Monday, April 8, 2013

What's Going on with Kansas City's Middle of the Map Fest?

 photo MOTM_zpsb5a67a76.jpg

Last weekend marked the third edition of Ink's Middle of the Map Fest, with a lineup that once again is described as being "curated" by local label The Record Machine. Let me first say, that I've attended each year and I think this is a well-intentioned and positive event for the city and midtown/Westport specifically. Each year hundreds of fans throng in and out of the bars, venues, coffee shops and restaurants in what is surely a boon for the economy of Westport and the local bands that are often highlighted. This year we lost the Beaumont Club, which seemed to create some locale problems, but we gained the Uptown Theater which typically serves as a better concert going environment.

Still, I'm left wondering after this year's incarnation what exactly Middle of the Map Fest intends to be. The promoters don't seem to reach out much beyond their core base of fans and local groups that they book every year. It's obvious that in name and spirit, MOTM wants to be a successor to Austin's famous SXSW Festival. People from Kansas City or Austin will probably wince at the comparison, but perhaps for different reasons. As one patron of Buzzard noted on Saturday, "This looks like Kansas City trying to do SXSW and doing a shitty job."

It pains me to criticize anything local that brings in business and gives a platform to deserving local musicians, but somebody has to offer a critical perspective in what is largely an insular and self congratulatory music scene. (We can't expect this from the Star since they own Ink and by and by are therefore directly involved with organizing/funding MOTM. I don't know what to expect from the Pitch, but giving MOTM too much coverage is basically promotion for a competing rag.) 
The majority of core local bands booked this year were present in one or both of the two previous years, and although some of them are my favorite bands, I don't really see this as a productive use of MOTM. The Appleseed Cast are not an up and coming act, and anyone involved in local music has probably been seeing them annually for a decade+ (I've seen them about 30 times). On the other hand, great local acts like Cowboy Indian Bear and Soft Reeds are on the bill every year because they're signed to The Record Machine (absent this year was Capybara, which surprised me a bit). Then you have the rest of the usual suspects, which are often older indie musicians entrenched in the local scene that currently do booking/run venues, or are still kicking around town in one form or another. Hello Roman Numerals, Thee Water Moccassins, etc.

And oh yes, don't forget the Beautiful Bodies. We can't have a local show without the Beautiful Bodies.
 photo asolo_zps251e6c0f.jpg

Every other entry in the fest appears to be a crapshoot after this. Typically, bands that just happen to be on tour show up and breeze through as if they were playing any other show on their current tour. As I watched Grizzly Bear Friday night at the Uptown, that's basically what it felt like. Location wise, the Uptown had little connection to the fest and besides two puny banners hanging from either of the sides of the box seats there was no indication that this was anything but another concert by another touring band.

But don't forget the twelve dollar beers. After paying a mostly reasonable 45 dollars for a three night pass, music fans were expected to pony up twelve dollars for a beer at the Uptown. You might've thought you were at Arrowhead Stadium at this point. (Sadly, not even the Chiefs charge this much for a beer.)

At this point, you might be wondering how exactly the fest is highlighting a broad swath of local talent when a lot of the bands basically play every year. I've wondered the same thing myself, and I've concluded that either: a) the local scene is a lot weaker and more limited than we realize, or b) the organizers simply aren't trying very hard or just don't have the pull yet. Let's not forget, this isn't SXSW. Bands probably aren't dying to play the Middle of the Map Fest in Kansas...City. (I'm sure more than a few visitors echoed that same confusion so many of us on the eastern side of state line have gotten used to hearing.)

I'm bringing some of these issues to light because I love local music, and I love Kansas City but this festival could be a lot better. Why not try and get someone like the Get-Up Kids to play? The recently reformed band is arguably the biggest thing to come out of the area in decades, but they have a national appeal as well. Perhaps the promoters have tried and the scheduling or money simply didn't work out.

What about having another high profile reunion rather than seeing the Casket Lottery play again every year? It was great to be there when they got back together for MOTM in 2011, but am I supposed to feel nostalgic for that each year when I see them open up with "Code Red"? Maybe just maybe if the circumstances were right and the offer was there, we could see Kill Creek or the Anniversary come together for an evening. Is our scene really so limited that we have to trot out the same tired act every year? Are we that challenged in our booking capabilities that our options remain either aging local bands, not ready for prime time players, a few random national acts or bands that are easily booked because the "curators" happen to be releasing their new album?

