Organizing Festival NRMAL with Todd P

Sjimon Gompers

Meet the man himself, Todd P. (photos VIA)

Maybe you have tried to organize a local festival. Maybe you have rounded up a few of your local buddies in bands to play slots at a local dive with payment delivered in high fives, PBRs. Todd Patrick knows a thing about putting on shows and festivals, namely the upcoming Festival NRMAL in Monterrey, Mexico now in it's fourth year. Get an exclusive behind the scenes look as Todd P outlines and reflects on how you plan for a mass, South of the border gathering from trial and error to accomplishment.

What are some of the ins and outs of organizing music festivals in Mexico for the past 4 years?

Thanks to MtyMx and Festival Nrmal, I've had the privilege of leading a parallel career for the last 4 years. I go to sunny Mexico to work every winter right when it's freezing up here. It's an amazing job, I get to present music I love to a totally different scene. A lot of times I choose excellent artists who aren't that well-known yet anywhere, but who deserve attention for their work. It's a special pedestal because not many USA bands go to Mexico and those that do are usually just the most commercial ones. What Festival Nrmal books influences (and I hope improves) what bands and sounds from here get noticed in the Spanish-speaking world. I feel very lucky, and proud of what we've been able to present.

The realities of organizing a festival down there aren't as different from here as folks from the States would probably imagine. Mexico isn't a third world country, people aren't living in primitive conditions and walking around barefoot, though you'd be surprised at how many educated people in the USA have that stereotype in their mind. Just like here, the government and bureaucracy in Mexico are organized forces, and there are rules and regulations to follow when you put on large events. There is a functional system. There are definitely annoyances, inefficiencies, and corruption for sure too; but the same is also true of everywhere I've ever tried to put on shows in the States. Despite popular belief, I haven't experienced any more shakedowns or bribery situations working in Mexico versus the States.

One big difference is that Mexico isn't as lawsuit obsessed as the USA. That makes the average property owner there more likely to say “Yes, you can have thousands of people gather on my property and get drunk.” Government officials also tend to be less obstructive and knee-jerk oppositional to allowing big events to happen than their counterparts in the States might be. You can usually get a meeting with the people who really make the decisions, for instance.

If there's any difference to keep in mind as a gabacho (ie: ignorant gringo) putting on shows in Mexico, it's that the scene there is not the same scene as here, even if a lot of trends and bands and fashions are popular in both places. Our ridiculous border policies, plus the language barrier, make for a serious cultural wall. There's a distinct local version of the “indie” (excuse the word) scene in Mexico, and the images conjured by words like “punk”, “diy”, “hipster”, “indie”, “electronic”, “metal”, “garage”, “noise”, etc., are different down there versus here. Income distribution is (even) worse there than here, and there isn't the same kind of ethnic diversity as in the USA. That makes the music scenes and the music industry different in profound ways as well.

What did you and everyone learn after the notorious MtyMx Fest of 2010?

Ok, this is a long answer. MtyMx was a crazy experiment that didn't work in lot of ways, but accomplished more than the sum of its parts in some ways too. It's interesting that among a vocal cognoscenti in Mexico, MtyMx is not remembered as a failure, but as a kind of legendary, watershed happening. In the USA people usually call it “infamous” or “notorious,” haha.

Here's what happened at MtyMx:

In 2010 I decided to move the festival that I'd thrown during South by Southwest for five years (“Free Patio Parties in Austin”), down the road 6 hours south, to Monterrey, Mexico. I teamed up with a local duo who ran a Monterrey DIY space called Garage. The setting was an old drive-in movie theater on the side of a mountain looking out over the city. Monterrey is a really beautiful city, with mountains in every direction.

Aside from the change of scenery, half the bill was made up of bands from Latin America, many of whom couldn't get visas to cross the border into the USA to play SxSW. It was a 3-day festival with over 75 bands booked to perform. We rented school buses and hired drivers to shuttle fans and bands from Austin to Monterrey, and we rented out an entire hotel and bought 300 tents for people to sleep in.

From the beginning, a lot went wrong. It was cold and drizzly the first day. There were huge freshman mistakes made setting up the bus schedule. I personally missed the entire first day of the festival negotiating to get a shipment of tents through Mexican customs. The wifi didn't work, the sound system wasn't done being built when the doors opened on the 1st day, the security team didn't want to stay the night, the security fences were only waist-high, there was no on-site lighting when it got dark, the people who ran the site tried to turn off the electricity overnight, and so on and so on.

Much worse than all that was the timing. The day before the festival began, a gunfight broke-out between the Mexican army and drug cartel figures on the campus of an elite university in Monterrey. Tragically, two students were killed in the crossfire by the army, and the drug cartel figures escaped. The army then commandeered city buses and parked them perpendicular across the city's freeways to create artificial traffic jams, hoping to entrap the cartel figures. The Mexican army refused to take responsibility for commandeering buses and allowed the media to portray the story as violent cartel “hijacking”.

This spectacular (but untrue) story quickly spread and was picked up by international media. Almost immediately bands started calling me to cancel because they were worried that our buses would be “hijacked” too. In the echo chamber of SxSW, people in Austin started to think that our buses were the ones that had been “hijacked.”

Then, the professional bus drivers we hired started not showing up for their shifts. They were afraid to go near the border. Scheduled bus departures had to be canceled. Some bands that wanted to come couldn't make it at all because their bus never came, or were delayed and missed their scheduled slot (though, to be sure, there were a lot of bands that backed-out out of fear alone too—ironically, particularly the few we'd actually bought air tickets for—like No Age and Tanlines).

Everything seemed to be turning to shit… but after a disastrous and very bleak first day things started to get pulled together. We were able to hire new bus drivers and get the bus system back to a functional state (albeit colorful, ad hoc, and very delayed). More bands and fans started to trickle in, and we reworked the schedule; the weather improved.

