ViVA UTOPiAfest

ViVA UTOPiAfest

From Team UTOPiAfest

After weathering unforeseen obstacles and opposition over the last year, our beloved fest is in jeopardy. UTOPiAfest seeks community support to carry us into the future.

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What happened…

The pasture party that would eventually be known as UTOPiAfest has resulted in many unpredictable, incredible, and unforgettable outcomes over the past decade. In October of 2009, there was no blueprint and no endgame, just a desire to share the love of music and the nature of the Texas Hill Country. I could have never foreseen the abundance of experiences, connections, joy, and love that would spring forth in the coming years. I never expected it to be a ‘job’, much less my life’s work. With the fundamental desire to keep the gathering relatively small and simple, I certainly would never have imagined that it could one day end up with a mountain of debt.

UTOPiAfest is now in a dire financial position. Launching this campaign was my absolute last desire, and I do not take asking for your help lightly. If the losses were limited to me personally, I could’ve worked my way out of them, but as a result of this situation, many others have been placed in challenging positions. The qualities that I have instilled at the heart of this festival include honesty, trust, integrity and always following through, and it is devastating to not be able to fulfill my obligations and reward those who have done their part in producing the event. There are still many bands, crew members, and vendors that have yet to be paid in full, and we are constantly working towards settling our debts, and maintaining the crucial relationships with our festival family.  

I am ultimately responsible for the decisions I have made, and I have chosen to be publicly transparent about how this situation arose because the many amazing people who have created this experience and community deserve to know. I hope you will consider supporting us through this loss so that we can realize the potential of UTOPiAfest together.

As the festival grew and the UTOPiAn dream materialized, it required more time and work from an ever-expanding network of friends and family. While the non-material rewards multiplied a thousand times over, the financial means to operate was always in short supply. We spared no expense creating the best experience, and strove to curate the highest caliber of music performances. We found our niche in the festival world, as an intimate, family-oriented, quality-over-profit gathering of respectful and self-governing participants. As expectations were set ever higher, we endeavored to outpace them every year, despite continually working with the same finite resources. We covered our expenses, but rarely much else. Each year, after the dust settled and the ranch was cleaned, the core team, the family, and I would reevaluate if it was possible to keep the festival going, and if we were able to justify the time spent, as well as the risk and stress on the ranch. Each year, we came to the same conclusion; we were getting there, and we believed in what we were doing. We’ve invested so much and come so far. 

In 2017, the partners who helped transform the 200-person hang with a gooseneck trailer stage into a nationally-recognized 2,000 person experience had to take a step back, leaving me at the helm. That year, our last UTOPiAfest at Four Sisters, came together beautifully- a result of the years of fine tuning our production team and the experiential elements.

Over many conversations in early 2017, it became clear something had to give in order for the festival to survive and thrive for the long term. We determined our viability was inevitably limited by two main factors: the venue capacity and the ability to sell alcohol. As those variables were unchangeable at the ranch in Utopia, I reluctantly decided to relocate the 2018 fest to a place where it could grow and evolve. I dreamed of finding a place that could approximate the beauty and feel of Four Sisters,  and where we could continue to redefine what a festival could be.

It was love at first sight when I was introduced to another family ranch, only an hour away from Austin. It was just remote enough, and with a similarly rugged, Hill Country beauty to what we had in Utopia, and was a shorter drive for most UTOPiAns. Amazingly, the landowners had been developing the space for events, and had seemingly similar values and goals. They weren’t interested in renting the land, and insisted on co-producing, which sounded awesome after a year of making decisions and organizing every aspect mostly on my own. I was excited about the possibilities of bringing in new perspectives, experiences, and relationship networks. I believed that our combined resources and ideas would create a way forward for the festival. 

As the landowners became co-producers, they committed to introducing new ways to improve the experience: incorporating industry relationships to reduce costs, creating new revenue streams, guiding the marketing efforts to reach a new audience of UTOPiAns. They envisioned a UTOPiAfest 2.0, with an elevated experience and new elements, while still maintaining the vibe we’d created. To signal the new era, they insisted that we modify the name of the festival. I was assured that relationships were established with neighbors and authorities, and that the new co-producers would take the lead on those continuing relationships to ensure a smooth transition. As they brought many new ideas and ambitions into the project, I expected to share specific responsibilities, but I eventually found them reluctant to clarify roles.

The first point we disagreed on was how fast and how much we hoped to grow. They held much higher ambitions for the space, while I planned on small, incremental growth to maintain what we’d so carefully and deliberately cultivated over the years. Eventually we compromised on a goal of 6,000 attendees- a significant and ambitious growth, but one I believed could support the UTOPiAn vibe, and set us on a path of sustainability for years to come. I was convinced by the new partners that they could facilitate this growth and honor the heart of the experience. We decided to budget for 3,500-4,000 people to be safe, knowing the goal was not a certainty. The talent budget was greatly increased to help reach new, wider audiences. We were confident that the caliber of lineup, the proximity to bigger cities, and the added experience and resources brought by the new partners would ensure the growth we aimed for. This decision ended up being very costly, and thus, the biggest reason for our present situation. Number of attendees ended up around 2,000- same as our years in Utopia.

As the year progressed, the co-producers and I had a steady string of meetings with new potential production vendors, sponsors, media, and other participants. Over time, a pattern emerged. We’d discuss the same big ideas, our goals for the expanded vision of the festival, but the meetings rarely got to specifics, with even less tangible results. All the while, I was assembling our team- the crew, sponsors, artists, and vendors that have become the core of the festival. Most were cautiously optimistic about the planned changes and new partners.

