Sunset Junction: What's Your Function? (Opinion)

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With the cancellation of this weekend's music confab and street fair, THR's Music Editor wonders whether the Silver Lake institution has lost its way.

Like many Angelenos, when news came of music festival Sunset Junction’s cancellation this year, part of me wasn’t all that upset about it.  Sure, I’d had many fun hangs on the mile-long stretch of Sunset Blvd., which is closed off for the last weekend in August to accommodate some 40,000 locals taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the two-day block party. I had also seen more than my share of killer bands -- rock stalwarts like the Buzzcocks and Eagles of Death Metal, punk pioneers X, indie darlings the Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Walkmen, future breakout acts Silversun Pickups and Airborne Toxic Event and even R&B hitmakers like Ashford & Simpson and Morris Day and the Time. And, I’ve been told, the festival had a philanthropic purpose as well – to unite the Latino and gay communities in Silver Lake in an effort to quell tension that came along with gentrification.

STORY: Sunset Junction Music Festival Canceled, Permit Denied

But as a former resident of the eastside neighborhood, Sunset Junction weekend also marks the biggest headache of the year. It goes without saying that traffic on the tricky streets of Silver Lake is an absolute nightmare. Parking even more so, and after spending an hour peering for a spot, you get to repeat the action, inching your way down a congested corridor that in any other circumstance would be considered a fire and riot hazard of the highest order. There’s no escape, thanks to a miles long chain link fence that ostensibly cuts off access to local businesses. The scariest part? When a rickety-looking pirate ship carnival ride is careening mere feet above your skull and you’re helplessly hoping that if anything lands on your head, it will be a converse sneaker and not the hipster who’s wearing it.

Of course, it’s really all about the music, and one element the festival has always taken pride in its diversity when it comes to booking acts. A decade ago, Elliott Smith was among the headliners (the late singer recorded his seminal Figure 8 album at the recording studio on the corner of Sunset and Fountain, or right in the heart of the gathering). In 2010, it was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros who led a bonafide sit-in for some 10,000 people as they closed out their set, while further down, Meshell Ndegeocello, Fishbone and Bad Brains, along with lesser knowns Palenke Soul Tribe and Bobo Meets Rhettamatu, entertained the curious masses. Inevitably, at peak headliner hour, all these disparate genres sounds converge to create one giant cacophony of noise and it’s migraine time.

STORY: Sunset Junction Festival Cancellation: Organizers Speak Out

This year, I got the Junction call especially early -- months ago. It came by way of an announcement, that the festival would introduce a Hotel Café stage, one of six planned for the festival. Besides secretly dreading hours of singer-songwriters strumming pensively on their acoustic guitars, I recall thinking, “Hotel Café? That’s Hollywood, not Silver Lake.”

As it turns out, such semantics would be the least of anyone’s worries. Rather, the festival had to contend with an eye-popping $141,000 bill due to the city and a less-than-enthusiastic city council who, while not hell-bent on bringing the festival down, didn’t flinch when it came time to deny organizers their permit. Also an issue: the $25 entry fee, up from $20 last year and $15 in 2009. Prior to that, it was by “donation only,” though few actually coughed up any significant dough.

Indeed, when word came that the festival’s permit might not be granted, festival organizers returned to donations, calling on the public to help pay off its debt to the city. But the move backfired, as many saw it as a last straw. After all, with the hike in ticket price, plenty were wondering, where had all that money gone? And why was it the public's responsibility to pay these bands' booking guarantees? 

STORY: Sunset Junction Organizers Issue Plea for Donations Amid Cancellation Concerns

Today, the festival’s identity is most certainly in question. This year’s lineup included the pioneering punk-meets-psychedelia outfit the Butthole Surfers, metal band Helmet and the sludgy Melvins, but it also featured the now men of “Mmm Bop,” Hanson, in a Sunday headlining slot alongside sets by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bobby Womack and Peaches, who was slated to DJ at the Sanborn Stage. In total, 100 acts were on the bill, a good deal for the ticket price, but as one city council member described, it’s like having Coachella in your backyard. Who wants that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Hanson, Butch Walker, Rooney, and a dozen more of the bands on the 2011 schedule, but it’s a rare feat for a festival set to outdo an artist’s proper full show, so why endure subpar performance conditions? Where the lineup is concerned, evidently, it’s no longer about showcasing local talent, but rather selling tickets via a hodgepodge bill with bookings that made no rhyme or reason; not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if committing an entire day and night to seeing music, conditions should at least be comfortable and provide the most basic of necessities -- shade, water, restrooms, etc. -- as Coachella, Austin City Limits and other music gatherings do so well. Where profit fits in remains a mystery, since the fest clearly is having trouble keeping up with its bills. As for the Sunset Junction’s other purpose -- bringing together a divided populace and helping support local youth programs  -- it seems all vested parties, from the organizers to local government to the music fans willing to fork over their heard-earned cash, could use a reminder.

STORY: Hanson, Butthole Surfers, Butch Walker to Headline L.A.'s Sunset Junction Street Fair

Yes, Sunset Junction has gotten too big, not just in terms of physical size but self-importance, so perhaps it’s time to refocus on what really matters: the tremendous talent that abounds in Silver Lake, the multicultural flavors that emanate from scores of stoops, a reasonable entry fee that won’t gouge the thousands of just-out-of-school attendees and embracing a sense of community.

As the principals ponder what may happen next year, they need to consider new tactics. Since the fest is held miles away from the movie capital of the world -- why not project a classic film on the side of a building rather than installing an obnoxious fence you can’t even peek through? Open up the stores to foot traffic so that those retailers feel like they’re getting something from the proposition besides a sullied sidewalk. And if Sunset Junction remains a showcase for national acts, maybe it’s time to think about moving this gathering away from one of the most heavily-trafficked roads in the city to nearby Dodger stadium or Elysian park?

As for the bands, many of whom had already made plans to route tours or personal travel to L.A., they’re scrambling to fill those nights and several are trying to reschedule their sets. There’s talk of Hanson playing at the Roxy (the band said in a statement, "It's unfortunate that the community will go without the neighborhood staple for the first time in 30 years, we are crossing our fingers for a positive outcome for future events”), Butthole Surfers booked the Echoplex, Helmet is taking over the Viper Room, Butch Walker is playing at the office of Dangerbird Records, his new label, and Peaches is moving her DJ set to Freak City (more rescheduled shows are listed at LA Times). Perhaps that's the best example of what this community has to offer: something for everybody in the city's dozens of rock clubs, a point last weekend's Sunset Strip Music Festival drove home without incident.