It has been a year of sea change in the Atlanta music scene, and one of the defining stories has been the proliferation of local musical festivals. Driven partially in response to the rise of corporate festivals in the city and their continued exclusion of local artists, 2016 has seen the emergence of both new events (Peacefest, Irrelevant Music Fest) and the expansion of others (Flaky Niece, WRASFest, JORTSFEST, Krustfest). And while each of these fests has managed to create and maintain their own unique identity, they all have a single cause in common: to bring greater diversity and inclusiveness to Atlanta music.
Tomorrow night at RowdyDowdy at Fort Pryor, another local music fest, this one called The Big Thing, will do its damnedest to bring attention to a new wave of rising local acts. Founded by local artist and promoter Jay Douglas, a.k.a. NEWMONEY, the single-day event will feature 22 bands across a wide-spectrum of genres. It’s a sincere attempt at greater intersectionality in the music scene, something which Douglas says is severely lacking among most established venues in the city.
“If you ask me, differences in the type of music, race, gender, et cetera, all play a role in how much access people are given within the local scene,” he explains. “The Big Thing is a rebellion against the gatekeepers of music who, consciously or unconsciously, deprive talented people of equal opportunity to showcase that talent and be properly recognized for it.”
A relative newcomer to the scene, Douglas moved to Atlanta in August of last year to attend Georgia State. He immediately began seeking out local shows and artists, and immersing himself in the community. Within six months he was hosting his own showcase at the Mammal Gallery, the first in a series of events called The Thing. The Thing Part 2 and The Thing Part 2.5 would follow just a few months later. In each case, the intent was the same: to challenge the established norms of the local music scene in the hopes of building something newer and better from the ground up.
But although Douglas has managed to accomplish a lot in his first year in the city, he’s had to do it while combating the institutionalized prejudice and negative stereotypes that remain prevalent in most aspects of local culture. “I’m an outsider in the sense that I’m a brand new, black face in Atlanta music,” Douglas says. “I go to shows, even my own, and kids assume I’m there to sell drugs. People will ask my white friends who perform at my shows how they went about putting them together. It’s all funny in a way but ultimately showcases what I’m talking about.”
Still, Douglas has no time for gripes. He’s far too busy building bridges between scenes and trying to connect disparate artists. To him, it seems only logical that more diverse lineups with greater representation would have a larger potential for success. While he understands that most venues and promoters need to turn a profit, he doesn’t see how booking bands that recycle the same formulas and play predominantly the same styles of music leads to either cultural or financial growth. And yet, getting venues to try something different and more diverse has been a tough sell, especially if it involves rappers. “They hate rappers,” he says of most clubs and promoters.
According to Douglas, the disregard for hip-hop isn’t limited to the established venues across the city. It also informs much of what happens in the DIY community. Although he sees a slow, steady acceptance starting to build as more people are exposed to rappers in a live setting, he still feels there are creative prejudices against both the art form and the artists who create it. All of which seems backwards considering the extreme DIY nature of hip-hop and the fact that the community is always preaching the importance of openness and breaking down barriers.
“It’s beyond me,” Douglas says. “I think a lot of DIY folks are just scared of black people and use coded language and invalidate rap music as a genre to dance around the fact that might be a little racist. The ‘inclusiveness’ of some people within DIY is just a front and reserved for conventionally attractive white people or black people who don’t look or sound too scary. Or sketchy. Or ghetto. Whatever adjective they’re using to seem politically correct. No shade.”
With The Big Thing, Douglas hopes to prove his point that local music — and Atlanta as a whole — would be much better off if we were able to remove the walls separating all the various sub-cultures and scenes in the city. In selecting the lineup, he not only tried to stick with new or emerging artists, but he also tried to choose bands and musicians who would typically have nothing to do with one another. As such, fans who turn out for the fest tomorrow will be exposed to everything from Superbody’s abstract pop to Wiley from Atlanta’s soulful hip-hop to Coco & Clair Clair’s lo-fi rap to Antarcticats surf-punk to Brother Mary’s spaced-out electropop to Kudzu Kids’ dreamy indie rock to… well, you get the point. Basically, every genre and musical off-shoot that makes the Atlanta underground a messy, beautiful hodgepodge of creativity is being represented, which is exactly what Douglas is aiming for.
It’s also one of the chief reasons so many young artists are excited to play The Big Thing. Among them is Brill Carrington, an Asian American folk songwriter who performs under the moniker Peach State. Carrington has worked with Douglas in the past and greatly admires his passion for addressing the issue of diversity and how proactive he is implementing that passion into his own events.
“The Big Thing is different because it is about giving all kinds and types of concertgoers what they want,” she explains. “It’s variety and inclusion, two things that are lacking in a lot of shows that happen here in Atlanta. It’s playfulness and positivity. It’s all about bringing us together as artists, no matter what standards outside of The Big Thing may be pushed on us as performers.”
Sebastian Marquez, guitarist and vocalist for Athens slacker punks Dead Neighbors, agrees, noting that most indie rock shows he attends are dominated by the “straight white male demographic.” But while The Big Thing may be the antithesis to the idea of homogenous culture, it’s not the only thing that makes the event unique. For all the talk of diversity, Marquez also applauds Douglas’ willingness to make room for bands and artists who are either starting out or do not yet have an established fan base. “Having come up in the Athens scene,” he says, “we’ve seen that it’s really hard to get any shows in Atlanta without having already made a name for yourself… The Big Thing is an opportunity for us to make more of an impact in Atlanta without having to worry about making sure we sell enough advance tickets [laughs].”
Whatever happens tomorrow, this is hardly the last you’ll hear of Jay Douglas. As he makes further inroads into the Atlanta music community, he plans to continue working tirelessly for a better, more inclusive scene that practices what it preaches in terms of diversity and intersectionality. In other words, a scene that serves the vision and needs of a much wider range of people and artists, and caters to talent across a broader musical spectrum. In the end, he figures, it’s all about building trust and respect. Asked what advice he would give to someone looking to get involved in Atlanta music, Douglas is quick to respond:
“If I had to give any advice to someone who wants to become a part of the music scene, I’d stress that you shouldn’t treat artists like shit. Pay them. Don’t be afraid to make friends. There are hundreds of cool ass people, musically inclined or not, who will be there to support you along the way. There’s hard work involved, but try not to stress yourself too heavily. Take a day or five off to stay inside, treat yourself to some ice cream, whatever makes you happy. And don’t half-ass anything. Treat every show, every venue, and every person like they matter.”
The Big Thing takes place tomorrow night at RowdyDowdy at Fort Pryor. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. Admission is $5. Set times can be located on their Facebook event page.