From the beginning, I’ve had my gripes about the Shaky Knees Festival. In year one, it was the omission of rap and hip-hop artists from their debut lineup. For a fledgling festival hoping to establish itself as a marquee event in the heart of hip-hop’s mecca, it seemed willfully shortsighted that the final bill would not contain a single artist to represent the defining musical culture of its host city. It felt almost disrespectable, but given the nature of the audience Shaky Knees was seeking (read: in-town hipsters and affluent suburbanites), it wasn’t all that surprising.
Eventually my misgivings would give way to a grudging understanding as it became clear that founder Tim Sweetwood has a very specific aesthetic in mind when coordinating acts for the festival. Simply put, Sweetwood is interested foremost in rock music and all the predominantly white, traditionally male, guitar-based conventions that are intertwined in that particular culture. Despite mounting criticism, he has continued to ignore hip-hop artists for Shaky Knees, or for that matter almost any act with substantive ties to urban culture. In a Creative Loafing profile ahead of last year’s festival, he was confronted with the controversy, and rather than taking the opportunity to clarify his position or engage in meaningful dialogue, he chose to deflect. “There’s something to be said about a true rock listener wanting to listen to more rock music,” he responded, ignoring broader questions of diversity and inclusiveness.
(The easy counter, of course, would be to point to the newly established Shaky Beats Fest, which features a predominantly electronic music lineup with a small smattering of hip-hop artists mixed in. But to that I’d argue that Shaky Knees carries a significantly larger cultural cachet, both locally and in the music world in general. I’d also argue that creating space for urban artists in one event does not preclude promoters from doing the same in another.)
In January of 2015, my skepticism of the festival deepened when the announced lineup failed to account for what was a banner year for women artists. Setting aside the chart-topping success that pop stars such as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Ariana Grande all enjoyed, 2014 had seen career-defining, massively influential works from the likes of St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, FKA Twigs, and others. On the more aggressive side of the rock spectrum, groups like White Lung, Ex Hex, and Perfect Pussy all delivered dynamic, critically-acclaimed records.
None of that seemed to matter, however, to the powers calling the shots at Shaky Knees. When the final lineup was made public, female artists were nowhere to be found at the festival’s top tier, while only a small handful of acts could be found among it’s middle and lower levels. While one could argue the numbers were an accurate depiction of the musical landscape in terms of raw numbers, it certainly wasn’t representative of the zeitgeist sweeping the industry, resulting in yet another failure to escape the shackles of their own narrow vision. Given the opportunity to expand beyond its exceedingly white cis male performer model, Shaky Knees chose to embrace the tired viewpoint that rock and roll is (mostly) for boys.
To be fair, however, it’s important to point out that gender imbalance is an industry wide problem and Shaky Knees is hardly the worst perpetrator (the ever popular Coachella has only had one female headliner in its entire history). When 75% of summer music festival performers are all male, the issue is systemic. Fortunately, audiences have noticed the imbalance and critics have begun to speak out. The last 18 months has seen an uptick in thinkpieces (you can start here, here, or, most recently, here) designed to dissect and dismantle patriarchal stereotypes of power and influence on the festival circuit. Meanwhile, social media has been bombarded with Photoshopped images of festival posters with all the male artists blacked out to help illustrate the gender disparity occurring across the board. Here’s the one I created for Shaky Knees last year:
But while these are all critical issues well worth debating, this conversation is about something else. Another gripe, yes, but a local one that can’t be filed away as part of some more universal trend. Because somehow, of the 70-plus artists performing at this year’s festival, not a single one hails from Atlanta or even Athens. Let that sink in for a second. One of the city’s largest in-town music festivals, second perhaps to only Music Midtown, and they can’t see fit to find a single hometown act to rep us. If that seems completely fucked, it’s because it totally is… only perhaps not in the way you might think.
An Open Letter
First of all, let me start by saying I’m not here to steal anyone’s thunder. Part of the impetus for writing this piece came as a result of reading an open letter to the Atlanta music scene regarding local festivals that was posted to Reddit earlier this year by a user called dboyer87. Part doomsday rant and part reasoned analysis, the letter did a fairly solid job of outlining the major issues and articulating the user’s longstanding beefs and going concerns. If nothing else, it posed an interesting question and set the framework for a needed debate.
dboyer87 begins their missive by discussing the recent rise of large Atlanta-based music festivals and their seeming reluctance to work with local artists. They then make the claim that many other markets — Nashville, Austin, New York, Knoxville, and New Orleans, to be specific — have similar festivals that embrace their community and actively seek to promote their local scenes. “Atlanta’s festival promoters feel differently,” they write. “I find this disconcerting.”
