For five years, the Next Big Nashville music festival grew exponentially, incorporating more and more venues and more and more local and national bands. It sprawled from Lower Broad to East Nashville to Germantown and The Gulch. Exciting though it was, NBN's vastly inclusive, scattershot lineup proved to be somewhat self-defeating. Likeminded bands played in conflicting slots. Some venues were packed to capacity, while others languished emptily.
Now in its sixth year, the Nashville-based music festival newly christened SoundLand (née Next Big Nashville) has undergone an extensive overhaul. In years past, the fest sprawled to incorporate dozens of local venues — from rock and hip-hop clubs to honky-tonks and theaters — and hundreds of local bands. This year, festival honcho Jason Moon Wilkins has reduced the number of participating local venues to a much more manageable 11, eliminated the local-artist submission process and renewed his focus on pulling in national acts.
So the obvious question: Why the change, and why now?
"When you say 'Nashville' — regardless of what I think, and regardless of what we're trying to do, and regardless of who's even booked — sponsors, consumers, whoever, would still think 'country,' " says Wilkins. He's an astute businessman with sharp taste and a keen awareness of the music industry. He has artist-management experience, but he mostly stays out of that end of the business these days. Except, that is, to represent local DIY indie-punk songwriter Daniel Pujol, whose project PUJOL will release an EP via indie gatekeepers Saddle Creek Records in October.
"[Running a festival called Next Big Nashville] was tough, you know, because obviously part of it was always to try and improve that image to the point that it means country plus all these things," says Wilkins. "At some point, you have to realize there's only so much a guy with no budget can do against millions and millions of dollars that brand [Nashville] that way every year."
Wilkins explains that Next Big Nashville remains the name of the LLC behind SoundLand, and that he hopes to plan other events throughout the year under the NBN banner. Events, he says, like the ones Next Big Nashville co-sponsored at last year's South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.
While South by Southwest is the quintessential template for city-based music festivals, Wilkins says that SXSW isn't exactly what he's going for. He instead sees Seattle's successful Bumbershoot music and arts festival (now 40 years old) as the ideal — "more of a city festival that is multi-genre and reflects what the city is into and what the city creates," he explains. Wilkins also references the defunct Nashville Summer Lights festival, which attracted rock, pop, country, jazz and children's performers in the '80s and '90s.
But if SoundLand is to be as lasting as Wilkins hopes — like, say, the 40-year-old Bumbershoot — the festival and its architects' aspirations need to evolve right along with the city itself. Wilkins says that one of the most common complaints he received in previous years was that the event wasn't centralized enough. Bands with overlapping fan bases were occasionally found playing opposite one another at separate venues — on opposite sides of town.
Wilkins partially attributes the difficulty in booking a centralized music event to what he calls Nashville's "facilities issue." He hopes to incorporate the forthcoming convention center into the conference side of the fest in the future, but for this year, a major part of making SoundLand work was paring back the participating venues and eliminating the problematic sprawl. "It was difficult not to use Exit/In and The End," says Wilkins. "It was difficult not to work with people who have been so cool with us, like The Rutledge and Hard Rock Cafe and The 5 Spot. Tough, emotional, personal decisions."
The venues that remain are mostly in a tighter cluster: 12th & Porter, the nearby Mai and the outdoor 12th Avenue Block Party Stage; The Station Inn a few blocks away in The Gulch; Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom on Cannery Row and their neighbors Third Man Records and The Basement. The less central War Memorial Auditorium and Neuhoff Factory will host a show each, and venues including The Belcourt and The Gibson Guitar Showroom will host "field trips" — the educational component of the fest and this year's alternative to single-venue conferences.
As far as the local-artist submission process goes, Wilkins claims it was something he was never a fan of in the first place. Describing the process as "more dishonest than honest," he explains that he would rather trust the tastes and insights of his colleagues — promoters, venue owners, bookers and critics — than continue to utilize a process that requires so much time and resources and inevitably disappoints countless applicants anyhow.
So alongside successful non-local pop, hip-hop, rock and folk artists like Yelawolf, Big K.R.I.T., M. Ward, Foster the People and Ghostland Observatory, Wilkins & Co. booked the most exemplary artists Music City's respective scenes have to offer. Hard-touring, on-the-rise artists with new releases and critical acclaim, like JEFF the Brotherhood, Those Darlins, Tristen, Caitlin Rose, Chancellor Warhol, Keegan DeWitt, PUJOL and Madi Diaz — not to mention former and sometime locals like Justin Townes Earle, Jonny Corndawg and Jessica Lea Mayfield.
It's clear that Wilkins' primary goal is to give Nashville a non-country music festival that will continue to grow with and benefit the city. And hearing him apply the lessons he learned from Next Big Nashville's five-year run, you can't deny he's got the gall and the gumption to roll with the punches and tailor what needs to be tailored.
But maybe you just don't like the name "SoundLand." If that's your qualm, I'd like to call your attention to three completely absurd-sounding words that most of us have become disturbingly accustomed to saying: "Lollapalooza," "Bumbershoot" and "Bonnaroo." SoundLand — a moniker that Wilkins says was at least partially inspired by the memory of our dearly departed Opryland — doesn't sound so bad now, does it? In three years, you won't even notice.
"[The name SoundLand] does kinda sound like the name of a tape and CD store in a mall in, like, 1995," Wilkins concedes. "Fair enough."
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