Last weekend, people would not stop asking me if I was having a good time. In rock clubs, on city street corners and even at the table at which my wife and I finally sat down to have dinner around 1:30 a.m. on a Friday night: Everywhere I went, there the question (or some variation thereof) was, often presented with a latent yearning that presupposed I wasn’t really enjoying myself. “Are you having fun? “Are you enjoying yourself? “This is different. Do you like it?” “So, how does it feel?”
The reason that my wife, Tina, and I didn’t sit for a sandwich until close to closing time is that we had been busy bouncing between the sets of bands and DJs, producers and rappers at the Hopscotch Music Festival, a five-year-old Raleigh institution that brings a few hundred acts and several thousand listeners to the city’s burgeoning downtown. In only the last few hours, I’d seen one musical hero (the violinist and minimalist legend Tony Conrad), an explosive set of harsh noise and elliptical hip-hop (courtesy of Los Angeles trio Clipping.) and the garage-rock approximation of a fistfight (from Ohio’s blustering and rightly named Obnox).
I was, in fact, having a very good time.
But people kept asking not because I looked sour but because this was the first Hopscotch I’d ever attended as a mere listener, the first time I’d ever been able to hear actual sets by the loud legions emptying into the city at the start of every September. During the first four festivals, I’d worked as the co-director, the second operational rung on a very high ladder that, for one long weekend, managed more than a dozen venues, a few hundred volunteers, a few hundred musicians and a temporary staff of several dozen employees. In previous years, I’d developed a reputation as the madman of Hopscotch week—jaw perpetually clinched, a long task list roiling behind my fixed beady eyes, sweat saturating my T-shirt no matter how often I changed, sleeping little and sailing from one venue to another on a gray single-speed bicycle. One graphic artist even designed a poster for the festival in the image of Excitebike, except that the skinny fellow leaning back on a dirt bike was now a big, bearded fellow on a single speed. Yes, that was me.
At the first festival, I managed to eat only a bagel in four days. On the first day of the third festival, a car slammed into me and my bike in the rain; on the third day, I was standing on a soaked stage to hold a tarp over an expensive keyboard as winds and an electrical storm ripped through the city. And at the fourth festival, I’d again left my handlebars, resulting in two massive cuts across my face for the duration of the event.
So, this year, had I been able to enjoy civilian life?
The reason that the answer was always so emphatically yes had little to do with my health. It stems, I think, from the casual, noncommittal origins of Hopscotch itself. I’d never planned on helping to build a music festival. I’d gone to lots of them, sure, from small, club-based affairs to massive, three-stage congregations in some generally empty field. No matter the circumstance, they seemed to require a lot of organization and management, two concepts that had never been particular assets of mine.
Instead, in 2009, I’d been working full-time as a music critic and as the music editor for four years, or essentially since the day I graduated from college. The job allowed me not only to devour and analyze music as a profession but mostly to set my own schedule, too, guided by relatively flexible guidelines. I had a small team to oversee, but so long as I finished my work and did it well, there was no looming finality to any of it—no crowd to manage, no bands to placate, no soundchecks to organize. I wrote and edited my pieces, filed them, and kept going.
But in 2009, the Independent Weekly, the newspaper that jumpstarted my writing career when I was in college, hired an ardent and ambitious new advertising salesman, Greg Lowenhagen. A recent resident of both Chicago and Austin, he’d only been on the job for a few months when he noticed a void: Though the Triangle had a much-lauded music community, it didn’t have a trademark music event, something that would draw onlookers and listeners from around the world. So why didn’t we start it?
He convinced the management of the Independent to invest in the idea, or to at least let us explore the possibility. By the end of 2009, we’d started to book bands, to build a website and marketing materials and to leak word that September 2010 would bring an unprecedented event to downtown Raleigh.
And it happened just like that. Hopscotch helped transform Raleigh, lifting the city’s reputation as a trove of young, energetic people doing interesting work. The event was touted by city leaders as evidence of the revitalization of downtown, praised by the police for its consistent lack of incidents, touted and lifted high in The New York Times and Rolling Stone alike. The International Bluegrass Music Association borrowed our model when they moved their annual conference to the city in 2013, and Raleigh eventually used Hopscotch as one of the bookends for a month of “Music, Arts, Innovation and Noise” they dubbed the “M.A.I.N. Event.” (I will forever maintain that the strange “noise” reference was a concession to Hopscotch’s extreme experimental programming, my favorite, during my tenure.)
