Jessie Frye performs Saturday at the Dallas Music District festival in Trinity Groves. Photo by Chris Green.

Nobody Went to the Dallas Music District Festival

If a festival is good and nobody goes, is it still a good festival?

In the third or fourth grade, I went to a classmate’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. The classmate (let’s call him Doug McDonald) was new in school, and fairly unpopular. I got the sense that this shindig was meant to be Doug’s big debut. Doug, or at least Mr. and Mrs. Doug, pulled out all the stops for the occasion: pizza, balloons, animatronic rats, invites to everybody in class. He was making a case for acceptance and approval. Doug’s logic — throw an awesome party, become popular, profit — was sound.

I didn’t know Doug very well, but I had my mom take me to the party, partly out of a sense of guilty obligation, and partly because I sympathized with Doug’s plight. It’s not like I was a shining beacon of chillness and popularity myself. I also really like pizza and video games.

I was cautiously optimistic (it’s hard to screw up the joys of pizza and video games) until the moment I arrived at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Nobody showed up. All the dozens of invites Doug had passed out at school, all the big talk about setting high scores on arcade games, all the promises of pizza and live entertainment, had been for naught. It was me, Doug, and two other equally uncool kids sitting around a table with too much pizza, and too many tokens in our pockets.

Doug tried not to let it bother him, and the party went on. The entertainers — these people are professionals — put on their game faces, strapped on their giant rat heads, and did their best to pick up the mood at Doug McDonald’s Bummer Birthday Bash. But it was hard to shake the feeling of despair that settled in as the evening wore on, and it became clear that this birthday festival could only be generously described as a birthday get-together.

Where was everybody else? Maybe they decided against attending when Doug McDonald’s birthday party got moved to a different Chuck E. Cheese’s at the last minute — the more scenic, bigger venue about a mile down the road had recently flooded. Maybe they were planning on going to the big party at that same restaurant and swinging by Doug’s shindig afterwards, but balked when the larger event was cancelled. Maybe they weren’t impressed with the entertainment. Mr. Cheese and the other performers are great and reliable, but we can see those acts play cheaper shows any time, they may have thought. Maybe they just didn’t know Doug, or didn’t like Doug, and had no reason to trust that Doug would throw a good party.

It was a shame, because Doug threw a pretty decent party. We ate pizza. We played video games. We had a good time, all things considered. Doug turned out to be a pretty cool dude, and I hope the four of us look back fondly at that party. But mostly, I look back, and I feel bad for Doug.

I feel the same way about the inaugural Dallas Music District festival, which made its debut this weekend at 410 Bedford St., a private spot (i.e. a largely empty field) in Trinity Groves that the fest relocated to after Mother Nature acted up and flooded the intended grounds. The same act of God led the city to cancel the Trinity River Wind Festival, a big event — organizers said they expected up to 10,000 people — that was going to run concurrently with the first day of DMD, and ideally lead some folks into the new fest.

That didn’t happen. When I first swung by the festival at about 5 pm Saturday, I could count on three hands (I borrowed a friend’s digits) the number of people there who weren’t in a band or selling hot dogs. Attendance probably topped out at 50 people for the night’s headlining performance from Jonathan Tyler, who sounded fantastic. Jessie Frye, who played a solid set earlier in the day, was also unfazed by the low attendance and, to her credit, performed like she was in a sold-out stadium. These people are professionals.

The vendors looked bored and fatigued. When I paid DMD a return visit early Sunday evening, all the booths and vendors had vacated the premises except for one lonely hot dog truck. The crowd wasn’t any bigger. I didn’t stay long.

Throwing a music festival is a mammoth undertaking, albeit one that is undertaken a lot. The folks over at DMD meant well, and put together a pretty fun little festival under rough, weather-complicated circumstances. But when it seems like there’s a new festival sprouting up every week, it can be hard to stand out or even get people to show up. From what I saw, DMD failed on both of those counts.

That doesn’t mean it was fundamentally a bad festival. The local-heavy lineup was solid, although it was far from spectacular. The cost — $25 for a day, $50 for the weekend — was maybe a little high, but not outrageously so. The location was almost great, and it really is a shame DMD had to move at the last minute. The dozens of people who did show up to the festival caught some good shows, and seemed to be having a nice time.

I have no idea whether ArcAttack, some kind of Tesla coil-electro-music-demonstration group, set the world record for “big arc bolts created by Tesla coils” during a Sunday night performance at the fest. People don’t go to music festivals for science demonstrations, regardless of how cool giant lightning bolts look.

I don’t know if DMD will be back next year. It’s hard to get it right the first time, and there’s something to be said for perseverance. If I remember correctly, my old pal Doug went on to throw a couple more birthday bashes after that first disastrous party. But nobody went to those either.

If a festival is good and nobody goes, is it still a good festival?

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