Cayenne Shame

Why throw an indie festival if no one will come?

To celebrate 10 years in the concert promotion biz, Charlie Levy tried to give Phoenix a really cool present: a big indie rock festival, the city's first.

But without even saying thanks, Phoenix blew Charlie off.

There's got to be a reason the Grand Cayenne Music Festival -- scheduled for last Saturday, and canceled two days before -- didn't pan out. Something a little more creative than just, "This town sucks."

I know, it's so easy to think that when you're disappointed. After all, it seemed like a sure-fire hit: a baker's dozen of national acts and a few local up-and-comers mixed in, a predictably gorgeous autumn afternoon and evening on the grassy slopes of Mesa Amphitheatre, and a super-cheap ticket price that equaled out to a buck and change per band.

What gives?

Levy is still trying to figure it out. And he usually has this stuff down to a science.

He planned the event over the past several months, never really intending it as any kind of big moneymaker, but as more of a gift to the fans. Something that might even become an annual thing, a destination. Other cities around the country have their own indie music festivals -- Intonation Music Festival for Chicago, All Tomorrow's Parties for L.A., Bumbershoot and the Sasquatch Festival for Seattle -- so why shouldn't the Phoenix metro area get one, too?

We should. But not if it means the guy behind it has to risk five digits for a miracle. I understand that being a promoter is all about taking a gamble -- losing money on smaller bands, making it up on bigger bands, and hoping that some of the little bands grow up into bigger bands. Still, at some point, you have to say better safe than sorry.

That was my thinking when I talked with Levy in the days before the festival, when each passing day meant committing more money to the event, and he was struggling with the bleak reality of freakishly low ticket sales. Fliers, ads, MySpace bulletins, and articles in several local publications weren't making a dent in the numbers, and he was baffled when people still said they didn't know about it.

Finally, on Thursday, Levy announced the cancellation. I ran into him that night at the dios (malos) show at Modified Arts, and we commiserated. Canceling the festival was the very last thing he wanted to do, and he tried everything possible to avoid it.

"I knew I was going to lose money. I didn't care," he insisted. "I just didn't want to lose money and have a bad day."

He went on to explain that he was going into the red no matter what, even if the show did go on. Of course, he would've been out a much bigger chunk of change if the festival happened and attendance was half of what he wished for (a modest 2,000 people would've been nice), or even less. But the timing of losing that money could have been disastrous for a guy who makes his living bringing so many of the hottest new indie bands to town. We're on the verge of the slow season for concerts, and things won't be picking up again until around March.

What really would've made it a bad day, however, is something you can't buy insurance against: looking bad. Bring a bunch of cool bands to play here, some for the first time, and get a small crowd? Not like it hasn't happened before, but at Mesa Amphitheatre, a modest draw could look pretty pathetic. Aside from not getting paid, nothing is more disheartening to a band on tour than to get a lame response.

Hate to say it, but it's things like that that make bands think twice before they return to the Valley.

I wonder if the upcoming holidays -- family obligations, travel, money issues, stress -- were keeping people away. Or maybe people weren't into the idea of committing to an all-day affair. One of my friends pointed out to me, though, that we're talking about the same Phoenix crowd that spends hundreds of dollars to go to Coachella in May. I'd ask why those out-of-town Coachella fans couldn't come to us for a change, but I realize that the Grand Cayenne had yet to make a name for itself in town, let alone past the state lines.

Without going into the tired old tirade about the withering venue situation in Phoenix, it's clear that Levy didn't have any last-minute options to downsize the event to a place that would fit a smaller crowd. That was one big hit against the Grand Cayenne.

Local radio didn't help things, either. Take a look at the bill. Spoon. Black Heart Procession. The Album Leaf. Think you'll be hearing any of those bands on a station around here? No way in hell. And Internet radio, as groovy as it is, doesn't count in this situation. There's hardly any alternative, independent music on local airwaves, and I think that has a lot to do with why our scene lags behind other cities.

Bombard us with mainstream no-brainers like No Doubt, and hey -- we'll pack an arena. Now you can even make that conclusion with a now-major-label "indie rock" band like Death Cab, which Levy brought to the Marquee Theatre a couple of weeks ago. Back when they really were small-time, they played intimate venues. Now that they're the darlings of Rolling Stone -- and getting airplay -- they play big, sold-out shows.

And although stations like The Edge harass us with promos every 10 minutes when they have a concert of their own coming up, nobody spoke up to help Levy to get his own gig ingrained in listeners' brains. Not that it would have mattered. Why promote a show when you don't play the music?

I believe Levy when he says he's an expert at predicting attendance, like how he almost exactly called the draw for the nearly-sold-out Bright Eyes show at Celebrity Theatre. But he bases his forecasts on advance ticket sales, not the swirls in a crystal ball. So while plenty of folks thought they were safe waiting until the day of the show to pay admission, they were unknowingly sabotaging the chances of its happening at all. When it came down to canceling the Grand Cayenne Festival, Levy was only using the same instincts he's been honing for 10 years, and I can't blame him. What are the chances of a thousand people buying tickets at the door?

Levy says he could've tried to bring in somebody huge, like the Flaming Lips. Thing is, that would've raised the risks and expectations even more.

But maybe it would've made a difference. Maybe our scene needs to be lured by a big headliner, or at least needs more time to grow an audience for underground music. Maybe we're not as strong as we'd like to think we are.

For now, I'm happy to say better luck next time -- just as long as there is a next time.

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