FMMF — Inside The Heartland’s Most Nihilistic Music Festival
What would you say if I told you that you could go to a music festival and never have cell phone service issues, could easily walk up to the barricade for most every performance, and restroom lines were nil?
There’s a certain charm to Fashion Meets Music Festival, with its tiny lineup, bizarre combination of artists, and insistence upon a runway show inbetween sets. A baffling earnestness in the GeoCities/MySpace level design (with requisite auto-play music) that teetered on unprofessional over a decade ago. Just a hint of what was to come when the Groupon promotion supporting the music festival (at an economical rate of $25 for one day, $46 for two) was still live at the time of the show with 250 people buying in — or when the fest started running $20 one-day ticket promos through their own social media platforms. Some ominous feelings when reading the Columbus Alive review of last year’s festival, featuring the subheadline of “Concert review: With thin attendance everyone is a VIP at FMMF 2016.” Even before the show, the festival exuded the miasma of carefully-curated mediocrity and failed business venture. Regardless, for the chance to see Tegan and Sara and Third Eye Blind live for $25, it was easy to look past the obvious issues. Until I got to the venue.
Fortress Obetz, which replaced the admittedly more-appropriate-for-the-festival area of the Arena District of Columbus, Ohio, is a foreboding scene. Shipping containers, stacked in the shape of a fort, painted black. Bleak, stark; a fifteen-million dollar venture paid for by the village of Obetz to act as a staging place for community events, host a Major League Lacrosse team, and generally be a giant obelisk of darkness in the middle of a former speedway. After crossing the entrance gates, you’re welcomed by the stadium — which looks and feels more like a moderately high end high school stadium at best, lower level college stadium at worst.
While the aesthetics of Fortress Obetz were lacking, Fashion Meets Music Festival really started to shine when getting to the Michelle Branch set at the Pepsi Stage (still marketed as the TBA stage on the festival site, at time of publication) just over five minutes before posted showtime. A crowd of maybe two dozen were waiting for the formerly ubiquitous Branch to show. Over a decade past her peak with The Wreckers, fifteen since her solo career apex, and fourteen years since last album release, Michelle Branch came out on stage a minute past seven with band in tow. They all had off-brand red plastic cups, drinking some unknown potables.
Two songs in, a pair of teenage girls decided to make a mad rush through the small gathering (which was about fifty strong, at this point) and shoved people out of the way. After stepping backwards to give them space, I wound up stepping on a besandaled foot. A quick apology followed, as well as an exit to the unmarked Peroni Stage which lie about thirty yards to the left of the TBA Pepsi Stage. And why not? Tegan and Sara were undoubtedly a bigger draw, and the audience would be waiting there for their set to begin at 8:15.
There were eight people waiting for Tegan and Sara. Most were wearing Third Eye Blind merch.
While waiting, and still very much able to hear the Michelle Branch set, something seemed odd. This whole festival seemed to be a bleak, twisted vision of what a music festival should be. Nobody in attendance, artists playing to a largely empty crowd, a level of care that didn’t elevate past mild indifference from anyone inside the walls of Fortress Obetz. Branch’s set started to turn, with a dirge-like performance of Game of Love that drug more than excited. She and her band started slowing even more, stretching that 45 minute performance to its limits by sucking all of the enjoyment out of once-energetic and hopeful hits. A feeling of nihilism had finally started to set in, surrounded by pitch black staging and listening to a band transform powerful pop songs into a somber funeral march.
8PM, fifteen minutes before Tegan and Sara’s set, a crowd of approximately sixty were standing at the still-unmarked Peroni stage. I finally noticed the VIP Section, which was a markedly worse angle with near-zero benefit from being in the actual crowd. A gated area all the way to the right of the stage, which didn’t come close to justifying the near-tripled amount of the tickets. I started to see people filter out of it into the main area.
8:15, the band walked out, and the majority of current attendees were still at the fashion runway stage — which lie about fifteen yards away, between the two main stages. The duo made their way on stage and started into their performance, to which the audience started filtering to their stage. An absurd amount of photographers were on hand, blotting the concourse between the barricade and the stage. A joking comment was made by Tegan, three songs were powered through, and the photographers tried to stay. Security rushed in to escort them out.