In the end, about two-thirds of the advertised bands played and the vibe improved dramatically. The crowds stayed tiny for the size of the venue and not a lot of locals came out–partly out of fear of the army/cartel spectacle, and partly because the festival was seemingly barely promoted in Monterrey. Somehow, transcendently, the intimacy of the moment brought the small Mexican crowd and the small USA crowd together, and a sort of summer camp camaraderie developed. People from different places watched bands they weren't familiar with and great performances ensued. The nightly after parties at Garage turned into terrific parties. People starting hooking up, haha. It was a hectic, messy, three-day shit show but there were many undeniably beautiful moments. By the end it was triumphant, and a lot of fun.

So, there are ways MtyMx succeeded. We had a lot of noble goals, haha. We wanted to bring interesting, progressive bands from all over the world together in one place and present them on equal staging with the most interesting, progressive bands coming out of Mexico and Latin America—something that rarely happens (mainstream “indie” tends to trend very “alt-rock” down there). We wanted to present a festival that featured quality music from start to finish, while taking place in a gorgeous setting. We wanted to display a major undertaking, a music festival, willed into existence by organizers working hard in plain sight without a lot of money, eschewing glamour and “professionalism” and instead pulling it off in whatever way worked; all the while the audience was able to witness the inner workings, warts and all (although we had envisioned fewer warts–ha).

We hoped to draw attention, within the States, to the fact that the USA's restrictive border policies keep a lot of these bands, and fans, from crossing the border and sharing stages / seeing shows in nearby cities in the USA. The border is an absurd situation when you experience it first-hand. You met a peer down there who can't legally travel where you can travel. There were romances that developed in which one person couldn't visit the other afterwards. It's surreal. The restrictions experienced by musicians and fans makes for a small metaphor for the restrictions placed, arbitrarily, by our government against Latin American people in general. We helped shine a light on that.

My biggest regret about MtyMx is that we may have reinforced people's uneasiness about the border. We hoped to convince savvy, “tastemaker” people from the USA that crossing the land border from the USA to Mexico is normal and trouble free–and on that we utterly failed. Our transportation breakdown was magnified by the terrible cartel trouble spiking at the same moment as the festival. The result might have actually hardened opinions about crossing into Mexico. That bothers me. I don't ever want to run a bus company ever again, haha.

Thoughts on the growing influence of Latin American music in contemporary pop music?

The world is becoming a smaller place as the internet erases a lot of that formidable border separation. Downloading and instant digital sharing of new music means people everywhere have access to music that used to be regionalized by distribution. Now people I know in Mexico know about new music before I do, by bands that I know personally in Brooklyn, or wherever. I'm really proud to be on the frontlines of acknowledging that this is happening. There should be a lot more artistic conversations transcending the border / language divide.

My curatorial angle in booking the English language bands at Festival Nrmal this year was about new directions going on in underground music. That's about energy and about ideas; and about drawing a distinction between what's tired and what's next level. I think most people with good taste agree now that “commercial indie rock” has become a creative dead end. There's nothing essential about one hit wonder buzz bands. The time is right for a schism, and that calls for a deliberate drawing of lines.

Festival Nrmal includes bands who have mainstream indie appeal, but we have specifically chosen just a few “indie famous” “festival circuit” acts, and of those just artists who represent great creativity alongside commercial success, and/or Latin roots, or both. Despite the inclusion of some big name “indie” bands, the festival curation in general eschews all but a handful of essential buzz bands in favor of more creative, edgy territory. This is deliberate.

We sought to sample high quality emerging acts from a lot of different trends and scenes, many of whom represent mutations of similar influences but sound totally different, and who usually play on very different types of bills. The commonality is quality, across the board, whether it's EDM, post-noise-post-garage, trap, hip hop, sludge, or legends like Daniel Higgs and Pierced Arrows.

It's exciting to get to present cutting-edge Spanish-language bands–many of whom come from completely disparate dialogues–alongside this huge variety of challenging bands from outside of Latin America.

How can underground/independent music from both America's mend the bad tourist press of Monterrey, Mexico?

Monterrey is a city that has been crippled by its international image, due to violence both real and exaggerated–but it's also a sophisticated, extremely modern city of 3 million people. Festival Nrmal is an effort to bring entertainment and cutting edge art and music to a region that has been starved of it. We want to open up Monterrey to international attention about something other than the cartel situation.

I've encountered people who are convinced Monterrey is a warzone. In real life, Monterrey is an absolutely gorgeous desert city ringed by mountains, with more people out and about and more lively street culture than you'd see in most cities in America. It's unequivocally not a city under siege, but it's practically impossible for me to convince anyone that Mexico is “safe”. There are centuries of stereotypes that insist on a very ugly story about Mexico, and the news coverage reinforces what people already believe.

Festival Nrmal is an opportunity to tell a different story because real-life Monterrey and Mexico don't match the narrative on the news. It's a humble impact, but every fan and band that comes down will return knowing what is really going on, and that's priceless, but the story will get told to wider audience via photographs. I'm looking forward to the inevitable Festival Nrmal photo spreads appearing in magazines and websites and on Facebook afterwards. Every pic will show attractive fashionable concertgoers casually hanging out in public and traveling throughout their city, enjoying interesting bands, all surrounded by striking visual art installations and in the shadow of modern architecture. This is incontrovertible evidence of a Mexico that is not backwards and living in fear. I don't expect to reverse 300 years of bad stereotypes—but every photo chips away at it a little. I want to encourage that cognitive dissonance.

Festival NRMAL+MtyMX 2013 begins tomorrow March 7-10 in Monterrey, Mexico with the line-up listed on the flyer below plust mixtape with tickets available now through Ticketfly.

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