For the sake of this post, let’s assume that everything dboyer87 is arguing is true. That unlike other cities who line their bills with smaller local acts in a show of support and solidarity, major Atlanta promoters have a seeming disinterest in working with the local community to showcase our talent. The next logical step would be to try and figure out why this reluctance exists and what could possibly be done to remedy it.
One theory is that it’s all a natural, if shady, part of doing business. Promoters owe favors, agents cut deals, friends help friends, and, in this way, the wheel keeps grinding along. This is the theory that dboyer87 subscribes to and outlines in their letter, and it certainly seems plausible. However, it leaves you wondering: aren’t there any local artists who benefit from industry connections? Isn’t there an infrastructure in place that works with these promoters, cutting deals on behalf of their clients and making it easier for festivals to adequately represent their local scenes? The answer, unfortunately, appears to be no, not really.
The No Industry Hurdle and the DIY Hustle
In an article that appeared in Impose Magazine earlier this year, writer Andy Barton pointed out the lack of industry resources in Georgia and attempted to articulate what that means for local artists and the culture of the scenes they exist within. Although Barton chose to take a more positive approach, highlighting the grit and determination of emerging bands like Mothers, Arbor Labor Union, and Warehouse, as well as the spunky DIY culture that has grown roots throughout the state, he couldn’t help but point to one of the major drawbacks that a lack of a professional music network creates. “Even with a few select studios and labels boasting bigger name connections capable of lifting underground artists out of complete obscurity,” Barton wrote, “…the allure of potential opportunity and a busier lifestyle draws many away.”
The departure of promising up-and-coming bands to better connected markets has long been an unfortunate theme in the Atlanta/Athens music narrative. As artists begin to gain traction and break through to wider audiences, they inevitably seek out services — management, PR, radio promotion, social media, booking, distribution, legal representation — that will help them harness their musical/cultural appeal and amplify it to potential listeners in more markets. If those services aren’t readily available locally, musicians are forced to seek them out in other cities and either engage with them remotely or relocate in order to full advantage of the opportunities offered. Over the years, the result has been the ongoing dissolution of the local talent pool and the continued weakening of the scene at large.
DIY spirit and ingenuity are beautiful things; without them there is simply less likelihood for scenes to innovate and evolve. Take, for example, Flaky Niece, a fledgling festival created by Atlanta musician Yancey Ballard of Man Up, Yancey as an intimate, inexpensive alternative to Shaky Knees and, also, to help out some friends. Last year’s inaugural run took place at YOLKspace, an experimental arts venue in Reynoldstown, and featured performances from DIY acts like Diamond Thief, Great American Noise Jihad, Mad Ace, Yani Mo, Woven In, as well as a band that was relatively new to the scene called Femignome.
“I created [Flaky Niece] because I wanted to help out Femignome,” Ballard admits. “I had just met them and started getting them on some Atlanta shows, but I wanted them to play to a larger scale. So I invited some of the bigger local Atlanta bands I knew to play the show for them to network with. It turned into something a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be. Once we started booking it, I realized how tired I was of local lineups just being one genre — a shoegaze show or just a punk show or just a hip-hop show. So I just kinda mushed everything together and hoped it worked. And it did!”
The second edition of Flaky Niece kicks off tonight at the Drunken Unicorn and will feature twelve bands over two days including two international acts amidst a stacked lineup of some of Atlanta and Athens’ best DIY punk, hip-hop, and experimental artists. In addition, all proceeds from the fest will benefit Atlanta native and LGBTQ activist Matt Jones who was recently diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, an aggressive and fast-growing form of cancer. DIY culture is especially well-geared to create spontaneous, community-focused events, and Flaky Niece is an excellent example of what happens when passionate people survey the cultural landscape around them and decide to implement change for the betterment of the scene.
But for all its many strengths, a music scene cannot thrive at its fullest potential when it’s run on DIY energy alone. Another big drawback that stems from the lack of infrastructure is the dearth of knowledge and awareness experienced by the community. There is a lot to be said about the power of professional organization, calculated strategy, and industry connections built with an eye towards mutual benefit and advancement. For communities with ready access to those resources, the advantages are many, not the least of which is an artist culture that not only understands, but more importantly can capitalize on how the many facets of the music business operates.
