiers, who played Musikfest last year, played some of the most soulful music of the entire festival. Filled with kids who seem like they’d be in punk or generic indie bands, they’re undeniably a tiny band that should be much, much bigger,
We Are Scientists played a heartfelt, solid set. The crowd was receptive with concertgoers lined up along the stage, dancing to some songs and screaming along to others. The band members looked genuinely please to be there and the crowd reciprocated the feeling. This was definitely the stand-out performance of the day.
Rounding out the night was DJ RJD2, best known for creating the theme song for Mad Men. The set started out with RJD2 coming out in an odd suit with a sort of drum machine attached to his nether-regions which he spun around. His face was shielded by a welding mask and he spoke unintelligibly through a voice synth. Everything was much better once he started spinning disks. His setup includes four turntables and he spins actual vinyl.
The set started off lively, sending the crowd dancing. The set hit it’s apex when one of his most notable and catchy tracks, The Horror, was spun. The crowd was jumping along, repeating the “time, time, time” chant heard in the album version. Twice mixed in the set was his award-winning song A Beautiful Mine. The set did seem to lose significant steam about halfway through, leaving many less people than when it began.
The most impressive thing about RJD2 is the vinyl aspect. At one point during the show one of his records failed, leaving the music stopped for a second as he joked about old technology. In fact, prior to his show he was downstairs at a vendor table searching through rows of old records seemingly unnoticed and unfamiliar to anyone in the area (despite him being the night’s biggest act). RJD2 was an odd choice for a headliner, but certainly not a bad one by any means.
Artsquest certainly took a hit on the first day of the festival with such low attendance. Although the second day had far many more attendees, it still wasn’t even close to being a sellout festival. It’s a bit of a shame, really, since indie acts are the ones people complain about not having very vocally, however when something like this comes around the crowds aren’t there.
One thing to consider is the size of the Musikfest Café. It’s not a big place by any means. The problem with the festival isn’t that there isn’t any good bands. There were certainly a bunch that were great. Most of the acts hailed from the Philadelphia and New York areas, making them an easy grab for the festival. What the organization theoretically should do is grab a really big indie name or two to headline (someone that’s on the rotation on Radio 104.5), far more known than Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr or RJD2. The problem? Those acts cost a lot of money, and passing that onto the ticket costs would send the prices for tickets through the roof (a one day pass this year was $39 at the door, a two-day pass $69.) Perhaps adding non-music aspects to the event would draw in larger crowds, such as an indie craft show or something of the like.
Besides attendance numbers, the food was fine and priced well. $3 PBRs were strewn all over the venue, in typical hipster fashion. A DJ out on the Sands Deck went largely unnoticed with the exception of the smoking crowd. It was too chilly to be outside, especially after it started raining hard on Saturday evening. If they really want people to check out that area that time of year and listen to a DJ, it might be wise to look into some of those outdoor heaters that are frequently seen in cooler months along Main Street.
Between stage acts Artsquest kept things entertaining by placing a side stage in the Musifkest Café where belly dancers and other acts performed. One of the most shocking performances was a burlesque act. A performer from the Phantasmagoria Circus from Philadelphia began stripping down to her underwear, sending one parent with a ~11 year old boy darting from the venue, loudly complaining “I thought this was supposed to be an all ages show!” It was quite hilarious. By the time the performer was down to a thong and pasties there was a bunch of parents outside with their kids. Maybe stick to the “oooh ahhh” acts instead of the “ooh la la” acts for next year. Won’t someone please think of the children?
The only real complaint besides the attendance problem (which is more of a problem for Artsquest than the consumer) is that of the Banko Alehouse venue. It’s fine for bands that are mellow, but, as mentioned previously, bands like the Great White Caps just aren’t suited for. Buried Beds invited people to “basically sit on the stage”, referring to the front row seats that would’ve required you to rest your legs on the stage had you sit in them. They also tried to coax audience members to get up and do interpretive dance in the front aisle but no one took them up on the offer.
With the Civil Twilight show reportedly still having 800 tickets left for next Friday, indie music doesn’t seem to be very popular at Artsquest (with the exception of the MGMT show at Musikfest). Hopefully this doesn’t cause Artsquest to write off the genre for good and they bring the festival (and regular indie acts) back next year. It’s good for the music scene and brings bands that a younger generation is interested in, however sparse the crowds may be.
Great White Caps
Crowd in the Banko Alehouse Cinema for Buried Beds
Jukebox the Ghost
Jukebox the Ghost
Crowd for Jukebox the Ghost
Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr
Maps & Atlases
Maps & Atlases
This is a shame in that this only re-enforces Artsquest to cater acts to their older membership crowd. Young people often have a stigma that they only show up to events that promote alcohol (ie Oktoberfest). Sucks that they tried a festival geared towards a younger group and the region just didn’t support it. At least they tried. It is only the first year, so I hope they aren’t too discouraged. Thanks for the report.
Just very disappointed this event wasn’t advertised better. These are great bands that many people would have come out to see – but there was no advertising. Iknow for a fact ppl would have supported this f they would’ve KNOWN about it!!! I’m a historic Bethlehem resident, hospitality industry worker by night and graphic designer by day – and i’m floored i saw NOTHING for this. Bands worthwhile will not come back if there isn’t proper advertising!!!!!!
There of course could’ve been MORE advertising, however I thought it was put out there pretty well. It was advertised on Radio 104.5, which is the primary indie station in Philly. We also posted about the announcement too (you’re obviously not checking in enough 😉 ) In the future following Artsquest on Twitter or Facebook or joining their mailing list would get you the announcements as well. Hope you make the next one as it was a great event, just under-attended. Cheers.
It was advertised on 104.5? I routinely listen to them, and never heard a single ad for this. I would’ve gone for at least day 2. I think it was a little too ambitious to do two days, personally. Going from NO INDIE to TWO DAYS ALL INDIE YAY is a bit quick. Hell, even doing a full day is maybe a bit much. Just get a band or two. Have people show up for that, then start thinking festival. Hindsight is 20/20, etc.
I really do hope they do it again. It looks like they’re not crazy discouraged, since Conor Oberst is coming in July. That’ll help put the place on the indie map, at least, and maybe more folks will start following to see what’s coming up, and this won’t be so poorly attended again.