During the last six months, several people have asked me what I would do differently if I booked the bands at the N.C. State Fair.
It’s not a random question: For several years, seemingly excessive expenditures by the Department of Agriculture for acts inside and around Dorton Arena have been a strange personal fascination. In December, the weird hobby culminated in a story that revealed the state had lost nearly $900,000 on such sets in four years
—that is, after
hiring an agent with little-to-no experience. That’s when the questions, for which I still have no definitive answer, began.
Lucky for me, four months later, the state revealed it would scale back the performances, opting instead for the cheaper, area-driven “Homegrown North Carolina” series. That same day, the state announced a request for proposals for
“qualified vendors to provide entertainment booking and related services” for this year’s fair. The budget for the entire gig, including production, would be $200,000, a significant reduction considering the fair spent $500,000
for just four Scotty McCreery shows in 2012 and 2013. Still, $200,000 remains a big chunk of someone else’s change, so proposals began to arrive ahead of the late March deadline.
Earlier this week, Triangle Business Journal reported
that the N.C. State Fair had selected Deep South Entertainment, a two-decade-old management and booking company based in Raleigh, to take the task. You might be familiar with Deep South from the bar of the same name they run downtown, from their work years ago with Bud Light Downtown Live in Moore Square, from the rock ’n’ roll book of owner Dave Rose, or from the hundreds of shows and acts they’ve booked, promoted or presented over the years. They’re a good company with a strong network of connections and wide events-management experience, attributes their proposal to the state demonstrates.
The proposal’s worksheet of potential Tar Heel talent is interesting, too, as it ranges from Corrosion of Conformity and Little Brother to Superchunk and Unknown Hinson. I’m curious to see what they come up with come October.
Back to that first question, however, I don’t know if Deep South would have been my first choice. While the company excels at producing decent large-scale events that you might find in any city (see, for instance, Bud Light Downtown Live
), I don’t think they’ve ever created much in the way of a signature event, something that carries its own imprint and identity. They are a strong role player, not an essential impresario. And the latter, I think, is what the N.C. State Fair needs, especially if it hopes to make a lineup of locals an annual calling card of its programming—something with personality, distinction and maybe even just a bit of an edge.
They likely won’t get that from Deep South, especially considering the lineup the business announced earlier today for its annual downtown Raleigh concert series, Oak City 7
. Since 2012, Oak City 7 has used sponsorship money to erect a temporary stage on Fayetteville Street every other Thursday night during the summer and have as many as a half-dozen bands play a free set. It started in 2012 with room-filling locals
and grew to, in the last two years, incorporate touring headliners
—Cracker, Fastball, King’s X, The Posies. Sure, it’s not the most thrilling assortment you can imagine, but the scale has at least progressed over time.
But wow, how it’s regressed for 2015: This year, a cover band headlines each night, with two meager locals taking the opening slot. It starts with On the Border May 28 and goes on to include nods to the ’90s at large, Journey, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, country music at large and Jimmy Buffett before September arrives. It’s embarrassing, really, a throwback to the days when, to have fun in downtown Raleigh, you had to cart yourself to a series with a name like “Alive After 5,” inevitably hosted in some faceless parking lot and hosting some nameless cover band. Nothing about it suggests a city trying to preserve—let alone enhance—its identity. It’s free, yes, but it’s also the musical equivalent of the city’s encroaching architectural blandness.
When John Booker, a Deep South employee, posted the series’ flyer earlier today, I asked him about the decision in the comments. “The large majority of the openers are all local, original acts,” he replied. “But yes, the headliners this year are all tribute/cover acts. Trying something way different this go around.”
But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where “way different” feels more generic than tributes to Johnny Cash, the Eagles and Journey. Let’s hope, at least, that philosophy applies only to seven summer Thursdays on Fayetteville Street, not down the road at the Fairgrounds come the fall.
And I don't think it will. I spoke with Rose, Deep South's owner, this afternoon, and he's taking the business of the fair very seriously. He sees it as a chance to showcase and develop the state's reputation as a music powerhouse, even if the budget and star power are diminished compared to previous years.
"My hope is that the fair can become this place where people go to discover new music. In some cases, it will be sprinkled with music they know. And in some cases, it will be stuff they've just discovered," Rose said. "This is an incredible opportunity for every musician in the state. I want to help in creating a culture that makes the artists feel like there's a platform for their art."
Or, as the Journey cover band Trial by Fire might sing, don't stop believing.