Thursday, December 7, 2023

Moogfest champions technology as a tool for creativity

By April Dudash
Photography by John Gessner

Durham email marketing company Oracle + Bronto knew just what to do with terabytes of clicks, sends and opens — dust off that data and turn it into music. Toddlers to adult fanatics of synthesizers worked “The Sounds of Commerce” controllers at last year’s Moogfest (pronounced MOGUE-fest). On a nearby screen under a white tent at the American Tobacco Campus, dizzying images pulsed to the electronic music.

Moogfest is a tribute to Moog Music, the synthesizer company Robert “Bob” Moog started in New York in the 1950s and later moved to Asheville. But the four-day annual event, to be held May 17-20, isn’t just a pilgrimage for fans of electronic music. Nor is it a traditional music festival, with last year’s lineup featuring an overnight “sleep concert” by meditative composer Laraaji.

Moogfest is about technology at the service of music and art, an idea Durham’s growing tech scene has embraced. “I want all of the technology companies to feel like Moogfest is their festival,” says 2017 Moogfest organizer Adam Katz. “It’s a marketing vehicle; it’s a place to prototype projects and to find insights about your consumers.”

Tech companies also say it’s a way to attract and retain talent. At the circus-themed Big Top hiring fair, there were acrobats in shimmering tutus, stacks of hot dogs wrapped in foil and crisp Bull Durham Beer Co. pale ale on tap. Chris Heivly, who started Big Top in 2011, is best known for co-founding MapQuest, the online mapping service that was acquired by AOL in 1999 for $1.1 billion. But on the eve of Moogfest, Heivly wore a top hat and orange pants, urging job seekers to listen to tech companies’ pitches. Companies don’t hold all of the leverage anymore, says Heivly, who sold his recruiting business to Durham-based American Underground last year.

Oracle + Bronto’s “The Sounds of Commerce” show at Moogfest was so successful at drawing in curiosity seekers that the company took it to customer events across the U.S. and abroad in the United Kingdom and Australia. “We’re always hiring, so I think that local brand recognition, people coming in and saying, ‘Hey, this is cool, who are you again? Who is Bronto?’ — we also could get [job] candidates,” says former general manager Carolyn Sparano, who left the company earlier this year.

Attendees will pay $99 to $1,500 for four days of nearly 100 live experimental and electronic-music performances, plus workshops, hackathons and lectures by experts ranging from anthropologists to technologists. Moogfest’s 2018 lineup includes many female, nonbinary and transgender artists, such as privacy-rights and political-transparency activist Chelsea Manning. Last year, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe premiered an art installation, and Austin, Texas-based synth band S U R V I V E, which created the score for the hit Netflix drama Stranger Things, performed.

“The ambition is as the tech scene grows here in the Triangle, that Moogfest is seen as not just a business endeavor but also as something that’s culturally enriching,” Katz says.

In 2016, Moogfest moved to Durham from Asheville after taking a year off to regroup. The festival lost $1.5 million in 2014, and organizers broke ties in 2012 with business partner AC Entertainment, the group that started Bonnaroo, a successful Tennessee festival. As Durham becomes an attractive alternative to established but expensive tech hubs such as Boston and San Francisco, Moogfest also seems to be finding its groove.

There wouldn’t be a Moogfest without Bob Moog, who in 1953 started selling theremins, electronic musical instruments that can be controlled without touch. Moog would go on to invent some of the world’s favorite synthesizers, used by artists including Yes, Devo, Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys. He left the company in 1977, moved to Asheville a year later, and by 1986, it was bankrupt, outdone by Japanese competitors. Moog regained the company in 2002, three years before his death, and relaunched it in North Carolina. Today, Moog Music’s 81 employees continue to make synths, as they’re known, by hand in a factory on Asheville’s Broadway Street.

The festival connects Moog Music with technologists from all over the world, and the company’s legacy and creativity influences Moogfest’s programming, says Emmy Parker, brand director of Moog Music and creative director of Moogfest.

“The festival mirrors the foundational work we do in the Moog Factory every day by celebrating the innovative spirit of Bob Moog and using technology to empower new forms of creative expression.”


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