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An iFest Fan (and Former Music Programmer) Responds

An open letter to Racket from Rick Mitchell, with Racket's reply

Dear John,

As you know, I have not been associated with the Houston International Festival since the 2003 festival honoring Mexico. I am speaking here for myself, as a music lover and a citizen of this city, not on behalf of the festival, which I hope will summon its own reply to your column of April 21.

Since I am not on the payroll, I am free to admit that I agree with the main thrust of your column, which is that the programming of the Flamingo Gardens Stage is a mistake. If I were still working as festival's music stage curator, I would have argued against promoting this stage as one of the festival's official music stages, since it is being booked by a sponsor. You don't let advertisers dictate editorial content at a newspaper, and you don't let sponsors dictate programming at a festival. Period.

I also appreciate your ardent support of worthy local bands, and I agree that the festival could do more to reach out to hip music lovers in their twenties and thirties. During my tenure at the festival, we debated this issue every year, although I must point out that the national bands you suggest -- Bloc Party, Calexico, Clem Snide -- are the kind of acts beloved by music critics such as you and I and overwhelmingly ignored by the music-buying public.

My issue is not so much with what you wrote, but with what you didn't write. You picked out the weakest point in this year's festival schedule, and based a column on it. Why?

Instead of an open letter, you could have done some actual reporting -- you know, call the festival and ask what's up with the Flamingo Gardens Stage, take notes, and then write a real story. Had you done that, you still would have had good reason to criticize the programming on that particular stage, but you might also have uncovered the bigger story. The fact is that iFest almost died last year, when it was forced to move to Reliant Stadium because of unreasonable and unaffordable demands for fees placed on it by the Houston City Council, which was looking for any way it could to dig itself out of the budget mess created by the Brown administration. Nobody at iFest really wanted to move to Reliant, but the city -- led by the Parks Department and Councilwoman Carol Alvarado -- left little choice.

And then it rained hard on the second weekend, and almost no one came.

As a result, iFest lost a ton of money last year. It came closer than anyone knows to going out of business. Instead of giving up, however, the festival desperately clawed its way out of the hole, negotiated a compromise with the city, and is back downtown where it belongs. John, as a fellow journalist, tell me: Why isn't that the story?

Of course there is less music at the festival this year -- there was less money to work with, and for much of the year, it was doubtful if there would even be a 2005 Houston International Festival. Considering the circumstances, I would say that festival director of programming Susan Criner has done a remarkable job of putting together a credible list of international headliners, supported by affordable local and regional acts.

There is an attitude that is all too prevalent in Houston: We're so arrogant and/or ignorant here that we always look a gift horse in the mouth. You praise last Sunday's headliners Ozomatli, Taj Mahal and Zap Mama, and then you write, "But after that, there's a fall-off, little on the bill to justify the $10 walk-up tickets."

Give me a friggin' break! You know as well as I do that any of the acts you mention alone would cost $20 to $40 in a local nightclub. Why should anybody need additional justification to spend $10 to see them together at iFest as opposed to spending two to four times as much to see them separately in a nightclub, especially considering all the other educational, artistic and cultural experiences to be found at the festival?

In your column, you compare iFest to the Austin City Limits Festival and Jazzfest in New Orleans. These are, of course, great music festivals, and a bargain at the price, which is three to four times as much as the cost of an advance ticket to iFest, which has the same admission price as the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival! Yes, it was once free. Get over it. Buy a cheap ticket, and come on in. If you don't want to pay for the food and drink coupons, eat and drink before you come.

Last year, when iFest announced it was moving to Reliant, the Chronicle quoted City Councilman Mark Ellis as saying, "It is not as if we are losing the Super Bowl." At the time, I thought it was one of the stupidest comments I'd ever heard from a local politician. I mean, if a city is lucky, it might host a Super Bowl every 20 years. But iFest was downtown 20 years ago, when almost nothing else was down there, and it comes back every year, without being dependent on tourists. It serves as our annual metropolitan block party, even though it is a private, nonprofit educational foundation that receives very little public subsidy.

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