I went to Moogfest in Durham with open-minded skepticism. I attended every iteration of the festival since it first came to Asheville in 2010 and loved all of them. Like a lot of local music fans I was pissed that after making grandiose promises about its commitment to Asheville –– the home of its parent company, Moog Music — organizers abandoned us to move down the mountain to Durham this year.
At the same time, I was excited to get out of town and see how the festival would fit into its new home. There were a few hiccups, but overall, the same spirit of creative celebration that I loved so much about it here was in abundant supply in the Piedmont. In fact, I’d never been to downtown Durham before, and developed a new crush on the city that would make its Chamber of Commerce blush.
It’s a long and sordid tale that led Moog Music, the renowned local electronic instrument manufacturer founded by Bob Moog, to move the festival. But it basically came down to money: The 2014 version in Asheville lost $1.5 million. Organizers made a bet that they’d find more government support, sponsors and ticket buyers in the Triangle.
It turned out to be wishful thinking as far as government incentives. After getting entangled in a fight over economic and racial equity, Moogfest received $125,000 from the city of Durham and Durham County. That compares to the $180,000 in cash and in-kind services that Asheville and Buncombe County chipped in.
It’s a bit ironic considering that organizers cited the supposed lack of local government support as a big reason for the move. However, from what I could see, attendance seemed significantly higher in Bull City, and sponsorship banners were more plentiful. The numbers haven’t been released yet (and they may never be, considering Moogfest is a private entity), but I’m guessing that they added up to a sum that gave organizers a bit less heartburn.
This is probably a tell-tale sign of success: Immediately after the festival ended on Sunday, organizers sent out an email blast letting it be known that it would definitively be back in Durham next May. In 2014, after the festival, they did the opposite, making contradictory statements that cast its future in doubt and announcing it would be an biannual event. Well, I guess it’s now annual again.
The main challenge I witnessed this year was actually a result of unprecedented success. Many of the top-tier acts were in venues filled to capacity, leaving hundreds of unhappy ticket holders stuck in-line unable to get in. In some cases, even VIP ticket holders who forked over big money were left out in the cold. Most of the workshops filled up fast. Moogfest subtly acknowledged these issues in its email announcing next year’s festival, stating:
“We learned a lot at Moogfest this year. And we want to assure you that the next festival will be even better. VIPs will have even greater access and perks. We are addressing the workshop signup process to better accommodate the overwhelming enthusiasm for these sessions.”
Having the bigger acts in bigger rooms would be a great start. Durham seems to have no shortage of possible venues. The downtown is filled with industrial buildings that have been repurposed into charming bars, theaters, restaurants, galleries and shops. Green space and parks are aplenty. The city has more than three times the population of Asheville, but has a similar walkability and pleasant streetscape that lends itself very well to Moogfest’s multi-venue format.
I got lost wondering the streets looking for venues several times, but was never far from a shady tree or a comfortable bar stool where I could consult my Moogfest app. I didn’t see as many shows as I did at the festivals in Asheville, where I knew all the shortcuts and side-entrances. But Durham’s parks and watering holes really became just as much a part the festival as the music rooms. Many were dotted with tasteful, interactive Moogfest installations that invited passersby to experiment with lights and sounds. The block outside the Main Stage at Motorco Park allowed drinking on the street, and many folks from the nearby neighborhood wondered around and experienced a slice of Moogfest without paying a dime.
Of course, the experience inside the ticket gates was more intensely captivating, as massive sound systems vibrated us to the thumps of Grimes and ODESZA, both of which put on outstanding electronica shows.
But Moogfest, despite a lot of misconceptions, has always offered so much more than electronic music. GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan staged two epic rap shows throughout the weekend, one in an intimate club backed by just a DJ, and another on the big outdoor stage with a full band that really highlighted the soulful musicality of his Genius. Late Saturday night Explosions in the Sky layered atmospheric guitar lines to thunderous crescendos without the help of any keyboards or laptops at all.
For me, the best performance of the weekend was Daniel Lanois, the Grammy-winning producer behind some of the best albums of U2, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and a long list of other greats. Billed as a “Masterclass,” he held court in a small theater, inviting folks onstage to talk music and the creative process, conversing with us as if we were hanging out in his living room. He shared inspiring insights about how to stay true to your art and identity while also making a living in the online era. He shared stories about how an impromptu jam session with the Edge ended up making the final cut of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Lanois also played a selection of his own amazing songs, and the heartfelt emotion he exuded during “I Love You” literally had me crying in my seat. It was his mix of intellectual insights and creative exaltation that for me, embodied Moogfest at its best. Experiences like this were plentiful, as Durham pulsed everywhere with experimental music, installations, workshops and panel discussions on everything from artificial intelligence and technoshamanism to afrofuturism.
Moogfest strives to transcend the traditional boundaries of a music festival, relentlessly presenting itself in marketing materials as “the synthesis of music, art and technology” and a “landmark cultural event” that will help reveal the future of creativity and music.
In its review, Rolling Stone asks if Moogfest was “actually the future of music,” and concludes, a little sarcastically, “probably not.” Even if Moogfest’s rhetoric is a little too big for its britches, most of the national coverage I’ve seen paints the festival as well as Durham, in a positive light. Many stories are highlighting its new host city as a hub of innovation and technology. It’s the kind of coverage that Asheville attracted when Moogfest was here and desperately needs more of to help get the attention of creative entrepreneurs. And it’s a shame that now we’re not getting it.
But after witnessing Moogfest’s inaugural experiment in Durham, I no longer hold a grudge against organizers for leaving us in search of greater success. It was like visiting one of my many bright friends who have moved away from our community in search of better job opportunities. I miss them, but I’m happy for them and respect that they’re trying new things. Moogfest and Moog Music have always been driven by intense ambition. And I think in Durham they took a step toward making those ambitions a reality.