Future uncertain for upstart Austin festivals after SOS cancellation, Levitation revamp

People pass by the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at Auditorium Shores in Austin, where music festivals have been held throughout the years. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
People pass by the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at Auditorium Shores in Austin, where music festivals have been held throughout the years. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Day two of weekend two of the Austin City Limits Festival wrapped up Saturday night with a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as tens of thousands of people once again packed into Zilker Park, pumping big bucks into Austin’s economy.

Last year’s ACL Fest brought more than $277 million into the city according to one analysis — $124 million from festival operations and $153 million spent in town by festival-goers.

While the central Texas festival circuit is dominated by two major players, upstart festivals face an uphill battle. Two announcements in recent days are raising questions about what the future holds for newer events.

“What’s it going to look like in five years or 10 years? I have no idea,” Brandon DeMaris said. He’s the owner of DeMaris Entertainment, a concert and event production company whose primary functions are booking bands for gigs and making them sound good.

KXAN caught up with DeMaris at a home in south Austin that he was transforming into a private charity concert featuring three Austin bands. He generally puts together those types of shows — drawing maybe a few hundred people — rather than the massive festivals that pull in tens of thousands per day.

“Austin City Limits Festival, Sound on Sound, Fun Fun Fun Fest,” he said, “the people who put that together are really taking a big gamble.”

It doesn’t always pay off: Fun Fun Fun Fest dissolved after 2015, and Sound on Sound Fest organizers announced last week they were canceling that festival, originally scheduled for next month. Graham Williams, a local festival booker who founded both FFF and SOS, told another news outlet the main investor pulled out last minute after developing “cold feet, worry about the festival market in general.”

Williams was unable to line up other investors in time, he said, so his booking company, Margin Walker, pulled the plug. This would have been just the second year for SOS after the festival was plagued by rain and other issues during its inaugural run in 2016. The festival website notes there are no plans to continue the event in the future.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Homer Hill, one of the founders of Austin’s Urban Music Festival. “Requires a lot of resources.”

UMF returns to Auditorium Shores at the end of March for its 13th installment. Hill said it’s a challenge every year to keep up funding.

“Sponsorships, they’re pretty much where they’ve always been, and that’s a problem, you know,” Hill said. “We need for them to increase.”

One hiccup, he said, like the storm that blew through in 2007, can put a festival in jeopardy.

“It rained and sleeted, it iced, it did everything but sunshine,” Hill remembered. They had to cancel two days of the festival because of it. “So, we really didn’t know what our destiny would end up being.”

Supportive sponsors kept their promises and UMF was rescheduled for later that year, Hill said. But they need to keep expanding the festivals’ branding to keep people motivated to show up. This year, for instance, UMF will host more events outside of the park venue before, during and after the weekend of the festival.

That’s the route the Levitation festival (formerly Austin Psych Fest) organizers are taking, too.The centralized festival that used to draw international crowds to camp on the outskirts of the city will now take place at venues throughout Austin, organizers announced this week. After bad weather canceled the event in 2016 and no event planned for this year, the Levitation festival will return next year.

That will sound familiar to anyone who’s following the Sound on Sound cancellation; organizers are working to book the acts they intended for that festival into venues around the city for the same weekend.

“Don’t go beyond it being a good experience for people and they’re going to continue to support it however they can,” DeMaris said.

That means different things for different events, he added. His company cultivates more intimate shows, but he enjoyed his time at ACL’s first weekend this year, singing along to Tom Petty covers with thousands of others in the crowds.

“There are so many ways to have live music in your life,” DeMaris said. The promoter and producer plans to keep working to keep Austin the live music capital of the world. “Find a way that you can contribute to the sustainability of Austin music and you will always have Austin music with you.”

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