On Facebook, I recently got a heads-up about a Pagan music festival being planned for October. The name?
The Festival of Pagan Music That Doesn't Suck
Being that I am someone who likes music that doesn't suck, I immediately checked it out. The proposed line-up so far reads very much like a partial who's-who of what I would call the "Third Wave" of Pagan festival bands/musicians.
"Do you want to see S.J. Tucker / Skinny White Chick, Tricky Pixie, The Traveling Fates,Heather Dale, Alexander James Adams, GB Mojo, Gypsy Nomads, Kellianna, Celia, and more of the best pagan musicians at the same event?"Why "Third Wave"? It's an arbitrary distinction I created while researching the history of Pagan and occult music. The "First Wave" of Pagan festival bands are seminal artists like Gwydion Pendderwen, Isaac Bonewits, Jim Alan & Selena Fox, and others who hatched the idea of a self-consciously Pagan music created for Pagans from the primordial ooze of the 1970s. The "Second Wave" are artists who emerged, and saw the peak of their popularity, between 1985-1995, some examples include Kenny Klein and Tzipora Katz (aka Kenny and Tzipora), Holly Tannen, and Ruth Barrett. These artists were working during the explosion of Pagan festivals, and some are still touring and performing at them. The "Third Wave" started in 1995, and includes many of the artists listed above. These performers are often influenced by non-folk styles, enjoy some measure of popularity outside the Pagan festival scene (even if it's at other subcultural festivals), and some are reluctant to be seen solely as "Pagan" musicians.
To be honest, I'm surprised a festival like this is only now emerging within a Pagan context. While many Third-Wavers get gigs at Pagan festivals, they still have to compete with their predecessors, and with a melange of Baby Boomer-friendly artists that cater to the demographic majority of paying festival goers (in the Pagan context). This has meant that many modern Pagan bands/musicians get gigs, when they get gigs, outside a specifically Pagan context. Fantasy/Sci-Fi conventions, neo-tribal gatherings of various flavors, goth, faerie, or steampunk events, Renn. fairs, and other subcultural havens that Pagans congregate to.
So in a certain sense, even if done subconsciously, this festival is a shot across the bow of Pagan festival/event organizers. It says "you are losing the younger generations", it comes right out and says what many Pagans from the younger generations have been thinking. That most musical options to be found at Pagan events don't speak to them, that they, in their opinion, suck.
It is a message I can certainly empathize with. As the guy behind "A Darker Shade of Pagan", I can attest that my own personal search for darker (and in my mind more vital) Pagan and occult music was partially born from my frustration at what I was told "Pagan" music was. The stuff sold, often in cassette form, in any number of New Age and metaphysical/occult shops. Endless circle chants, warmed over folk-rock, over-earnest Goddess balladry, New Age reincarnated dolphin synth-washes, and "rock" that often refused to "rock". I was squarely in the "Pagan music sucks" crowd for some time, which is one step up from "ignoring the cultural output of the Pagan community entirely" crowd, a group that is far larger than some would care to realize.
So in a sense, I should be excited to see a "Festival of Pagan Music That Doesn't Suck", but I fear they are walking into a trap. The first is that when you draw your line in the sand, but don't set any parameters as to what, exactly, doesn't suck, you'll find yourself flooded with offers from artists that don't live up to your non-sucky standards. After all, I doubt any musician or band truly thinks they suck. Most will instead remark to themselves that they certainly do not suck, and that they should offer to play at this festival forthwith, creating some bad blood when you start turning folks away (because you are saying, by not including them, that they suck).
Secondly, they are creating a festival that is more about what they are against, "sucky Pagan music", than what they are for. Successful music festivals cater to a certain aesthetic or subculture. Whether it's hippy-jam-bands, goth, esoteric freak-folk, or indie rock, they all know who they want to please. They aren't explicitly branded as rebellions against a nebulous musical "other".
Finally, for a showcase of what "doesn't suck" in Pagan music, it's awfully uniform in style and substance. Which isn't to say I don't think some of the participants are talented or worthy, only that a goodly chunk of the proposed line-up centers around the orbit of (the immensely talented) S.J. Tucker. Tricky Pixie is a side-project of SJ Tucker, Alexander James Adams is a member of Tricky Pixie, Heather Dale is pals with Tucker, The Traveling Fates is another Tucker side-project, and GBmojo is a duo that makes up the other 2/3rds of The Traveling Fates. That's 2/3rds of the revealed so-far line-up! Now maybe they have a lot more planned, but at this point it hardly seems like any kind of definitive statement about Pagan music (sucky or not) as a whole. In fact, it seems somewhat unadventurous. Sure to please fans of the S.J. Tucker orbit, but hardly drawing in all the other folks "dissatisfied with the quality of music at your pagan festivals".
Where's the plethora of Pagan and occult goth and darkwave bands? What about the Pagan metal bands? What about the neo and psych-folk artists? The experimental drone? It seems to me that if you are going to go all out and claim to be the Pagan music festival that doesn't suck, why not go all out? Why not have the Pagan version of All Tomorrow's Parties? Inviting different folks to "curate" the line-up each year. Ensuring that you'll have an eclectic and ever-changing line-up. Or, if you want to have a festival that centers on music in the vein of S.J. Tucker and friends, then do that (like Fairport Convention does), but be clear that this is what you are doing. I realize that this is all armchair quarterbacking on my part, but I'd change the name to something that could have a legacy. One that could educate, enlighten, and entertain, instead of merely cause a minor ruckus by picking a somewhat divisive title.
Again, this isn't commentary on the artists involved. I think Tricky Pixie, Kellianna, and the others are talented folks. I like S.J. Tucker's music, and I very much look forward to seeing her perform at Pantheacon next week. I just think marketing a new event that could be somewhat ground-breaking like this is a bit off. At least, that's my opinion. Maybe I just suck.