In 2006, Next Big Nashville — a music festival featuring local rock and indie artists — launched with three nights and 33 acts at Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom. Every year since, the festival, which changed its name to SoundLand in 2011, has seen shifts in approach and execution. New venues were incorporated; some venues were eliminated; the number of local acts was vastly increased and then trimmed once more; a rotating cast of national acts, day parties and VIP events came and went. But every year, Next Big Nashville/SoundLand founder Jason Moon Wilkins — a longtime champion of the non-commercial-country elements of Nashville's thriving and diverse music scene — and his festival chugged along. Until, that is, 2012.
"It's pretty self-explanatory — I think in any business — that you don't change it if it's working really, really well, right?" says Wilkins. "There's a reason that we [changed the format]. ... It was more that we looked, and the previous model just didn't work, financially more than anything. Creatively, I think there were some really cool things that happened with it."
Two months ago, SoundLand announced that they would buck their typical four-day format, instead hosting the fest on one day in one venue: Oct. 6, 2012, at the new 11-acre outdoor Lawn at Riverfront space. Word later arrived that in addition to headliners My Morning Jacket, performers would include Divine Fits, J.D. McPherson, Young the Giant, Nikki Lane, The Weeks, Jonny "Corndawg" Fritz and more. Whereas past incarnations of the festival sought a format similar to that of Austin's sprawling South by Southwest, Wilkins hoped the makeover would transform SoundLand into an event more similar to Atlanta's Music Midtown — a two-day outdoor destination festival with top-tier headliners.
But two weeks before the event, a post quietly went live on SoundLand's website stating that "issues out of everyone's control have caused us to put this vision on hold until 2013."
According to Wilkins, "The nugget version of what happened is that it was sort of a perfect storm of a bunch of bad things at once that caused us not to be able to do the outdoor big show this year." He adds, "Those things vary from production to logistical hurtles to all different kinds of stuff."
Moreover, sources close to the festival say, at the time of SoundLand's cancellation, only 1,600 tickets had been sold, despite The Lawn being large enough to accommodate up to 20,000 attendees. Wilkins responded that he "can't really talk about sales at all."
Wilkins says many people, from representatives of the city to venue owners to a "very large band" that wanted to jump in and save the day, did all they could to make SoundLand still work this year. According to our sources, the band in question was a locally residing, Grammy-winning quartet, but logistics made their participation impossible.
Wilkins is less cagey regarding future incarnations of SoundLand. He points to Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest as a model he and his co-organizers have looked at for inspiration. He notes that while Nashville isn't currently as pedestrian-friendly as a city like Austin, the opening of the Music City Center early next year paired with near-downtown venues like Mercy and Cannery, The Rutledge and Third Man Records, could make for a comfortably walkable festival with both music and conference elements.
"What I was hoping to do is kind of take a step back to take a step forward," says Wilkins. "And by 'step back' I mean in number of bands." He explains that he wants to do something that "has a foot in downtown," and enough flexibility to include art and other non-music events.
Wilkins remains positive about the ever-growing relevance of Nashville's non-country-music scene, and grateful to those who have supported Next Big Nashville and SoundLand since its inception. This Friday and Saturday, SoundLand will present shows at Cannery Ballroom and Mercy Lounge — where the festival was born — as well as at The High Watt, the latest rock club in the Cannery complex family. Friday night in Cannery, the promoters behind local dance parties Y2K, Keep on Movin', Whiskey Disco, Recognize and The Boom Bap will present Hustle, "the biggest dance party of the year." Performers Saturday night at Mercy and The High Watt will include J.D. McPherson, Jonny "Corndawg" Fritz, Nikki Lane, Generationals, The Tontons and Devin.
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