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Slingshot Aims High—to Remake the Athens Economy

Kai Riedl has a tough time finding the right words for what, exactly, he’s trying to do with the Slingshot Festival.

“Curated and diverse, but still forward-thinking, until I come up with a better word than forward-thinking?” he told Flagpole during an interview earlier this month. “’Experimental’ doesn’t work. ‘Ambitious’ is lame. ‘Genre-expanding?’ Then you’re an academic prick. You’re doomed here.”

But his vision—hard to articulate though it may be—is apparent, and it is ambitious: To put Athens on the map as a globally recognized center at the intersection of tech, music and visual art; a place on the cutting edge that will draw both tourists and creative new residents, pumping up the local economy, so the best and brightest don’t feel pressure to leave to find work that doesn’t involve running credit cards.

“Over time, it’ll create a new kind of economy in Athens,” Riedl says.

Twenty or 30 years ago, Athens was the hippest small town in America. But now, Riedl sees other cities passing us by—Asheville, NC, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Greenville, SC. Although Athens is still full of talented artists, musicians and entrepreneurs, we’re not necessarily known internationally for everything that’s happening here today, and those thousands of talented people don’t often get the chance to rub elbows with and be inspired by similarly talented people from around the globe. A group of Greeks is even putting on a spinoff in that other Athens (to be, somehow, simulcast here and vice versa), with future plans for spinoffs in Brooklyn and Berlin, too.

The festival aims to “try to give people in Athens a chance to see something they’d never, ever get to see, try to magnetize some tourism to Athens and also try to connect Athens to Atlanta,” Riedl says. “We tend to not give them a reason to come to Athens. If we give them an interesting reason, they’ll come, other than football.”

After a rather inauspicious start in 2013, Slingshot found its legs last year and is hoping to grow again this year. Co-founders Reidl and artist Eric Marty added Fat Possum Records’ Peter Wiley (who’s in charge of comedy) to the leadership team, as well as Dan Geller, an Athens musician/UGA researcher, along with about 30–40 volunteers who do everything from book acts to design apps.

With big-name headliners like James Murphy (formerly of LCD Soundsystem) and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler (performing under the name DJ Windows 98) Riedl hopes this year’s Slingshot—scheduled for Thursday, Mar. 26–Saturday, Mar. 28 at various locations downtown and on campus—will bring in several thousand people, including crowds “slingshotting” back home from last week’s South by Southwest, the massive tech/music showcase in Austin, TX.

“It’s not really [Murphy] coming to play a DJ show, it’s that we can still work with the geography and creative economy we have to do cool things, but other cities have sped past us,” he says. “I think for years it served us well to be isolated; that was pretty fantastic, but I’m not sure that’s really going to keep us alive.”

Tech innovators will be here for a panel talk on presenting vast reams of data using sound and light. (“It sounds techie, but it’s actually pretty cool,” Riedl says.) The music lineup features a mix of locals new and old, like Washed Out and Michael Lachowski (ex-Pylon), and experimental out-of-towners like Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and Prince Rama. Art installations will be set up all over town.

This is a make-or-break year for Slingshot. Riedl has a litany of complaints about city government—from too little funding to officials’ lack of vision to what he calls embarrassingly shoddy websites—and he’s threatened to move the festival elsewhere if it doesn’t go well this year. “It’s with all the love, but whenever you do something new in Athens, it should always be with the implicit critique that things need to change,” he says.

Festivals like Slingshot are expensive and time-consuming to organize. Artists and venues need to be paid. For a festival that’s not yet established, corporate sponsorships are hard to come by. Wristbands at $70 are a tough sell to an Athens audience that’s used to paying $5 for shows, if anything at all, although the price tag is a fraction of what many festivals elsewhere cost. Riedl is unsure of Slingshot’s total budget; Marty told the Athens Downtown Development Authority recently that it’s somewhere between $100,000–$200,000. (The organizers are currently unpaid.) Riedl laments that the City of Asheville, NC, and Buncombe County gave Moogfest $180,000 last year, compared to the ADDA’s $6,000 contribution to Slingshot. But even with the infusion of government grants, Moogfest lost $1.5 million.

If Riedl and Co. can pull it off, though, look for even bigger things in the future. “I don’t know if we can reach it, but I think we’re at a three out of 10, when you talk about magnetizing jobs, economic development, doing things on a scale that will have an impact, that will revert back out to the nation,” Riedl says.