From within the Triangle, it's easy to get excited when hometown heroes Superchunk co-headline Hopscotch with The Flaming Lips, as happened in 2011, or when relative Triangle newcomers such as The Love Language and Helping Hand Mission Band open for Public Enemy, as in 2010. Though we can see these locals often enough, there's something special about seeing them on the big stage.
Yet this may not convey what Hopscotch looks like from outside central North Carolina. There's plenty of excitement when SPIN or The New York Times name-drops the festival, but how is Hopscotch perceived from Asheville or Winston-Salem? Do our neighbors see this as a local fest with national acts, or as a national one with local flavor? And is it part of the greater North Carolina music dialogue?
"I know there are a lot of people in Asheville who think Hopscotch is the best festival in the country, for sure," says Shane Perlowin, who plays guitar in Ahleuchatistas, the longstanding backbone of Asheville's avant-garde instrumental scene. "And I would love to agree with them, although this will be my first time; I'll let you know after."
Perlowin is on the road as we speak, headed home from Atlanta. He says he trusts the assessments of his peers because although some of them came to Asheville from the Triangle, many of them relocated from rural North Carolina. "That ends up creating a network of connection throughout the state," he says—and that network is evident in North Carolina's many festivals, which often share acts while maintaining distinct characters.
Greenville's Spazz Fest consciously maintains the wide-open character of the defunct illegal music space that is its namesake. Winston-Salem's Phuzz Phest seems to be edging in on some sort of indie legitimacy without betraying its regional roots. Smaller homegrown festivals in Charlotte take advantage of both traditional venues and secret locations to bring hordes of smaller bands to the city.
This year, organizers of two smaller-scale North Carolina fests play Hopscotch with their own bands. Late Bloomer's Josh Robbins and Estrangers' Philip Pledger work with Charlotte's Treasure Fest and Winston-Salem's Phuzz Phest, respectively. Their views differ in regard to how Hopscotch fits in to North Carolina's indie fest circuit. Robbins sees Hopscotch as a national fest with a local flavor. Pledger counters by citing Asheville's upcoming Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, which leans much more heavily on the nationals.
Admittedly, the wow factor of big-name acts sells tickets—one reason Big Boi's fairly late-in-the-game postponement of his Hopscotch appearance may hurt the festival. In previous years, the event's big shows at Raleigh's City Plaza have had a wildly different feel from many club shows. Judging from audience etiquette and the response when the headliner hits the stage, it has been quickly evident that hundreds of people have bought tickets just to see a City Plaza headliner. (The Flaming Lips' 2011 set was a prime example.) Thus a festival boasting Nine Inch Nails, Animal Collective and Neutral Milk Hotel, as Mountain Oasis does this October, will have less at stake if one of those big names drops off the bill.
Pledger thinks Hopscotch balances between a national and local emphasis, booking the former without shorting the latter. "I think Hopscotch has definitely brought a certain amount of respect to Raleigh from bands across the state," he says.
Though he lives in Winston-Salem now, Pledger graduated from UNC in 2009, though he didn't make it to Raleigh often when he was living in Chapel Hill. He admits the emergence of Hopscotch helped him reimagine what these events can be.
"I think some of my early preconceptions of what a music festival was involved a bunch of people standing in a giant field sweating and peeing and camping together for four days, and it didn't really appeal to me," he says. Hopscotch's club-hopping alternative, Pledger believes, may deserve more national recognition; the festival has gotten some, but not enough, he thinks.
Pledger has a hard time envisioning the same sort of fest happening in, say, Virginia—not because there's less music, but because there are fewer distinct markets. If this is the case, then awareness of what kinds of bands come out of Charlotte versus Wilmington can lead to a deeper understanding of where Hopscotch fits among state and national festivals. As such, Hopscotch may be, as Perlowin puts it, an event North Carolinians can call their own.
Treasure Fest organizer Robbins, meanwhile, fluctuates in his views of how Hopscotch fits into the state's music ecosystem, as we talk while he drives across town in Charlotte to catch a weeknight show at heavy-music stronghold The Milestone. His perspective is pragmatic: The big fest is working with a lot more money than his own, he admits, but he also notices that headliners from his festival and other local events consistently show up in small-venue slots at Hopscotch.
"It's almost like minor-league baseball, and the majors are watching," he says.
And while he believes DIY fests would be happening anyway—it doesn't take deep pockets to bring together a few show spaces and a handful of smaller, quality acts, as Perlowin notes—Hopscotch has managed to exist on the next step up without shortchanging the pre-existing structure.
"If that is the case," Robbins says, "all of these things are beneficial to North Carolina in cultivating bands, and the notion that there is somewhere to go."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Outside, looking in."
Corbie Hill lives on three wooded acres in Pittsboro, where he is a writer, musician, dad of two and community college English instructor.