Denton, Texas, is a small city home to two universities in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan region. Several years ago, Chris Flemmons, a long-time resident and singer/songwriter for the Sub Pop band The Baptist Generals, decided he wanted to stem the annual exodus of his friends who went looking for jobs in cities outside of Denton. He thought the best way to do this was to leverage what he saw as the city’s “best export” – its music scene.
Considering that Denton has well over 100 active bands in a city of just over 110,000 residents, it wasn’t a stretch of reasoning. The city serves as home or launching pad to bands as diverse as Midlake, Bowling for Soup, Eli Young Band, Neon Indian, and Sarah Jaffe. Even the local polka band, Brave Combo, has appeared on The Simpsons and won two Grammy Awards. Musical genres represented on any given night in the rehearsal spaces, house parties, and venues that fill Denton range from hip hop and doom metal to experimental folk and noise rock.
The result of Flemmons' efforts is 35 Denton, a "walkable 4-day music festival programmed in the heart of downtown."
"I was hoping the festival would be an anchor that could spur a better economy here, maybe better jobs would show up and people would decide to start businesses here," he says.
Flemmons launched the idea as a day-party during the 2005 SXSW music festival in Austin (four hours south of Denton) while slowly establishing relationships with City of Denton employees and representatives. In 2009, he enlisted a group of volunteers and situated the festival in the venues surrounding Denton’s historic square to highlight the walkability of the town with hopes of "people getting out of their cars and staying out of them." The inaugural Denton edition was a modest success, with approximately 2,000 attendees taking in shows by mainly local and regional bands.
In 2010, an opportunity to secure the Flaming Lips as headliners transformed the festival into an event with a national profile. The all-volunteer "core staff" (which included Flemmons) enlisted an army of additional volunteers to help and attendance increased by ten-fold, resulting in a substantial economic and fiscal impact on the city (Full disclosure: I volunteered at 35 Denton while working on my Ph.D. and organized all of the daytime programming for 2010 and 2011. I received no compensation, but learned a lot about stress management).
In the years since the Flaming Lips played, 35 Denton remains volunteer-driven, routinely receives national and international press, registers attendance in the 10,000+ range, and books globally recognized acts like Big Boi, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Built to Spill. The festival also keeps a tight focus on acts from Denton and the surrounding region. This past March, 244 bands played both the official festival and the unofficial day-parties coinciding with it. Of those bands, 103 were from Denton while 38 claimed other cities in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan region as home.
35 Denton is also emerging as the catalyst Flemmons envisioned. Kevin Roden, the city councilmember whose district contains 35 Denton’s footprint, views the festival as a low- to no-cost national branding tool for the city, helping make it attractive to a younger demographic.
"We are seeing an increased interest in the downtown area," Roden says, adding, “It’s hard to remove what’s going on with 35 Denton and the energy it’s put into downtown venues that host music throughout the year.”
Roden additionally offers that 35 Denton is a common topic in discussions with those responsible for the new commuter rail line connecting the city to Dallas as well as developers interested in reshaping the downtown area with music as a foundation.
Josh Berthume, co-founder and creative director of Swash Labs, an advertising agency located in downtown Denton, cites the festival as the overriding reason he chose to remain in the city after founding the agency just over a year ago. “We had clients all over the country… I could have gone anywhere,” he says. “35 Denton showed me a real role-model of what was possible in Denton and it encouraged me to keep my address here.” Swash now has 26 clients, employs eight people, and recently became the festival’s agency of record.
A similar story is found in the two young, yet seasoned volunteers who recently took the reins after Flemmons decided to focus on other creative endeavors. Both Kyle La Valley and Natalie Dávila chose to remain in Denton because of the festival and now they are its first paid employees.
Somewhere in Denton, a band is playing right now while work on next year’s 35 Denton has already begun.