35Denton: How Did We Get Here?

The music festival 35 Denton kicks off today. It started as a day party at South by Southwest. Nine years later, Denton’s mayor and festival organizers are finding it may be the key to forging a national identity, and economic development, in the city. Dallas freelance writer Audra Schroeder reports.

–  The 35 Denton schedule

–  On Sunday, KXT 91.7 will host a showcase at Sweetwater. The action kicks off with The Treelines at 9:30 p.m., followed by Somebody’s Darling and Doug Burr. The Last Bison caps off the night for you late-nighters at 12:30 a.m.

Inside a renovated Gulf gas station on the corner of Locust and McKinney, right off Denton’s historic square, 35 Denton’s headquarters are eerily quiet. A VW bus is parked out front, announcing the music festival’s dates, March 7-10, and their new slogan, “Best Ever Fest Ever,” in splashes of green, pink and orange paint.

There’s a general meeting room with a couch and table, and a small refrigerator stocked with beers. Dry-Erase boards line one wall, marked with venue names, to-do lists and schematics. Written on one board is the reminder to “Be excellent to each other.” Above the entrance to the office, a sign paraphrasingFriday Night Lights‘ mantra sums up 35 Denton’s approach: “Clear eyes, full beers, can’t lose.”

“What day is today?” asks Kyle LaValley, 35 Denton’s 26-year-old creative director. She’s sitting in the one small office at 35 Denton headquarters, meeting with a few representatives from screenprinters Pan Ector to go over a t-shirt design.

“The 26th,” comes the reply.

LaValley curses. Earlier, she greeted me with a tissue in hand and a weary look on her face. In a week, downtown Denton will look much different.

In its ninth year as a festival entity, and now rebranded as 35 Denton, the four-day music festival has become a destination event for regional music fans, and a way to stimulate Denton’s economy while showcasing homegrown bands. In the past few years, the brand has pivoted in a more youth-oriented direction. And it’s added a new production, the Hot Wet Mess, a day-long welcome-back-to-school show for college students held last September.

LaValley and Natalie Dávila, 35 Denton’s 24-year-old programming director, are largely responsible for the new focus. Many of the 150-plus acts on the bill this year are buzzed about, under-the-radar punk, hip-hop and electronic acts. They’re paired with revered cultural touchstones like Sleep, Roky Erickson and Silver Apples, and a healthy cross-section of Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth bands. Saturday night’s headliner Solange is perhaps the most anticipated act. Her debut EP, True, is one of the year’s more revelatory albums, and her ascent parallels the ubiquity of her older sister, Beyoncé. Thurston Moore’s newly-minted band, Chelsea Light Moving, will make its Denton debut, as will Erykah Badu’s band the Cannabinoids, paired with local darling Sarah Jaffe.

But today, volunteer coordinator Charlie Hunter is just taking care of details – like tracking down missing volunteer forms – and trying not to pull out his hair. Hunter, who started off as a volunteer himself, runs a label, I Love Math Records, goes to school, and works a job in addition to his duties at 35 Denton. “Taking volunteers from a college town, you get a lot of students involved,” he says. “Making four-day schedules for 150 people, all with classes and jobs, is the bane of my existence.”

Yet the Denton music scene has proven fertile ground for volunteers, and Hunter knows what to look for. “People who have run sound, other musicians that can help with technical issues,” he says. “I keep an eye on servers and bartenders, people who can roll with the punches and know the show must go on. People who will bust their ass and not lose their cool.”

In 2005, musician Chris Flemmons had the idea for a Denton-centric SXSW day show, called NX35. It lasted four years at various Austin clubs before moving to Denton in 2009, where it became a walkable weekend festival. It was relabeled NX35 Conferette and featured mostly local bands playing in bars around the square. Its scope expanded in 2010, when the Flaming Lips were brought in to headline an outdoor stage. (It was shortened to 35 Conferette in 2011, before changing to 35 Denton in 2012.) Musician Cody Robinson joined as operations director in 2008, in preparation for the first Denton-based festival.

“By the time we started planning 2010 with the outdoor [Flaming Lips] show, we got a crash course in meetings with several departments of the City of Denton, and it took a while for them to warm up to us and the idea of carrying that type of show forward and staging it downtown,” Robinson says. “The guys we brought on board to help – Wally Campbell, Matt Mars and Ken Leathers – really developed a great relationship with the city, and I think that’s why the city’s attitude changed toward what Chris [Flemmons] was envisioning with the stages downtown. Honestly, if anybody is responsible for the festival living long enough to get to its current form, it’s those three guys.”

