The Tom Tom Founders Festival organizers are looking ahead to 2013. (Image by Tom Tom Founders Festival)
Al Gore grew a beard, expanded his waistline and ducked out of the limelight when he lost the 2000 presidential election. When Paul Beyer missed a seat on the Charlottesville City Council by 31 votes last August, he didn’t hole up. Instead, he enlisted the aid of friends, community contacts and those who helped with his campaign and started crafting plans for a month-long music, arts and ideas festival.
And Beyer pulled it off, despite skepticism from some that his ambitious vision of a Charlottesville version of Austin’s South by Southwest festival could be organized in three months. The Tom Tom Founders Festival wrapped up May 13 with the sounds of the First Baptist Church gospel choir and local trumpeter John D’earth at the IX Project on Second Street S.E.
“People now know that it can happen, and they can see where it could go,” Beyer said. “Before, they questioned whether it could happen at all.”
If beer sales are any indication, Tom Tom had a solid first run. Concertgoers downed all 20 of the kegs of “Tom Tom Founders White IPA” supplied by Wild Wolf Brewing Company, according to the brewery’s distributor, Tommy Frank, sales manager for Blue Ridge Brewing.
“It was a great opportunity to see a band for four songs and hop around the Mall and not be locked into one place,” Frank said.
Beyer acknowledged that there is much to learn from Tom Tom’s first go – including how to compete with UVA students’ Beach Week tradition – but he was quick to share that there will be Tom Tom 2013.
“I really think this festival has the ability to change the entire conversation about the city,” Beyer said. “It’s a grandiose thought, but it’s not unreasonable.”
One central question seemed to emerge from Tom Tom 2012: What exactly did the city experience from April 13 to May 13? Was it a celebration of community diversity? A serious conversation about the future of Charlottesville’s small business culture? An all-encompassing music fest that tried to attract out-of-towners?
The month-long festival was billed as having two faces: a series of showcases for local artists, business owners and idea peddlers and a two-day ticketed music festival featuring a lineup of mostly up-and-coming indie bands.
“There is a whole cadre of creative people in Charlottesville,” Beyer said. “All it needed was someone to get in and say, ‘You all are doing something similar. Let’s partner together and make something cool.’”
The programming lineup read as a mishmash of artists and events that some might say lacked cohesion, but Sam Bush, frontman for the local band The Hill and Wood and Beyer’s music consultant, said it was wise to keep the scope of the first year broad.
“Charlottesville has a lot of strengths and a lot of ideas,” Bush said, “and I think it’s a good idea to keep a festival like this broad to allow it to find its place. Hopefully, in future years, it’s going to take on a life of its own.”
He also addressed Tom Tom’s critics.
“The counterargument was that it was too broad and no one really knew what it was,” Bush said. “They thought it was this big celebration of everything. It’s a two-way street: You want to keep it broad enough where anyone feels like they can participate in it, but you also want to be able to execute it professionally.”
The ticketed music festival – which Beyer said attracted about 1,000 people each night – allowed attendees to walk among seven downtown venues. Bush was concerned about how the artists would perceive the meager turnout, but he was heartened to see congratulatory emails from bands excited to come back next year.
“I was fearing that they would be slightly disgruntled,” he said. “It turns out every artist I talked to had a wonderful time. They loved Charlottesville, they said it was a great place to visit and they understood that a first-year festival is going to be pretty small.”
Tom Tom 2013 will offer a larger menu of bluegrass, blues, gospel and jazz, in addition to the “innovative up-and-comers” featured this year, Beyer said.
Music became Tom Tom’s backdrop for a wider innovation conversation, and Beyer enlisted the help of Oliver Platts-Mills, analyst for the Charlottesville investment management firm Investure, to spearhead the talks.
Platts-Mills had met Beyer when Beyer hosted a series of public meetings at his apartment during his city council run. After discussing his vision, Beyer tapped Platts-Mills with the task of collecting UVA professors, local political leaders and business heads for a series of business-themed discussions. Platts-Mills centered the panels around a question that has interested him personally: Can Charlottesville grow to become a start-up hub akin to Austin or Cambridge, Mass., that attracts – and keeps – entrepreneurs?
“We had pretty good participation at each of these talks – 50 or 60 people,” Platts-Mills said, “which I think is pretty good for an intellectual conversation on a Wednesday night with no music or beer. There’s a real appetite for this type of innovation talk in Charlottesville, and hopefully there will be a space where we can keep doing these types of events.”
Philippe Sommer, Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the Darden Business School at UVA who talked on one of Tom Tom’s panels, agreed. In his eight years in Charlottesville, he has seen a growing willingness to channel the city’s entrepreneurial spirit into commercial endeavors.
Sommer was particularly impressed with Tom Tom’s crowd-source pitch night, which awarded money to innovative business ideas at The Gleason Building downtown. The winner was not a Darden student, but rather Sandra Carter, the owner of Sixth Street Mini Mart Catering, who wanted to transform her business into a hub for healthy food.
“The people who came out were not the usual suspects,” Sommer said. “And I think that’s a really powerful message, that innovation is not just something going on at UVA and at that Ivory Tower up on a hill. Having an entrepreneurial mindset is a way you view the world. It’s the difference between: ‘Someone give me a job’ and ‘I’ll go create a job for myself.’ And that mindset should be taught and should be accessible to lots of people, not just those at the university.”
After a hectic four months, Beyer plans to recharge his batteries before plotting his moves for Tom Tom 2013. One thing is clear: he will not let criticism of Tom Tom’s first year stifle its positive take-aways.
“I think Charlottesville has a way of cannibalizing its visionaries,” Beyer said. “It eats them alive. A lot of people expected the festival to get out of the box five years old and not trust its intentions.”