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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Revelry is latest attempt to create a major music festival for Madison
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Come May 4, some students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will no doubt have some decisions to make as they consider how to best spend a spring Saturday.

They could fight for their right to party and head to the one on West Mifflin Street or any other shindig in the downtown area, risking police confrontation along the way. Or, they could check out the debut of the Revelry Music and Arts Festival.

They could also always do both, or neither, as Revelry executive committee chair Sarah Mathews will remind you.

The all-day festival, while caught up in the controversy surrounding the Mifflin Street Block Party, is also the latest attempt at creating a big, annual music festival within the city of Madison. It's an enterprise that's been tried several times within the past 15 years, with little lasting success. But with Revelry, some UW students are willing to give it another go.

Dreamed up and created by students, Revelry follows several other music festivals recently organized in Madison. Party in the Park was, a jamboree organized by WSUM that attracted thousands to James Madison Park in the early '00s to see names like The White Stripes and Andrew W.K.; it was replaced in 2007 by the Snake on the Lake Fest, which continues each fall the Memorial Union Terrace. The Forward Music Festival was launched in 2008 with more than 50 musical guests (Neko Case and Bob Mould co-headlined) and expanded to more than 100 in 2009 (Andrew Bird received top billing) before disappearing. Then there is Freakfest, the annual Halloween festival on State Street, which continues to live on with fairly well-known acts but is arguably not music-centric.

Plans for Revelry's inaugural festival are modest, compared to its long-term goal of hosting a huge, end-of-year festival along the lines of Indiana University's Little 500 (featuring Macklemore and Talib Kweli this year) and Northwestern's Dillo Day (Regina Spektor, Guster, Nelly have played in the past), but can it eventually do what Party in the Park and Forward failed at -- host A-list talent and last? There won't be a shortage of challenges.

Starting small

First thought of in late summer 2012, according to a Facebook note by Mathews, Revelry was put together in a hurry. Even with only three and a half months to gather talent, rather than the normal 10, organizers were able to score several national acts, with Hoodie Allen headlining along with Toro Y Moi.

In addition to having a hastily assembled lineup, Revelry will also need to fight the perception on campus that it was created to deter students from attending the Mifflin block party. Organizers have fought hard to counter that notion.

"I think there are a lot of people who think that this is something that was instigated by the dean of students as opposed to students who were passionate about music and the cultural scene," Mathews says. "I think that there are people who think Revelry's antagonistic towards Mifflin instead of something complementary."

All of that may make Revelry's first year a little more of an uphill battle, but starting small may not be a bad thing.

Too much growth too fast is ultimately what doomed Forward, according to Bessie Cherry, who co-founded and helped organize the event. With over 100 artists on tap, the festival suffered from disorganization and, at times, disappointing attendance. Forward relied heavily on ticket revenue for funding, Cherry says, and after two years, the festival could no longer sustain itself.

"We were ambitious, and perhaps overly so but I think that with a more structured planning process and more backing financially, that's the kind of festival that would do really well in Madison," Cherry says.

Convincing everyone to buy in

As detailed by its organizers, 33% of Revelry's money comes from student services, like University Housing and the Wisconsin Union, while private funding accounts for 26% and ticket revenue for 30%. Although organizers are hoping to sell out, marketing director Josh Lieberthal had no comment when asked for an attendance goal. Nevertheless, Mathews says the support from UW gives it somewhat of an advantage.

"Something we talked about was how it was possible -- I can't speak with a lot of authority here -- but, it was possible that these other attempts at festivals faded away or didn't live up to their entire potential because there wasn't institutionalized support," Mathews says.

However, she still believes there is a lot riding on Revelry's first year. She says the university wasn't "all on board right from the start," and it will be paying attention to what resonance it can create with students.

Sponsors will, of course, also look closely at the metrics. Party in the Park, a free multi-stage festival put on by WSUM, never recovered when Pepsi backed out after the 2006 show due to low attendance, according to the radio station's then-promotions director Y Mae Sussman. Mathews says if attendance isn't high, it will be difficult to obtain sponsorship in the years afterward, although she hopes having a longer time to organize next year would restore confidence in sponsors.

Mathews also says she sees potential for the city to lend some support in the future, and music is certainly of interest within city hall. Last year, Mayor Paul Soglin proposed setting aside $20,000 of the 2013 city budget to conduct a study on Madison's ability to host a South by Southwest-type of festival -- although the Board of Estimates eventually deleted the item.

"This was the first year, I did not know what to expect from a variety of stakeholders," Mathews says. "I think that I see a lot of opportunity in the future to create something massive for Madison's arts and cultural scene if they were willing to support it more actively."

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