IBMA, Hopscotch, SPARKcon make September live-music month in Raleigh

Editor's note: See the online documentary "From One Second to the Next" by Werner Herzog at the bottom of this article.

dmenconi@newsobserver.comAugust 24, 2013 

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    Hopscotch Music Festival

    When: Sept. 5-7

    Where: Multiple venues throughout downtown

    Tickets: $40-$180

    Of note: John Cale, Breeders and others



    When: Sept. 12-15

    Where: Multiple venues throughout downtown

    Admission: Free

    Of note: Everything from music to film and even circus events


    IBMA ‘World of Bluegrass’

    When: Sept. 24-28

    Where: Multiple venues throughout downtown

    Tickets: $40-$290

    Of note: Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, Steep Canyon Rangers and Punch Brothers on the main stages, . Watch for The N&O’s special section on Sept. 22.


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    African-American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County

    When: Saturday-Sept. 3

    Where: Fayetteville Street

    Admission: Free

    Of note: Ohio Players, Midnight Star and others


    Ray Price Capital City Bikefest

    When: Sept. 20-22

    Where: Fayetteville Street

    Admission: Free

    Of note: Amanda Daughtry, Erik Smallwood, Kickin’ Grass Band and others


Browse our sortable database of all events listed in our Fall Arts Preview at the bottom of this article.

Culturally speaking, September didn’t used to be all that noteworthy in Raleigh. But this September will bring a series of festivals to downtown, kicking off with Labor Day weekend’s African-American Cultural Festival and including the Ray Price Capital City BikeFest. In particular, three big music festivals stand out.

The alternative-leaning Hopscotch Music Festival returns for its fourth edition Sept. 5-7, with a 175-act lineup featuring Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Cale, the Breeders and other left-of-center stars. The following week brings the eighth annual SPARKcon, Sept. 12-15, with about 2,000 musicians and artists doing free performances at venues throughout downtown.

Capping the month will be the choicest catch of all, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “World of Bluegrass” convention and festival. Relocated from Nashville, IBMA opens a three-year run in Raleigh Sept. 24-28, with Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, Alison Krauss and Punch Brothers among its marquee names.

Each of the music festivals has its niche and its mission. Hopscotch strives to be in tune with the musical spirit of the age, with cutting-edge new acts as well as respected elders. SPARKcon aims to spotlight the Triangle as “The Creative Hub of the South,” with arts as well as music events. And IBMA is as much a business convention and awards show as it is a festival.

But the three events should attract a large collective throng. More than one-quarter of Hopscotch’s 5,500 ticket-buyers last year came from outside the Triangle. SPARKcon claims a total attendance of 35,000 for all its events in 2012. And in its final edition in Nashville last year, IBMA drew more than 13,000 people.

“To me, it’s invigorating that all this other stuff is going on,” said SPARKcon executive director Sarah Powers. “Rising tides lift all boats and keep the momentum going. It’s neat to be in the middle. We feel like we started out instigating something bigger, and this is it. Shine a light on Raleigh, get people motivated, and who knows what may happen? Eight years later, September in Raleigh looks pretty cool and we’re proud of that.”

IBMA’s selection of Raleigh as its new host city didn’t happen by accident, or overnight. The process began in early 2007, when city representatives met with IBMA brass at the annual “Destinations Showcase” convention in Washington, D.C.

At that point, the Raleigh Convention Center was in the works but not yet built. That didn’t stop Laurie Okun, its director of sales and marketing, from declaring a goal of luring IBMA to Raleigh as her “personal obsession.”

The IBMA formed in Kentucky in 1985 and had its convention in Owensboro and Louisville before landing in Nashville in 2005. Nashville made sense as a convention host, given its status as a music-industry center. But as the years went by, the organization began to feel lost there.

“We were in Nashville for eight years, and we tried to get the word out,” said Nancy Cardwell, the association’s executive director. “But it felt like a lot of people in Nashville just never even knew we were there.”

