So another Musikfest has come to a close, and as always there were high notes and low notes.
The music this year was quite possibly the best ever. The first weekend had two extremely relevant and mainstream bands: MGMT and Young the Giant. The rest of the headliners rounded out in the usual way with 90’s stars and classic rockers. Even though the indie-ish bands were a welcome respite to the washed up and the mediocre, they unfortunately did not sell well. In speaking with WFMZ, Artsquest president Jeff Parks noted, “We tried Indie rock the first weekend. That was not really popular.” Our main gripe with having these acts at Musikfest is two-fold. First is the price. Although we had comped tickets, the general public may not have been so enthused to pay $24 for the crappy seats and $34 for the good ones for Young the Giant. That may not seem like much for a show, but consider the fact that for $20 you could’ve seen them alongside Alt chart toppers Grouplove for only $20 at the Electric Factory in March.
And speaking of the Electric Factory, it’s general admission. Shows like MGMT and Young the Giant just simply aren’t concerts where it’s fun to sit in a seat far away from the stage. Shows like this beg for a general admission crowd where people can pack in to the stage and sing along rather than sit back and enjoy. It was obvious with the throng of people that jammed against the barrier during the MGMT show, only after chants of “security sucks” prompted the band’s frontman to muse that everyone should be allowed to come up close if they wanted, to which security acquiesced. Based on that quote from Parks and the low attendance figures, we’re unfortunately unlikely to see bands like this again at Musikfest, at least while he’s at the helm. And that’s a damn shame.
The free music, however, was awesome. We saw some fantastic new acts (Gangstagrass, Fighting Jamesons, Delta Rae, Graveyard Lovers, Caravan of Thieves, Homemade Jamz) and some old favorites (Red Elvises, March Fourth Marching Band) were brought back to our delight.
The only real gripe with the free shows was the two stages inside of theatres in the Artsquest center. They were so small that popular acts like Caravan of Thieves and Lucy Stone were at capacity (100 and 200 people, respectively). You had to wait for people to come out, and then for an usher to check if there was actually seats available to go into the show. It was kind of a nuisance, especially if you wanted to see and act and were late coming from a different one.
Lyrikplatz used to be on the north side next to the Hotel Bethlehem where large crowds gathered on the grassy hill to watch small indie acts play. As people were passing by on the walkway many stopped to check out the bands. Now those bands are relegated to a theatre away from most of the activity, causing two problems. One is that smaller bands with lower profiles don’t have the exposure that they did on the north side and the other is that more popular acts are too big for the space and pack it until no one else can get in.
Speaking of the north side, it’s still a bit of a nuisance having the festival split in two. So many good acts on the south side were missed this year due to other great bands playing on the north side and no time inbetween to take a bus to the other side of town. The other thing that was irksome was the fact that the shuttle fee raised from $2 last year to $3 this year.
The festival in general, besides the now two year old split, was well organized and well run otherwise. A few bands started later than advertised, but such is the nature of live music festivals. Main Street this year was more crowded than ever. The first evening of the festival Main Street was absolutely insane, with the s-curve leading up to the Hotel Bethlehem even jammed with teenagers. Many local media outlets reported on the “Project M” concept that was tried.
For the uninitiated, Project M was devised by Liberty High students and coordinated with the Bethlehem Department of Parks, Recreaction, and Public Property. It aimed to get the hordes of teens off of Main Street and give them something to do. Staged at the Bethlehem Public Library, formerly the site of Americaplatz, BMX and skateboarding demos and a DJ were present to entertain. The thing that none of the local media reported? Barely anyone showed up.
