In my hometown, there’s an ongoing fall music festival called Lotus that fired up in 1994 for the first time, after I had moved away. I’ve never been, but it’s a big deal in Bloomington and lots of my friends back home go check it out now and again. Overnight, a pal posted to her Facebook wall regarding the experience of attempting to attend the largely outdoor and street-based festival without purchasing a ticket for the first time, and she was unhappy with the experience. Her child asked why their family was outside one of the tents rather than inside, and her answer reflected the event’s increased cost. She characterized the cost for her family to attend the event on a paid basis as $300, probably reflecting a number of passes for several events over a period of days. That in and of itself was not the particular issue, however. She wrote of having attended in the past on a ticketed basis and having noted fellow ticket holders complaining about non-ticketed onlookers, and noted her discomfort with the exclusionary sensibility thereby expressed.

This became a hotbed of commenters, the majority reflecting her concerns about rising costs, some defending the costs as reflective of the event’s expenses, and some defending the exclusionary perspective. The event is held largely in areas such as streets and parks which have access restrictions enforced during events to one extent or another and this prompts some of the debate. It seems clear that over time the event has moved to address the concerns of volunteers and ticket holders with regard to non-paying onlookers by progressively reducing knot-holing opportunities at the same time as the cost for the event has gone up.

I found myself weirdly engaged by the discussion, since I haven’t even been to Bloomington since late 2001, and wanted to grab some of my contributions.

One of the interesting exchanges was with internet friend and songwriter Kenny Childers, who expressed frustration with what he perceives to be the local media’s coverage of Lotus and similar events at the expense of significant regionally recorded and/or released music.

Kenny posted, “I’ll be honest here. Lotus irks me on a larger scale because I feel like the event is treated like the second coming of Christ every year in the HT and elsewhere. Meanwhile, a band like Thee Tsunamis charts on CMJ (local band on local label, Magnetic South), and virtually nothing. Two of the most important independent record labels around are here: Secretly Canadian & Jagjaguar- I think the HT finally mentioned SC when one of their artists WON A GRAMMY. Not to undermine the performers who are so often mind-blowing, but the local promotion of it feels like a big circle jerk being hosted by like 6 people. Ok, I promise I’m done.”

After some back and forth by others in which Kenny also noted he’d found attempting to provide the local paper (that’s “the HT,” the Herald-Telephone) with PR to be frustrating and pointless, I posted a mini-essay about how odd that was to read.

I wrote:

This is really interesting. This same split was evident thirty-five years ago; of course, it wasn’t as though local lofi labels were releasing material that had any particular national attention or in pressing quantities that would give them a shot on a broader scale. Back then, there was no local broadcast outlet for the material either. I remember just sort of figuring that midcareer reporters at the HT that were into music would reasonably be expected to be more into stuff they’d liked in their twenties and that was more accessible or derived from that world – so bigger acts got coverage and smaller-appeal and underground acts didn’t. It was kind of a drag but just one of those things that goes along with being a kid and aware of how the world is directed by older people.

But Kenny IS one of those older people now, and presumably the HT music writers are folks that are conversant with Bloomington’s past forty years of music history and heritage – I mean, I gather that Lee runs Lotus and he was one of the folks that made Second Story what it was back in the day. Not that Lee’s going to be flogging Seth’s acts in the context of Lotus or that they have any particular overlap.

I feel like I see similar stuff here, though, too. Even in the absolute height of the early 90s feeding frenzy, the local daily papers did not do a great job covering it – that was left to The Rocket and to a varying extent The Stranger. The city council passed a later-found-unconstitutional flyering ban right at the very height of it, for christ’s sake, with editorial support from the Seattle Times (I think).

So there’s something here that’s not specific to the decade or the locale. I guess maybe the papers try to guess what their readership’s demographic wants, what demographic their advertisers want to reach, and that is a demographic that skews to houseowning world-music and jazz aficionados as opposed to house-concert attending renters.

But shit, you, and Austin, and Seth and undoubtedly other folks that I just don’t know, you’re making music for grownups too, not just for me when I was sixteen. You’d think the HT or whoever might want to build that audience. Anyway. It’s somewhat amazing to me to hear this particular dynamic retains its shape.

The thread has kept going and growing now for many hours, with divergent branches and a great deal of vigorous disagreement, not a whole lot of attempts at persuasion but not a whole lot of name calling and fingerpointing either, probably because most of the participants in the thread know one another. It’s not a trainwreck, but the issues aren’t going to be resolved neatly in the conversation either.

Among many comments, one someone I don’t know stood out to me as memorable: “There are costs that have to be dealt with but back in the day you could go downtown and at least enjoy the vibe without feeling like a thief.”

I was a bit taken aback, because the comment seemed to imply that part of the activities of the event’s staff and volunteers was aimed at shaming onlookers, of actively patrolling the boundary between the privileged ticketed space in such a way as to make the boundary as public and visible as possible. Of, in other words, defining and protecting class privileges.

One of the event’s volunteers posted to essentially defend the implementation of essentially limited access policies. I won’t quote her at length but remarkably she used language that exactly mirrored the language of the commenter I just cited.

“I am one of the people responsible for blocking sightlines for those who do not pay for any tickets to the Friday or Saturday shows. It kills me to look at the crowds essentially stealing from lotus and the musicians by squeezing in to watch from outside the tents. Walk around and enjoy the music, ok, but damn, that’s crazy-bold, in my book.”

I literally couldn’t believe what I had read and it kicked off another long comment from me.

I wrote:

How in the world can you mean what you say? “Essentially stealing”? I mean, I recognize that you feel unhappy about people attempting to view and listen to music and performers without paying. But in what possible sense is that stealing? If someone snuck into a paid-entry area, that’s clearly a violation of the rules. But these are outdoor venues, right? If the core value here is to protect the performance and audio as a limited-use-and-access good, the performances should be inside in gated and sound-insulated spaces, I would think.

I mean, I remember watching IU football games from the berm outside the stadium as a kid. Admittedly, they were terrible, and therefore the performance had limited value, and it wasn’t something I was super into or anything. But unless I just don’t understand your meaning and intent, or unless you possibly mean something different and used words that don’t convey your view accurately, according to your viewpoint I was essentially stealing, and that just doesn’t seem to describe what I did.

I keep puzzling over this and I don’t feel right challenging your vocabulary. I mean, I don’t understand what you mean, but I need to respect your words and try to gain a viewpoint in common.

You feel that something is being stolen, and it’s something that is valuable enough that it irritates you. I do feel on solid ground challenging the perception that it’s the performance or the audio, because it seems unlikely to diminish revenue and because open-air implies open access. So something else is being stolen.

Could it be that you sees the non-paying onlookers as devaluing your volunteer work, that outside onlookers are disrespecting your community contribution?

That is, you and other volunteers are committing your own time in exchange for access to the performances, and when others also have even partial access, the volunteer’s time commitment is devalued, because why volunteer if you could just show up? That would generate strong feelings, I think. One possibly way of offsetting that might be to provide a dedicated volunteer-access only performance, like in a closed indoor venue. Wouldn’t that be a valued exchange good, an exclusive-access show available only to volunteers and not for sale at any price?

Anyway, they’re still at it.

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