On the Beat

Hopscotch Music Festival has expanded its acts and venues, but can it aim higher?

Music fans crowd downtown Raleigh during the Hopscotch Music Festival in 2012.
Music fans crowd downtown Raleigh during the Hopscotch Music Festival in 2012. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Hopscotch Music Festival drew 25,000 people last year, close to double the attendance of its early days.

Projections are similar for 2017’s eighth festival, which kicks off Thursday. About 150 acts, including Solange, Future Islands and Margo Price, will play a dozen venues across downtown Raleigh – from small clubs like Slims up to Red Hat Amphitheater and City Plaza.

Hopscotch’s lineup this year has a solid national profile and for the first year, will be four days instead of three.

Alternative-music site Stereogum characterizes the festival as “low-key great every single year” and adds “maybe now we can drop the ‘low-key’ descriptor because they’ve really outdone themselves this time.”

But what would it take for Hopscotch to move up the festival totem pole another level or two, toward the size and stature of larger elite festivals like Lollapalooza, which attracts major acts like Lorde and Chance the Rapper to Chicago, or celebrity-friendly Coachella in the desert of California?

Hopscotch Music Festival’s Nathan Price, in his first year as solo director, said the event’s size has less to do with the festival’s capacity than the venue capacity of Raleigh.

“To go up would take a space close to downtown where we could throw a bigger show,” Price said. “I don’t think we could expand too much within the current footprint.

“Maybe do something at Dix,” he adds, referring to Dix Park off Western Boulevard that has housed a new, free concert series this summer and eventually will be transformed into an urban park in the coming decades.

“There are a lot of hypotheticals, but I don’t know how realistic any of them are,” he said. “So this is probably close to the footprint we’ll have for a while.”

To be sure, Hopscotch’s current level is comfortable and more than respectable. Chapel Hill musician Alex Maiolo, who attends music festivals all over the world, is a Hopscotch regular. He’s played shows for five years with four different bands while also attending every year as a fan.

“I often describe Hopscotch as cozy, which is not to take away from it,” said Maiolo, who is playing two Hopscotch day parties this year with the psychedelic-rock band Lacy Jags. “It’s a great festival that hits way, way above its weight with a great lineup. They do have some structural challenges to get to the next level, but those are the challenges literally every festival has. I’m glad it’s not Coachella, which I think has lost the plot.”

Adding new venues

When Hopscotch began in 2010 with Public Enemy as its main headliner, Raleigh’s then-new City Plaza was the festival’s one big venue, with a capacity of around 6,000. That sufficed through the festival’s opening stretch with headliners including Flaming Lips in 2011 and The Roots in 2014, when Hopscotch was drawing 15,000 to 20,000 people per year.

Through 2015, the festival turned a profit twice, in 2011 and 2014, while finishing in the red four of those years.

In 2015, Hopscotch director and co-founder Greg Lowenhagen sold the festival to a group led by Travis Janovich, CEO of Morrisville-based ticketing agency Etix.

In the wake of the sale, Price succeeded Lowenhagen as Hopscotch director – and the festival’s size began to scale upward. The overall talent budget for 2016 was about $1 million for the first time, a figure Price said is slightly higher this year.

Price has said he tries to balance how much he spends on talent – not to overspend while “also bringing the best possible artists into town.”

Last year, Hopscotch added the 5,600-capacity Red Hat Amphitheater for the first time, giving it multiple large venues. R&B singer Erykah Badu and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. played Red Hat last year, helping give Hopscotch its highest attendance figure to date.

For 2017, Hopscotch has an expanded schedule at Red Hat Friday through Sunday with headliners Run The Jewels, Solange and Angel Olsen. (Run the Jewels played at this summer’s Lollapalooza where it ranked toward the top of the billing.)

“Bigger stages in general is the growth spot I see as making the most sense,” Price said. “Doing the daytime Sunday show at Red Hat is testing some waters. I think that’s a better growth spot than trying to do 10 more smaller bands at the same time.”

The festival also added the Raleigh Convention Center as an indoor venue, using the lower level as another large stage dubbed “The Basement.”

For some downtown businesses and clubs, the current size is a good one. And it’s one that brings a lot of music fans to town – those eager to hear the headline acts as well as those seeking to discover their next favorite up-and-coming act.

“Without a doubt, Hopscotch is the best of the downtown fall festivals for us,” said Slims owner Van Alston. “We do the equivalent of about two-and-a-half weeks worth of business over the four days of Hopscotch. And we get a lot of people from outlying counties who come back, repeat business.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


What: Hopscotch Music Festival

When: Sept. 7-10.

Where: Various locations in downtown Raleigh, including Red Hat Amphitheater and City Plaza.

Cost: $45-$349. There are some free day shows. Single-day passes and weekend passes are sold.

Details: hopscotchmusicfest.com

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