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Gettin' Underneath the Covers at Hopscotch 2013

How sponsorship has affected one of the most respected festivals in the country.
September 10, 2013, 2:00pm

The Breeders

The Breeders are readying to take main stage at the 2013 Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, and director Greg Lowenhagen is busy. Standing near the backstage entrance, immersed in several conversations at once, it's easy to mistake him for an attendee with his ratty Public Enemy t-shirt, shorts and kinetic energy. He takes a second to come over and say hello, shines a disarming smile and offers a man-sized handshake before saying, "Sorry, I've gotta go do a couple of things. We'll talk later."

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He's always talking later. Since pitching the idea for a multi-day music festival to then-Independent Weekly owner Steve Schewel in 2009, Lowenhagen has been at the helm of everything that happens under that banner. This year's event was its fourth occurrence and hosted approximately 175 featured acts across a main stage and 14 local venues, around 45 official and unofficial day parties, a charity basketball game, a poster exhibition, an artists market, and a series of speakers. None of this would be particularly remarkable for, say, South By Southwest or CMJ, but for a four year old regional festival in the Research Triangle area of the North Carolina Piedmont, it's pretty damn substantial.

Lowenhagen is one of only two full-time employees of Hopscotch, the other being general manager Becky Mormino (co-director Grayson Currin still retains part-time status although the number of hours actually worked blur every line that could distinguish part-time from full-time), which balloons to a working crew of around 300 during the actual festival and results in paid seasonal employment for a group of about 15 in the months immediately surrounding the event. Lowenhagen was working for the paper at the time of his original pitch, and Schewel's publication bankrolled the festival's first instance to the tune of about $375,000. And lost $50,000 of it.

This seems like a lot of money—and it is—but a 13.5% loss wasn't such a disaster that anyone lost their spirit. "It's never a good feeling to lose money," Lowenhagen tells me, "but Steve was very open about Hopscotch's finances immediately after that inaugural weekend and we were all determined to take what we learned and come back bigger and better in 2011." I asked him directly what they changed in order to become profitable. As it turned out, almost nothing. "Since we didn't have a lot of info on which to base our expectations, nothing was really surprising that first year, including the financial results. Oddly enough, to turn a profit with the second festival, we didn't do too much tweaking," he says. "We spent more money, we got some good breaks with the availability of bands, and probably most importantly, we had the benefit of great reviews and word of mouth experiences from fans. The first Hopscotch was only unsuccessful financially—by every other measure, especially the feedback from the fans, bans, and media, it was a huge success. Those positive experiences at Hopscotch 2010 made Hopscotch 2011 a financial success as well."

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I asked a couple of festival principals, Director of Development Jennifer Hwa and publicist Candice Jones, about this year's ticket sales. They told me that this year's numbers weren't tallied yet, but that the past couple of years have seen sales hovering around 18,000 at price points ranging from $40 to $180. Do the math. Even at the lowest possible sum, that's a solid chunk of cash. But in a festival market that's crowded elbow-to-elbow, it's also solidly on the lower end of things. There's always been a lot of howling about the "intersection of art and commerce," as if they were two distinct forces meeting at a crossroads whereby one sells it's soul and the other provides wealth and fame. No doubt, there are portions and people of the culture that are completely corrupted by such a relationship. But there are also the plain economic realities of throwing anything bigger than a backyard bar-b-que.

Holy Ghost!

While Hopscotch may have started out privately funded, the number of corporate sponsorships has increased in both number and visibility. Major computer manufacturer and marketer Lenovo is the most spectacular. The relationship between Hopscotch and Lenovo has existed for a few years,. It's expanded incrementally and, surprisingly, it was Lenovo—which is situated in neighboring Morrisville, NC—who approached Hopscotch. Gavin O'Hara, member of the worldwide social media team for Lenovo, told me "in 2010, I was sitting in office reading Independent Weekly and saw an ad for Hopscotch. [Lenovo] had a two-person [social media] team at that time. We'd been having conversations about the global and local aspect of our company. For all our 2000 employees we didn't have much of a local footprint, so we thought why not?"

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O'Hara is a clear music fan and speaks with overflowing enthusiasm about the artists at Hopscotch. "Hopscotch still isn't a global brand. It wasn't an easy sell to me," he says. "…It's curated ten clicks to the left. It's cooler than Bonnaroo or Bumbershoot. Not better, but cooler. It's less of a known quantity. [But] the coolest part is that it's not attended by just music snobs! That'd be dull and there'd be a lot fewer attendees. The foot traffic people are the ones who make up the festival. They're people who like music and trust the organizers to present interesting stuff."

Indeed, Hopscotch has a reputation for reaching outside the established circle of known festival acts. Between multiple collaborative performances featuring Japanese noise master Merzbow, improvisor David Grubbs, the eternally eclectic Richard Youngs, back-to-the-audience ambient worker Expo '70, Pere Ubu, Ken Vandermark & Tim Daisy, a packed-house, last minute performance by Big Daddy Kane, and even John Cale—there's just no way to impeach their booking sensibility.

Meanwhile, Hwa's role is to, "…strengthen relationships with our current corporate partners while researching, pitching, and bringing in new sponsors," she told me. Her primary responsibilities are to increase Hopscotch's sponsorship revenues, innovate marketing strategies through brands, and "provide the support necessary to ensure sponsors experience a measurable and positive return on investment." There's also a significant amount of community outreach involved, and that sees her engaging the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Raleigh Alliance, and Wake County Economic Development Office on a regular basis.

