What Prism Fest learned from its rough second year
The ambitious event narrowly avoided getting shut down in September, but organizers plan to soldier on. (Above: Trapo performing at Prism. All photos by Reid Kurkerewicz.)
If a tree falls at a music festival, and no one is hurt, is it a sign that nature abhors ambition? That's what the organizers of the Prism Music and Arts Festival wondered on the second day of the festival's 2018 edition, after a huge branch fell on a tent with a camper in it. Luckily, the occupant crawled out, unharmed.
Natural complications, including flooding, and plummeting temperatures the first night of camping, seemingly conspired against the second annual festival, held September 21 and 22 at Common Gardens, northwest of Madison in rural Dane County. Even worse were the police. As singer Abby Jeanne belted her blues-rock around 10:30 p.m. on opening night, an organizer ran through the crowd, yelling, "Turn it off!"
And so they did. Rumor spread across the campground, and Twitter, that the police had just shut down the entire weekend. With at least two hours of music apparently off the agenda, the mood turned bleak. Several attendees, annoyed at the return on their $50-per-ticket investment, made the joke: "Prison Fest."
But after some off-the-cuff convincing from the Prism Fest crew, electro-pop outfit GGOOLLDD took the stage to play an acoustic set. Lead singer Margaret Butler's crystal clear vocal delivery lends itself to center stage, as she and her improvisationally softened band captivated the remaining crowd.
This experience didn't quite match the promotion that preceded the festival, which was almost utopian in spirit.
"Over the course of two days—summer's last and autumn's first—you are invited to explore 200 acres of southern Wisconsin woodland, dance under an equinox moon, and bask in the great glow of Midwestern creative spirit," the Prism Fest About page says.
Local photographer and videographer Scotify collaborated on the polished promotional campaign that dotted local businesses with posters, landed features in Isthmus and the Badger Herald, and heightened Prism's social media presence.
Turns out the Town of Berry, where Common Gardens is located, doesn't allow any loud noise after 10 p.m. Though the event had a picnic permit, neighbors weren't feeling the good vibes blasting from the outdoor stage, which had originally planned to go until 2 a.m.
Jake DeHaven, one of the organizers of Prism Festival, confronted a nightmare scenario when it seemed the event the Prism team had planned throughout the year would be shut down. According to DeHaven, a few officers outright suggested Prism would be unable to continue at all.
"They saw the entrance and were like, 'what the hell is going on here?'" DeHaven says.
After spending a full Saturday morning defending Prism to the authorities, and having what he calls "a really powerful bonding experience" with one of the officers, DeHaven says he and an empathetic cop traveled to adjoining properties to talk with neighbors about the festival's goals, and about how it wasn't a weird drug party. The show went on, with amplified music pulled back to 10 p.m.
Resilience in the face of setbacks became a theme throughout the festival. Bands managed tighter sets at earlier times, and the crowd, some of whom were a captive audience of campers anyway, seemed unfazed. The only band cut was DeHaven's own, Tejsa. DeHaven credits the rapid rescheduling of hours of music to quasi-executive-director Madda Udvari-Solner, an essential part of the Prism Fest team, who also helped reach out to community partners like Banzo, whose food cart was onsite, and State Street retail shop August, which hosted a pop-up concert.
"It was a difficult pill to swallow, losing five hours of programming," DeHaven says. "But we're walking into an arena where a show like that never happens. It's one thing to get permits at a city park and have a rock festival. People understand that experience. Something like Prism was alien to the neighborhood."
Madison shouldn't remember Prism Festival 2018 solely for its setbacks. This was by far the best-sounding outdoor concert I've attended, thanks largely to Greg White of Madison Pro Audio. Daytime sets felt like secret showcases, with around 30 people, mostly other bands and their hangers-on, clustered around a stage that looked off into an alfalfa field, or in the barn. Outdoor concerts are usually replete with annoyances, like spotty sound and cramped quarters. But Prism married the warm, comfortable atmosphere of a club show with the romance of music performed amidst natural beauty.
Trapo's appearance on the Saturday of Prism Fest was the biggest draw for me personally, as he was the only artist who hadn't already played a big show in Madison recently. The rapper didn't disappoint, jumping around his already deep, versatile catalog, from the hype jams of his early mixtapes to tracks from this year's notably darker Oil Change EP.
After Trapo packed the barn, the crowd wandered over to the main stage, where Chicago's Post-Animal, who to my mind fit better in a festival setting than any other act in the lineup, churned through a set of energetic psych-rock, heavy with extravagant guitar soloing and crowd-leading antics.
And the venue, Common Gardens, is gorgeous. Rolling hills buttressed a vintage barn and a chicken coop, as kitties wandered about. Vape-smoke plumes from the crowd floated up over couches positioned atop a sloping field. A forest hiking path meant to hold extensive installation art was, unfortunately, mostly muddied by the floods. Instead, a huge dome eye with a tarp that pulled back like an eyelid formed the artistic centerpiece. The viewer sat and gazed through a kaleidoscope (of prisms!) at the main stage.
Inside this contraption on the second night, Alberto Kanost, of Bear In The Forest played a nighttime acoustic set for a dozen people, leading mumblers along through a cover of "The Weight" by The Band. Intimate moments like this are what made Prism work, even if they partially resulted from lower turnout than organizers anticipated.
With low turnout came thousands of dollars in debt for invested organizers and a tempered outlook for next year. Despite its perks, Common Gardens was just too far away from Madison, and tickets were too expensive for students who already have frequent opportunities to see those same bands throughout the year, including at free on-campus shows. Working with WSUM got people talking, but didn't get them shelling out $50 before parking.
"Looking at it now, the price point, and the inaccessibility, and our age demographic, it was a perfect storm. We thought we had this great line up, but we didn't have sponsors to help whittle down that ticket price," DeHaven says.
The monetary loss doesn't necessarily mean Prism can't succeed in the long run. The Prism fest crew scrapped together an ambitious weekend. They spent a year envisioning what an ethical, youth-led, regional culture festival could look like, and it will stand as an example of what's possible if you're willing to take on the risks.
Next year, DeHaven hopes to partner with a cause in the Madison community, and to host the festival downtown, probably only a single day. He'll also help run Winnebago Arts Café, a soon-to-open venue on the east side.
"At first, I was pretty devastated and really pretty sad, and I was thinking maybe this just isn't for me," DeHaven says. "Maybe there are people in this community who could do this better, and actually, I know for a fact there are. But I don't want to give up. A lot of people said it was really rewarding for them and fun and a new experience. That alone was worth the effort."