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Synthesized stimulus

31 October 2011 By Rob Cox

When it comes to urban economic development, Ashley Capps isn’t the kind of businessman that comes to the mind of most local politicians. After all, he’s a rock’n’roll promoter. He puts on big, rollicking festivals, like the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, where tens of thousands of music fans camp, dance and party in the middle of the Tennessee countryside. So what’s a guy like Capps doing in a city like Asheville, North Carolina?

Well, from the looks of the past weekend, he’s making serious coin for the people of this town in the mountains of western North Carolina. The second annual Moogfest, which Capps’ firm AC Entertainment puts together in homage to the godfather/inventor of the electronic synthesizer Bob Moog, brought as many as 30,000 people into downtown Asheville, to sample music, art and electronic geekery at a handful of venues.

Capps is a new kind of conventioneer. Events like Moogfest are precisely the kind of thing that smaller cities, particularly those with adequate tourism infrastructure and underutilized performing arts spaces, can look to as a transformative way to bring in fresh tourist dollars and promote a new form of economic development.

The three-day Moogfest was held in 10 different locations around Asheville. Among these, a concrete park served as an outdoor amphitheater dubbed the “Animoog Playground” where larger acts like Flaming Lips and Passion Pit rocked the crowd. The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, home of the local symphony (and named for the novelist whose home is now a museum dedicated to his work), hosted more sedate acts like St. Vincent and Tangerine Dream, and a two-hour talk from Brian Eno, the artist and producer of seminal Talking Heads and U2 records.

Other music venues included the Asheville Civic Center, the Asheville Music Hall and Orange Peel nightclubs and the Diana Wortham Theatre. The Moog Foundation naturally played its part to promote the inventions of its namesake. The factory where Moog synthesizers are manufactured opened its doors over the weekend to visiting musicians, like the electronic impresario Moby.

And a nondescript shopping mall on Haywood Street became the Moogaplex, a space where demonstrations and workshops like “Journey to the center of the Theremin with Neon Indian” were held. Nearby, the YMI Cultural Center showcased Eno’s “77 Million Paintings” video art installation.

If it sounds like a sort of Star Trek convention for synthesizer geeks (they “air knob” invisible electronic equipment instead of pretend Stratocasters), in a way it is. But that’s precisely why Moogfest, after just two years, looks likely to become an annual fixture for Asheville – and a model for other towns and cities. “There is so much opportunity for smaller, boutique festivals,” says Capps. “There is an endless variety of ideas to explore as a collaboration of artists, musicians and the local environment.”

Not every city can accommodate a happening like Moogfest. In some ways, Asheville is a special case. It already does a decent job of attracting visitors, from leaf-peepers in the fall to Appalachian Trail climbers during the spring. Its downtown is lined with restaurants, boutiques and galleries. And the River Arts District makes use of former warehouses and factories for pottery, glass blowing and other artists’ studios.
Moreover, besides being home to all things Moog, the area has a historical link with the arts. Avant-garde composer John Cage taught experimental music at the nearby Black Mountain College. Before closing in 1957 after just 24 years, this progressive school attracted faculty and students including Buckminster Fuller, painters Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning, and dance pioneer Merce Cunningham.

Of course, the gathering of thousands of rockers, even of the electronic-obsessed variety, creates problems of its own for a city as well equipped to handle them as Asheville. For instance, the town has little in the way of public transportation. It also has woefully few downtown eateries open late in the evening. The combination made for visibly unsatisfied crowds after the music ended on Friday and Saturday nights.
There were other lost opportunities, too. Despite the crowds milling around town, many galleries and local shops didn’t bother to extend their opening hours. Most perplexing of all, the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center downtown decided for whatever reason not to extend its opening hours to include Sunday.

And while townsfolk are happy to have the visitors, even the tamest of music tourists bring their own set of specific issues, from outlandish costumes (well, it was Halloween) to the ever-present hint of cannabis in the air. Yet even this spelled opportunity for some: the Four Points by Sheraton busily charged stoned guests $200 smoking fees.

These are all relatively minor growing pains, most of which are apparent to Capps: “From the behind the scenes perspective, there are many things I’d like to tweak.” But he’s determined to make Moogfest an annual pilgrimage with a big economic impact. And he’s not stopping there. He’s got ideas for similar music-and-art happenings elsewhere. Look out Louisville, Kentucky.


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