Three photographers tried to stay.
A dwarf came in and shoved the lollygaggers out. One tried arguing their case, but he wasn’t hearing any of it.
This, more than anything at the show, as a highlight I’ll never forget. Because who gets punked by a dwarf at a music festival?
Past that, Tegan and Sara did a solid set that was obviously truncated for time constraints (the artists that weren’t the main act were allowed a restrictive 45 minutes, as opposed to the typical hour to hour fifteen — likely to fit the Fashion part in). They closed with Closer, everything was solid, and at that point the crowd, now closer to a thousand, was waiting for an encore.
There was no encore. Near simultaneously with the crowd’s deflation, the inflatable stage decorations had the air let out of them. And at 9:15, something special happened.
Festival staff finally remembered that they were supposed to have the sponsor banner up on their main stage. Without zip-ties, they hastily duct taped it to the stage. Black duct tape, of course, to match the pitch-black appearance of everything else.
A security staffer was wandering the concourse wearing cargo pants laden with water bottles, talking to people and obviously bored out of his skull. He offered to take pictures for people, whoever was still left at that stage. St. Lucia started to play, and I debated seeing their set or to wander the grounds and see the sights and life of a music festival.
Every stand that still had staff at it was at zero activity. A beach volleyball (?) setup was empty, with its staff playing euchre on the table leading into it. Merch tables were nonexistent, with two little “shops” containing only four pieces of fashion-lacking festival merch and two Tegan and Sara shirts laid into the shipping container fortress.
Then, when heading into the restroom, the realization fully hit me. At no point did cellular data lapse during the night. There’s no line at the restrooms. The merch and branding were nearly vacant. This was the antithesis of the festival experience, a bizarre and twisted approximation of what the bloated beast that music festivals have become.
Walking towards the exit area, I saw the Donato’s Stage, a tiny setup with about ninety people enjoying the sounds of Columbus-area band Liberty Deep Down. Their performance at Bunbury 2017 had been pretty solid, so I stuck around. Liberty Deep Down’s energy was unfettered, a band whose infectious enthusiasm ran through the crowd. They finished their set, walked to the back, and the drummer came back out for an exceedingly long (and pretty solid) solo. Then the rest of the band re-assembled on the stage, plowed a couple of songs and a cover of Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). Whatever they were doing, they did it right, because this was the first set I’d witnessed that people were visibly excited for. They, as the last performer on the stage, ran way over. But nobody seemed to mind.
Following their set, everyone started filtering to the now-marked Peroni stage to assemble for headliners Third Eye Blind.
It was then that a redheaded woman walked up to me while I was checking my phone and messaging my girlfriend. She sauntered with all the grace of a rabies-ridden raccoon, leading with the inquisitive statement of “I’m looking for somebody, and you’re looking for somebody, so why don’t we [unintelligible].” My response, short and sweet, was “I’m not looking for anybody, I came here by myself. Are you alright?”
More unintelligible babbling happened as she got a little handsy, and I walked her back to the benches so she could sit down and try not to hurt herself or someone else. If you wanted a moment of peak sadness in this nihilistic landscape of music, it was this: a desperate attempt at a physical connection in a crowd of maybe two-thousand while wearing a blazer and breathing bourbon fumes. She was sat down, and I immediately ditched her to talk to a couple of random dudes with glitter beards and salmon shorts — hoping that seeing me talking to someone else would discourage her from approaching again.
All of the lights went down for the closing act.
The band came out in — surprise — all black. Their set was straightforward, but the vocals were seriously off. This has been an issue with the band for quite a while, but tonight it seemed worse with Stephan Jenkins’ voice sounding hoarse and unspectacular. How’s It Going To Be played out in such a manner that the audience vocals sounded more on-key than his own, which seemed a bit wrong. At this point, maybe two thousand were watching.
Between that song and the next, something became apparent: Third Eye Blind was piping audience noise. Crowd cheers were going over the PA, louder than the actual crowd. I left then, because nothing could top this. And the kicker? No traffic on the drive out of the parking lot.
You could write a philosophic book on the capitalistic quandary of: What if you threw a music festival, and nobody came? Or you could come to Fashion Meets Music Festival.
*A revision has been made to update Stadium District to be Arena District, due to the former being incorrect.