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Vinyl Music Festival calls it quits

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PHOTO BY CLIFF ROLES

Rich Swier Jr. has lifted the needle off the Vinyl Music Festival.

For the co-founder of the annual electronic music festival, the last straw was the Sarasota County Commission’s decision this week to scrap a plan to create a tourist-friendly festival.

“It sends a message to me that, ‘Oh, we don’t care about festivals,’” Swier said. “If that’s the case, I don’t want to do festivals in this town.”

On Wednesday, three months after initially rejecting a festival steering committee’s proposal for a “Festival of Firsts,” which would have featured world and local premiere performances and exhibits, the Sarasota County Commission voted to end the effort and redistribute the $825,000 set aside for the project.

Commissioners voted to allocate more than $625,000 over three years for reserves for the annual tourist tax-funded arts grants, and another $200,000 for cultural tourism promotion through the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Swier says he was frustrated after watching the festival committee spend 18 months developing plans without seeking input from Vinyl Music Fest organizers or other area festivals.

“It’s been extremely frustrating since we started it three years ago, and we did our best to work within the drama of this festival committee, hoping that at some point there’d be a clear path for festivals like Vinyl to have incentives in place or some sort of funding,” he said.

The Vinyl festival was self-financed and did not qualify for arts grants, which are reserved for nonprofit organizations. Swier said it always broke even, but he hoped to eventually receive support from the county because the event attracts electronic music fans beyond Florida’s borders.

Rich Swier Jr. / PHOTO BY CLIFF ROLES

“It was never about getting free money, I’m never a believer in that,” Swier said. “I was suggesting to the county even a micro-loan or revolving loan concept for existing festivals that need the cash flow until they can sell tickets. We weren’t asking them to give money away; we were saying it would be smart to have like a revolving loan that would replenish itself for festivals to get started. Really good ideas, I thought.”

At least two commissioners said the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, which administers the arts groups, should explore ways to find support for tourist-friendly start-up events like the Vinyl and Chalk festivals.

In its first two years, the VMF was held in the summer and quickly garnered rave reviews for its lineup of internationally known DJs.

“We started Vinyl to show that there was a way to create a vibrant festival to attract young professionals to our area,” Swier said. “From our perspective, we’ve showed that we can do a successful young festival here. It’s grown over three years; it can be done. So we should allocate some resources to supporting other people who want to do that in this town — not us, specifically. There are a variety of people in this town who want to start festivals.”

The VMF applied for a grant with the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau and was approved for a summer event, but after the VMF teamed up with the Sarasota Film Festival in April, the grant was rescinded. Swier said he had intended to host another Vinyl Music Fest this month as well.

“I’m always about: How do we get to the next level?” Swier said. “If you want to have a South By Southwest or a Bonnaroo or an international festival where thousands of people come to our city, there is a tipping point that has to happen. That’s what I believe that $1 million was for.

PHOTO BY CLIFF ROLES

“To run a festival of that size, you absolutely have to have the county as a partner — money or not. That’s what I don’t see; I don’t see the infrastructure in place here. We’re not prepared to have anything other than a small festival.”

Festival Steering Committee Chairman Robert Warren said he never received a proposal from Swier, but he understands his frustration.

“My thought is, if that’s really a push, the board of county commissioners needs to come up with other pots of money for for-profit ventures such as the rowing facility or Warm Mineral Springs, which could be a profit center for cultural tourism,” Warren said.

“Part of my comment at the presentation Wednesday was that the Ringling International Arts Festival was a start-up,” Warren said. The County Commission “came up with some money to support it because they believed in it.

“We need to keep these smaller festivals going at whatever cost.”

Warren, who is the director of education & community engagement at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, said he hates to see the Vinyl Music Festival close up shop.

“It had such a nice target audience,” he said. “We have to build that up. There’s such a disparity; a lot of the surveys say, ‘We love to come to Sarasota, but after 9:30 or 10 o’clock, what do you do?’ ”

Last modified: September 9, 2011
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