New Kids on the Block

By
From the August 2014 edition

On a Wednesday morning in June, Melissa Dickson steps up to the podium in front of a white backdrop plastered with the black and bright-blue Fashion Meets Music Festival (FMMF) logo. She begins the press conference, which had originally been scheduled for the previous week but was canceled at the last minute, by introducing herself as the festival’s communications director. Her audience consists mostly of festival organizers and supporters, with a few local reporters scattered throughout a meeting room at Nationwide Arena. A friend in the audience signals to Dickson to center her white and silver necklace over her structured black dress before she begins.

As she makes her way through the unveiling of the festival’s headliners—R. Kelly, O.A.R. and Michelle Williams (the singer, not the actress)—Dickson shows only a few signs of nervousness; her eyes are a bit red, her voice slightly shaky. She plays it cool, enunciating each carefully chosen word. An FMMF commercial was supposed to play after she named the performers, but no one remembered to bring the file. So she skipped straight to the final announcement—the dates for next year’s festival: Sept. 4 to 6, 2015. It’s a gutsy move on the part of the festival organizers, who haven’t yet seen the results of the first-ever FMMF, premiering in Columbus on Labor Day weekend.

Dickson steps down from the podium.

“I think she did a good job for her first time,” festival co-founder Bret Adams says to another audience member.

Between interviews, Dickson stops to catch her breath. “It’s a lot, to get up there in front of all those people,” she says before readjusting her smile and moving on to the next reporter.

Dickson’s never done this before. At least, not like this. She has event-planning experience, but she’s never worked in the world of music festivals. None of FMMF’s 18 organizers have. But that’s not stopping them from taking over the Arena District and its venues on a holiday weekend with more than 200 performing musical acts—many of them free—a “fashion and music retail marketplace” at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, after-parties at various bars, a gala, “urban camping,” food trucks, aerial zip-lines and a 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel. Organizers estimate the festival will bring $5.4 million in spending to Columbus. They’re prepared for 80,000 to 120,000 people—from around Ohio as well as from Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Detroit and Pittsburgh—to show up, along with 160 hired security guards in addition to required city police officers. (By comparison, the four-day Arnold Sports Festival, an annual event since 1989, draws more than 175,000 people each year.) Their goal is to use the festival to give Columbus an identity as the Midwest’s leading fashion-forward, music-centric city. They’ve got the backing of big-name sponsors like Stella Artois and Germain Lexus. Even the mayor’s on board. Can they pull it off?

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Adams, a local lawyer who represents New Albany boy band New Hollow, was on a bus coming back from the 2013 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, when inspiration struck. One of the band member’s parents turned to Adams and said, “Columbus has nothing like South by Southwest. You know people—why don’t you start it?” That’s all Adams needed to hear. He took the idea and ran with it, going to the mayor’s office and tourism bureau Experience Columbus for support and ideas.

But he knew this festival had to be different. “There are a lot of music festivals in the country,” he says. “We needed a differentiation instead of just being another city with a music festival. And we found it with fashion.” Christine Margarum, mother of New Hollow’s backing guitarist, joined the team as the second co-founder, in charge of everything fashion, while Adams handled the music side of the equation. Fashion Meets Music Festival was born.

A year and a half later, the now 18 full-time FMMF organizers have their work cut out for them. That original idea has transformed into a hodgepodge concert lineup and a massive fashion expo—not to mention a gala, a slew of after-parties and other activities. The festival weekend will kick off Thursday, Aug. 28 with a gala at The Bluestone featuring emcee Michelle Williams, formerly one-third of Destiny’s Child, a private performance by O.A.R. and the launch of FMMF’s Fusion Foundation, which will award scholarships to emerging Columbus artists and designers.

Beginning Friday, Aug. 29, Nationwide Boulevard will shut down from High Street to Neil Avenue to make way for three days of live music, food trucks and zip-line and Ferris-wheel rides. Three outdoor stages will host free shows by national acts O.A.R., Cold War Kids, Local Natives, Circa Survive, New Found Glory, Switchfoot and more. Headliners—R. Kelly at Nationwide Arena, electronic acts Rusko, Paper Diamond and Destructo at the LC and an act at Huntington Park that had not yet been booked as of mid-July—will perform ticketed shows throughout the weekend.

The retail marketplace at the convention center will feature runway shows, model searches, shopping, fashion and music panels, demos and participating local designers MALVAR = STEWART, Lubna Designs and Rox + Royalty, as well as Pink Sheep Heiress, from St. Louis, and fresh cut TEXTILES of Detroit. Out-of-towners can set up campsites off of the far west end of Nationwide Boulevard. Each night of the festival, local bars including Brothers Drake, Park Street Tavern, Skully’s Music-Diner, The Basement and Three-Legged Mare will host after-parties with entertainment by Saintseneca, Afroman, Empires, Vacationer, Blueprint and more. The weekend was also supposed to include the Labor Day Fashion Fitness Run, a 4-mile race, but organizers decided to cancel and instead add it to next year’s itinerary.

