Editor's note: For the first feature in Flagpole's series of year-end music coverage, we asked writers to reflect on a topic they felt best represented the state of Athens music in 2014. We will continue next week with a collection of Athenians' favorite musical moments of the year and conclude on Jan. 7 with our Top 10 of 2014 local albums list.
1. Facebook Feuding
By Marshall Yarbrough
Nothing has robbed me of more hours of productive computer time this year than the "feud" between DIP and Nate Mitchell. The spat began on Facebook earlier this year and has since begun to spill out into real life.
It has spawned YouTube videos from both parties, as well as joke songs and public shaming; it has been by turns hilarious and off-putting, goofy and mean-spirited. Above all, it has been a fascinating spectacle playing out at the intersection of social-media posturing and small-town rivalry.
To give a full report of the many salvos exchanged over the course of the last eight months would require Old Testament levels of print space, so I’ll have to make do with a brief summary:
• In late March, local musician Mitchell posted a snarky remark on the Facebook event page for a "Wrestlemania"-themed party at which local band DIP was slated to perform.
• DIP’s Parks Miller responded with a jokey video where he appeared in wrestler persona and called Mitchell out.
• Mitchell then replied with his own jokey video, accepting the challenge and elaborating on his distaste for the band’s music.
• A confrontation ensued at the party itself.
• Since then, Mitchell has made more anti-DIP videos…
• And DIP has responded in kind, with anti-Mitchell Facebook posts and a diss song, sampling tracks from Mitchell’s band, Cars Can Be Blue.
The chief narrative that emerged:
• Nate Mitchell really doesn’t like DIP’s music, and is willing to take on the role of the villain in order to air his views online.
• DIP, in turn, is happy to incorporate the feud into its performances and just generally let Mitchell’s antagonism be grist for the DIP positivity mill.
Two key factors are at play here: the small ecosystem of the Athens music scene and the nature of discourse on social media.
Consider this scenario: I’m on a date at a bar. The subject of Arcade Fire comes up, and I go on a rant calling Win Butler a "crypto-Reaganite Bruce Springsteen wannabe." It’s likely the only person bothered will be my date. Even if I proceed to make a video about it and post it online, chances are Butler won’t notice or care, because he and I are not closely connected enough to make my views worth noting. I would be an anonymous hater and nothing more.
Above all, it has been a fascinating spectacle playing out at the intersection of social media posturing and small-town rivalry.
In contrast, DIP had never met Nate Mitchell before seeing his post, but they felt compelled to respond, just as both parties still feel compelled to continue this feud. Even though they may not know each other on a personal level, they live in a community small enough that any criticism is bound to become personal.
And whatever degree of enmity actually exists, it takes on a new dimension when it appears online. Contrary to what Zuckerberg and company want us to believe about how social media is supposed to connect people who share common interests (or views, or politics), what ends up happening is that we're forced to embody those interests.
What gets lost in this process, even when it occurs in the context of a small-town music scene, are the nebulous factors that play a greater role in connection. In other words, what I say in the bar affects how my date thinks of me, but it’s not the only thing that does so.
Last month, after posting his latest video, “Cooking with Nate,” Mitchell defended himself from a commenter who labeled it “mean-spirited.” After replying that “turnabout is fair play” and linking to DIP's track “Nate Mitchell Gets Dipped,” Mitchell added, “The feud is real.”
But is it? This year on my newsfeed, there were women posting about workplace harassment, who were then themselves harassed by commenters. There were my uncle’s pro-Obama posts and my cousin’s anti-Obama posts. There were disrespectful posts about Ferguson, and posts about how to deal with people posting about Ferguson disrespectfully.
And, finally, there was Nate Mitchell, Athens, GA musician, record-store clerk and DJ, becoming Hate Mitchell, foil to Athens, GA band DIP.
Is it real? Does it really matter? In the end, it was just something I saw on Facebook.
Photo Credit: Paige French
By Rachel Bailey
On a chilly November afternoon, in an open-air barn in the fields of Arnoldsville, Grassland String Band was sound-checking. Studded around the barn, a mélange of 20- and 30-somethings in uniforms of cowboy boots, flannel and wide-brimmed hats kept warm, perching on hay bales around small fires. Here and there, a dog or a guitarist wandered by, perhaps grabbing a Terrapin while waiting for the festivities to start. Wildwood Revival was about to get underway.
A mini music festival held on a farm just outside Athens, Wildwood Revival captured the current zeitgeist, with its supper clubs and artist markets. All of it was organized, staffed and hosted by one family and a small group of volunteers and employees interested in, as head organizer Libby Rose puts it, a “cultural revival,” defined by an ethos that embraces vinyl, vintage and literal barn-stomping.
