"It's tough economically to be creative lately," says Durham Association for Downtown Arts (DADA) member Jason Fagg, and he's right. These are not the best times in which to pursue one's art (read: to lose money), but Fagg, along with the rest of DADA, is throwing a life preserver into risky waters for the sake of art, community, and the revival of metropolitan Durham. This weekend, the organization will host the Durham Music Festival, a three-day, 47-artist event spread over six different venues. DADA hopes to bring people together for a good time, to help out local businesses, and to possibly generate funds for future Durham art and music events.
"The initial idea was to try to cover operating costs," continues Fagg, "But if there is a profit, we want to put it into a 'Durham music fund', so that anyone who comes to a DADA meeting can come up with ideas on how to use it...maybe we can make improvements to existing [Durham] venues--better PAs, better equipment."
The festival was born last summer, under the title of the Durham Bands Showcase, and was to take place outside, in Durham's new Central Park (there had already been four smaller DADA events with the same title at several different Durham venues, but nothing as big as last summer's outing). A weekend of rain forced the organizers to scramble for last-minute venues, which were miraculously provided by Bully's Basement and Joe and Jo's Downtown bar on Main Street. This time around, in addition to preparing for possible bad weather, DADA also needed to cut expenses--renting the park and a tractor trailer stage on which the bands could play last year was not cheap. But even more than saving money, the main goal of putting the festival downtown is to nurture both local businesses and local bands, providing a sense of community in a downtown that has been dormant for quite a while. And having all the festival venues within walking distance means that people could walk around downtown (gasp!) from show to show, a concept that has been growing in the area over the past few years, thanks to the businesses that have drawn a steady local clientele.
"We have always wanted to create a downtown that has a nightlife," says Jenn Duerr, one of DADA's co-founders, who explains that city officials share the same goal. "They want also for people to be downtown at night--they want to be a part of this movement to revitalize the area."
The city administrators have begun to recognize that there are multiple businesses moving to the downtown area--Amano Paperie, which sells fine art materials; the Latin Grill; Joe and Jo's; the Wellness Partners in the Arts gallery, among others--and for these venues to survive, they're going to need more than just team spirit. To further DADA's cause, the city provided "all the money we have [for the festival]," says Duerr. Furthermore, last year, when the 2002-2003 budget year began, city officials decided to create a new administrative position, the downtown events coordinator, in the hopes that special events could create a buzz downtown, which in turn would bring foot traffic to local businesses. Alice Sharpe, who was hired this past February, has worked closely with DADA members to make the festival happen.
"The coming of her position marks a huge change in the renaissance of Durham, because now the city is behind us," states Duerr.
"To have been working on events in general, especially the music fest, because there are so many people involved, it was great to have [the city] say, 'We want this to happen...how do we help?'", says Robert Stromberg, another founding DADA member who spearheaded the festival organization.
"Robert came to us and said, 'Hey, we really want to do this fest again', but they're on a shoestring budget," says Sharpe. "By supporting the fest, we, the city, help to support artists and musicians in the area, which is very cost-effective for us--if someone else has the organizational skills, we can maximize what money we do have by helping with marketing and materials."
It's a welcome resource to DADA, which has made it part of its mission to establish working relationships with downtown businesses as they open, but, like jump-starting an old car, can only push the downtown revival so far.
"It's been kickstarted, but everyone is waiting for a boom," Stromberg says of the downtown rebirth. "It's a hard time, and everyone has to stick their neck out."
The process of selecting bands began earlier this spring, as DADA put up fliers and took out ads inviting musicians to submit applications and music. According to Stromberg, there were tons of applicants for the organizers to sift through, but part of their lineup choices came from less formal means.
"This was a process of wanting to get the word out there [for bands to apply]," he says, "But there are some bands we wouldn't have found out about unless we kept asking this person who knows this person who knows this person..."
The sheer number of artists provides festivalgoers with more than enough options each night--there's folk, bluegrass, jazz, noise, punk, and new age, to say the least. Many of Durham's most popular rock acts are well represented, be it the raunchy funk of the Cody Cods (one of three of Fagg's bands playing the festival--The Sleepies and The Ugglians also require his duties), the brooding instrumentals of Malt Swagger, or wall-of-noise pop from The Sames. There's also plenty of up-and-coming acts, from the catchy bounce of Mr. Twip, a member of the hip-hop crew Durty Nation, to the complex web of guitar lines created by Sandra Covin (also known as farblondjet), there's a healthy mix of artists that the organizers respect and admire.
"[Sandra] has this song on the upcoming Pox World Empire compilation [of Triangle artists]," sighs Fagg, "And it's just so fuckin' beautiful that I just want to stop and listen, no matter what I'm doing."
"I'm excited to see the I-Men," says Stromberg of one of the other hip-hop acts on the schedule. "It sounds like they spend a lot of time creating beats and tracks...it was exciting for me to hear their songs because it was creative on more than one front."
Both Stromberg and Fagg are quick to praise the entire Triangle music scene, and hope that future Durham Music Festivals will include bands from all over the Triangle, but for the time being they are eager to make both Durham residents and Durham bands proud of the thriving music scene in their city.
"I went to see a Durham band play in Raleigh a couple months ago, and when they got onstage they said they were from Chapel Hill," says Stromberg. "This festival is a pride factor; it's like, 'Look at all the amazing musicians that live in Durham', instead of jumping on the Chapel Hill bandwagon because that's more viable to [Durham bands] as artists."
All shows at Blue Coffee Company, Amano Paperie, and WPA are free and will start at 7 p.m. each night; all other performances will begin at 10 p.m. Door prices at the Latin Grill and Joe and Jo's are $5, and entrance at Ringside is $7 a night, but concertgoers can buy a festival pass for $15 that will get them into every show. Passes are available at Madd Waxx, Nice Price Books on Broad Street, Joe and Jo's, and online at www.durhamdada.org.