In 2009, my former band—whom you’ve assuredly never heard of—played the Voodoo Music Experience. I had a chance encounter with the talent buyer for the kids’ stage, which was desperately looking for acts. My band, while very good in my biased opinion, was by no means setting the world on fire. Yet we found a way to play Voodoo.
We had this chance because of Voodoo’s layout at the time. Under founding production company Rehage Entertainment, Voodoo featured two main stages with a phalanx of smaller niche tents and stages. These tents featured everything from the kids’ area to an electronica tent to a New Orleans Bingo! Show tent to a WWOZ stage to a Preservation Hall tent.
While the two main stages had the feel of a standard large festival, the tents collectively provided an accurate re-creation of the New Orleans music and arts scene. New Orleans is obviously known for its jazz and blues, but Voodoo gave festivalgoers a platform to experience local indie rock, burlesque, sideshow, hip-hop and electronica as well. Voodoo offered a glimpse into the multi-faceted New Orleans music and arts scene found outside the usual tourist traps.
However, such opportunities are increasingly rare for unsigned local artists. Voodoo was acquired by Live Nation Entertainment in 2013, and its subsidiary C3 Presents has produced the Halloween weekend festival ever since. Structural changes came with new ownership. The grounds were consolidated into fewer stages for main acts, electronica artists, and a “Le Flambeau” stage that was loosely New Orleans–based (Le Flambeau is not a part of the 2017 festival).
This move was notoriously plagued with sound bleed issues for the first few years, but it also caused a far more devastating side effect. Fewer stages meant fewer available spots, and many smaller, unsigned local acts were pushed out of the festival. Only a few local bands now pepper the lineup, usually in the early slots as the gates open.
While Jazz Fest and the increasingly popular Buku feature various New Orleans artists of different genres, there are only so many festival spots to go around. With Voodoo increasingly inaccessible, many up-and-coming indie, hip-hop, and electronic acts are missing a key opportunity to further their careers, raise their profiles, and—most importantly—pick up new fans.
There are many benefits to corporate backing. Kendrick Lamar may be the most relevant headliner Voodoo has seen in a decade. But in the process, the festival is losing its New Orleans identity. What once offered an intriguing glimpse into the less-publicized side of New Orleans art and music is slowly becoming a standard corporate festival that could take place in any American city. If Voodoo wants to achieve the same longevity as Jazz Fest, its connection to its host city must be stronger than a cool name.