Music festivals popular in Denver amid COVID, competition

Music festivals popular in Denver amid COVID, competition

From the moment he heard about it, Denver rapper Schama Noel knew he had to jump on the lineup for The Underground Music Showcase.

“Everyone said it’s the biggest festival to play,” the 27-year-old MC and songwriter said this week at Honey Hill Cafe in Park Hill. “I’m still new to performing, but festivals are one of the best ways to get in front of a wide audience.”

Noel moved to Denver in 2019 from Orlando, Fla., to jump-start his music career. Despite earning millions of streams and tens of thousands of followers online with his “RapLike” songs (which emulate famous rappers), he has yet to command large crowds on stage.

This weekend, he’ll be one of more than 100 acts — most of them local — on the sold-out Underground Music Showcase (UMS), which returns Aug. 27-29 to South Broadway. He’s also playing the Westword Music Showcase, Sept. 17-18, in the River North Art District. Like The UMS, it features dozens of local acts and national headliners.

But as local-music festivals return, so does the competition to stand out. While events such as Five Points Jazz were put on hold earlier this year, promoters are rushing to take advantage of late-summer weather and the diminishing potential that shows will continue uninterrupted this fall due to the delta variant, having seen multiple national tours cancel in recent days.

The UMS will require will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter, organizers said.

In addition to The UMS and Westword fests, there’s Denver Day of Rock, Down in Denver, RKR MTN Ripper II, Sunnyside Music Festival, Sundown Colorado and Titwrench — all in the next few weeks. Courageously, niche festivals such as Down in Denver (Denver scene veterans) and Sundown (a sober-curious EDM dance party) are using this otherwise shaky time to debut their events.

“We came up with the idea for (Down in Denver) within 48 hours of The UMS lineup being announced,” said Kitty Vincent, a musician who co-founded the new festival with local music vets Michael Trundle (Lipgloss dance nights) and Marie Litton (Ghost Buffalo). “We were noticing on social media that some Denver bands were shocked they weren’t on The UMS, having put their time into the scene.”

“But we didn’t want to do a festival that was just the anti-UMS,” Trundle added.

Down in Denver, on two stages at the Larimer Lounge, Sept. 4-6, will feature 50 Colorado acts that reflect the founders’ tastes, but that also “fill the gaps” of other fests, Trundle said. It takes its name from a Jack Kerouac quote and bills itself as a “truly local” music event.

Long-running festivals, such as The UMS, are easy targets for disgruntled musicians who feel slighted by their exclusion.

“We get flack for it not being as local-feeling as it used to be,” said Keanan Stoner, creative director at Two Parts, which owns The UMS. “But we’re trying to expand the approachability of the local music scene, and not just invite people who are already engrained in it. … It’s really important to have national acts and big, outdoor stages because that draws fans in to discover the local acts.”

The tension between Colorado and national acts is an unavoidable side effect of a strong music scene, bookers say. Some of Denver’s biggest acts — including Nathaniel Rateliff and Tennis — came up playing The UMS and its unofficial day parties.

“They were always a fun place to see all our friends in the music scene,” said Velveteers singer and guitarist Demi Demitro, whose band opened for Guns ‘N’ Roses at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Aug. 16. “We’re not playing any of them this year, but you could always count on seeing everyone you knew.”

Over the past 18 months, many musicians have quit or moved away because they can’t support themselves, said Sarah Slater and Katie Rothery of Denver’s Titwrench Collective. Partly due to that, and partly to the daunting logistics, their all-ages, DIY, queer-friendly event will finish its 13-year run at City Park Pavilion this year.

“It just felt like a good time to end it, with so much change and flux happening,” Slater said of the Oct. 3 festival.

“We’ve had a lot of folks who got their start being weird at Titwrench,” Rothery said. “You really need these incubator festivals to keep independent artists going in your cities.”

As a nonprofit, Titwrench uses most of its revenue to pay performers and keeps only a little to break even, Slater said, even as she wishes she could pay them more. Artists who have struggled during the pandemic can’t be expected to play for cheap, said Denver rapper A Meazy, who’s playing the Westword fest on Sept. 18.

“I was going to do (The UMS) this year but they weren’t trying to pay my prices,” he said from a swivel chair at Westminster’s Onyx barbershop, which sits below his recording studio. “But I appreciated the opportunity, and we really need these (festivals) to push the culture.”

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A Meazy is hoping to see larger events sprout up that can support a wide variety of local acts, with help from national headliners, similar to the Rolling Loud series. He’s spent years grinding out mixtapes and videos, performing nationally, and networking — including at Onyx as part of the Barbershop Uncut YouTube channel.

Someone will always feel left out of any music fest that showcases the local scene, he said. But artists also have to stand up for themselves.

“These (festivals) can’t please everybody,” he said. “But there are more opportunities for artists here than when I first started rapping. People are still surprised when they hear we have a hip-hop scene, but these festivals can really help promote it, if they want to.”

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