For 25 years, Street Scene was San Diego’s perennial summer music blowout. A multi-day, multi-genre festival on a par with Lollapalooza and Coachella, it attracted big names like Black Eyed Peas, R.E.M., Tool and Jack Johnson. But Street Scene suffered major losses in 2009, and the festival’s organizer, Rob Hagey, was forced to declare bankruptcy and scrap the fest altogether. Nothing has yet emerged to replace it.
While San Diego has many smaller-tier music fests, the debate continues as to why the city doesn’t have a large-scale event. In interviews with local venue owners, concert promoters and other movers and shakers, one thing was clear: There are qualities about San Diego that make it difficult to execute one. Here’s a rundown of the reasons why another Street Scene is starting to look more like a pipe dream.
• Location, location, location: The “No. 1 problem” isn’t booking bands or erecting stages, Hagey says; it’s where to put them.
“What is the common thing that links all those festivals together?” Hagey asks, referring to five large events—Coachella, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Outside Lands and Bonnaroo. “In those five festivals, there is a great deal of open space, whether it’s on a farm, on a polo field in the desert or in a city park. Where would you see something like that in San Diego?”
“Where in Balboa Park do you have enough open space that you can have multiple stages? You have the Globe, the museums, the zoo. You can’t just block them off and say, ‘Sorry.’”
• It’s the economy, stupid: Festivals are bigger than ever, not just in size and scope, but also in how many there are to choose from. However, thanks to the Great Recession, fewer people can afford to fork over a couple hundred dollars for a concert. With competition so fierce, the concept of starting a new festival can be daunting.
“I think the money is out there; it’s just a matter of connections,” says Alicia Champion, co-founder of Indiefest, an annual music festival that took place this year at the NTC Promenade in Point Loma. “But we get so busy with the technical aspects of doing the festival that we often don’t have time for things like grant writing or trying to find new sponsors.”
Tim Mays, owner of The Casbah, who’s been involved with festivals, says it would take a lot of outside funding to put on another festival.
“These big festivals that happen in San Francisco and Chicago, they’re backed by huge concert promoters like AEG and Live Nation who have really big pockets,” he says.
• You don’t have to please everybody: While established festivals should continue to thrive, Hagey says, the future of music festivals might be in genre-specific concerts like the country-flavored Stagecoach Festival or the giant electronic dance party, Electric Daisy Carnival.
That’s what Johnny Shockey, co-owner of Downtown nightclub Voyeur, who’s helped organize fests in Cabo over the past few years, is interested in. He was recently tapped to help with the San Diego stop of Live Nation’s Identity Festival, a touring fest that focuses primarily on electronic music.
“We do one thing, and we do it well,” he says. “We stick to dance music, because I feel that kind of music is really on the rise as far as festivals go. I think a lot of people make the mistake of trying to please too many people.”
• Where is the love?: One common complaint among festival organizers is that the city makes it extremely difficult to put one on. There are alcohol laws to abide by, and the city makes organizers hire what Mays calls a “way overkill” amount of local police to patrol the show.
Earlier this year, San Diego County turned down a request for a $5,000 grant to help fund Sezio’s annual “Four Day Weekend” concert series. Zack Nielsen, the arts nonprofit’s founder, thinks that those who control the purse strings just don’t care about live music.
“The main thing is that our city, the Commission for Arts and Culture, down to the foundations and the donors, they don’t recognize live music like this as arts and culture,” he says. “I’ve shown them extensive studies and research on places like Seattle and Austin that are creating huge amounts of tax revenue for the city by helping fests, not to mention making them culturally desirable places to visit and live, but they don’t seem to understand.”
Even if San Diego has another large music festival in the future, most agree that it would take years to develop. Street Scene, which started in 1984 on a couple of parking lots in Downtown, attracted only a few thousand visitors in its first year. Hagey doesn’t rule out the idea of resurrecting the festival, but he fears that “the brand has been butchered” and, even if he did bring it back, it wouldn’t be as big.
“I’ve been enjoying the smaller shows I’ve been putting on in Carlsbad, and I want to do more. There is a thought that there could be something in the future,” Hagey says. “But I won’t be the one putting up all the money.”
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