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While I was interviewing everyone for this story I had to continually keep myself in check so as to not succumb to the tendency to blindly cheerlead an event that I've enjoyed substantially for two years in a row. There's a necessary debate that occurs where art and commerce meet and, let's be honest, when has commerce ever been corrupted by art? So I went back to the well and asked O'Hara directly what Lenovo expects for their money. To his credit, he was forthright and didn't try to wiggle around the idea that this is, to a large extent, strategic marketing. "For years IBM's ThinkPad was known as 'the businessman's laptop.' For me, [it's] a way to connect with the youth market, too. It's hard not to notice the relationship."

Future Islands

For all the talking about the money swirling around Hopscotch—which is still firmly situated as the little festival that could—Lowenhagen's original concept was strictly DIY and formulated as another avenue for the survival of the always financially in-question situation of most alt-weeklies. "My idea in 2009 was that alt-weekly papers, faced with a rapidly evolving news landscape and major questions about their very existence, could do well to consider alternative forms of revenue," he says. "They are usually dialed in to their respective artistic communities—music, food, the arts, etc.—so why shouldn't they consider promoting their own events? They're usually big media supporters of local events like film festivals and food & wine events already, so why couldn't they find a way to produce them on their own, and possibly, make money above and beyond the ads they sell as their foundation? Nothing is going to be SXSW, of course—that's not really the point. It's more about a newspaper with an established reach and audience giving its base something fun to do one weekend and in turn, widening that base."

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The total cost for this year's event will run somewhere between $650,000 and $750,000. Lowenhagen says those numbers include everything from artist fees to office printer ink, including $30,000 the festival pays for city-owned venues and necessary services, like off-duty police officers.

I asked Lowenhagen about the festival's economic impact on the Triangle area. "Back in 2011, the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau helped us determine an estimated economic impact of two plus million. I was never really satisfied with that number because it didn't include money spent by Hopscotch attendees from here in Wake County, where Raleigh is located. Their metrics focus exclusively on people who are visiting from outside of our home county. We sell more tickets and have more people spending money from here than anywhere else, by a wide margin, so I think the economic impact is considerably larger." (Note: I attempted to find out more information concerning this but multiple calls to Assistant Executive Director Jennifer Bosser of the Wake County Economic Development office at Raleigh's Chamber Of Commerce went unanswered and unreturned.) It seems there are some city funds available for this venture but, as yet, have been un-sourced.

"We never pursued any financial support from the city in our first three years because we were owned by a newspaper, and we thought asking the city for money would be a conflict of interest with the journalistic principles of the paper," said Lowenhagen. "Now that we're our own LLC, we'll be pursuing supporting funds from the city as soon as Hopscotch 2013 is over. I think a lot of people would find it surprising that we're paying the city to bring an event of this size and with this type of impact—both economic and social—to the downtown community."

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OK, yeah, so there's a billion festivals in a billion cities, right? And, if we really get down to it, there's most likely not a gigantic difference in how they acquire major sponsorship or how those sponsors expect to be treated. I get it. You get it. We get it. So why expend such focus on the inner-workings of this one? Because there's a remarkable lack of cynicism with Hopscotch. The smirking, insider-baseball and hyper-opportunism of other events doesn't seem to exist here. There are so many festivals, and organizers, that give lip service to the idea of money serving the music and then the experience of the actual event is one of being inside a gigantic vending machine. The streets aren't littered with schwaggy garbage. No one is screaming "BUY THIS! BUY THIS BUY THIS!" at every turn. In fact, I only saw one official Hopscotch merchandise table the whole time I was in Raleigh.

Spiritualized

The director of anything must always keep at least one eye on the bottom line, even if it's a reluctant one. Lowenhagen does this, but is straightforward about which things won't ever happen, bottom line be damned. "Our sponsors are crucial to the viability and success of the festival, so we're proud of the relationships we've built in a relatively short time. We considered selling the presenting rights once, but in the end, opted not to do it. In terms of demands from sponsors, we've established a framework where the festival benefits while each sponsor's needs are met," he says. "It's a balancing act, of course, but we have never, and will never, allow a sponsor's participation to influence the choices we make in terms of booking artists or using specific venues or influencing the presentation of Hopscotch for what it is, i.e. [an event] where fans can experience incredible live music.

Hopscotch is only in its fourth year and, as with most things, there's always a chance for change. For now, though, there's no maddening style wars or fashion wrecks or superfluous trendiness. Hopscotch will rise or sink based on its own merits, or lack thereof, and no amount of "hell yeahs" will make any difference at all. But if we can accept that things just don't happen—and that there's a regular need for financial and organizational heavy lifting behind the stages that prop up nearly every band we ever cared—then there's no conflict at all in temporarily relaxing the reflexive muscle that keeps music fans continuously informed that they are a target market. But like Fugazi said, "Never mind what's been selling; it's what you're buying."

"We understand how the presence of sponsors can affect the fundamental elements of an event, and we also hope the artists and fans understand the role sponsorships help the overall makeup of our festival," says Lowenhagen. "Support comes in the form of financial patronage, sure, but there are lots of other ways—artist hospitality, ticketing, water, etc.—in which sponsors help a small organization like ours with logistics we'd have trouble tackling on our own."

By the time The Breeders have finished blasting through their performance of Last Splash in its entirety—and just before Spiritualized take the stage for an intense headlining performance on Saturday—Lowenhagen has changed into a powder blue collared shirt and a decent set of pants. Anyone that can see him across the barrier into the backstage area won't take much notice. He's not glad-handing sponsors or collecting congratulations. His head is down and he's deep in conversation with stagehands and security. He may be the director of what's many people refer to as one of the best up-and-coming festivals in the country but, at this moment, he's just a guy at work.

Gordon Lamb is on Twitter@gordonlamb