This Monday, Weird City Hip-Hop Festival announced it was bouncing back from its abrupt cancellation to put on a local-centric show at Spiderhouse Ballroom. Though most self-proclaimed hip-hop heads already know the story, it’s worth revisiting if not only to consider its impact amongst Austin’s hip-hop fanbase.
Austin Mic Exchange’s Weird City Hip-Hop Festival launched in 2014 and yielded a significant turnout in its first incarnation. So naturally, when 2015’s massive lineup was announced this past July, attendees from the previous year and newcomers alike were eager to see increased attention on the festival and some speculated that this would definitively put Austin’s hip-hop scene on the map. When it was initially announced, Weird City boasted 75 artists over two days (24 artists on Friday, September 18th and a whopping 51 artists on Saturday, September 19th) – including tons of local talent alongside major label acts like Danny Brown, Aesop Rock, Jay Electronica, and Freddie Gibbs. General Admission tickets were listed at $35 and $150 for VIP. Some of those who purchased GA tickets equated $35 to paying around 47 cents per performance while others thought that $35 was worth a ticket for one of the big four acts alone. Hype was building and social media was rumbling with promotion (including a promo video that played before local theater screenings of Straight Outta Compton).
That’s when the unthinkable happened.
“Due to unforeseen scheduling conflicts and lower than expected ticket sales this year, we have made the extremely difficult decision to cancel this year’s festival. All tickets purchased to the event will be refunded immediately. Much love to everyone who supported not only us, but to anyone who supports Texas hip hop as a whole. We believe in the amazing force of this scene, and while this year’s cancellation is definitely a disappointment, this is NOT THE END of Weird City Fest. Not by a long shot. We love you all. Stay tuned for the future.” – weirdcityfest.com
Just 19 days before Weird City’s kickoff day, coordinators announced that the festival had been cancelled. Though founder Adam Protextor and partners Aaron Miller and Leah Manners didn’t divulge too much information, they gave enough for fans to speculate. Protextor was quoted,
“This year’s festival isn’t happening due to circumstances beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up. Weird City is not dead…Our amicable split with Empire was based on the fact that the festival’s not happening this year, but we’re going to do Weird City next year and we look forward to figuring it out.” (Austin Chronicle)
Miller (Weird City’s local booking manager) defended Austin’s competitive hip-hop scene:
“Just because this year might have suffered from a difference of vision or a difference of execution, that doesn’t reflect on the community that still wants to see it. I don’t want people to say, ‘Well I guess Austin just doesn’t like rap enough.’ That’s an oversimplification.” (Austin Chronicle)
Weird City coordinators also made it clear that they’d concluded their partnership with Heard Entertainment booking agent and Empire Control Room owner Steven Sternschein, who explained,
“Everything about what we’re doing was taken up a notch. We turned it up to 11 because what we got out of it last year was that there’s a need and audience for it. I think that’s still the case and there are a number of other opportunities for people to rally around hip-hop in Austin.” (Austin Chronicle)
With the bad news set in (social media) stone, festival supporters started to surmise about the festival’s cancellation; many were quick to denounce the national acts (particularly Danny Brown – whose tour dates in West Virginia and Massachusetts in the same weekend as Weird City led to speculations that he caused a crucial scheduling conflict) and defend local talent as a selling point. Of course, Sternschein had already acknowledged that the talent budget this year was significantly higher than last fall’s, which made pre-sales an increasingly pressing issue but many Austin hip-hop aficianados were plain frustrated. Sure they were being refunded their money in full, but was losing one of the four most discussed acts (Danny Brown, Aesop Rock, Jay Electronica, Freddie Gibbs) really worth cancelling Weird City? Some comments responding to the announcement provided insight and even strategies to save Weird City:
“Should [have] stuck with it. People like to buy tickets last minute or pay at the door.” (Facebook)
“Put local acts on that have a real fan base and have them sell tickets, people are excited about this festival. It can be pulled off, just ask for help.” (Facebook)
Weird City was gone for the moment but the door was once again open to a discussion about Austin’s hip-hop demographic:
What portion of the Austin music scene is dedicated to live hip-hop shows?
Can Austin’s hip-hop scene support a full-blown hip-hop festival?
Can Austin support all these festivals? How did the festival’s proximity to ACL affect ticket sales?
Could a different headliner (either another major label hip-hop artist or an act from a different genre) have impacted ticket pre-sales?
What impact would discounted tickets have made on pre-sales?
Whatever answers folks could come up with, it didn’t change the fact that they’d lost their big chance to celebrate local hip-hop. It seemed about time to move on and start thinking about Weird City 2016.
Then, suddenly, there was a glimmer of hope.
On September 15th, Weird City’s Facebook page posted a cryptic image along with the caption, “Something weird this way comes…Keep an eye on our page one week from today for a very special announcement.” Seven days later (and 22 days after the cancellation announcement), hip-hop fans received the good news: Weird City was back, though in a different form – “Weird City 1.5” AKA the “Return of Weird City.” The event, now taking place on Saturday, October 24th at Spiderhouse Ballroom (where Austin Mic Exchange holds it’s weekly Tuesday hip-hop open mic event) promises a strictly local lineup of 27 artists for $5 ($7 for 18+). While it doesn’t have any of the big names Weird City first had booked, it promises a more authentic Austin hip-hop experience.
Adam Protextor dismissed the stark implications of Austin’s hip-hop scene that stemmed from the initial event’s shortcomings and discussed the ideals behind the event:
“When people saw the festival was canceled, it was easy to point at it and say, ‘Does this mean that hip-hop isn’t sustainable in Austin?’ No…One particular event, as it was designed, wasn’t sustainable, but hip-hop is absolutely on the rise in Austin…Now we’re trying to prove that. So here’s a show where you can party with us and see all the local acts you could have seen at Weird City – witness the level of quality…We needed to do this event, and it wasn’t ever really a question if we’d do it or not…As soon as the festival was canceled, we knew there’d be something else. We don’t have the headliners because our budget is much lower, so instead we’re making a huge party that celebrates Austin hip-hop...We can throw a show repping only Austin artists because the quality and variety is there…Austin is a city of really diverse hip-hop. I think of that as a strength even though people say the city doesn’t have a sound…The demographic we’re hitting goes from your jazzy bands, to your conscious MCs, to your party/club MCs and everything in between. The whole idea is that it can all be together because they’re all good at what they’re doing, even if they’re not all doing the same thing.” (Austin Chronicle)
Protextor continued on to remark about the future of the festival, saying,
“We’re absolutely sure that there will be a Weird City next year…Where we’re at now is essentially looking at the model that we had for this year and last year, comparing and doing our pros and cons of the infrastructure of how the fest was run to see what worked and what didn’t. It’s a big brainstorming session about different ways to do the event.” (Austin Chronicle)
The Return of Weird City Spiderhouse lineup lauds local lyricists Magna Carda, OT23, Space Camp Death Squad, Crew54, Chief & the Doomsday Device and many other groups and MCs – including Protextor’s own musical project – p-teK. With fewer names, a (relatively) more intimate venue, and an easily affordable cover price ($5-$7 for 27 artists ends up costing you 18-26 cents per performance if you see everyone).
Grab some tickets, support local music, and see how weird this city gets this October.
– Jack Anderson
[Credit to The Austin Chronicle, Austin360 and Facebook.]