Although entrance to the outdoor portion of the festival is free, festivalgoers will pay $10 for retail marketplace access, $35 for entrance to the marketplace and after-parties or $250 for a VIP ticket, which includes access to everything except the ticketed concerts (tickets to these shows have been placed on hold for VIP ticketholders, but they still have to pay for them).

In early July, organizers were still figuring out Getting Dressed to a Soundtrack, an app they planned to create that would allow festivalgoers to take selfies on Instagram and hashtag them using a specific FMMF tag, which would aggregate the photos through to the FMMF Facebook page, pending organizers’ approval. Music would also play into the equation, but they didn’t yet know how it would work. “Ideally what we’d like to do—we’re kind of still looking into it—there’s various live social media implementations that we’ve been talking about,” says Kyle Garchar, director of digital communications. “So we’re going to see if we can do one of those things.”

The festival is backed by more than 30 sponsors and partners, including Stella Artois, Germain Lexus, Ice Miller, ABC6 and The CW. Mayor Michael Coleman has also shown public support for FMMF, filming a video message for the June press conference that touted Columbus’ position as a fashion-forward city. He cited Columbus’ claim to Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, DSW and Victoria’s Secret, although none of the brands have signed on to participate in the festival.

“We’re happy to have an event taking place in Columbus that captures two of our city’s major strengths, local music and fashion,” says Tyneisha Harden of the mayor’s office. “This will be a great opportunity for the entire state and region to see what Columbus offers in this area.”

FMMF hasn’t won over everyone, though.

Following the announcement that R. Kelly will perform at the festival, organizers were hit with backlash from Columbusites and other bands on the FMMF lineup who didn’t think the city should promote the R&B artist, who was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008 but whose reputation can’t seem to shake the case. Electro-pop duo Damn the Witch Siren withdrew from the lineup after publishing an open letter on Facebook condemning FMMF for including Kelly. Nevertheless, festival organizers defended the R. Kelly decision in interviews with The Columbus Dispatch and Columbus Alive.

“R. Kelly was never found guilty,” Dickson says. “You have to obviously take a stance. And I just feel as a festival, we made a decision to promote him as an artist. And we’re promoting his music, not him as a person. And I think no matter who is in that limelight in this industry, there’s always going to be baggage. The negativity we did get, it did garner a lot of press, whether that was bad or good.”

At a planning meeting the last Monday in June, organizers discussed the outcome of the Kelly controversy, which ultimately led to more press for the festival. “If it was a calculated PR move, it did help us,” creative director Chase Clymer said. “But it was an accident.”

Clymer also raised concerns voiced by potential festivalgoers about FMMF’s mission to brand Columbus. “Some people are saying, ‘Why do you want to rebrand Columbus? What’s wrong with our city?’” Clymer said. “Our city’s never been branded,” responded Leslie Ungerott, who deals with sponsor relations, from across the conference table.

“I truly think Columbus is missing any identity,” Adams says. “I’ve traveled my entire career, and if you go any place and mention Columbus, Ohio, you hear ‘Ohio State.’ We need an identity outside of the university. And I think fashion and music is one of the identities we can claim rights to.”

FMMF certainly isn’t the first music festival that’s tried to make it big in Columbus. Breakaway Music Festival, a debut festival held last September at Crew Stadium, drew about 10,000 people. “That’s a big number for a first-year festival event,” says Zach Ruben, managing partner and CEO of Prime Social Group, the organization that spearheaded the festival. Ruben says although Breakaway started as a one-day event, he hopes to make it a multi-day festival. “These things take time to build,” he says. “We wanted to test the waters of Columbus and see how they react.”

So why is FMMF going all out in its first year? “We wanted to make a big splash,” Dickson says. “We wanted to gain some national attention for the city. We know that music festivals are a trend, and to survive in this industry, you need to make a big splash, but you need to do it very well.”

Ken Schnacke, president and general manager of the Columbus Clippers and Huntington Park, isn’t worried about success of the event. “They’re going to pull it off,” Schnacke says. “The question will be: Exactly how big is it the first year and how successful? I think you’ve got to throw all your straws out at once. And it’s too early to call, but I don’t think they’re trying to do things that are too far outside the box, that puts them in the danger zone of failing, if you will.”

Says Dickson: “We’ve definitely done our homework. We’ve visited a lot [of festivals] ourselves. I’ve done a lot of events, and even though it’s never been an exact music festival, at the end of the day, an event’s an event. We want to make sure that experience is key, one, to the City of Columbus, two, for the artists and vendors and sponsors and, most important, our attendees. We want them to say, ‘Wow. What a great first-year experience. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.’ ”

Update: FMMF has pulled R. Kelly from the lineup. Read more here.