But Hopscotch was always my part-time job or my side project, no matter how many hours I worked on it. I maintained my job as music editor at the Independent, and I kept freelancing for websites and magazines across the country. All those occupations fed into one another, I believed, forcing me to stay restless with my tastes and to defend ruthlessly every musical choice I made. The work was intense, but I loved the binary, reinforcement-driven nature of it all. In 2012, though, Greg and I learned that Steve Schewel, the man who had founded the Independent and avidly backed Hopscotch as an extension and enforcement of the brand, would sell the newspaper he had launched three decades earlier. He told us that he could sell the festival with the paper, but he preferred that, since we started it, we buy it from him, make it our business and make it our life.
For Greg, saying yes seemed predetermined. The idea and the very name of Hopscotch had been his, and over three years, he’d transitioned from an advertising executive into a festival director. We soon had meetings with lawyers and investors, and it all got very serious very quickly. Before long, I decided that, in fact, I didn’t want to own a music festival. I didn’t think I could serve in that capacity and as a music critic in good faith at the same time. I told Greg I’d work for him and for the festival we’d built together, but it would continue to be on a part-time basis. He went, in essence, from my co-worker to my boss. Three days before Hopscotch 2013, I told him that this festival would be my last. He needed someone with undivided attention, I reckoned, and I knew that I couldn’t provide it.
Attending Hopscotch 2014, or going for the first time as a civilian, I recognized anew something I long ago learned from the weekly cycle of an alternative newspaper or the daily and hourly churn of a music website: Put everything you can into a project, frontload it with your personality and ideas and emotions, and then don’t be afraid to let it survive (or perish) in the world without you. Move on, find a new mission, and repeat until your body of work feels substantive to you alone. You are not tethered to what you create. It’s not a child that you need to raise until it’s old enough to go to college, not a system that requires your constant input and maintenance, not an anchor that prevents your self-sovereign motion. If the work is good, I believe, it will outlive you or, at the very least, your period of most passionate interest in it.
That, I know in retrospect, is exactly what happened with Hopscotch. For the first three years, it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, a massive on-site, in-process learning experience that required me to take the skills and expertise I already possessed and pile on top of it—quickly, enthusiastically, tirelessly.
And I did.
Before Hopscotch, I’d booked exactly one show, and it was a debacle. By the end of my tenure at Hopscotch, I’d booked several hundred bands, all between a price range of $100 and $100,000. I’d never known very much about music gear, either, but by the end of the fourth Hopscotch, I’d learned some amplifier models and years by sight. I’d read about the capabilities of keyboards I never knew existed, and how much it costs to have them shipped from distant cities. (Thanks for that particularly torturous lesson, John Cale.) And I’d managed to assemble an army of amplifiers required by my favorite band on the planet, Sunn O))), to play a show, in Raleigh’s largest theater.
The morning after that set, as my wife and I sat in a local restaurant eating a large post-festival recovery brunch, she had an idea: For three years, I’d worked to bring so many bands to one town for so many people to see, but only the night before, I’d missed my favorite band playing in the city in which I was born for what would most likely be the only time. She suggested that we buy plane tickets and fly to Atlanta that night to see the final show of their tour. It was a delirious 16-hour trip, but it was one of the most memorable and impactful moments of my life. Standing in The Masquerade, being overwhelmed by amplification as fog rolled through the room, I remember realizing that this is why I’d gotten involved in Hopscotch—to put some power behind music I loved. But what good was that if I didn’t actually get to hear it? It was like playing an arcade game, but I wanted to create a new design. Something silent changed, and I knew at that moment that I had perhaps only on more year of missing my favorite acts and being hit by cars.
So on that Friday night of Hopscotch 2014, as I watched Tony Conrad saw at his violin inside a 19th-century church, I felt wonderful about something I’d helped craft and then let go, perhaps as good as I had ever felt about it. I’d tried to book Conrad for every Hopscotch, and in my absence and in my system, they’d finally done it.
The air was cool. The sound was loud. The tones were radiant. I was having an amazing time, thank you very much.
About the author
For the past 4 years, Grayson Haver Currin has served as the co-director of Hopscotch Music Festival, a three day music festival that pops up in Downtown Raleigh at the beginning of September. Having served as the music editor at the Indy Week since 2005 and writing for online music journal, Pitchfork, since 2006, Grayson has amassed a vast knowledge for the music industry, both locally and nationally.
Currin will add rich insight to the lasting effect a festival can have on the culture, economy and the overall energy of a city.