A Look Inside D.C.’s Underground Festival Circuit

2012-07-28 17.04.08edited

Written By: Elliott Wallace


Throughout the U.S., major music festivals host some of the world’s most popular artists. But while bigger festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella might attract higher-profile artists, more regional festivals—think SXSW in Austin or New York’s CMJ Music Marathon—also don’t go unnoticed in the public eye. With more of these festivals sprouting across the country, it provides an open window for D.C.’s creative types to be proactive and stage their own music events in the nation’s capital in support of underground and alternative artists.

One person who can attest first-hand what it’s like to produce such an event is experimental music festival Sonic Circuit’s director Jeff Surak. Being a part of the D.C. experimental music scene since the ’80s, he understands how important these festivals can be for up-and-coming bands.

Surak has performed in the festival since its inception nearly 12 years ago, and has helped to organize it since the mid-2000s. He has watched Sonic Circuits expand to encompass a greater variety of experimental music, and to include different art forms such as installations and film. While the event has seen a steady growth over the years, it also has created problems with finding an appropriate space to host the festival.

“The main problem is that there are no venues that support [experimental acts] and put [them] on regularly on a full-time basis,” Surak laments. He also recognizes that D.C., as a city, is very transient in nature, which has a definite effect on the music and art scene. With a large portion of its denizens brought to the city by work, engaging with the music scene might not necessarily be a prime focus of the population.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to find.  “The audience is here. There are people here who want this kind of music, who want to see it and support it,” and then “there are a lot of performers [of experimental music] as well in the DC area.” Surak makes sure to point out that Sonic Circuits sees a unique audience, a mix of young and old, and an increasing number of performers coming from overseas to participate.

Another music festival that more recently has come into fruition is D.C.-based music blog Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie’s festival, launched by the website’s head honcho Dave Mann in 2011. Mann’s desire to create the event was originally sparked by his trip to SXSW. After holding two inaugural events in 2011, the first in June and the second in October, the festival this year [which kicks-off tonight] promises to be bigger than ever.  Mike Lashinsky, who handles venue booking for STPP, reports that STPP Fest will feature more than 300 bands playing 15 Adams Morgan and U-Street venues, with bands from across the country and even internationally as well.

With major growth already seen two years into the festival, Lashinsky says this year’s outing only marks the tip of the iceberg for the event.  “We are trying to grow it year by year,” Lashinsky says, “That’s what we are aiming for: a big music festival with tons of bands, tons of venues-all day.” The ultimate end goal for STPP?  “Just to get D.C. more on the music scene and maybe people will pay attention and say, ‘There’s a festival happening every October in D.C.-maybe we should play it next year.’”

Aside from the larger-scale DIY festivals, the District also saw more smaller-scale festivals crop-up, including the first annual Funky Fresh Foodie Fest. Put on by Wonky Promotions, this grub fest featured a variety of D.C. food trucks and hosted popular regional acts. Artists Judo Chop and Flo Anito performed for the crowd, along with a show from District Karaoke.

“[The festival] grew out of a desire to offer people something truly all-inclusive,” says Jeff Kelly, the man behind Wonky Promotions, “We weren’t familiar with anybody who had done something all- inclusive [in D.C.] and certainly not in the realm of food trucks.”

While his company had previously planned events within the food truck industry, the integration of a musical element was something new, but also something that made a lot of sense. As Kelly explains, “There’s [a particular] energy that’s driven by the music that food trucks select.”

In addition to Funky Fresh Foodie Fest, other events like Trillectro [a hip-hop/electronic festival] and Capital Groove Fest [which hosted over a dozen local acts earlier this summer] have given the festival circuit in D.C. a life of its own in the last few years. But the question remains: how and when might these DIY events hit the tipping point and become the next big thing out of the city? Well, it might not hurt to start by pulling together all the elements that make D.C. unique and build a festival from that-providing an original platform for D.C.’s music and culture to mesh together.

“[Given] the size of the city, both geographically and the size of the population,” Kelly points out, “D.C. really kicks ass in terms of the [entertainment] options” available. And what these festivals underscore is not only the breadth of genre within the city, but also what defines the city besides just government. D.C. needs a festival to celebrate its identity apart from politics—its music, its food, its art, and its artists. This doesn’t mean we have to isolate ourselves from the city’s history and current realities, but let’s give District dwellers something that everyone will want to celebrate together.

Time can only tell if one of D.C.’s existing festivals will become the next SXSW, but it’s obvious that people want this scene to succeed and get some of the same recognition that Austin, New York, and Chicago have gotten-and doesn’t ambition mean we’re nearly halfway there?