Organizing a music festival can seem like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to have it plummet back down once it's somewhere near the top. That uphill battle is familiar to organizers of Chapel Hill's Signal Southeast Electronic Music Festival, which presents its third year of performances, workshops and parties this weekend. Three years is a milestone for any large-scale event, and organizers say they've learned from immense challenges in the first two years. They feel they now know how to manage a festival and what they want this festival to be.
"We've taken our knocks," says Uzoma Nwosu, Signal's director of operations, known in local music circles as "Uzi." Nwosu is a veteran of the local dance music scene, going back to "New Science Experience," the WXYC radio show he founded shortly after his arrival here in 1989. "The [high caliber of] artists were there. There wasn't really the revenue, and we took a loss both years."
For that reason, Signal's organization has shifted from top to bottom: Mark Lever, a co-founder and chief coordinator in year's past, has pulled back to a less-active, advisory role. Experienced hip-hop promoter Shaw Hargett signed on, bringing increased booking connections. And this year, Signal the festival became The Signal Foundation, a nonprofit company.
Nwosu says the biggest lesson has been one of management. "It's so clear now what has to be done, what steps have to be taken," he says of starting a festival. "If I were to tell people trying to form a music festival, I'd tell them to learn the tasks involved and how to manage them, and go from there. But you never know what a realistic goal is until you try something."
Last year, for instance, Signal aimed very high, scoring Derrick May, one of the architects of Detroit Techno. May regularly travels the world for big-ticket parties and festivals, but here he was playing in an open room at UNC's student union. The May event was mostly made possible through UNC's Union Activities Board. But other marquee acts—Negativland, Crystal Castles, Masta Ace and sound sculptor Richard Chartier—were costly for organizers.
"We love the music ... but it's, well, expensive," says Nwosu with a slight laugh.
With multiple venues, club owners and patrons to please, managing money was an integral part of running Signal. The festival wasn't entirely successful, but it has taken measures each year to make expectations and ends meet: After the first festival, organizers launched a series of dance parties around the Triangle to shore up the festival's budget and to keep the festival in the public eye year-round. After the second festival, they decided to become a nonprofit organization. Their application is still in process at the federal level, but The Signal Foundation has incorporated as a nonprofit at the state level.
Such a fundamental change opens a door for how benefactors can support Signal. Those with a strong interest in seeing Signal succeed can donate upward of $50 to receive a full festival pass and promotional items like T-shirts. People can also pay for entry to single shows. As a nonprofit, Signal can also put out calls for donations. Benefactors can donate as much as they'd like, even if they don't plan to attend.
Organizers hope that Signal's nonprofit status will counteract some of the natural obstacles such a festival faces in Chapel Hill. Outside of electronic music's comfort zones in major cities, the culture around the music still faces strong stigmas: People think only of drug-crazed rave days, replete with childish props of baby pacifiers and empty warehouse secrecy. But Hargett argues that electronic music's popular infiltration is deep: "[Some of the public] do not realize that electronic music is everywhere and has some influence on almost every form of music that is out there today, from the typical types like house, drum-n-bass, techno to hip hop, and now to many forms of rock music."
Then again, electronic music can be its own enemy. With more subgenres and style nicknames than beats per minute in a pummeling breakcore track, the wide field called "electronic music" can alienate even its own fans.
For Signal, it's always been a tough call: Cast the net too wide, and attract multiple cliques but risk spreading crowds too thin. Recruit too narrowly, and organizers could estrange many musicians and fans. Signal hopes to strike a balance by throwing focused shows at different clubs at the same time: So, while hip-hoppers Kev Brown and Akrobatik play Mansion 462 on Franklin Street Saturday night, processed guitar master Keith Fullerton Whitman will be playing with a host of like-minded locals at Nightlight on Rosemary Street.
This plan has its critics. Noticeably absent from Signal this year is FrequeNC, a local vinyl-only label that stocks its monthly shows at Nightlight with live production performances. FrequeNC held their most recent event last weekend, a week before Signal. Label owner Charlie Hearon says they weren't invited back to Signal after participating in the first two festivals, but he hadn't planned on returning, anyway. He says the festival is still looking for definition.
"When I think 'festival,' I think a more centralized location and something that runs more like all day," he says. "You get to wander around and check out stuff. You see something you didn't plan on seeing while you're waiting for something to start. This just seems like a lot of shows to me."
But Nwosu wants Signal to be more than shows. He hopes the festival can actively educate people about electronic music—perhaps erasing those outdated stereotypes and offering more people a chance to make this music. "If we can enable people to toy around with it themselves, hopefully they'll turn back to support this type of music," he says.
Access to digital production tools, after all, is more widespread than ever, and he hopes Signal can become a leader in exposing newcomers. Nwosu once participated in a forum hosted by software company Red Hat where high school students were introduced to Hydrogen, a drum machine program. The kids loved it. Nwosu hopes Signal can become less of an annual party and more of a year-round series of performances and educational events using workshops and "Barcamps," where participants use easily available open-source technologies to make music. Such wide-eyed optimism is in line with Nwosu's goal for Signal and for the Triangle—to foster Creative Commons licenses for local musicians. He wants the Triangle to become "The Creative Commons Capital."
Indeed, the other side of Sisyphus' myth lies in his unending trip down and back up that hill, like an endless loop. He keeps climbing, trying to make it over that precipice, endlessly hopeful. Signal, after some trials and errors in its first two years, appears to be willing to make the climb yet again, maybe a little wiser for the trip.
"Ever since I fell in love with this music, I've always been willing to give up a bit of myself to be involved with it," Nwosu reflects. "It's what everybody on this team does. We love this stuff."
Signal kicks off Thursday night at Talullas and runs until late Saturday night. For the full schedule and details, go to the festival's site at www.signalfest.com, and check out the Indy's additional coverage on our music blog Scan at www.indyweekblogs.com/scan.
This year's Signal once again crosses stylistic borders, bringing out some real ringers in their respective fields. Browse over each night's array of talent at the Signal Web site. Our highlights for two of the festival's three nights follow.
Friday, April 11
CAT'S CRADLE: DJ Babu, J-Rocc, and DJ Rhettmatic of the Beat Junkies lead a formidable roster of hip hop's tightest linguists, beat sculptors and soulful poets, along with Supastition, Brother Reade, and Raleigh outfit Inflowential. 10 p.m.
MANSION 462: House reigns supreme at the newest Franklin Street venue as some biggies of the genre create vibe and atmosphere. With San Fran vet DJ Garth, All Good Funk Alliance, Sleazy McQueen, and many more. 10 p.m.
Saturday, April 12
MANSION 462: Kev Brown's flow and production style distinguish him as a disciple of Pete Rock, where jazz and soul music are obvious mutual wellsprings. The DC-area rapper is joined by a solid lineup of fellow travelers like Akrobatik, the group Tanya Morgan, Oddisee, and a triple threat of local talent: Kaze, L In Japanese, and DJ Forge. 10 p.m.
NIGHTLIGHT: Keith Fullerton Whitman explores electronic music from all angles. As Hrvatski, he delved into breakbeats, and he's done work with giant old analog synthesizers. Here, he will likely take the tact of waves of processed, and pristine, guitar tones. With Subscape Annex, Bicameral Mind, and several more. 8 p.m.