Atlanta has no absence of talent. There’s no shortage of great songwriters and forward-thinking bands. But it’s clear that lack of infrastructure is one of the critical areas where our city falls short. It’s one of the key differentiators between us and Austin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Nashville or any other city that our local artists migrate to when they want to make that next leap.
Recently, I got an opportunity to speak with John Seay, an Atlanta-based entertainment lawyer who spends considerable time practicing in Nashville where some of his clients reside. I asked him to tell me what he thought were some of the important differences between the artists working out of each city. Here’s his answer in full:
“I go up to Nashville regularly and one thing I’ve noticed is that musicians there tend to know a little bit more about the music industry. Which makes sense, because there is actual industry based in Nashville. Plus, Nashville is a destination for artists, a place some artists move to when they’re ready to take their careers a little more seriously, so they’re likely to already know more about the industry even before they move, or be eager to learn once they arrive. And there’s plenty of opportunities to learn that stuff in Nashville. Artists up there may know legitimate booking agents, managers, pitch agencies, and publishers just from the local scene. None of this means that Nashville musicians are better than Atlanta musicians. But the difference is that then when a band from Atlanta is ready to try to break out of town, there aren’t quite as many people here able to help them do that. There are some, and they do great work and are a huge help in educating, developing, and breaking artists, but they can’t service every band. It’s still possible to break out from Georgia, and bands do it all the time, but I think artists in Nashville have a little bit of a leg up on that stuff, just as bands in Brooklyn have a leg up. It’s just easier to get noticed by the right people if you’re living in their environment.”
At this point, I know what you’re thinking: all this is well and good, but how does this excuse Shaky Knees from completely ignoring its hometown scene? And let me be clear on this: I’m not arguing that the festival isn’t culpable, far from it. But what I am saying is that it’s a complex puzzle and the issues we’re exploring here make up a significant piece. And, undoubtedly, there are other factors at play. But before I get to those, allow me the luxury of making a detour.
The Peter Conlon Effect
In the 2012 Creative Loafing Music Issue, several Atlanta artists and promoters were asked to name their pet peeve, the one thing that irked them about working in the music industry. For the most part, it was a collection of expected observations about promoters who don’t pay their guarantees or musicians who aren’t punctual or get wasted before performing. But the highlight of the piece — if you can call it that — were the words of Live Nation’s Peter Conlon, co-founder of Music Midtown. In an unexpectedly nasty bit of mean-spiritedness, Conlon declared his personal vexation to be, of all things, local musicians. His offered explanation proved to be unreasonably hostile and short-sighted. “If you’re working in a bar, and you’re a bartender but you play in a band, you’re a bartender,” he said. “It’s how you make your living. If you’re making your living as a musician full time, you’re a musician. This is a business of talent. People in this business seek talent out. If you’re talented, someone’s gonna find you and you’re gonna get discovered. If you’re still flailing around and you’re in your late 20s or 40s, you probably don’t have any talent and you should really look at plan B. A lot of people come to me and they’re still waiting to get discovered, but look, it’s hard to hide talent. In our business, people will find you and make you a star. When people claim to be musicians but they’re working as bartenders or waiters, it’s just not the same thing. It takes away from the people who really do have talent.”
Over the years, I’ve seen this posted many times, usually as an argument for how out of touch the modern music industry is. Scroll to the comments of dboyer87’s open letter and, sure enough, you’ll see his statement posted there. And why not? It’s petty, arrogant, dismissive, and, for the most part, divorced from reality, i.e. the perfect metaphor for the buffoonery that has plagued the old guard for the better part of two decades now. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a sting of truth in Conlon’s words, however miniscule. It’s the sort of heavy-handed rebuke that invokes a defensive posture and seeks to attack the crippling self-doubt of the struggling artist. The internal conflict, in turn, becomes one of maddening uncertainty: Am I working hard enough? Am I pushing myself as far as I can? Am I doing everything in my power to achieve my dreams?
A few years later, in a 2015 cover story for Creative Loafing, Conlon had an opportunity to walk back his words. While his stance seemed to have softened to some degree, he still stood by his statements. But what really caught my attention in the article was the part about booking local acts at Music Midtown. Those of us who either grew up or lived in Atlanta during the festival’s heydays in the late ’90s and early aughts can remember the 99X-sponsored Locals Only Stage providing a forum for the city’s up-and-coming acts to receive additional exposure. Artists such as The Whigs, Dropsonic, Modern Skirts, The Swear, A Fir-Ju Well (now known as Gringo Star), and many others performed on the stage gaining critical experience and the opportunity to perform in front of potentially massive audiences. But when Music Midtown returned after a six-year absence in 2011, the locals stage was dropped from the plans. The reasoning was simple.
