Hopscotch’s Cultural Gravitas

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Hopscotch Music Festival is fast becoming Raleigh’s cultural center of gravity.

In its third year, the festival has grown by almost 50 percent. It now features more than 175 bands across 15 music venues during three days.

“I was incredibly surprised at how successful the first Hopscotch was,” said Raleigh’s 34-year-old city councilor Bonner Gaylord. “I think it proved there was such a latent desire in this city for creative talent and music and expression.”

Supply Met Demand
In its first two years, the festival drew crowds between 15,000 and 20,000 people to a downtown undergoing revitalization. It also received frequent comparisons to Austin’s South by Southwest festival, a touchstone for independent music in America.

“South by Southwest: it took them 20 years to make it cool,” Gaylord said. “All of a sudden Hopscotch comes out of the gate in an amazing way. I think it’s huge for Raleigh.”

“We’ve been known as the Research Triangle. And we’ve been known for science and all these other things. And that’s wonderful. It’s something that’s important to be known for,” said Greg Hatem, owner of Empire Properties, which operates several restaurants downtown.

Hatem, long a believer in downtown, called Hopscotch “a by-product of Fayetteville Street.”

Part of a concert at City Plaza during Hopscotch 2011.

“It allowed us to get something like a Hopscotch, and now Hopscotch is a stepping stone to even bigger things,” he said.

Some of the bigger things at play include the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award show, which is moving to Raleigh next year.

Hopscotch Founder Greg Lowenhagen said organizers of the bluegrass award show studied the Hopscotch model.

According to Lowenhagen, one selection committee member, commented, “I hope it’s the Hopscotch of bluegrass … all of these things create a full city calendar and we’re not near a calendar yet.”

Despite the festival’s acclaim, Lowenhagen said it’s still young.

“I think it’s still a baby. I do. Each year dictates the next year,” he said. “Next year could be a year where we decide to cut bands. We could go back and meet in the middle. We don’t exactly know what we’re doing each time because we have to experience this weekend in September.”

This will be Hopscotch’s last year as a possession of the Independent Weekly out of Durham. The paper was just bought by the owners of Oregon-based Willamette Week, but Hopscotch will remain in the hands of Steve Schewel and Carolina Independent Productions with Lowenhagen as director.

A band plays on the stage at City Plaza during Hopscotch 2011.

The Impact
For business owners and city politicians, Hopscotch has already become an irreplaceable fixture.

“Everybody responds well to it,”Hatem said.“Even the folks who are old and decrepit like me and don’t quite understand what’s going on. It’s great to see the energy. “

It’s difficult to quantify the exact economic impact, but for establishments like Hatem’s Raleigh Times Bar, the business isn’t bad.

“I thought sidewalk was going to cave in, earlier,” Hatem said. “We brought in 100 kegs of beer just for this weekend. We normally do pretty good, but this is ridiculous.”

He believes the long-term economic impact is perhaps even larger.

Innovative “companies can be anywhere. Red Hat can be anywhere,” Hatem said. “But they know that in order to make a difference and take care of their employees who all have a desire to not split their personal and professional life, they bring them downtown.”

“It proves that Raleigh is not just a sleepy, college, tech town. It’s not what I grew up with,”Gaylord said. “It’s only going to grow people who come from outside the city’s understanding of Raleigh creative class.”

As for Lowenhagen’s vision of the future, he said it’s difficult to step back and view what you’ve created, when you’ve got a festival to run — even one that’s a “baby.”

“Hopefully, it’s just like the life of a human and it’s only 3 years old, and I hope that it ends up being 20 and 40 years old,” he said.

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