Just say, “Austin, Texas” to anyone and the first thing that comes to their mind will be music. Austin is a city for music and musicians that celebrates itself with a number of festivals centered on the subject. But talking to locals brings criticism to light. Some have said that going to big festivals feels like being interred in prison, complete with searches, regimented schedules and generally feeling like cattle in a corral. Travis Sutherland felt this way, and he decided to do something about it.
Utopia, Texas, is a blip of a town that sits at the crossing of Ranch Road 1050 and Ranch Road 187. If you blink, you’ll miss it. Just less than three hours away from the busy streets of Austin, Utopia lies at the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of the Texas Hill Country. With this in mind, Sutherland conceived a festival that he would want to attend. “We are intentionally the ‘anti-big-fest-fest’,” Sutherland says. “It seems like the philosophy of some of these mega-fests is, ‘How many people can we cram in here and what acts are going to sell the most tickets?’”
Utopiafest was born in the summer of 2009 with a handful of Austin musicians and approximately 200 attendees, most of which were friends and family. Sutherland, a veteran of large festivals on every conceivable level, had been considering sharing his family’s estate with the world. “I have to be a good steward, but I also want to open it up to other people because there’s such a limited amount of people that get to see this piece of land, and it’s so rare for anyone to see somewhere that’s completely untouched by man.” With this sentiment in mind, Sutherland’s first foray into the realm of festival throwing was culminated in a single day of music in the pristine hills of Utopia. While it was a success, he dreamed of making it more. “The following year my plan was to make it a little bigger, a little better,” he says.
That next year, Sutherland asked Onion Creek Productions to film the festival. It was a landmark meeting. Aaron and Jamie Brown, the heart and soul of the film production company, were keenly interested in Sutherland’s vision of an intimate music festival. Brown offered to aid Sutherland in future festival endeavors, leading to headlining acts like Art vs. Science (BEFORE they played Bonnaroo), Dawes, and Grupo Fantasma.
Now in its fourth year, Sutherland and Onion Creek Productions have gained a little clout and have managed to book large scale acts like Victor Wooten, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ben Kweller, and Dr. Dog. Booking big acts wasn’t without its problems, however. “Money doesn’t even become an issue. It’s about the exposure,” Aaron Brown says. Most bands want to know who has played a new festival in previous years. Having Dawes on the bill in 2011 seems to have given the start-up festival the leverage it needed to book more national acts than in previous years. But the lure of exposure isn’t the only draw for larger artists to join Utopiafest. After some inquiries, it came as an unconfirmed rumor that Dr. Dog actually passed on playing this year’s Austin City Limits in order to play at Utopiafest.
Why would an up and coming band pass on a chance to play ACL? The answer lies with Utopiafest’s mission to bring eclectic music to people and to have them enjoy it on a personal, intimate level. Sutherland and Onion Creek have capped the number of attendees off at 1,800 and offer free camping combined with activities like disc golf between sets.
“It’s like being with the amount of people at a sold out Stubb’s show in the space of a Zilker Park ACL show,” Aaron Brown says. Another attraction to the festival is the fact that there are only two stages and there is no overlap between bands. No wondering if you’ll be able to see your favorite band, here. It’s also a place where audiences actually get to know each other. “I recently ran into a couple who met at last year’s festival,” Jamie Brown says, “and they’re still together.”
While the obvious draw for most will be the big name acts, the Utopiafest planners also intended the festival to be a forum for local artists to show their worth to a much larger audience. “What we try to do is spotlight on what’s going on in Austin,” Aaron Brown says of local bands, “Austin is just brimming.” He’s right. Also on the bill are The Dalles, White Denim, and homegrown showstopper SORNE, among others.
2012 stands to be Utopiafest’s breakout year with a truly eclectic lineup of local and major artists. If you haven’t bought tickets yet, you should procure them by hook or by crook, soon. As of this writing, less than 400 remain and are selling out quickly. If you’ve ever longed to be “there” before everyone else, Utopiafest is where you want to be.
Find your tickets at http://www.utopiafest.com/tickets/, and be sure to check with Austin Fusion Magazine for a full recap of the festival!
Written by Clayton Hodges (email@example.com)
Photos by Phillip Leach