Of the festival's genesis, says Rose: “We were having our friends out to the farm for potlucks and sitting around by the fire really late at night a lot, eating really good food that was made with love, playing music and asking how to make it bigger and accessible to everyone.”
Being there, among the big belt buckles and laughter and teepees (yes, you could rent and sleep in a teepee), I was struck by a feeling: "This is so Athens." And yet, it kinda wasn’t. GSB and T. Hardy Morris aside, none of the entertainment at November’s Wildwood was locally based (something Rose says she plans to change with the next event).
Still, Athens has always had a strong connection to Nashville, and Wildwood strengthened that cultural exchange by bringing in acts such as Langhorne Slim, Joshua Black Wilkins and Margo Price—not to mention a number of festival-goers from out of town.
Wildwood is defined by its aesthetics, a festival for the Instagram era, with its inclusion of upscale vintage boutiques and deliberately styled photo-ops.
And what actually makes Wildwood a Very Athens Experience are the values it represents; namely, keepin’ it green, making your own fun and celebrating the creative people in our community. At the November event, food was served on plates made from fallen leaves. Beer was served out of reusable mason jars. Filtered water was provided to attendees free of charge.
Wildwood is both bourgeois and defined largely by its aesthetics, a festival for the Instagram era, with its inclusion of upscale vintage boutiques and deliberately styled photo-ops. And with so many excellent artists just down the road, organizers would be remiss if they didn’t make good on their promise to include more local bands next year.
But neither of those truths should discourage Athens from claiming it as its own. At the end of the night, as the lights went down on the barn’s stage, dozens of folks crowded around a campfire to enjoy more drinks, more music and, above all, each other’s company.
At the literal end of the day, the festival accomplished its ultimate goal, says Rose. “We wanted good, healthy food and good music, and to invite the public into it to create this culture around what we all value in our lives.”
3. Heavy Lifting
By Gordon Lamb
Heavy metal has always been a weird cousin in the Athens music scene. To be sure, every couple of years a band rises to the level where it simply can't be ignored (see Lazer/Wulf). But, let's be honest: Unless there's something clearly categorizable about a group (doom, black, Southern, sludge, etc.), or the musicians are tied into the scene already, when it comes to metal, Athens often just doesn't wanna know.
Three years ago, promoter and musician Henry Mitchell started putting together local and regional metal bands under the banner of his New Metal Order outfit, often stylized as “nMo.” Says Mitchell, “The idea behind nMo is to build a scene with a fanbase that will support the metal bands who want to play in Athens, and to provide the opportunity for newer bands to hit the stage in this great music town.”
Two factors contributed to nMo's creation. First, Mitchell caught the aforementioned Lazer/Wulf during an AthFest performance at the Morton Theatre some years back and was surprised by the limp reception it received. Second, his own band, 10 Fingers Strong, found it difficult scoring gigs as an unknown group without an inside track.
Finding that other heavy bands had the same problem, he took the reins. After securing a five-band bill, he approached the Caledonia Lounge, secured a date for his first nMo event and has been at it ever since.
Talent helps, but I think the people who work the hardest should be the ones in the spotlight.
The lion's share of nMo work falls on Mitchell, but he is often assisted by his brother Richard (who also plays in 10 Fingers Strong) and musicians he helps promote. His method of grouping emerging bands from a marginal local genre under a single promotional banner finally coalesced into drawing substantial crowds in 2014.
“Every genre and promoter has challenges in this town, mostly because there are at least five to 10 shows on any given night," Mitchell says. "That makes it tough for anybody."
New Metal Order's booking criteria are fairly open-ended, but Mitchell admits to admiring effort and hard work over anything else. "I generally try to find bands I think are motivated, the guys who put forth effort, from flyers to two-hour practice sessions everyday," he says. "[I look for] motivation, period. Talent helps, but I think the people who work the hardest should be the ones in the spotlight."
Photo Credit: Jesse Winchester
4. Freeks Marching
By Andy Barton
This town has a storied history of close collaboration. Whether it’s the prolific output of Elephant 6 or the multitude of other musicians that may find themselves in a handful of bands at any given time, Athens is especially conducive to artistic partnership.
One collective in particular, Marching Banana Records, has been building a name for itself, and 2014 may have been its breakout year. The fledgling cooperative functions as a combination of digital label and promotional entity, but when it comes down to it, the group is really just a bunch of friends making music together.