“We used to book a good amount of local music,” Conlon said. “We went through the work of building the stage and the sound system and booking the acts. But after putting all of the effort into making it happen, nobody stuck around to watch the bands. It just wasn’t working for us.”
An Uneasy Truth
So here’s where the giant dildo of reality comes in. Major festivals are money-making ventures. Yes, they are ostensibly about curation and bringing together a large collection of artists on multiple stages to give audiences options and expose them to an assortment of music. But in reality they are profit machines for their organizers. While I do believe that many festivals are interested in some degree to pushing the envelope and providing opportunities for new voices to be seen and heard, for most promoters the uncertainty of audience expectations and reactions isn’t worth the financial risk. They want guaranteed numbers, guaranteed gates, so they are going to go out of their way to cobble together lineups that will meet their fiscal goals.
Let’s be clear about one thing. When Shaky Knees decides to forgo all ties to the local music scene, they are not necessarily indicating they don’t want to be supportive of our city’s homegrown talent (although it is entirely possible they just don’t give a shit). But what they are most definitely saying is they don’t trust their audience to be that support system. As much as anything else, the absence of local talent on this year’s lineup is an indictment on us, the local concertgoers. It’s a calculated gamble that says given the choice between an established local and an obscure out-of-towner that’s maybe just starting to generate a national buzz, the promoters are going to go with option B.
In his/her open letter, dboyer87 makes the argument that Atlanta bands with dedicated followings are a better draw than some of the smaller, lesser known acts that frequently make up the bottom tier of a festival bill. She/he then offers up three examples of local acts and why they could cut it on a major stage: Stokeswood selling out the Buckhead Theatre, the Electric Sons’ history and extensive Spotify plays, and Biters’ international tour experience. It’s a solid list that I won’t go out of my way to dispute. However, I will say this: the local audiences that support those acts are not the same as those who scoop up tickets to Shaky Knees in droves. Certainly there’s some overlap, but likely not enough to assure organizers they will help push passes. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Promoters are ultimately tasked with booking bands that will bring out a crowd — things like cultural evolution or elevating the status of the local scene are merely peripheral concerns.
And therein lies the crux of our quandary. Festivals want artists with a significant draw. In turn, reaching that level of exposure is difficult without access to industry resources. It’s a chicken-egg type dilemma.
“I think it’s the fan thing first and foremost,” Seay argues, “and then secondly, just that there are relatively few bands here locally who have a regional draw. And one of the reasons why so few local bands have a regional draw is because they don’t have as much access to professional services. In other words, if bands had professionals they could go to and work with to elevate their profiles, then they’d be more appealing targets for the people who book Shaky Knees — not because they know more about the industry necessarily, but because they are a more finished and marketable product.”
So how do we move forward as a scene? What are some solutions and how can they be implemented? It’s clear that building an industry infrastructure from the ground up is a monumental task that would only be viable in the longterm. But maybe the answer is simpler than that. Instead of creating new services, maybe it’s possible to bring existing ones to us.
“I think we need to attract some of our local-born professionals back to Atlanta from wherever they’ve moved,” Seay says. “That may start to happen as more people realize they can work from Atlanta with bands based elsewhere and save money in the process due to cost of living. And it’ll also help if the professionals who are here now band (no pun intended) together to build the existing scene and make it more appealing on that level too – i.e., it’s not just that I can work remotely from Atlanta with my clients who are located elsewhere, but I can also now tap into the local market for business… I think both things can happen incrementally.”
And what about other local institutions? What role can they play in all this? For all my qualms with 99X, then and now, genuine efforts were made to support ground-level artists and expose them to wider audiences. Is it possible for some Atlanta business entity (Coke, Mailchimp, and Monday Night Brewing come to mind) to partner with Shaky Knees or some other major festival and take up the mantle of the Locals Only Stage? It’s just a thought, but initiating partnerships between local businesses and the creative class is another critical piece of the industry puzzle.
Look, despite my grievances, I like Shaky Knees. I want them to be successful. And I understand the necessity of putting money above all else so organizers can attract the best available talent and the investors who bankroll the event can get their cut. It’s the only way to ensure that Shaky Knees will continue to grow and prosper. And with a slight shift in emphasis, more diversity, and greater access to opportunities, it has the potential to be a world-class event.