Last week, I picked up a copy of IndyWeek as I was waiting to meet a friend for lunch.  There I came across a piece:

Headliner Status: Two music festivals, Moogfest and Art of Cool, asked the city and county of Durham for money.  The very different responses they got may say a lot about Durham’s future.

This grabbed my attention.  After all, one of the areas of local government policy about which I’m most concerned is how cities and counties spend the money they take from taxpayers.  And so I started to read.

The picture is somewhat complicated, but here’s my attempt at a summary.  Art of Cool is a local festival, started by a local woman.  It’s described on its own website as “a progressive jazz and alternative soul music festival.”  This is its third year, and the city is expecting the festival to draw something like 4500 attendees.  It’s never yet managed to break even, but the organizer has pumped a lot of her own money into it trying to get the festival to really take off.  She’s also asked the city to help fill the gap.

And then there’s Moogfest, an electronic music and technology festival.  It has a longer history, but one that, frankly, doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful – a few years in Manhattan as a one day concert with poor attendance, which prompted a move to Asheville where it continued to lose money even after completely revamping the format.  And now Durham and another change in format.  The city expects attendance at Moogfest to hit around 10,500.

I’ll be honest.  Before I read the Indy piece and started reading up on these festivals, I had no idea what Moogfest was.  After spending some time on their website, which I’ll admit looks pretty cool, I still don’t really know what it is.  I do know they’re going to explore “Technoshamanism”:

In regards to where he pulled his innovative ideas from, Bob Moog said, “Everything has some consciousness, and we tap into that. It’s about energy at its most basic level.” But how do we tune into that noosphere and bring next wave ideas to the fore? Who are the seers today, and how are they integrating technology into new “shamanic” practices in art and science? How do we understand rituals of trance in the context of electronic music? How can ancient traditions and cutting-edge brain research inform our pursuit of ecstasy?

And “Afrofuturism”:

Do androids dream of analog synths? Combining elements of science fiction, astral jazz, historical fiction, psychedelic hip hop, fantasy, and magic realism with non-Occidental cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of the other, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past. From the vibrant, frenetic canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat to the extraterrestrial mythos of Sun Ra and Janelle Monae, say this three times fast and blast off to a planet of paranormal pop and cosmic R&B: the future is galactic, the future is galactic, the future is galactic.

But I don’t really understand what either of those things are.  I do think I pretty much understand what “progressive jazz and alternative soul music” is, so I may have some bias here.  Art of Cool definitely seems more my speed.

But regardless, I’m generally pro-music festival.  Clearly I’m not alone, as evidenced by the close to 15,000 people who are expected to attend these two events.  And neither festival is cheap.  A festival pass for Moogfest is $250, or $500 if you want to upgrade to the VIP pass.  The VIP pass for Art of Cool is $285, with other more limited options for particular days and venues starting at $50.  And that’s before we factor in lodging and food and transportation.  It’s going to be an expensive weekend for these festival goers.

There is a lot of demand for this stuff.  I may have no idea what Moogfest really is, but obviously a lot of people do and are willing to pay some significant money for it.  Well done Moogfest organizers.  Same to Art of Cool, actually.  4500 people paying those prices for an event tells me that the organizer must have put together a pretty good line up.  I’m impressed.

But here’s the controversy.  Moogfest got more taxpayers’ money than Art of Cool.  Understandably, the Art of Cool folks don’t think that seems fair.  There are all sorts of debates about an indigenous Durham event as opposed to one that’s moved in from out of town, about the demographics of the audiences, and about how these projects are evaluated.  I get all that.

And yet I think the controversy is inevitable.  When local governments start meddling in these sorts of affairs, there will be questions about why one group gets more than another, about fairness, about preferential treatment.  Ultimately, city counselors and officials have to make a set of judgment calls about what’s best for the community and what’s worth supporting.  And, frankly, city governments aren’t very good at making those sorts of judgment calls when it comes to something as subjective as music and the festivals that celebrate it.

You know who’s really good at evaluating the quality and value of music festivals?  Music lovers.  Thousands of people are voting with their credit cards as they buy tickets to these events.  Corporate sponsors are choosing to put their names on the events and support them with money they could have instead taken home as bonuses or reinvested in their businesses.  People do those things because they believe in the product and they enjoy the experience.  And I’m all for it.

So rather than asking city counsels to make impossible decisions about who merits those dollars, governments should leave as many dollars as possible in the pockets of those who are best placed to decide – individuals and businesses.  Lower tax rates so there’s more money out there to buy tickets and sponsorships, and get out of the business of choosing winners and losers through the allocation of funds for cultural festivals.