The Mesa Music Festival Showed How Pay-to-Play Festivals Can Go Wrong

Nathan Jude performs at the Mesa Music Festival.EXPAND
Nathan Jude performs at the Mesa Music Festival.
David Accomazzo

In theory, the Mesa Music Festival sounds like fun.

This year's festival packed 12 performance spaces and stages into a few square blocks in downtown Mesa. We counted 134 bands on the schedule spread over this past Friday and Saturday. And on Friday, a number of music industry speakers, including Megadeth's Dave Ellefson and Linkin Park's Chester Bennington, educated musicians about the ins and outs of the business side of things.

Anyone that has attended South by Southwest knows how exciting that density of bands packed into one place can be, which is why we were excited to attend this year, hoping the festival had smoothed out some of the problems we pointed out last year.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case last weekend. The Mesa Music Festival made some curious changes and suffered from a lack of proper marketing, and the result was a sparsely attended festival.

The festival still employs a pay-to-play model, requiring bands to pay a $30 submission fee to be considered for the lineup. Pay-to-play is a contentious concept in the music world, as the idea that a musician must pay to provide services as opposed to the other way around understandably rubs many the wrong way. In theory, problems arise when a promoter organizing a concert makes money up front because it takes away the incentive to actually do the job of promoting the show. After all, the promoter has already made money selling tickets, and the people who buy tickets are usually already friends and fans of the band, limiting the exposure the group might get in exchange for the work of selling tickets.

Perhaps the sparsely attended sets we encountered throughout the weekend had to do with a lack of proper marketing and an over-dependence on word of mouth from the 130-plus bands on the lineup.

There's also the matter of the type of bands willing to pay money for a slot at a festival. It's usually up-and-coming bands, bands who need a chance to play live and are willing to pay for the opportunity.  It's usually not already-established bands that already have a fan base, which is a double-edged sword for the audience. It can be exciting to discover new artists, but you're also left sifting through bands that might not be performance-ready.

That said, Mesa Music Festival isn't the most insidious pay-to-play model out there. In the end, $30 just isn't a lot of money, though many more established bands probably wouldn't play such a festival out of principle. The biggest issue with the Mesa Music Festival's lineup was simply that there was a lot of competition for Phoenix bands this weekend. The Sidepony Express Music Festival drew about 75 bands out of Phoenix and down to Bisbee, along with countless hundreds of local music fans. The Grand Avenue Festival boasted a small handful of bands on its lineup at ThirdSpace as well.

That said, I was still excited to attend the festival. I can't resist that many bands in one area, and the opportunity to play stage roulette is hard to resist.

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I got to the music festival at around 6 p.m. Saturday night. A band called Sleepwar was playing the Milano Music warehouse, which had been cleared out and filled with a stage and maybe 50 white plastic chairs. About 30 people were watching the band, all but a few seated. The crowd was a little older than what you'd normally see at an indie rock show, as families with young children popped in and out as the band played.

I left the warehouse and headed towards the Mesa Arts Center, where a main stage of sorts had been erected. On the way, I passed what must have been the Backstage Attire Acoustic Stage at Milano Alley, where six people were watching a young woman sing over her acoustic guitar, which was plugged into an electric guitar amp. I crossed Center Street and caught a few songs from Phoenix band People Who Could Fly, who had maybe 75 people watching them play, a mix of young scene kids and older folks in nondescript clothing. Mr. Mirainga, from San Diego via Mesa, was playing at the Off Main Stage a few blocks north, playing a sort of Latin- and dub-influenced rock. About 80 people were watching the band, though there was enough room in front of the stage for at least three times that. The lack of density in the crowd didn't seem to bother the band, though — Mr. Mirainga delivered a pretty powerful and fun set.

I then headed to the Smith-o-lator Cookie Shop, but there was no music. I was informed that the artist scheduled for that time slot was a no-show. Disappointed, I made my way to Lulubell Toy Bodega, where Phoenix singer-songwriter Nathan Jude was finishing his set. Armed with two beautiful dark-wood pedalboards in front of him, an acoustic and electric guitar, and a drummer, he looped tricky fingerpicked guitar lines and sang dark music to a small crowd in the back section of the store, which resembled an art gallery with its bright white walls and pop-art canvases. Bell played until his time was up, but when the next scheduled performer didn't show, he continued playing with a smile on his face.

After this, I went to Backstage Attire — a rock 'n' roll-themed clothing store that sold T-shirts and other merch for bands like Disturbed — to catch the Thrill Killers, a nu-metal band with two vocalists trading hip-hop bars and deep, guttural growls. The band wore masks and camo gear, singing anti-establishment songs about the looming police state.

Last year, the festival closed off a few blocks for the main stage. This year, there were two main stages, one just north and one just south of Main Street, which wasn't ideal. With the two main stages adjacent to each other, there was no incentive for audience members to venture down to Main Street and explore the smaller stages and acts. Where last year's festival sort of had a block party feel, this year's festival felt a bit more subdued. I hope that next year's festival centralizes a bit more and focuses the energy of the crowd inward instead of allowing it to disperse. Perhaps closing down Main Street for a few blocks would accomplish this. Placing the main stages at either end and alternating set times would encourage patrons to walk up and down Main and to pop into other venues. This festival doesn't quite have all its organizational kinks worked out yet, but there's no reason why it shouldn't grow into a keystone event for Mesa's burgeoning arts and entertainment scene, if given the proper approach.


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