Downtown Festival started as a small, New York-based festival, but it has grown steadily over the years and has now expanded to other cities, including Cleveland, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Houston. The fest kicks off here on Friday with the indie rock bands War on Drugs and Califone, who play at House of Blues. That same night, indie rockers Islands perform with Extra Spooky and Teen at the Grog Shop and the experimental duo Pomplamoose offers its avant garde mix of folk and punk at Beachland Ballroom. Com Truise ties up that night with a late show at the Grog Shop.
The festival continues with a series of shows on Saturday, including roots rockers American Aquarium, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle and Crash, of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Those acts all play House of Blues on Saturday, while celebrated producer RJD2 performs at the Grog Shop that same night. Freeman, the solo project for Ween's Aaron Freeman, performs at the Beachland Ballroom. Locals such as Marcus Alan Ward, P. Stoops and Smoke Screen have been added to the festival's line-up too.
Launched in 2011 to commemorate Downtown Records' fifth anniversary, the inaugural Downtown Festival featured performances by acts across multiple genres. Acts such as Santigold, Major Lazer, Miike Snow, A-Trak, White Denim and others played over two nights at New York's Webster Hall and Terminal 5. Those bands weren't well known at the time, but they went on to bigger and better things. Downtown Festival's mission statement: "Bring together high-profile national artists and the most compelling emerging artists on unique bills in intimate settings at an affordable price — offering the curation of a large festival at the cost of a club show."
"For that five-year anniversary show in 2011, we wanted to celebrate all the bands on the [Downtown] label," says organizer Jennifer Lyon. "We wanted to focus on what's next rather that what's big. We wanted to focus on who's great and who has the opportunity to grow."
In the wake of that initial festival, the label's events division, branded Downtown Events, scored a few good taste-making gigs.
"Facebook called us and wanted us to book their development conference so we brought in Crystal Castles," Lyon says. "[The search engine] Bing wanted us to do something dope for them and we would. Things of that nature were happening, and we felt like could give an opinion and add some perspective. The acts we work with are interesting and good."
Last year, Downtown Festival took place at eight venues in downtown Manhattan and featured performances from Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Purity Ring, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Sky Ferreira, DIIV and Trash Talk. Lyon feels that what works in New York, where underground music has bigger audiences, will also work fine in Cleveland.
"To me, a Cleveland music fan is going to be the same fan now as a New York fan," she says. "We all have access to the same stuff through Soundcloud and Pitchfork and Stereogum. It's different than 10 or 15 years ago when we all didn't have the same access. We worked with the crews at Grog, Beachland and House of Blues and asked them what they're into. There have been things that they have wanted to do, and I think that creates a fun opportunity for all of us. I think that's pretty neat."
The fact that the line-up of acts playing Cleveland is so diverse also speaks to the ways in which genre is no longer as relevant as it once was.
"I think there's a real openness, and I think that genre doesn't matter as much because we're all accessing music with Spotify — who's working with us on marketing — and can listen to whatever you want," Lyon says. "You don't have to buy an entire CD. You can explore. If you're an explorer and an adventurer in the world, you can try out things you might not have. I think that's good. What I love is that media outlets are providing their playlists. And they're really, really broad. I like that."
But seeing a band live is often a different experience than listening to its music. Lyon says if a group can deliver in a live setting, it begins to accrue the kind of following that will enable it to have a lengthy career.
"Our ears are more experienced and we have to get into the live shows and then we can make a differently informed decision about whether we're fans or not," she says.
For Lyon, a talent buyer who's familiar with the club scene on a national level, Cleveland represents a great opportunity for Downtown Festival.
"I got to known the landscape of the nation when I was working on tours, and that's how I track things," she explains. "It's great if club owners are thinking different things in Cleveland than they are in Chicago. I think that's great. It's an interesting part about America because we treat this like we're homogenous but we're not. We're not homogenous in any way. Thank goodness."
And Lyon, who says she'll be attending the festival while it's in Cleveland to gauge whether it's successful enough that it can return, says she hopes it turns out to be a good fit for the city.
"Cleveland is a music town and it has some great indie heart," she says. "You have some great rooms and that's noteworthy. It doesn't exist all over. I think Cleveland is pretty spectacular."
Downtown Music Festival
Sept. 19-20. Tickets: $59-$79, thedowntownfestival.com.