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A Booming Colorado Music Scene Means Fierce Competition For Festival Slots

Stacy Nick
The Burroughs were one of more than 200 bands to play the 2015 Fort Collins Music eXperiment. About 2,000 bands applied to perform at the music festival.

For six years straight, Fort Collins band Stella Luce has applied for a slot at the local music festival Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest. For six years straight, they haven't gotten in.

On their sixth rejection, frontwoman Alana Rolfe took to Facebook:

"For six years, Stella Luce has been deemed unworthy of Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest. This year we're having an anti-festival party at Hodi's Half Note. Yeah. I said it."

It was meant to be somewhat tongue in cheek, rejection is just part of the reality for bands and festival organizers. Because as Colorado's music scene continues to heat up, the competition to make it into festivals does too.

That's great for festival goers because it increases the quality of the programming they're going to see, Alana Rolfe said. It also may eventually spawn more festivals or force festivals to expand to accommodate more acts.

"It's not like we're really billing the thing at Hodi's to be the 'anti-festival,'" Rolfe said. "Honestly, we'll all go all weekend. We love New West Fest. It's a super fun weekend."

The 2015 Fort Collins Music eXperiment started with 200 slots. They had 2,000 applicants. So organizers added some extra daytime programming opportunities and lucked into a few new venues, and they were able to add 80 more slots.

It's not something that every festival can do, said FoCoMX co-founder Greta Cornett.

When faced with a similar problem four years ago, the festival had to make a much different decision, Cornett said. The event had grown too big, too fast. They had to cut back dramatically. That left a lot of bands off the list.

"It is heartbreaking because I love local music, and, you know, our whole board does. It's why we do what we do," she said.

Her answer then and now to bands who complain about not making it into the event: If you don't like it, help us make it better.

"Come volunteer with us," she said, adding that a lot of the volunteers who help with the event are musicians – both those who are playing the festival and those who aren't.

"Them giving back helps us move it forward," she said.

For 15 years, Denver's Underground Music Showcase has been growing. What started as one night featuring four bands is now four days and more than 400 bands.

But for every one band that makes it in, there are at least three that don't, said Jason Hoke, UMS talent buyer. The number of bands applying is growing every year, adding to the strain.

"Even three years ago, we had about 800 submissions; this year we had 1,600 - pushing 1,700," Hoke said.

He's part of a three-person booking team that listens to each and every one of those submissions. In addition to the music quality and diversity, the team also looks at things like how active they are playing in and outside of the state, what shows they're playing right around the time of the festival, and whether they have new music coming out.

The "problem" now is that Colorado's music scene is almost a victim of its own success, Hoke said. More music than ever is coming out of the local scene. With that comes more competition, and not just from Colorado acts.

While most of the bands that play UMS are local, the event has expanded to include a mix of national acts, Hoke said. As the spotlight shines brighter on the music scene, that increases the amount of outside interest.

"We're now getting submissions from around the world, not just in Colorado," he said.

As the drummer for Denver band The Epilogues, Hoke said it can be especially tough when the hard calls need to be made.

"A lot of the time, these calls that I'm making (deal with) people that I've played with, people that are my friends, people that I know very well that I might have to say, 'Sorry, this year you weren't selected for the festival,'" he said. "It's not an easy process, for sure."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
After getting rejected for the sixth time for a Fort Collins festival, Stella Luce (shown here performing at the Colorado Music Party) decided to host a party of their own.

Alana Rolfe also sees both of sides. Not only is Rolfe the frontwoman for Stella Luce, she also is director of operations for SpokesBUZZ. Each year, the music nonprofit brings more than 120 Colorado bands to Austin, Texas' famed South By Southwest festival for the Colorado Music Party.

"I can appreciate the magnitude of logistical hell that you have to go through to pull off one of these festivals," Rolfe said.

"They have a committee and they have to selectively choose and not everybody's gonna' get in all the time," Rolfe said. "There's a lot of bands."

In general, the rejection process of summer festival season can be a weighty one, Rolfe said.

"You put yourself out there into this black void and then they reject you and you wonder if they ever even listened to it," she said. "But then when you do get selected it's really, really exciting."

So, will Stella Luce go into the void for a seventh year?

"I don't know, we might apply (for Bohemian Nights) again next year," Rolfe said, adding that she doesn't think that Facebook post will come back to haunt her.

"I would be disappointed if a small comment like that was held against us," she added. "I thought about it before I hit send. I actually showed it to another musician, first. I was like, I don't think I should post this, and he was like, 'do it, do it, do it.' And then a lot of others posted comments saying they felt the same way."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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