The cease-and-desist letter sent Gunning and Lambaria into crisis mode. With their festival only three weeks away and 20,000 flyers already printed, it was hardly a convenient time for a name change. But it says something about the challenges faced by the festival’s organizers that the possibility of getting sued by the most powerful multimedia confab on the planet doesn’t even rank among their biggest obstacles.
Gunning, a French-born music lover who runs the singer-songwriter haven the Red Room, and Lambaria, a young filmmaker and indie-rock devotee, have been friends since they met at a Buttercup show three years ago. But Gunning, who concedes that her passion often leads her to be overbearing, says that the pressure of building a week-long festival from scratch occasionally put a strain on that friendship.
“There was no way to separate the business partnership with the friendship partnership,” Gunning says. “So things can get very personal, especially with me, because I’m a stubborn, self-made person. I always do everything alone. That has been a crash course. But I’m learning. It’s teaching me how to work with people, and shut up when I have to. It’s hard, but I hope to come out of this a better person.”
Gunning and Lambaria have adopted the no-risk, no-reward mindset with their undertaking, which they renamed SA Indie Fest, deciding to blow it up into a seven-day music celebration. They’ve struggled to attract sponsors (winning a coveted commitment from Dos Equis), to recruit volunteers (they still need 20 more), and to overcome backbiting among some local musicians. But they’ve received invaluable support from Celeste Diaz Ferraro, a Trinity grad who recently returned to the city after spending six years in Washington, D.C. Ferraro has handled marketing for La Quinta and World Bank, and served as communications director for the governor of Puerto Rico. Her business acumen and calm demeanor brought a sense of organization to Gunning and Lambaria’s grand experiment. While Ferraro is officially the festival’s marketing director, Lambaria has dubbed her Indie Fest’s “voice of sanity.”
“I’m not a music-scene person, which is why this is such an odd connection,” Ferraro says. “But it’s been fantastic, and I’ve been so glad to meet them.
“San Antonio has changed a lot since I used to live here, and there’s more acceptance. People are looking for more sophistication in the types of activities that they participate in, and they’re looking for something different. You don’t often get to hear this kind of music in San Antonio, unless you go to Austin. And San Antonio shouldn’t have to play second fiddle to Austin all the time.”
With that in mind, the organizers of Indie Fest shed few tears about having to change the festival’s name from SXSA. In Gunning’s mind, the festival was always meant to be an anti-SXSW, a warm, inviting, relatively inexpensive, listener-friendly event that treated musicians as artists rather than cattle.
Even a small-scale festival can get out of hand quickly and Gunning says with a laugh that her biggest mistake was “not putting a ceiling” on the number of bands booked for Indie Fest. She began by booking 50 performers, leaning heavily on the kind of acoustic singer-songwriters that have become a staple at Red Room. Lambaria helped to expand the festival’s focus, using her connections to bring in punk, electro-pop acts, and hip-hop performers.
Before long, Gunning and Lambaria were bombarded with requests from a wide array of bands, many of whom were already scheduled to play at SXSW, and welcomed a chance to play another gig an hour away from Austin. At last count, 150 bands were scheduled to play from March 7-13 at Rebar, Red Room, and Revolution Room. Rebar will host indie-rock, alt-country, and world music; Red Room will feature singer-songwriters; and Revolution Room will showcase pop-rock and electronica.
“So now we have this big mix of all kinds of different music, which should please everyone in town,” Gunning says. “We have everything but metal and Tejano, because we have so much of that `in San Antonio` already.”
Those scouring the festival schedule for big-name headliners might be disappointed, but those willing to make a leap of faith should find many intriguing artists. Gunning is particularly enthused about Swati, a New York-based singer-songwriter who deftly plays an eight-string guitar and often draws comparisons to a young Ani DiFranco. She also raves about the Scottish pop-rock band Pop Up, and Pink Nasty, a gifted, left-of-center pop auteur who’s collaborated with Will Oldham and is admired by Stephen Malkmus. Lambaria gushes about Austin’s Black and White Years (“they remind me of the Clash”) and Singapore superstars The Great Spy Experiment.
Ferraro has already calculated that Indie Fest needs to draw 4,168 atttendees to break even, and given that there’s no track record for such an event in SA, the organizers are understandably a bit nervous. Lambaria says she’s had some friends urge her to “shut it down” and cut her losses, while others have raved about the festival’s potential.
Regardless of the outcome, they’re glad they didn’t engage in a legal throwdown with SXSW.
“If this had gone to court, could the SXSA name have continued? Possibly,” says Ferraro. “But do you really want to spend that kind of money? Do you want to focus your efforts on doing the festival, or do you want to get in a legal battle that you may or may not win?
“The irony of all this is that we’d said, ‘We’ll just call it `SXSA` for one year, and next year we’ll change the name to something that’s really San Antonio.’ We just did it a year early.”