In this, it's third year, we might begin to expect more from Middle of the Map. But it ends up being a  mediocre representation of local talent that's even starting to wear on an ardent fan like myself.

Kansas City, we're better than that aren't we? Or is an unfocused, largely unoriginal and somewhat disappointing indie rock festival all that we have to offer?

 photo 11990_501282813247360_1663606874_n_zps0604bdc1.jpg


  1. You're now in charge of things: Aside from swapping the Get Up Kids with the Casket Lottery and reaching a little deeper into the well of local talent when "curating" (I get the feeling you're not a fan of them using that term... if so, I'm with you on that) the lineup, what sort of changes would we see with next year's festival? Should there even be a "festival"?

    I'm completely new to the scene and don't know the players involved... just a curious onlooker who appreciates the thought you put into this article.

  2. Thanks for the read/post. I'm stoked to check out your record store when it opens and I've been enjoying your blog.

    Off the top of my head, I think the festival needs to be more inclusive to be relevant. And we need local heavy hitters that bring in fans to make up for the fact that many people outside of the scene do not know our local bands. Right now, the festival isn't fully appealing to those involved in the local scene (by exposing new talent) and it's not attracting many outsiders (by bringing in larger scale acts); so, to me it's failing on two fronts.

    First, I think you need to focus on having more hip-hop. Dutch Newman and Stik Figa were at MOTM, but there should be more acts and more of a venue devoted to hip-hop/rap. Having a Strange Music stage or even a Tech N9ne appearance makes sense to me, assuming that's possible. The lineup is almost solely indie rock, which doesn't really reflect the spirit of the city to me. But it does reflect the organizers, who are white guys obsessed with indie rock (confession, I largely am too), and the problems with cultural and race segregation in this city.

    Next, I think you need to try and incorporate more venues. Certainly Mini-Bar and Black and Gold Tavern (formerly The Newsroom) would've fit nicely into the fest and have lessened the perceived distance between Record Bar and Uptown. Black and Gold Tavern even has their own knock off MOTM each year at the same time called Center of the City Fest which highlights punk rock. It would be wise to bring those guys into the fold as well.

    But most of all, the promoters/organizers need to create more of a "feel" or happening to the event. How they could co that is up for debate, but it starts by making MOTM feel like a singular event that only happens once a year and only in KC. It shouldn't be a lame excuse to knock off SXSW. There's a reason people shit on culture from KC, and when you have runoff culture like this, it makes sense why.

    These are just more ideas off the top of my head, look for my MOTM treatise later. I think there should continue to be a MOTM, provided I don't have to see the same core local artists every time.

  3. There are a couple of really positive ideas in what you're saying... and I think you hit the big one with seeing how to incorporate Strange Music into the fold.

    Granted, in this case, Tech & Ces Cru are touring, so that wouldn't have worked... but the idea is a fantastic one. Why not have a Strange "curated" event? Why wouldn't you want to incorporate one of the biggest independent labels in the entire country (especially one that happens to also be local) is beyond me. Or maybe they tried and they balked at the indie rock-saturation, I don't know.

    I got a kick out of reading Center of the City's Facebook page and how anti-MOTM they are... Steven Ervay, who blogs for the Deli sometimes, reflected a similar idea as yours here in trying to branch outside of indie-rock (how about a punk event or a metal event?), but a big part of me likes seeing COTC do their own thing rather than combining the two. That's where reactionary culture has a chance of pushing the big fest to try harder. Or at least that's the idea.

    I wasn't in town for the event but one of the things that surprised me most was how varied the lineups were. I like the idea of going to a show and seeing an MC then a rock band then a _____, but I don't know how well that works in an environment that's not a big outdoor festival where people can sit, relax, soak up some sun and essentially let the music come to them.

    The Riot Room had a good run with Two4One, Dutch Newman, Info Gates, Brett Gretzky, and Steddy P, but after there was O Giant Man & the Appleseed Cast. That's where you could have capped off with a bigger rap/hip hop name to keep people who've been at the show's interest, I think (a Ces Cru, even). I'd be curious to know if there was a large turnover in the crowd as the genre changed.