In recent years, September in Raleigh has emerged as the Triangle’s heavy-traffic time and place for music festivals. But this year, May in Durham is shaping up as the springtime equivalent with Art of Cool May 6-8, followed by Moogfest May 19-22.
It should help the health of both festivals that, like Raleigh’s September entrants (World of Bluegrass and the alternative-rock Hopscotch), Moogfest and Art of Cool are presenting markedly different programs.
Now in its third year, Art of Cool works the intersection between jazz, R&B and hip-hop. This year’s key acts include vocalist Anderson Paak, musical polyglot bassist Thundercat and New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard – whom Art of Cool co-founder/board president Cicely Mitchell says is “an honor to have.”
Scheduled around the May 23 birthday of synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, Moogfest is in its first year in Durham after moving from its former home of Asheville (location of the Moog factory). It’s one of the world’s premier electronic-oriented festivals, and 2016 features a wide-ranging lineup from established icons like Gary Numan and Laurie Anderson to ODESZA, Grimes and more from music’s cutting edge.
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But even if they’re chasing different audiences, the proximity of two festivals happening in Durham within a few weeks of each other and using many of the same venues does make co-existence a bit trickier.
“Ideally, we wouldn’t be THAT close together,” admitted Marisa Brickman, festival director for Moogfest. “But I honestly think we can help each other, because we have different demographics. I think we just need to train people to go out a little more around here. The more stuff like Moogfest and Art of Cool here, the better.”
Or as Mitchell puts it: “May will be really cool here. Kinda poppin’, even.”
‘A more suitable home’
In one form or another, Moogfest has been around since 2004. Before moving to Durham, the festival went through some severe financial travails in Asheville.
The most recent Moogfest was in 2014 with a lineup starring Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, M.I.A. and Chic, and it drew widespread acclaim and good crowds to Asheville. But despite selling 7,000 festival passes and drawing an estimated 25,000 people to its free events, the festival finished $1.5 million in the red.
After Bumcombe County turned down Moogfest’s request for $250,000 in public funding for 2015 (up from $180,000 the year before), the festival suspended operations for a year. The announcement that it was moving to Durham came in July 2015.
“We had a lot of conversations over time about developing the festival nationally,” said Moogfest creative director Emmy Parker last summer. “Once Moogfest shifted its gaze toward being an event focused on technology and creativity as well as music, in North Carolina you’ve gotta be talking about Durham. We all just realized Durham was a more suitable home.”
‘Trying to do something different’
In their own ways, both Moogfest and Art of Cool have scaled back a bit this year. Moogfest has contracted its schedule from five days to three, though with the same volume and programming. Festival management expects to sell 4,500 tickets, and they’ve asked for $150,000 in cash and in-kind funding from the city and county of Durham. That request is pending.
Art of Cool makes do with $5,000 from the city of Durham. Its request for funding from the county was turned down. Mitchell reports that Art of Cool sold 4,700 tickets in 2015, with a venue grid that included outdoor programming at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. But after enduring wet-weather disruptions both of the last two years, Art of Cool made this year’s model all-indoors. That shrank its overall total capacity to about 4,200.
“We’re trying to go more with quality than quantity on this particular festival,” said Mitchell. “Trying to give people a high-quality experience within the black American music genre. We have goals we want to reach, to grow organically as something that bubbles up. Being about that can make selling tickets a challenge. But it’s what we want to do year after year.”
Moogfest director Brickman sounds a similar note, also pointing to the festival’s extra-musical programming – such as a keynote presentation by virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, and hands-on synthesizer-building workshops.
“The festival landscape is crowded, and we’re trying to do something different,” Brickman said. “We’re not looking to max out. Our unique thing is the intimacy, which we want to maintain, and the ideas that come out of the conversations around Moogfest. Anybody can find a field, build a fence and put up a stage. That’s a proven model for straightforward musical festivals. But this is different.”
Art of Cool
May 6-8 with performances at Motorco Music Hall, Pinhook, PSI Theatre (Durham Arts Council) and the Carolina Theatre.
Headliners Terence Blanchard with E-Collective performs May 6 and Dwele performs May 7, both at the Carolina Theatre. Headliner tickets are $51. All access VIP pass is $285. One-day VIP passes are $150, and one-day club passes are $50. Ticket prices increase by $10 day of the show.
For the full list of performers and to buy tickets go to aocfestival.org.
May 19-22 with performances, workshops and films. also at various venues in Durham. General admission festival pass is $249; VIP pass is $499. See moogfest.com for details.