Northside Festival 2012: not too big, not too small

Jens Lekman is a headliner at this year's festival. (Flickr via Redheadwalking)
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As the summer music-festival season gets underway, it seems as though not a day goes by without another big announcement about a big star joining a big lineup in a great big spectacular blowout.

“Big” is clearly what a lot of new-jack festivals are going for. But there are only so many big names to go around in any category (and only so many weekends of the year music fans are willing to endure long lines, pricey water, port-a-potties, and the rest for a chance to see their favorite acts). It's hard not to get the sense that all of this daylong (or days-long) activity is fast heading for burnout.

Scott Stedman doesn't happen to think that bigger is better. Stedman, who runs the Northside Media Group—publishers of Williamsburg-based print periodicals The L and Brooklyn Magazine—promotes the 8-day, multimedia Northside Festival, whose music and entrepreneurship elements kick off today. (The art portion of the festival gets started Friday, while Northside Film begins on Monday.) For Northside 2012—whose headliners this weekend include Jens Lekman, Of Montreal, GZA, Kool Keith, and Beach Fossils—room for expansion was always part of the plan.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Don’t go too big,’” said Stedman with a laugh. “It’s very daunting, and a lot of things can derail an event for one year. So [I was advised] to be patient, and let it grow with the community.”

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That growth has been steady and organic. Stedman, a native Bostonian who now splits his time between there and Brooklyn, moved to Williamsburg in 2001, like so many others, “because it was the most exciting place in the world.”

“I’d actually been living in Berlin, and I’d lived in Paris, doing academic stuff,” he said over the phone from his train commute. “Then I moved to New York to be a writer. I was writing for M.I.T.’s Technology Review, of all things. Williamsburg was just the neatest place in the world. I’d never seen anything like it. I started this company to try and capture the spirit of that space.”

The music section of The L, as anyone who’s picked it up is aware, thrives on new developments in Brooklyn rock—it’s their primary beat. It’s not a coincidence that the publishers would move from advocating local bands to a more direct involvement with them. It’s a move that’s happening all over the more established music press as well, with Spin and Rolling Stone (among others) competing to host first-listen streams, downloads, and embeds, not to mention exclusive concerts, listening parties, and premiere events.

But weeklies such as The L have traditionally been the font of longer-running festivals. That’s the case with two avowed models for Northside Festival: South by Southwest, which started through the Austin Chronicle, and Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party, long aligned with The Stranger, whose editorial director is Dan Savage.

“We’re good friends with the guys at The Stranger,” said Stedman. “We learned some lessons from them, in talking to them about their event and the way it worked out. I learned that an alternative weekly publication like ours can be a very neutral party. When you’re bringing in 75 showcase presenters who are all high-personality influencers in their own right, and you’re bringing in 35 different music venues, and you’re having 120 entrepreneurship panelists speaking, you know, you really need kind of a cohesive, fairly neutral party in the middle. That’s what a media company is able to do. It’d be impossible to do something like this if we weren’t [neutral].”

Stedman initially planned Northside as a one-shot deal back in 2008.

“We probably expected it to happen annually on some level,” he said. “We certainly couldn’t have expected it to grow as much as it has over the [past] four years. It’s sort of taken on a life of its own, beyond our initial expectations. Brooklyn itself has become a kind of adjective for what’s next. This festival is trying to showcase and define that adjective. It’s really all about the sort of zeitgeist of innovation and discovery that we feel Brooklyn is the epicenter of, as opposed to just being another big park show, or the kind of thing that could happen in any other market. It could happen in no market but New York.”

Within and without New York, Stedman said, Northside targets a devoted audience that’s nevertheless more casual than the bizzers that flock to similarly laid-out festivals.

“C.M.J. is really a trade event,” he said. “It’s not particularly consumer-friendly. And South by Southwest is certainly not showcasing what’s coming out of Brooklyn. So we felt like there was this huge, wide-open gap. The area of north Brooklyn provided an incredible space because of the density of music venues, and the culture of that area. It’s a huge part of what makes Northside so unique in this market—you can walk from venue to venue.”

He continued: “Initially, we didn’t have a technology component till this year. That was also by design. We didn’t initially see how Brooklyn was central as an innovation space, and we certainly didn’t want to copy South by Southwest [outright]. That’s changed a little bit this year, with our entrepreneur’s conference. But we’re approaching that so differently from how South-by does technology: We tried to emulate the most successful parts of it as a consumer experience.”

Looking at the schedules for each year, there’s almost no repetition between lineups, a rare feat over eight days and dozens of concerts.

“We certainly try to keep it fresh,” he said. “There have been a handful of people who’ve played multiple times, and I think they’ve largely done that because they’ve been very zeitgeist-y, very of the moment, and grown through the festival. Someone playing Glasslands one year, they’re not going to be exciting if they play Glasslands the following year—does that make sense?”

Stedman gives Sharon Van Etten as an example:

“In the first year, [she] played at a ton of the small, small spaces, and in the second year played bigger spaces—I think three times. In the third year [she] opened for Beirut. It’s specific to the artist being in the right place.” Van Etten's on the road elsewhere this summer, but who knows, next year she could be headlining. She is, like this year's lead acts—Jens Lekman, Of Montreal, Ceremony—in the right place: not to big, not to small, just right.