South by Southeast? 

A St. Pete city councilman is dreaming of a music fest modeled after the early years of SXSW.

Starting a music festival is all the rage in a host of U.S. cities. The New York Times reported earlier this month that more than 20 major festivals have started just this year alone — with the entertainment conglomerate Live Nation planning at least eight such events from Philadelphia to St. Paul.

Locally we’ve had one-day festivals, such as WMNF’s three-decade-old Tropical Heatwave, the Antiwarpt fest in St. Petersburg, and most recently, the Gasparilla Music Festival, which debuted this spring in Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Park to enthusiastic reviews.

Now St. Pete City Councilman Steve Kornell wants to transcend all of that, and create something along the lines of Austin’s South By Southwest Festival, which celebrated its 26th year this past March.

“I think it would be good for St. Petersburg,” the 46-year-old lawmaker recently told CL in a phone interview. “I’m certainly not a professional in the music industry, but I think I see the vision. I can bring some people to the table that maybe other folks haven’t been able to.”

Before CL spoke to Kornell we were warned that he might be reluctant to talk extensively about such an event. But that’s because the details are still, if not in their infancy, still far from finalized (he’s thinking along the lines of 2014), and he doesn’t want to sound like somebody shooting off his mouth without having thoroughly vetted it before presenting to the public.

According to those who have been privy to the initial meetings, Kornell is seriously focused on having an event along the lines of the inaugural SXSW in 1987 — as a forum to feature local artists — and not the colossus it has evolved into, which in the past year had 16,000 registrants.

Kornell began talking up the idea last fall during his re-election campaign, telling the local St. Petersburg blog New Roots News that St. Pete could become the next Austin. “I don’t want people leaving. I want to have a scene like other cities have. We could have our own South by Southwest in St. Pete,” he told the website. He attended his first SXSW this year, and came away even more enthusiastic about the potential of recreating a Southeastern version.

WMNF’s JoEllen Schilke, long-time owner of the recently defunct Globe Coffee Lounge in St. Pete, is among the locals Kornell has consulted about the festival idea. She says the councilman believes such an event would be a positive way to bring recognition to the arts and music scene in his hometown.

While some have dismissed the idea as just so much hyperbole, Kornell has gotten busy.

Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theatre in St. Pete, has been involved in creating festivals over the years. He says Kornell has taken his advice to create a formal structure, such as setting up as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and creating a board to come up with a plan.

“I don’t think the world needs another SWSW, but I think that there’s something that’s going to come out of this that potentially is going to be unique. With Steve I’ve been really impressed. He came out with an idea and admitted that it was somewhat unformed but that he wanted to do something along those lines [of SXSW].”

Kornell is certainly not the first person in the Bay area to contemplate creating an Austin facsimile. WMNF Program Director Randy Wynne says lots of cities have said they’d like to do such an event, but it just doesn’t happen like that.

“SXSW grew from something smaller to something bigger. It wasn’t just monstrous from the start. And part of what they did when they started, it was more homegrown, based on homegrown music.”

In addition to the various musical performances played on multiple stages in downtown Austin, SXSW is also known as a forum for the latest in interactive technology, though that aspect wasn’t introduced until 1994 (a year before film was also introduced).

Kornell is focusing as much on daytime conferences that focus on music and recording as on the actual performances at night, and has been working closely with St. Petersburg College and its MIRA program (Music Industry Recording Arts) to accomplish that.

Instructor Mark Matthews is in charge of the MIRA program. A veteran of the L.A. music scene for over two decades before moving to St. Pete, he has extensive experience as a composer, arranger, guitarist, engineer and studio owner. Matthews has been working with Kornell on the daytime programming, which would include training on recording equipment and could lead to industry certification.

The councilman says he has yet to speak to any local music promoters about the festival because he’s not prepared to. He says he will when the timing is right; right now his focus is on when and where the event might take place, and what to charge registrants.

He’s hoping to get media co-sponsorships, and perhaps have the city do so as well. That could mean using facilities like the city–owned Mahaffey Theatre, and offering its variety of rooms for conferences at a discounted rate.

JoEllen Schilke envisions conferences on topics relevant to the working musician, from intellectual property rights to how to tour while keeping yourself sane (she mentions former PiL and Killing Joke drummer Martin Atkins as one possible panelist; his book Tour:Smart is all about how bands can survive on the road).

She adds that with all the changes in major labels and the opportunities on the Internet, one panel could ask, “How do we help musicians earn a living without being sucked into a giant system?”

Phil Benito is a local music promoter with Brokenmold Entertainment, which works on events like Antiwarpt. He says that production costs are among the most expensive line items in putting on multiple events in a short period of time.

Benito says it’s much less expensive to use indoor stages where you can rent the equipment vs. building facilities for an outdoor production, such as a roof for a stage.

“It’s just a lot more intense, there’s a lot more hardware, a lot more labor to set up.”

Lee Courtney, aka DJ Flee at WMNF, has attended the last 16 SXSW festivals in Austin. He thinks the idea of something that attempts to mimic the Texas event is a great idea. “I think St. Pete has the infrastructure at least for a startup. It’s not going to be 80 stages [SXSW’s current level]. When I first went, there were 25. It wasn’t at the very beginning what it is now,” he says of the first time he attended in the late ’90s.

Ryann Slauson, the soon to be departing drummer for local indie band Sleepy Vikings, is skeptical. She’s been to the last five SXSWs and believes that transportation issues and a limited selection of venues could be problematic.

“I believe that a large percentage of SXSW’s success lies in the fact that Austin is extremely well-equipped to provide large amounts of people with adequate venues, food, housing and transportation (extremely important and under-appreciated) within a small radius,” she said via email. “The sheer amount of possible places to see bands in Austin is almost overwhelming — and I am not saying that a festival here requires the same amount of participating venues to be deemed successful, but it is a huge factor in the incredible event that is SXSW.”

Slauson adds, “We should try and make our own individualized festival model based on the ideas of SXSW and craft to the uniqueness of our own area and what we are able to support.”

As to when this all might happen, that’s one of the things being discussed right now. The original thought was around May, but that was before someone mentioned that Tropical Heatwave generally happens around the middle of the month on a Saturday night, and so that was nixed. “We’re not trying to compete with what’s already here,” Kornell emphasizes, mentioning the Gasparilla Music Festival and Antiwarpt as other events he wants to complement.

When asked when he had the “eureka” moment that led to the idea of creating such a festival, Kornell is vague, saying he’s always loved music, especially attending live concerts. When asked what shows stand out for him, he names three: Queen at the Coliseum in Memphis in 1983, Prince at the now Tampa Bay Times Forum in 2004, and the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels Tour of ’89. “Clearly they earned that title as the World’s Greatest Band.”

It’s hard to believe that local musicians wouldn’t be psyched. Julian Conner with the Sleepy Vikings says he thinks such a festival would provide “fantastic” visibility for local bands and venues, “since Tampa/St. Pete seems to get skipped by a lot of touring bands (especially indie bands I want to see). Maybe having a ‘bigger’ festival would make bands realize that Florida is an important place to tour.”

Schilke says the goal right now is not just to plan the first festival, but to create a five-to-seven-year plan to make it bigger and better. “The first one won’t be huge. The second will be bigger. The third one, even bigger, if we do it right. That’s the mindset.”

Can this dream come true? We may know more when you read CL’s Music Issue in 2013.

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