Houston's Festival Future Uncertain After a Wild 2018

The always amazing St. Vincent at Day for Night 2017.
The always amazing St. Vincent at Day for Night 2017.
Photo by Jack Gorman
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The view from the 22nd floor of the 1415 Louisiana building is not bad, which is good because the conversation taking place in a conference room of the Pagel, Davis & Hill, P.C. law firm is pretty dry. It’s all talks of shares and equity, and if you’re not a player in this particular part of the drama nor a lawyer yourself, a lot of it is likely to fly over your head. And then, just like that, an auction takes place concerning the “assets utilized to operate the Day for Night Festival,” among other items.

It’s late November, so of course chatter turns to Day for Night, the arts and music festival that brought in music fans and media from across the world to Houston, but the chatter was never like this. Normally we’d be talking about the lineup, what we hope gets played, what the weather might look like and things of that nature. Instead, the festival isn’t taking place this year, and may never take place again. But the name exists, and while as one person sitting at the table states, “there [are some bruises on the name,” the name still has value. Hence the auction.

Superstitious folk might believe that Houston, as a city, is cursed when it comes to music festivals. After reaching a point where it felt like we might be entering a golden age of major music festivals in the city, the wheels sort of came off. Free Press Summer Fest, the first of the recent festivals to start capturing popular attention, finally stopped the fight against the oppressive heat and the summer downpours. It’s now the In Bloom festival, which can be charitably described as fine. Something Wicked, our premiere EDM festival, is no more, replaced with the Freaky Deaky, which had a much better lineup than the weak name suggests. Middlelands proved that you could have an EDM festival at RenFest, as long as you’re OK with it only taking place once. Do you even remember that Houston Whatever Fest was a thing?

Remember that time a Houston festival was able to book Aphex Twin?
Remember that time a Houston festival was able to book Aphex Twin?
Photo by Jack Gorman

And then there’s Day for Night. Following allegations of sexual misconduct against founder Omar Afra, events played out that led to that conference room on the 22nd floor and the auction. It only took a year, but that combination of repeated bad weather, of partnerships dissolving, of too many people, and of bad behavior completely reshaped what the festival landscape looks like in Houston. 2018 was completely different from 2017, and not for the better.

Some will look at that new landscape and see a field wide open for someone to sweep in and change the game again. History gives them a map they could potentially follow to success. Perhaps you take the varied but still mostly safe lineups of FPSF, and build up over the years until you can book some major headliners. Perhaps you just book a ton of artists that you’d never see and surround them with great art. Maybe you jump on a trend that has a few thousand hardcore fans across the state and cater to them exclusively. Show some ambition, and maybe one of the largest cities in the United States has a festival to be proud of again.

Just make sure you’re willing to lose money along the way.

“The tea leaves were already there,” Omar Afra tells me. “We put on a great, beautiful event, but it wasn’t profitable yet. It could have gone away at any time.”

There’s so much to factor in when it comes to building a festival, from who you book to how much you charge for beer to security and everything in between. Day for Night was a gem of a festival, but it was still only bringing in 20,000 fans in a city of 2.3 million people.

Houston isn’t a cursed city — that we’ve had festival success in recent years proves there’s a market for them — but its luck hasn’t been great. That’s not to say that things can’t turn around; this is a city full of creative hustlers after all. If Travis Scott can put on a festival with no lineup just to flex on the music industry, anything is possible. Maybe that next great thing will be a reborn Day for Night. Maybe it’ll be something completely new.

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