“I’ve just always benefited from having a close-knit group of people to safely bounce ideas off of,” says Drew Kirby, who spearheaded Marching Banana and sister organization Freeklife, a house party series featuring performances from Marching Banana bands and others that slowly evolved into a curated mini-festival at several downtown venues.
When it comes down to it, the group is really just a bunch of friends making music together.
Kirby’s home, not far from Milledge Avenue, where the majority of the university’s frat population dwells, (Greek Life/Freeklife: Get it?) has been Banana and Freeklife HQ since the start. It has functioned as living quarters, practice space, merch factory and, most recently, recording studio.
January’s Freekfest 2 at New Earth, where attendance neared 500, Kirby claims, showed his two entities' influence and potential. “It was just amazing to see our friends play in front of that many people,” says Kirby of the fest, which featured a mix of local and regional talent, including Brothers, Places to Hide and Nurture.
From there, Freeklife took to Twilight, a Georgia Theatre rooftop series and a post-AthFest house show before finishing the year off where it all began: the Freeklife house, with a final party and music by Meth Wax and Padre, among others.
While Freeklife enjoyed much success in 2014, Marching Banana shared an equal amount of small victories: Futo, Meth Wax and New Wives all released well-received albums.
So, how do they top 2014? “We have a pretty solid lineup of releases for 2015,” said Kirby. “There's a Padre EP being recorded right now [and] a New Wives full-length, along with a bunch of new stuff I won't really go into.”
Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
5. Festivals Expanding
By Gabe Vodicka
While show attendance seemed at least to plateau, if not outright decline, in 2014, Athens hosted several sizable multi-day festivals—mainstays AthFest and Athens Americana, as well as the younger Slingshot Festival and Athens Intensified—each of which drew well enough to sustain the event for at least another year, say organizers.
In addition, numerous mini-fests popped up from month to month—label showcases like the Cloud Recordings Festival and DIY spectacles like SlopFest, which operated on a smaller scale than the big four but were no less successful in their missions. 2014 also saw brand new offerings, like the aforementioned Wildwood Revival, as well as fresh installments of long-running niche happenings like the North Georgia Folk Festival and Athens Human Rights Festival.
The expanding list of local fests may reflect a wider trend; nationwide, the business of live music is booming, according to recent reports in Billboard. But in a town where it can be tough to convince 50 people to pay five bucks for a three-band bill, is it possible to sustain so many music festivals?
In a town where it can be tough to convince 50 people to pay five bucks for a three-band bill, is it possible to sustain so many festivals?
"Doing anything music-related in Athens is a double-edged sword," says Gordon Lamb, the Flagpole columnist and Athens Intensified founder who also helmed the now-defunct Athens PopFest. "It's very challenging to create events that are… branded with a specific identity."
The main festivals seem to have overcome that challenge. AthFest is the esteemed, hyper-local happening. Intensified is carefully curated and stubbornly genre-defying. Americana, as the name suggests, is specific in its stylistic focus. Slingshot, the most ambitious of the bunch, aims to cast Athens in an international light, incorporating tech, art and education angles.
As for financials, Slingshot's 2014 edition had "a significant economic impact for the city," says co-founder Kai Riedl. Lamb notes that Intensified's "budget for the second year was double that of the first, and the budget for the most recent year was over five times that of the second… Losses have been reduced by over 80 percent, and actual ticket sales increased by over 10-fold."
That's not to say there's any dough-raking going on. While AthFest is recognized (and marketed) as Athens' flagship music event, and Americana has benefited in the past from a partnership with the Twilight Criterium, local festivals mostly operate on a hand-to-mouth basis.
Riedl hopes Slingshot can work more closely with Athens-Clarke County to secure a solid footing. "If you look across the South, governments have made strong efforts to foster events such as ours that will hopefully magnetize culture and have a positive economic impact on the city in the long run."
And, regarding a perceived crowding of the market, organizers are optimistic. "I think if each festival has its own musical and artistic niche, strengths and offerings—and they don't occur within a few weeks of one another—then the whole community is only served by multiple landmark events," says Athens Americana's Adam Klein.
"Logistically," Lamb says, "every event just has to take control of its own situation… Athens is well stocked with rooms, stages and knowledgeable staff at every venue. This type of ready-made live music infrastructure is enviable."
Still, for each festival to survive, Lamb reiterates, it must stay true to its focus. "There are many things I'd like to do—film, artists-in-residence—because I enjoy these elements of other festivals I attend, but just because others do them doesn't mean they make sense for [me]… You've gotta build your own beast."