Moogfest 2014: Well-Received, But Will It Return Next Year?

“We got the cyborg man here what more could you want,” joked Mike Adams, CEO of Moog Music to a crowd of organizers, participants and sponsors-- including Neil Harbisson, a man with an antenna implanted in his skull that allows him to hear color-- on the closing night of Moogfest.

This year’s celebration of music, technology and art in Asheville, North Carolina drew 7,000 badge holders, up from an estimated 5,000 at the last iteration of Moogfest in 2012.  Approximately 90 percent of badges were five day passes ($299), 10-15 percent of which were VIP Badges ($499) and 2,000 badges were sponsored. According to Billboard's rough estimate, that amounts to approximately $2 million in ticket sales, not including revenue from sponsorship and state and local grants. Moog Music says it spent some $3 million on this year's event, which would mean this year's Moogfest operated at a loss. (Billboard ran its estimates by Moog, but had yet to hear back at press time.)

“It’s not about us being able to feed our families," said Moogfest brand Director Emmy Parker when asked about long term financial goals for the festival, " we have another company called Moog Music for that." Parker noted that the main goal for this festival is different than most others: to be an economic tool for the region and help develop Asheville as a center of creative technology. The Asheville Chamber of Commerce is conducting a festival economic impact study that will be released in the next six weeks.

Indeed with 25,000 people attending the event's free programming, ranging from durational performances by the likes of Dan Deacon and Bradford Cox to an outdoor stage graced by Giorgio Moroder and Zeds Dead, the company may have already achieved its goals. Over the five-day festival, the city felt abuzz with a geeky curiosity and excitement.

“It’s definitely different if Moog is at the top of the festival as opposed to say some beer company or a cell phone company,” says Ghostly co-founder Matthew Dear, who performed at the festival as his dance floor alter-ego Audion. “This feels very pure.”

"We told our sponsors, 'this is not going to be a NASCAR event,'”  says Parker. “It’s not our goal to push consumer packaged goods through Moogfest." Sponsors like AVID, Sweetwater and Pabst Blue Ribbon instead contributed by putting together daytime programming and purchasing badges, including 250 sponsored badges for local students and teachers.

Typically, music festivals are “like having an art show at an airport” says Claire Evans, who not only performed with her band YACHT, but lead a panel for the sci-fi web magazine OMNI Reboot (at which she serves as editor-at-large) and moderated a discussion with Janelle Monae, “Tons of people see it, but no one is there to see it.”  Whereas at Moogfest, “there is this very generous inclusion of everyone from all sides of the spectrum having a great conversation.”

Moogfest’s goal was to bring inventors, physicists, futurists and music fans together in Asheville to fall in love with the city. In downtown Asheville there are barely any chain stores or restaurants-- not even a Starbucks. It’s a compact, walkable city (though a bit too hilly for biking) filled with local restaurants, art galleries, craft and record stores. Venues were located all around downtown, but the longest walk of the festival was just fifteen minutes from the Orange Peel to the Moog Factory. “I love a city of this size and of this proportion,” says Evans. “There is obviously that tight knit community here. There are a lot of sweet natured people, it’s lovely. It’s all the weirdos.”

People walk slowly, serve food slowly, even the walk signs are slow to change. However, this was maddeningly reflected in the daytime programming. Panels were often given leisurely three to four hour time slots, with little detail about what specifically would occur during that time. It often felt like presenters were rambling or straining to fill the time allotted.

Both the day and nighttime programming had an embarrassment of riches (aside from slower days of programming on Wednesday and Sunday) making for a few tough choices between concerts and panels. It was still possible to go from Nile Rodgers to Le1f to Avey Tare to Factory Floor in different venues, all in one night.

The daytime programming was diverse and focused primarily on sci-fi futurism, legends of electronic music, and instrument workshops. Attendees each donned RFID bracelets which were required to scan in and out of every panel and concert. According to this tracking, the most attended panel events and speeches of the festival were The Math of Futurama and the Simpsons, a Masterclass by Nile Rodgers, Sonification & Cybernetics with Neil Harbisson, The Electric Lady Janelle Monae, Giorgio Moroder and President of the Millennium Project Jerome C. Glenn. Also well attended were the Dubspot and Ableton workshops and the electronic instrument performances by pioneers Dave Smith, Don and Ezra Buchla, Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim.
Various panels explored how to make music out of unconventional data, from subway maps and stock tics to brainwaves. The Conductor app, created specifically for the festival, measured brain activity to create music and used location data to display a virtual representation of the Asheville streetscape. Taking a walk around the city with the Conductor sensor strapped to my head, measuring my brainwaves to create sound; I came across a horse and buggy. Walking out of a Kraftwerk 3D show, there was a street performer playing the banjo.  It was like a scene from Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, where all of the shiny modern things suddenly revert back in time.

At times, the entire festival felt like a fantasy (there were a few adults walking around in capes bought at a pop-up cape store). “We had three complaints,” said Parker. “Two were about VIP seating at Krafwerk.” According to Parker, there were 38 undercover cops trying to buy drugs all week and not one drug arrest. The festival nearly mastered a blend of innovative and diverse electronic music with impressive and thought provoking daytime programming, in a beautiful setting full of happy and engaged people. But like any utopia, can Moogfest last? 

Moog Music has begun discussions about next year, but not yet made a formal announcement as to if the festival will return in 2015. At the closing night party, Adams remarked, “I hope you come back for two thousand….and....we'll see.”