City Arts Fest: Going for a 'South by Southwest' feel

In its first year, the three-day, 20-venue festival will feature music, poetry, opera, film, and visual arts.

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The Blue Scholars, along with Made In Heights, perform at The Showbox on Sept. 12

In its first year, the three-day, 20-venue festival will feature music, poetry, opera, film, and visual arts.

In its first year, City Arts Fest, which begins today (Oct. 20), is unlike any festival the city has hosted. The fledgling fest ties together dozens of artists across multiple disciplines spanning four days and 20 venues in Seattle.

The programming reflects the broad range of artistic endeavors covered by its magazine namesake and includes poetry, opera, film, and visual arts. At its center is the stellar lineup of musicians that were booked for the festival by Steven Severin and Mark Baumgarten.

Baumgarten is the editor of City Arts magazine, and Severin is one of the owners and talent buyers at Neumos. Severin also owns an events production company called Wake Up Productions and served five years on Bumbershoot’s advisory board, so he knows a thing or two about festivals.

Severin was both intrigued and slightly intimidated by the thought of booking a festival when he was approached by City Arts associate publisher Jake Newman to help put together City Arts Fest six months ago.

“At first I wasn’t sure I could buy those big-caliber shows. It was a moment of not being sure and being a little overwhelmed. There was some hesitancy on my part for about a day and then I was like, I can do this,” Severin said. “But the amount of time I’ve had to dedicate to this has been huge. So taking all this on has decimated any free time I’ve had, which is fine because it’s the first year and that’s how you learn everything and next year it will be a whole lot easier.”

He said one thing that put him at ease was being able to take the same approach to booking the festival that he takes to booking his own shows.

“I didn’t want to try and force anything, but I really wanted to make sure that everybody felt represented because that’s what I try to do with Neumos,” Severin said about the music lineup.

About that lineup: It ranges from locals, like hip-hop headliners Blue Scholars and modern country rockers the Maldives, to in-demand national acts like Big Boi, Belle & Sebastian, and Gogol Bordello. It’s a diverse grouping of musicians that touches on just about every genre of popular music.

“A lot of what we’ve been able to get for the festival wasn’t touring through Seattle,” said Severin. “Belle & Sebastian weren’t coming to Seattle. They were skipping Seattle. I don’t know why. The only reason we got them is because they were playing on the West Coast at another festival around the same time (as City Arts Fest).”

Severin said two other headliners, Cat Power and She & Him, also didn’t have Seattle stops on their fall tours. With such broad-reaching programming, there isn’t one specific audience the festival is targeting; rather, it’s offering something for everyone.

“You look at Block Party, which is three of my favorite days of the year ... It (the lineup) is all over the map. It’s pretty cool and pretty hip, but I don’t think we’re going as hip as that is. I think Sasquatch! falls in that same category as aiming for that hipster crowd. And we’re going for that a bit with some of the events we’ve got.

"Like for Blue Scholars you’re going to have a lot of $300 pairs of sneakers in the crowd. Belle & Sebastian? You’re going to have a lot of plaid, button down shirts and people that are 18-year-olds and 45-year-olds,” Severin said. “We’re skewing a bit older than something like a Block Party. You’re going to see a lot of people in their mid 30s, early 40s at City Arts Fest. Was that a conscious effort? No, it wasn’t at all.”

And there is still plenty for younger audiences to enjoy. Rising indie acts like Foals, Blitzen Trapper and the Head and the Heart are sure to draw the 20-somethings. Other hip offerings include the Dum Dum Girls, the Young Evils, and Macklemore.

The diversity combined with a ticketing scheme not seen by other local fests has helped City Arts Fest establish an identity in its first year. Wristbands that allow access to all events can be bought for $60, or tickets to individual events can be purchased. No other local festival has tried the wristband approach to admission, and Severin said the response has been better than expected.

“We far, far exceeded our own expectations of how big of an event this was going to be,” he said. “We don’t want to be Sasquatch!, we don’t want to be Block Party, we don’t want to be Bumbershoot. That wasn’t our focus. Our focus was more along the ideas of South by Southwest, Music Fest Northwest, and the New Yorker Festival, where you’re going to get a wristband and get to go to all of these different events across the city.”

Another aspect of the festival that differentiates it from the other big-name fests in Seattle is that it takes place in the fall.

“We decided to do it in the fall because it is when people start focusing more on going to shows. It’s the busiest time of the year. There’s a reason why it’s called Rocktober,” said Severin.

“We really wanted to focus on welcoming fall by having a really great festival and bringing things inside, which is what we do in the fall … We live in Seattle. It rains in the fall. You’re not going to do something outside because that’s not going to make sense. Also, we didn’t want to do it in the summer and then compete with all the other festivals. We wanted to do something unique and original for Seattle.”

If you go: City Arts Fest takes place Oct. 20-23 at 20 venues. A wristband that allows access to all regular events and one headlining event costs $60. An all-access wristband that grants entry to every event can be purchased for $125. Tickets to individual events can be purchased at each venue’s website. For details, see the festival website's ticket page.


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