Courting bluegrass

As IBMA approached the end of its Nashville contract, numerous cities applied to be the new host, and Raleigh, Louisville and Nashville emerged as finalists. Raleigh got the nod because of its centrally located facilities – the convention center, Red Hat Amphitheater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts and two hotels all within a few blocks of one another – and its enthusiasm.

“Everyone in Raleigh has totally rolled out the red carpet,” Cardwell said. “We’ve never before had this level of involvement, interest and support from the host city. In Raleigh, we’ve got banners, fireworks, bands on the streets, a barbecue competition – and barbecue goes very well with bluegrass, as long as you don’t get it on your fingerboard. We’re definitely feeling like a bigger fish in a medium-sized pond.”

Maybe the biggest selling point was the city’s hosting of the National Hockey League’s 2011 All-Star Game. The event was a huge success, with more than 30,000 people attending the accompanying NHL All-Star Fan Fair at the convention center.

“We were able to present the formula used for the NHL All-Star Game,” said the convention center’s Okun. “If we build a festival for our citizens around your paid events, you’ll sell more tickets.”

Another factor in Raleigh’s favor was its solid nightclub infrastructure, with numerous downtown clubs of varying sizes in addition to the larger performance halls. As Hopscotch and SPARKcon have both demonstrated over the years, Raleigh’s venue network is perfect for club-crawling.

“We feel like our scope of encompassing every corner of downtown showed that this can be done,” said Hopscotch director Greg Lowenhagen. “Like us, IBMA is doing an event tied together with multiple venues. I remember the press conference announcing IBMA, where they said they hoped it would be a ‘bluegrass Hopscotch.’ It’s certainly possible to have a citywide, fan-supported ticketed music event downtown.”

A period of transition

Hopscotch enters year four in a state of transition. The festival started in 2010 under the auspices of The Independent Weekly before being spun off into a separate entity when publisher/founder Steve Schewel sold the paper last year.

No matter the ownership, the goal is still survival. The first three Hopscotches were aesthetic triumphs, drawing favorable coverage in The New York Times and other national outlets. Financially, however, Hopscotch has hovered right around the break-even point, with a year-two profit bracketed by losses in years one and three.

That makes this year even more critical to Hopscotch’s long-term prospects. The road to profitability didn’t get any easier last month when the 2013 festival’s biggest name, Outkast rapper Big Boi, canceled his main-stage headlining performance due to scheduling issues.

Hopscotch was able to schedule Big Boi for a Sept. 21 makeup date at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium (for which 1,000 Hopscotch wristband and ticket-holders can get free passes). But losing its top act makes breaking even a tall order.

“My motto since Jan. 1 has been, ‘Find 500 more fans,’” Lowenhagen said. “Getting 500 more people coming would be financial solvency for another year or two. Obviously, we would prefer to be turning crazy profits, and I think we’ll get there someday. But the benefit of teetering on the edge of breaking even is it wouldn’t take much to get us there.”

Blazing a trail

Since SPARKcon is a free non-ticketed event, its organizers are under less financial pressure.

“We are our own thing,” said SPARKcon’s Powers. “We’ve got our own deal apart from the others, so we don’t worry about it because there’s room enough for all of us. Our aim is to expose different talents and bring them together. Now we’ve gotten smarter about how to let that happen. But letting creative people make things happen is still the centerpiece of it all.”

One factor that may affect all three events is weather. SPARKcon has had to contend with some fearsome storms over the years. And last year’s Saturday night downpour dampened attendance (and beer sales) for one of Hopscotch’s big 2012 outdoor headliners, The Roots. That might have been the difference between Hopscotch losing money and breaking even.

But that’s the chance one takes with scheduling outdoor events during the peak of hurricane season.

“Yeah, the weather always makes me nervous,” said SPARKcon’s Powers. “We just hope we get enough good hours and days to where everyone can see what we’ve done all year. We start out knowing SPARKcon will be in September, then it becomes whatever ideas people come in with. We’re still surprised and reinvigorated by what people want to do.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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