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Why the Homegrown Festival is a Test of Local Talent

A music showcase in Main Street Garden has the right attitude.
photography courtesy of Homegrown Festival

If you apply the thinking of Homegrown Festival founder Joshua Florence to any other industry besides popular music, it hardly makes sense. The way Florence tells it, the 3-year-old music festival dedicated to local bands has its roots in nights Florence spent watching local groups play to a less-than-packed downtown bar he owns, City Tavern.

“I would see all these insanely talented bands play to 30, 40, 50 people, and it drove me crazy,” Florence says. “The masses didn’t know what was going on.”

Florence’s solution? Launch a music festival, which sounds to me like trying to promote your product by merely producing more of it. “We’re not selling enough computers, sir.” “Well, we obviously haven’t made enough of them!”

As counterintuitive as the business plan sounds, rock ‘n’ roll has always played by its own rules. There’s the famous story from the early 1970s about the manager of a young British recording artist named David Bowie. The manager boosted his singer’s career by breaking the bank, funding the things that come with success: limos, clothes, girls. Soon enough, the accoutrements were paying for themselves.

In a way, that’s the kind of vision Florence had for these Dallas bands. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t known; it was that they weren’t in the right setting. Then the setting suddenly appeared—right down the street from Florence’s City Tavern.

“To be perfectly honest, once I got my eyeballs on Main Street Garden, I just thought this is the perfect place for a music festival,” Florence says. “So the park itself is kind of a catalyst to the Homegrown Fest.”

It isn’t safe to trust a music festival that has only two years under its belt. But for a fledgling, Homegrown Fest is growing strong. Its inaugural year brought out 1,000 people; that number tripled the following year. Last year, the Dallas Observer (which was a sponsor of the festival) named it Best Local Music Festival. And even D Magazine’s music critic, Christopher Mosley, who is typically skeptical of homer tendencies in the local music scene, was pleasantly surprised by a Homegrown Fest that “seemed to be in the right place and had the right attitude.”

Place and attitude are what Joshua Florence and the organizers of the music festival have banked on from the beginning. Main Street Garden’s dramatic setting—a city block of green surrounded by towering buildings, the historic Mercantile Bank Building and the Statler Hilton among them—offers the kind of venue that can’t easily be matched in the state. Plus it offers a new kind of visual branding to Dallas music, associating the acts less with the dives and tea rooms of Deep Ellum and more with the glamorous skyline and density of which Dallas cultural patrons and urban pioneers are increasingly fond.

But more than its location, Homegrown’s attitude will likely determine the festival’s future. We’re so much adrift in the “buy local” ethos these days that it is easy to miss what a revolutionary concept it is when applied to local music. Typically music venues and festivals promote local bands by pairing them on bills with big-draw acts from out of town. Audiences come for the name and discover the local music. But Florence says the entire live music landscape has changed so much in recent years that he believes in order to increase support for local artists it is important to invest in promoting the value of local to local audiences. That means reaching out beyond the Dallas “bubble,” Florence says, and more aggressively trying to get people to buy into the idea of local music as a way to spend a night on the town. And a festival can serve as a gateway drug.

“When I was 18 or 26, one of my joys was to go see a band I had never seen before,” Florence says. “I don’t know if that is a dying pastime. From my point of view, it is really more about expanding these bands to the Dallas-Fort Worth community so that people in McKinney and North Richland Hills get the hype about what is going on in Dallas.”

But there is a flip side to this “locals only” approach. Does Dallas have enough quality acts to support an annual festival? That’s what many music watchers were wondering after last year’s event, which featured a bill packed with the bands du jour of the local scene: Seryn, The O’s, Burning Hotels, Ishi, and others. Even last year’s headliner, Neon Indian, is a popular former Denton group that has since moved east. Raising the question: how far would Homegrown stretch the definition of local?

This year offers an answer. Homegrown has expanded to feature bands from throughout Texas. So have they run out of North Texas talent? Yes and no, says Florence. They always planned to expand, and this year a number of the local acts they wanted to book had conflicts. “You’re dealing with a much larger pool of talent, to really grow it into what we wanted,” Florence says. That expansion offers Homegrown booking opportunities, but it also threatens to dilute the festival’s identity, turning it into something closer to, yet not as distinguished as, other Texas festivals.

As much as Homegrown is a test of local talent, it has set itself up to become a test of local pride. Sustained success will have everything to do with how often those two qualities—talent and pride—collaborate onstage.

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