Local music festival needs to find more imagination

Photo by Elliott Brockelbank

The city of Atlanta stands in a rather precarious place in the cultural realm of the United States’ biggest cities.

An art scene that previously was seemingly silent and without platform to gain traction is now loud, inspiring and proactive; collectives like Foster ATL are connecting and showcasing some of the brightest talent this side of the Mississippi. Even athletics seem to be moving in a positive direction.

Despite its position as a domineering force in the hip-hop community, “Hotlanta” has never really had the music attention many of its proud residents feel it deserves; Los Angeles and New York continue to absorb the newest talent and receive credit as being the primary creative centers for musicians worldwide. Nashville even manages to steal recognition for rock-n-roll and country. This point is more apparent when put into the scope of the booming dance music scene.

The Association of Electronic Music (AEFM) valued the electronic music business at $6.2 billion worldwide. With Dance music becoming exceptionally popular in mainstream radio
because of artists like DJ Snake, Diplo and Skrillex. The festival business brings in approximately $1 billion of the aforemen-
tioned six with a few select cities reaping the benefits. Atlanta is one of them.

A city with little to no history in dance music, only two strong “EDM” oriented night clubs and a strong bias towards hip-hop and country,  has somehow earned the role to play host to TomorrowWorld — ID&T’s first international venture of their iconic Tomorrowland series — and Counterpoint. Enter Imagine Music Festival (IMF).

On Aug. 29 and 30, Iris Promotions, LLC and Iris Presents Inc. hosted roughly 25,000 fans, nestled in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward and Masquerade Music Park.

With acts like Chromeo, Felix Central, GRiZ and Brillz, the lineup blended a number of prominent names in the dance scene with some local talents striving to make a name for themselves (Le Castle Vania and Midnite Panda being two of the fresher names). With standard GA weekend tickets at $130 and VIP at $300, this pricey festival didn’t reflect it’s age in its prices, and clearly led to a profitable edition. Numbers only tell a portion of the story though.

At this point, it may be expected to immediately bash the festival, the organizers, the promoters, the artists, the stages and everything imaginable. That would be crass, though. Looking beyond the numbers at the positives reveals an exceptionally welcoming staff, thoughtfully executed layout, plentiful festivities, a multitude of vendors and solid stage designs.

One thing bigger festivals should take note of is the water vapor dome; cooling off roughly 10,000 people a day isn’t easy, and with the lack of free water refill stations (something to fix in later years), this was a savior for many.

Food was fairly priced and lines were not atrocious.  Stages were spaced far enough to prevent substantial sound-bleeding across the three outdoor spots, and the main stage design was a nice surprise. Even the site’s web design, and creative materials were impressive: thoughtful design, crisp video and good photography.

A minor gripe might be that there were far too many identity bands (volunteer, media, performer: stage, crew, stage pass, all access, etc.) which made security lax in some places and really strict in others. Organizationally, Iris should be pleased as it was a well executed event.

So where’s the “but?” Here: the utter lack of diversity is an issue that needs to be addressed if this event is expected to grow.

The lineup may have had some notable names, but it was essentially all bass music. Trap, electro, hardstyle, “future bass” and dubstep monopolized the weekend. While respectable genres in their own right, they have their own time and place, that place at most festivals being spread out across each day, or designated to one stage where bassheads can congregate and rage in harmony.

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and the bass dominated lineup drew a notably single-minded crowd. Walking around from stage to stage was nothing but moving from one bass rumble to another, accompanied only by the occasional (and ever so classy) “ATL HOE!” chant.

This was confusing, as Imagine’s branding leads us to believe it is akin to theatrical events which bring in a fantasy aspect to the venue. While painted dancers and characters were present, they were less an integral part in a large play and more of a provocative stage-spectacle. Combined with false cries of PLUR (peace love unity respect: dance music’s mantra) from kandi-laden costumed ravers, the general vibe throughout the weekend was shallow and fake, even dirty.

This is not to say there is anything wrong with kandi, or rave culture in general (it’s a beautiful community), but the attitude from the Atlanta fanbase was more Peace, Love and Twerk, than PLUR. The vibe did not feel genuine, instead attempting to appear “hip” with things they’ve seen online or in the past.

Native American headdresses, for instance, have long been a controversy in the scene, as they are considered racially insensitive and have even been banned by a number of the major festivals; these were everywhere at IMF.

Perhaps the most disturbing reality was the crowd’s lack of energy. Aside from the rail-runners at the front of every stage, there was little participation from fans. Unless a “hype-man,” DJ or staffer told the crowd to put their hands up or scream, the crowd was not extremely enthusiastic.

This may be because it is impossible to go hard 24/7 at a bass driven festival — it is exhausting. On day two, Ape Drums was putting forth an incredible amount of effort to hype up an audience that literally just stood there, save a brave few who managed to sway. Vibes are everything for festivals. They can make a weekend, even make up for a lackluster lineup, or they can ruin the experience.

For Imagine Music Festival to truly flourish, it needs to rethink its position amongst its peers. If it wants to remain as an Atlanta-centric small-scale festival, limited to essentially one style of music and fanbase, then everything they are doing now is fine. If it wants to become a rival of bigger festivals like Counterpoint and TomorrowWorld, it needs to expand its outlook beyond that of its current location.

Line up a more diverse group of artists, find a new venue, pursue the theatrical world implied by the branding and pioneer stage designs. IMF actually has a lot of potential — especially since Iris Promotions clearly knows how to organize an event. Hopefully by attracting people from a wider audience, both in musical tastes and geographic location, things will really start to get fired up. If it manages to do all these things, this state, and this city, will definitely become a player to be reckoned with in the industry.

Our Take: 3/5 stars