LaValley took over Flemmons’ role as creative director in late 2011, so he could focus on his band, the Baptist Generals, and the recording of their new album. She speaks often of the festival’s “cohesion, branding and voice,” and the need to have people understand it visually, across media. In early 2012, they announced various festival acts via a series of short videos, cast with young Dentonites shotgunning beers and making out in the back of cars. Their website includes a “Roll Your Own” feature, for making personalized mobile and print schedules. Their Labor Day weekend Hot Wet Mess, which featured Big Freedia and the Black Lips, was marketed to college kids before they went back to school, so they could be “indoctrinated into the brand and then grow with 35 Denton,” she says.

They’ve had some growing pains, and some social media missteps. LaValley has taken on more responsibility this year, and admits her job has shifted from creative to “overarching business oriented,” which includes bringing in sponsorships, speaking on behalf of the festival, and working on the logistics of new venue the Hive, a remodeled 12,000-square-foot warehouse space near Rubber Gloves. Its purpose is to help with the fest’s swelling attendance numbers – which rose to over 10,000 last year – but after the fest, it could help draw in bigger touring acts to Denton.

The festival has a synergistic role: Thousands of people are coming from outside DFW this weekend, which gives local bands heightened exposure, and those who don’t frequent Denton a chance to see what the current scene is like. This is coming at an interesting time in North Texas music. Fest acts Pinkish Black, True Widow, Blackstone Rangers, Power Trip, Diamond Age, Somebody’s Darling, and Vulgar Fashion all received some national attention recently, either via blogs, label deals or tours. And then there are those reshaping the landscape, like hip-hop duo A.Dd+, Denton punks Deep Throat and the Atomic Tanlines, and Dallas DJ collective Track Meet, who have consistently brought obscure electronic acts to town over the last year, and will be breaking in the Hive.

“Denton has a confidence problem, and that has to change,” LaValley says. “People go on tour and it’s like, ‘I’m from Dallas, I’m from DFW.’ No, dude, you’re from Denton. And I think this is a good vehicle for people to think of it as a music city, not a college town.”

Ask a Denton musician if their city has a confidence problem, and you might get a different answer. But can a music festival be a city’s identity?

It’s certainly brought civic factors to light, like the potential for revitalizing the city’s downtown area, drawing in more investors and business owners who have a vision for what it could be: a nexus for entertainment, commerce and community. Michael Seman, a former 35 Denton volunteer and member of Shiny Around the Edges, who’s planning the daytime programming this year, has seen it happen firsthand.

“It’s certainly helped the bottom line, as far as generated fiscal revenue,” he says. “Thousands of people who don’t live in the city come here. [The fest] is also a great unofficial workforce developing tool, in that volunteers take what they’ve learned into their lives elsewhere, and that helps with entry-level jobs outside college.” (An economic study done after the 2010 festival put its local impact at $2 million.)

Indeed, there’s been a greater emphasis on the young creative class, and getting them to stay in Denton after graduation and create a culture. But Seman says the festival is just one part of Denton’s identity. He employs a “holistic approach” when talking about the future of downtown.

“The festival’s drawn a lot of attention to the square, and opened people’s eyes to the walkability of it,” he says. “It’s always been in the city’s broader plan that there would be an entertainment district, but developers are starting to see this is walkable, and it’s raised consciousness for a brand that’s downtown and creative.”

Denton’s Mayor, Mark Burroughs, concurs. “The city’s been investing big bucks into the Hickory Street Corridor to expand walkways and sidewalks, add more parking, and develop outdoor seating in an effort to encourage people to hang out there,” he says. “Even UNT opened a downtown office for arts, because they’re recognizing so many people are coming to downtown and staying.

“We all learned lessons that first year [of the fest],” he adds. “That we needed to accomodate, we needed advertising, and we needed to self-promote, as well as promote the fest. The buy-in has been from all levels: Government, service organizations, businesses. It’s energizing the music community regionally to make Denton a destination. We’ve always had the music here; we have a music school that rivals Julliard. What we haven’t always had is music being exported, and people coming in from outside the region to listen to music here.”

Where will Mayor Burroughs, who used to play in bands himself, be during the festival?

“I try to bounce around,” he laughs. “As a mayor, you don’t want people to think you’re playing favorites.”