There were many problems with Project M this year. It is a valiant cause, no doubt. Main Street has been a problem for years, with kids mingling, screaming, fighting, drinking, and in a serious turn of events last year, stabbing. The Project M event was only held on Saturdays from 5pm to 10pm. When Musikfest is happening school is out and kids are there every night, especially on Fridays. There’s simply no reason not to have this more than just on Saturdays. The other problem is that time frame. Musikfest gets shut down at 11pm, so where are all of those kids that were theoretically going to go to Project M instead of Main Street going to go after 10? The other downside was the marketing of the event. Not only was it touted as a kind of “get the kids out of our hair” kind of deal, but it wasn’t publicized to kids enough.
Putting it in the newspaper is only going to get an older crowd to know about it. It was put on Facebook…and got only 50 likes. It’s a shame because the event is a good idea, and a needed one. With how things looked on that first Friday night, an incident was just waiting to happen. In the future this event needs to have a lot more hands in it than just a few teenagers and the Parks department. The Downtown Bethlehem Association and Musikfest need to be in on it and an actual marketing team with real ideas on how to market to kids should be consulted. There’s a very real chance of alleviating the “teen problem” and moving it to a centralized, more controllable area and everyone should be working towards it. The teens themselves say they have nothing to do on Main Street and everyone knows that thousands of teenagers standing around with nothing to do are pretty damn likely to get in some sort of trouble.
Switching gears, the food this year was great as always. There’s not much else to say since it was mostly the same vendors as other years, with the exception of the one new vendor we noticed: a noodle stand. The beer though, is a different story. Mugs again were $7 for refills of crappy swill beer. The Brew Works upped their prices to the same this year, which is still better than paying $7 for a Miller Lite refill. And look, we get it. Mugs are 24oz and that equates to $3.50 for a beer, which really isn’t that bad of a price, especially if you’re getting the Brew Works beer.
But the problem is that there’s beer elsewhere for cheaper, and in some places, better beer. Many restaurants were doing fills of the crappy beers for $5 and The Wooden Match, savior of our Musikfest drinking this year, was filling mugs with craft beer (ranging from Bell’s Two Hearted to Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale) for only $5. Hell, they were even filling mugs of Brew Works beer, which they were charging $7 for, for only $5. With that kind of operation going on there absolutely no reason to drink anywhere else other than if you’re far away.
And this brings up one of our closing points, in that the festival about broke even this year and had about the same attendance as last year’s rain-soaked festival. WFMZ interviewed vendors who noted that not as many people were spending money on tickets and Musikfest blamed part of the problem on these bars. Parks said, “They’re undercutting out prices, basically. That’s the bottom line.” And they should be. If you price out a keg of say Miller Lite, a half barrel (standard US keg) will run you about $86. Our Google-fu tells us that wholesale costs are around $75 and with Banko Beverage being a sponsor of the festival, their prices are most likely even less.
Doing the math (1984 ounces, or nearly 83 mugs-worth of beer, times $7 per mug, minus the $75 keg price), one can see that they’re making near or over $500 on each keg of beer. That’s a lot of cash. And don’t get us wrong, we know that it costs a lot of money to put on the festival. Millions. Between bands, tents, security, paying the city, and paying employees, etc, the costs add up. All we’re asking for is a little better quality for our $7 or drop the price of a Yuengling down to $5. Without being competitive people are almost surely going to fill up elsewhere and they’ll be losing out on a lot of money per mug for everyone that chooses to do so.
As we seemingly always say, it will be interesting to see what happens looking forward. A festival of this size cannot keep sustaining itself year after year by breaking even and having stagnant attendance numbers. Musikfest needs to edge out the competition somehow in regards to beer vendors and make their product, and their biggest money maker, more enticing. In the past they’ve added mixed and frozen drinks. Now it’s time to go further.
Music wise they couldn’t have done much better than this year with a well rounded schedule. Moving forward they’re going to have to abandon the indie acts, much to our dismay, or make them more enticing by cutting prices and/or making them more fun to be at (i.e. general admission). Whatever the case may be for next year, we remain ardent Musikfest junkies and will surely be there, mug and shish kabob in-hand, next year. And until the announcements start rolling in next year, we bid 2012’s fest farewell.