Concert review: With thin attendance everyone is a VIP at FMMF 2016
Matt & Kim performs at FMMF (Brad Keefe photo)
I'm a huge fan of the live music overload a festival experience offers, as well as an unabashed lover of the city, so let me assure you that you won't find many people who are rooting quite as hard for Columbus music festival success.
I want to watch a day full of music and crowds. And I also want to sleep in my own bed at the end of it.
As such, I have attended all three incarnations of the Fashion Meets Music Festival since its rocky inception in 2014. Despite past sins and missteps, I have been quietly waiting for the fest to turn the corner and become a viable multiday festival on the level of its initial aspirations.
This would not be that year.
Arriving mid-afternoon on Saturday, I expected crowds to be sparse. The kickoff of the Ohio State football season is a behemoth on the Columbus schedule, but arriving well after the game was over I still found the crowd to be shockingly thin. And I mean shockingly.
Estimating crowd size is an art I don't claim to be an expert in, but here's some unscientific perspective. I walked around the footprint of the festival - a sprawling L-shaped layout around McPherson Commons Park that was nearly a half mile between the furthest stages (of which there were four total). I counted the people I saw in attendance (minus those obviously working the festival) one-by-one. My unofficial tally was in the mid-100s.
It was, without a doubt, a bizarre experience. A setting that should have been boisterous and energetic often felt deflated. It was perhaps the first agoraphobic-friendly festival I have attended.
The crowd in attendance for Betty Who (Brad Keefe photo)
One of the special joys of a festival is when the crowd energy feeds on itself, in turn fueling the performers. To their credit, most of the performers put on their game faces. One standout was Aussie singer Betty Who, who brought a needed bounce with a high-energy set of infectious synth-pop. She and her two dancers worked the crowd earnestly, and the genuineness was positively grin-inducing.
Thinking I could sneak in a quick dinner (no lines!) before catching rapper/Kardashian-ex French Montana, I arrived late to find the stage already empty. I'm still not sure if the set ran short or I missed a scheduling change, as was the case with one of the upper-tier acts, Bebe Rexha. Rexha cancelled her scheduled appearance two days prior to the fest due to illness - a fact that was reflected on the updated schedule tweeted out on the day of the fest, but nowhere else on the festival website, which still had Rexha listed on the schedule.
New Politics singer David Boyd alluded to the crowd size, noting the band arrived to the area and confused the Huntington Park crowd gathered for a Clippers game (and Fireworks Night) for the festival. "And then we have not as big a crowd, but a loud one," he said.
Singer BØRNS followed to the delight of a gathered audience that was overwhelming young and female. His pop crooning and heartthrob vibe were met by screaming sing-alongs song after song.
One of the great mysteries going into Saturday evening was DJ Khaled's set. What would the producer - known for amassing a who's who of hip-hop elite for collaborative tracks that Khaled orchestrates but doesn't produce or rap on - do for a live performance? It seemed unlikely that Drake or Future or Rick Ross would be making surprise appearances on a Columbus stage.
Khaled - who is more famous for his living-meme personality than for people knowing exactly what he does - came out with all the hype-man-as-frontman energy you might expect. He shouted his name. He extolled his Major Key wisdom. He spent some time behind the decks. The crowd loved the music selection - basically a collection of the hookiest hip-hop snippets, whether they were Khaled's hits or, because Midwest, House of Pain - as well as his human cartoon personality. It was weird and fun and hard to resist. Plus Khaled's onstage Snapchat guy captured the onstage vibe for an audience that dwarfed the one in attendance: Khaled's immense Snapchat following.
Friday night's closer was the hyperactive pop duo Matt & Kim. "Columbus is kind of a second home to us," Matt Johnson said, stating the obvious for a band that was shockingly playing its first local show in 2016. Though the crowd filled in throughout the evening, there was still plenty of real estate for the taking in front of the soundboard at the main stage. What can you say about Matt & Kim? The group's a sugary breakfast cereal turned into a band, but if you aren't having fun at the show it's because you're actively choosing not to.
The crowd takes in Matt & Kim (Brad Keefe photo)
An abbreviated walkthrough on Sunday afternoon found the grounds again largely deserted. I watched Seattle's fantastic Minus the Bear playing to a main-stage crowd of dozens before the awkwardness of the situation got to be too much for me and I bolted. Wavves singer Nathan Willams would reportedly later remark from the stage, "We got way too drunk before we did this, so it's good there are only 14 of you here." Passion Pit would look to draw the biggest audience of the weekend closing out the fest, but every crowd I spotted looked as though it could fit in Express Live. The indoor venue, not the outdoor one.
Three years in and FMMF seems no closer to figuring out how to draw crowds for this festival. Midday acts play to audiences so paltry it's awkward for everyone. Headliners play to middling crowds that don't evoke that festival feeling.
Then there's the fashion aspect, which continues to never quite "meet" the music. This year's fashion tent was central in the layout, but still never seems to draw across lines for runway shows. There are those attending for the fashion and those attending for the music and not a lot of overlap that I observed.
The FMMF Fashion Tent (Brad Keefe photo)
Speaking of the fashion tent, several local DJs who were scheduled to play there had their sets canceled by festival organizers over a disagreement/miscommunication over what equipment the festival would be providing. It's hard to gauge the level of love for FMMF among local music scenes, but I'd estimate it in the same ballpark as this year's attendance.
Looking in the bright side, there was one upside to this year's attendance. The oft-lauded festival VIP experience was had by most everyone attending, with no-wait beer lines, relatively unused portable restrooms and prime viewing locations for the performances.
FMMF says it'll be back in 2017. Perhaps it'll finally find the right scale and put together a lineup that draws accordingly. If history is any indication, I won't hold my breath.