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An iFest Fan (and Former Music Programmer) Responds

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.  

But I now realize that Ellis had a point. What we have is a blue-state festival in a red-state town. Perhaps the majority of Houstonians really would prefer to mill about downtown in a state of mass inebriation, stumbling over the rails and absorbing whatever mundane musical sounds are emanating from the free stages and nearby drinking establishments. Maybe they'd rather do that than pay $10 at the gate to celebrate the wonderful ethnic diversity of our city and hear the finest international and regional music available in a family-friendly environment. The Chronicle didn't even see fit to send a reporter to cover the festival's opening day! Maybe a city gets the kind of civic celebration it deserves, and what we deserve is to play host to a bunch of drunken tourists on their way to a football game -- along with the rodeo and the NRA convention, of course.

Near the end of your column, you fret about what would happen if Austin City Limits decided to promote a spring world-music festival to compete with iFest. Let me propose an alternate scenario to you, John: What if iFest decided to give up on Houston and move to a different city, such as Austin, where the local population is more receptive to artistically intelligent programming? If a multicultural event with the size and scope of iFest were to be held in San Francisco, or Seattle, or Chicago, I guarantee you there would be a whole different level of popular and critical appreciation. Instead, what we get is constant carping from the local media and some former festivalgoers about having to pay to get in. This from a city that has voted to spend more than $1 billion in public money on sports facilities in the past decade.

We could be on the verge of losing what you call "the defining musical event in our city, year after year," and you chose to advance this year's event by describing the festival as a "sick old man" in need of your advice...The festival has made its share of mistakes over the years -- some of them with far more critical consequences than letting a sponsor program a small stage.

It's not easy to put on an event like the Houston International Festival and to keep it going year after year without selling out its fundamental artistic identity. But if this should prove to be the last iFest in Houston, or anywhere else, you can take satisfaction in knowing that you properly dissed the local bands on the Flamingo Gardens Stage.

Yours in music,

Rick Mitchell

Dear Rick,

It was an opinion piece. I did contact iFest, and I did uncover one fact that I thought made for a very good story -- namely, the fact that a sponsor was allowed to program a stage, and what's more, that the sponsor did a very poor job, and that the local music community was slighted as a result. And I did mention -- in passing, to be fair -- the woes that iFest has had with both the city and the INS, but I felt that those stories had already been told both in this paper and elsewhere.

But I will concede on this point: It was stupid of me to write that there was "little on the bill to justify the $10 walk-up tickets." Of course I realize that it would cost much more to see Zap Mama, Ozomatli and Taj Mahal in a club, and that such a show would probably never occur anywhere else in town but at iFest anyway. All I can say is that the Flamingo Gardens fiasco soured me unduly toward the rest of the bill.

That said, my growing family is on a tight budget, and it would cost us $30 to get in the door, and I believe it is unrealistic to suggest that I simply have my family eat and drink before we go and then stay at the fest -- bombarded on all sides by tasty smells -- for upward of four hours, not including travel time. Feeding my family would probably set us back a minimum of $25 more. At that rate, it would cost over $200 for all four days of the fest, which partially explains why I was unable to attend last weekend.  

See you soon,

Racket

john.lomax@houstonpress.com


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