Surprisingly, the lineup announcement didn’t have the impact we expected, and initial ticket sales were lower than anticipated. As we worked together on the marketing plan and implementation, we mostly ended up with most of the same methods of outreach we’ve always had, and found similar results. The enthusiasm by the mostly returning-UTOPiAn crowd was encouraging, but we weren’t seeing the added growth we'd been assured would come. We kept a positive outlook and the belief that sales would pick up, but our concern grew as months passed.

It soon became apparent that the new partnership wasn’t as effective or impactful as I’d expected. Many of the proposed ideas weren’t materializing or were consistently delayed, but I remained optimistic. Every time I returned to the land, I was encouraged and excited about the potential of the space. While the tickets weren’t selling like we’d hoped, there were still many committed to attending, and many more working on creating the experience.

The partners and I discussed when and how to inform the community that was the new home for the festival, with intentions of involving local residents and benefiting the area. Once more, details and plans were slow to emerge, and I waited for the co-producers to take the lead on the outreach as they required. In the meantime, the news had started to spread that a 5-day, 6,000 person, Woodstock-like atmosphere would soon disrupt the peaceful hamlet of Burnet, Texas. Rumors were taking hold quickly and fears were growing.  

Things came to a head at the start of August when we began improving the mile long road that lead to the site, which had been agreed to as a necessary expense. This was the next mistake that contributed to our predicament. As soon as the bulldozer engine started, it was blocked by a neighbor- the new partners' aunt. I had been warned that the relationship was strained, but was not prepared for the coming battle. This was only the beginning of the impending opposition and legal action. Soon, we were informed via certified mail that an LLC had been formed with the express purpose of opposing the the festival, specifically the proposed location, and contesting the road improvement. The ensuing legal action was also budgeted as a festival expense, further increasing our debt. This LLC was composed of neighbors of the ranch along the beginning of the road, and supported by several other area residents. The letter asked for a cease and desist, and we learned they were circulating a petition, as well as a call to contact our sponsors. Concerns were voiced to county authorities, which led to a string of town halls, including one hosted by us to address worries and correct any misconceptions. The authorities soon joined others in suggesting that the festival relocate.  While I was disappointed that the preexisting relationships weren’t as amicable as I was lead to believe, I also understood almost every new festival faces opposition. I was reassured by our new Public Safety Director, but as the opposition intensified, even he seemed astonished at the mounting backlash.

As news of the controversy began to proliferate, so did the questions about if the festival would even happen. Ticket sales halted. The road builder relentlessly worked on, but faced constant delay with September's incessant rain. Many began to doubt the feasibility of this necessary project being completed in time. We pressed on, determined to see our dream to completion, and scheduled a weekend to prepare the land as soon as the weather permitted. Curiously but unsurprisingly, the crew exclusively consisted of returning UTOPiAns, who made tremendous progress on readying the space. During this weekend, we noticed freshly painted purple fence posts surrounding the property, indicating the neighbors would not tolerate trespassing. We were greeted with warning shotgun blasts any time one neared a property line, and finally, a group of us received a rain of shot pellets from across the fence, into the space we were standing in. The message was received.  

After the weekend, as my trust in a peaceful resolution rapidly declined, concern grew over the stagnant ticket sales and the potential of a substantial budget deficit. The co-producers began talks of rescheduling the festival, or moving it to indoor clubs, which I knew would be the death of UTOPiAfest. I felt drastic action would have to be taken to give the fest a chance to survive, to happen at all. Too many people were depending on it and looking forward to it, too much work had been done, too much of my life invested to let it go away in such a manner.

Throughout the year, Reveille had been my close choice for the new location. I was humbled and amazed that they were still willing to host the fest on incredibly short notice (under a month out), so I made the decision to relocate. The partners understood and we peacefully parted ways. I slowly realized how few of their ideas and promises were realized, with the vast majority of vendors, sponsors, and attendees being former UTOPiAfest participants.

From then on, the core team and I rushed to spread the news and plan logistics. The area had suffered historical flooding, leaving lingering questions about the festival’s chance of occurring, further stifling ticket sales. I maintained hope in a strong final sales push and daily walkup, counting on our close proximity to Austin to make a difference. It didn’t come.

The weekend arrived before anyone could blink. I was amazed at the entire production team’s ability to work through new challenges, and positively create solutions to manifest an incredible weekend. While it was the best UTOPiA yet for many who attended, we know we also had some of our worst customer experiences, like the hours long shuttle waits and poorly handled alcohol sales, due to the gaps in planning and resources. I was saddened to disappoint so many, and as the weekend progressed, the inevitability of the looming budget deficit also began to sink in. Nevertheless, the overwhelming positivity and loving response from UTOPiAns was encouraging and uplifting. I knew that the stress, the work, the mistakes, the perseverance, and the risks were worth it. I knew the festival had become something bigger than myself, and all of us who were there. Somehow, the festival would go on.  We found a new, welcoming home, with incredible potential. This wasn’t going to be the end of the story, but a new beginning.

This year has proven to be a very costly but valuable education, and I will never repeat the mistakes I made. Our team will focus on what sets this festival apart, and why we all love it. If we grow, it will be slow and manageable in order to maintain a UTOPiAn experience for everyone. Planning is already well underway for UTOPiAfest 11 in 2019. I feel a renewed sense of excitement and fellowship from the team and community, despite the challenging year. I’m humbly asking for your help to keep the dream of UTOPiA alive and thriving.

-Travis Sutherland

Chief Experiential Architect

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