The Internet channels dedicated to progressive rock were bursting at the seams yesterday after the shocking news of the cancellation of one of the year’s most awaited events, the North-East Art Rock Festival, affectionately known as NEARfest. When I first saw the announcement, posted as a link on the Wall of one of my Facebook friends, my first impulse was to check mentally if it was already April 1…
Unfortunately, yesterday was only March 26, and the news was no joke. As could be expected, the general mood in the so-called ‘prog community’ was subdued, and many of the people who had been attending the event for years (not to mention actively contributing to its realization) were positively devastated. For many, NEARfest went beyond a simple music festival: it was an opportunity to meet friends living thousands of miles away, and spend a weekend away from the worries and routine of ‘normal’ life. Now, instead, people are going to lose money they have already paid for airfares, car rentals and the like – not to mention the sadness at seeing their expectations of a wonderful weekend of music and friendship brutally dashed. Considering the average age of the attendees, this is not something that should be discounted.
Obviously, as all too often happens in similar circumstances, speculation was rife, as well as unashamed finger-pointing. People will always be people, and, in their disappointment, the NEARfest ‘orphans’ were looking for something – or, even better, someone – to shoulder the blame. While some blamed the poor state of the economy, others pointed their finger squarely at the close-mindedness, snobbishness and elitism of prog fans, which this year reached unprecedented levels due to a rather controversial line-up. The choice of a so-called ‘jam band’ like Umphrey’s McGee as Sunday headliner drew fierce criticism, and – added to a rather ‘experimental’ line-up lacking (unlike the previous years) any of the big names of the Seventies – contributed to a general lack of enthusiasm for this year’s edition. Some were even berating the organizers for not having disclosed the reality of the situation and asked for help before cancelling the event – something which, after some of the flak they got for their choices, I cannot blame them for not doing.
Did the news take me completely by surprise? To be perfectly honest, it did not. In some ways, I had seen it coming, especially when I compared last year’s patron sales with this year’s. Anyway, though I started putting down my thoughts yesterday afternoon, I decided to let the night bring me counsel (as we would say in Italy), and complete my essay with a clearer mind, without giving in to the temptation to blast everyone in sight. Having got our tickets in the mail two days before, that temptation would have been understandable.
As a latecomer to NEARfest, I had been looking forward to the event, possibly even more so than the previous two editions. In the past year I have been able to meet an increasing number of members of the community, both through concert attendances, my activity as a reviewer, and the ubiquitous Facebook. For me – a relative newcomer to the country, still with a semi-precarious status, and not yet feeling completely at ease in my new surroundings – feeling part of a group of people that shared a passion for a musical genre had provided a sense of belonging that is essential for expatriates. Though last year I had been deeply disappointed by the attitude of the organizers, who never bothered to acknowledge the lengthy review I had written for the website I was collaborating with at the time, I decided to go again this year, and contribute to the festival through the Patron Program (which, for two people, amounts to the not inconsiderable sum of $ 650).
As the regular readers of my blog know quite well, I am not interested in labels, and am by nature very curious of anything new – a prerequisite for anyone who ‘works’ as a more or less official reviewer. I also have rather diverse musical tastes, and will give anything a chance before dismissing it. On the other hand, years of frequentation of the online prog scene have made one thing very clear: for many fans, ‘progressive’ is just a word stripped of its original meaning. This seems to be especially true in my native country of Italy, where people worship Genesis and their ilk to the extent that newer bands are often forced to look for an audience outside the national borders, while tribute bands do a roaring trade. However, Europe as a whole seems to fare somewhat better in this sense, with festivals such as Gouveia Art Rock (which takes place in Portugal, a country that is far from wealthy for Western standards) that keep selling out, not to mention large-scale events such as High Voltage. Moreover, the nature of the continent (including the ease of travelling within the member states of the European Union) makes it easier for artists to tour other European countries if things are not too rosy on their home turf.
Though, as every adult person knows, very little in life is black and white, and things are obviously not as clear-cut as one might wish, I cannot help feeling that a festival that had become one of the year’s bright lights for many people (not to mention an event many bands and artists from all over the world would have sold their souls to play) has been failed, if not outright sabotaged, by the same people who were expected to support it – even if, in many cases, because of very real impediments. Even if this may sound harsh, it is hard not to wonder when one year people flock to see a bunch of glorified tribute bands – financial and other worries notwithstanding – and the following year the festival suddenly loses all appeal for them.
The sad truth, in my view, is that prog fans have become complacent with the astonishing revival of the genre in past few years – and have also got into the typical frame of mind of ‘having your cake and eating it’, or, if you prefer, ‘my way or the highway’. Yes, they want prog to prosper and all that, and spend hours on the Internet dissecting the most obscure albums – but, when it comes to supporting those bands and artists that are flying the flag in the here and now, then all of a sudden they bail out, unless they see one of the ‘big names’ (preferably dating back from the Seventies, though a few from later years would also qualify) on the bill. I wonder how any of those ‘new’ bands (many of whom have been around for ten years or more) are supposed to become ‘headliner material’ if no one gives them a chance to play in front of a decent audience. In a sort of perverse way, it reminds me of the situation in which many young job-seekers find themselves – being unable to apply for jobs due to lack of experience, which no one allows them to gain by hiring them.
It does not help either that many of the hardcore members of the ‘community’ have a much more limited view of prog than the one espoused by the press – as even a cursory look at Classic Rock Presents Prog (a magazine I do not particularly care for, but which has been undeniably successful) should be enough to prove. Additionally, the younger set of prog fans are also more likely to be into progressive metal (even in its more extreme incarnations) or ‘crossover’ acts, both of which are looked upon with suspicion or even disdain by a good deal of the older stalwarts. In spite of the organizers having made it very clear in last year’s festival programme that the 2011 edition was going to be a transitional one, people still refused to accept that the future of progressive rock – if it is to survive – lies beyond the slowly drying out reservoir of the ‘old guard’, and those newer bands that, to various degrees, reproduce the Seventies vibe. When a band like Iona are considered ‘more prog’ (whatever that means) than The Pineapple Thief or The Mars Volta, then you know that the future of the whole genre is in serious trouble.
Obviously, the above remarks do not apply to everyone, and I would never downplay the very serious difficulties that many people are going through in their everyday lives. It would also be crass of me to suggest people have to force themselves to like music that is not to their taste – I, for one, know how excruciating it can be to sit through a CD you cannot get into. However, while not suggesting that people go against the grain of their own tastes – let alone resort to stealing in order to finance their festival-going habit – it is also clear that a change of attitude is needed if we do not want progressive music (rock or otherwise) to die out for good.
Anyway, whatever the truth of the situation, yesterday will be remembered as a very sad day for the whole community of progressive rock fans, at least as regards the USA. Even if the NEARfest organizers decide to regroup and make a comeback next year, it is unlikely that things will ever be the same. Might it have been avoided? Not being privy to the organization’s inner workings, I do not claim to have any easy answers. Clearly there were issues of miscommunication, as no one who was not an insider had any idea that the general sales were going so badly. However, it is also difficult to ignore the bickering that went on for days after every band announcement, and the nasty words that accompanied the disclosure of the Sunday headliner. This is why many of yesterday’s proclamations smack of crocodile tears, or at least sound needlessly defensive. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic, but I cannot help wondering if yesterday’s events will mean a death knell for this amazing ‘prog revival’, or rather a much-needed wake-up call for the whole scene.