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Troika Music Festival turns to local stars and organization

After a tough 2007, survival of the scrappy



Our 2008 Troika schedule differentiates the 64 bands' sounds and stories and offers Editor's Choice selections

This is some kind of pizza party, all right: In the back dining room of Satisfaction Restaurant in downtown Durham, a dozen people sit scattered among three long tables. There are two mostly uneaten pizzas, the food placing a distant second to the stacks of printer paper, green posters, ink-lined notebooks and plastic laminates spread everywhere. Indeed, instead of requests for Parmesan cheese, the diners pose questions about performer insurance and backstage access, catering options and promotional responsibilities.

This scene, concerned with minutiae as it is, promises that Troika Music Festival has gained a lot of ground since last autumn: Though the festival has called Durham home for the last six years, it almost didn't turn seven. Last year, chief organizer and fundraiser Melissa Thomas collapsed under the weight of its responsibilities and was admitted to the hospital one week before the first show. The biggest band on the festival's bill, New York's Les Savy Fav, canceled shortly thereafter. Other bands worried they wouldn't get paid, and those who'd volunteered in exchange for a festival pass weren't sure what pieces needed picking up.

Tonight, though, Thomas again sits near the head of the table, surrounded by people responsible for publicity, venue relations, ticket sales, sponsorship and band selection. Just eight days before Washington state songwriter Angelo Spencer—one of 64 performers selected for this year's three-day festival—plays Troika 2008's first notes in Durham Central Park, most everything seems under control. Nerves seem calm, and the biggest concerns—finding a few missing soundmen, distributing a few thousand handbills, meeting a few loose logistical ends—seem manageable.

"All of the sudden, this army of volunteers just showed up," says Thomas, remembering last year's festival and those who chipped in to hold it together in her absence. "All of these people who said they were going to help the night of the festival just rose to the occasion and started taking on elements of the festival. ... Even with all the surprises and changes and health issues, I think we came into this year with a really positive attitude."

Of all of Troika's virtues, the contagious persistence of its organizers is certainly its greatest. Over the last six years, health problems, big-name cancellations, the loss of municipal funds and Durham's infinite struggle to keep a venue open from one year to the next have battered the festival's best intentions. Still, every year, its longtime organizers—especially Thomas and local record producer Zeno Gill—apply their strong determination to fragile resources.

This year is no different. To get back on track, Troika turned its efforts inward. The festival previously invested heavily in touring talent with high guarantees and food requests, and—when ticket sales were low, as they were last year—the festival took a hit. Last year, it barely managed to break even. This year, Thomas and her fellow organizers decided local talent could carry the weight. Most bands agreed to play for free, though nine traveling bands will earn $75 each and seven prominent local acts, which Thomas terms "anchor bands," will get $100 each.

The biggest cost, says Thomas, will come with Friday night's four-band bill at Carolina Theatre. Renting and staffing the theater itself costs $2,500, but Thomas hopes the night's talent lures newcomers to the festival. Juno soundtrack star Kimya Dawson and Raleigh pop charmers The Rosebuds—whose guarantee is the festival's highest line-item expense, representing less than a third of the festival's $9,000 budget—will headline.

"For us, it feels like getting dressed up and going out with your parents," says Thomas, laughing. By the time of the Satisfaction meeting, only six tickets had been sold for the Carolina show. Thomas thinks it will work, though. Her financial goal remains simply to break even, so that there's enough money to begin work on next year's Troika.

"We're not a festival with a $500,000 beer sponsorship," says Thomas. "So you do what you can."

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