- Decibel Festival
The just-completed 11th annual Decibel Festival was another aesthetic and financial success this year. (You can read about some of the artistic high points here and here.) To get a finely detailed grip on how it went down from the man who’s guided the event from the start, Sean Horton, The Stranger asked him a few questions.
The Stranger: How was attendance at this year’s Decibel compared to previous years?
Sean Horton: With 40 individual concerts happening across 12 venues, determining the overall attendance can admittedly be challenging. What I can tell you at this time is that we sold out of nine events and hit capacity on 15 events this year, which is on par with previous editions. I also know that we sold just shy of last year's passes, which considering last year was our 10-year anniversary, I'm quite happy with the result there. Overall, approximately 80% of our attendance is individual ticket purchasers, which has also remained consistent this year. We're still going over the day sheets and settlements per show, but hope to have the final attendance estimate later this week. Based on what I saw, I'm guessing we were on average 75% capacity, which would put us right around 25,000 attendees.
The shows I caught at EMP sounded and looked amazing. Did you get the general sense that the decision to hold events there matched or exceeded expectations?
Looking back, I clearly recall my surprise after being invited by EMP CEO Patty Isacson Sabee to discuss a possible partnership. At our first meeting, the words "EDM" came out of her month and I immediately set the record straight on Decibel's history, integrity and purpose; none of which intersect with the current state of "EDM" as it has become know to mainstream audiences across North America. From that point forward, I feel that the Decibel/EMP relationship has been steadily moving in a healthy creative direction. Being able to host the dB Conference at EMP this year was also a game-changer (best conference to date). I do remember thinking to myself while writing the proposal, "Will our audience make the leap from club venues to a museum"? The conclusion I come to was, "Yes, but only if you curate music and visual art that belongs in a museum." I can't say that all of the programming decisions at EMP lined up according to plan, but 90% did, and it showed.
Operationally, challenges are going to arise with any new venue, especially when so much of what you are doing in terms of activity is housed under one roof. Both organizations had to adjust and realign expectations on the fly, which we did, much to the credit of Kate Lesta, Jessica Brockish, Carlos Mendoza, and Michael Stephens. Everything came together for me opening night while experiencing the world debut of Max Cooper's audio/visual masterpiece Emergence at EMP's Sky Church, which brought me to tears [see a clip from it after the jump]. In my 11 years of hosting audio/visual performances as part of Decibel, that was the most beautiful and stunning display of talent and technology we've ever hosted. Even the US debut of Amon Tobin's ISAM in 2011 doesn't compare to the story Max offered us this year. EMP's Sky Church was the perfect canvas to display this work. The whole time I kept thinking to myself, "This belongs here."
Were there any major snafus? Things seemed to run pretty smoothly this year.
Operationally, this was our smoothest program to date, which is a testament to the 2014 directors, managers, coordinators, and nearly 200 volunteers. I've never been more proud of my core staff, who over the years have become increasingly adept at problem-solving. In particular, 25-year-old Matt Clark (this year’s MVP) stepped in to fill some very big shoes once occupied by former technical director Vance Galloway. Matt blew our expectations out of the water on production and proved to everyone that what lack in experience you make up for in heart. Right there with Matt was our Director of Artist Management Blake Peterson, who literally spent 20+ hours a day dealing with some of the most demanding artist requests we've ever had to endure. Many of the issues we experienced this year I heard about hours, sometimes days after they occurred, which is a remarkable shift from only a few years ago. I can say the majority of the issues we experienced this year came in the form of artist cancellations weeks out from the festival. Most were due to health reasons, but we did have a couple visa issues, as well. Luckily all the artists that were scheduled to perform the week of made it, in some cases minutes before they were supposed to start. Pretty amazing considering we hosted more than 150 artists this year.
One area of the festival organization we had on lock early this year was marketing thanks to the efforts of directors Matt Dressman, Melenie Yap, Robin Park, and the incomparable art direction of Mr. Jerry Abstract.
Any regrets about what happened this year?
I wouldn't say it was a regret, but it was disheartening to hear several dB regulars and some media outlets lament about the changing cultural landscape on Capitol Hill. For locals, this is nothing new and has been discussed ad nauseam. As I've stated countless times, this is a systemic problem with weekend audiences treating Capitol Hill like a drunken playground. This shift was the primary factor that led me towards EMP this year, which I feel was the right decision.
Knowing we were utilizing Q Nightclub for several of our highest-profile dance acts, I did my best to book underground dance talent each night that would deter the "shit show" audience. That said, Friday and Saturday night from around 1:00AM until about 2:30AM, there was an awkward culture-clash that ensued between the inebriated and annoyed as we transitioned into afterhours. Q's security—in particular Angel, who has been there since day one—did an admirable job directing traffic, but there's only so much that can be done. I get it and completely understand where the complaints come from, but we cannot and will not restrict the public from attending our events.
On a related note, I firmly believe isolating yourself from younger and/or less experienced audiences means giving up on any possibility of growth or longevity. I will say, I was there Wednesday, Thursday, Friday (afterhours) and Saturday (afterhours) and danced with friends, music lovers and dB regulars until the wee hours. When all is said and done, the beauty of our program is that you can choose to take part or pursue other options, which there were plenty of each night.
I heard that EMP issued guidelines to visual artists to refrain from using sexual imagery. Were there any negative repercussions/reactions to this dictum?
I am unaware of any such guidelines, but I wouldn't be surprised considering they're a non-profit, public museum and these were all-ages events. The only performance that came into question was Arca, Jesse Kanda, and Total Freedom, who closed out opening night at EMP's Sky Church. Had their imagery not been displayed on a 60' x 33' HD video wall, I'm fairly certain it wouldn't have gotten that level of scrutiny. I didn't catch the performance myself, but from what I heard and saw via social media, it was more disturbing than sexual. To be clear, no Decibel Festival performance has ever been censored and we've always given artist free rein to express themselves how they choose.
What were your Decibel highlights?
I was able to experience 47 performances this year, or roughly a third the entire program. Of these, my top five performances were Max Cooper presents 'Emergence', Simian Mobile Disco performing 'Whorl', Richie Hawtin and Ari Demiral, Andy Stott, and Recondite. Other highlights include, KiNK, T.Williams, Steffi, Marcel Dettmann, Rival Consoles, Loscil, Alessandro Cortini featuring Leo Mayberry, Lee Burridge, Sassmouth, Max Cooper featuring Pendleton House Collective & Benjamin Van Citters and Lusine featuring Diagraf. Overall, this was the most memorable program I've experienced and certainly in our top three in terms or attendance.