For a decade, the Troika Music Festival brought dozens of bands to Durham venues for three nights in the fall. Sometimes it was a harmonious affair. Sometimes it was a mess. But it was still Durham's homegrown celebration of local music.
And now it's over, per an announcement on the festival's website. Its original purpose, to bolster a struggling local music scene, may have passed. "There was always a belief that if Durham outgrew Troika," festival director Melissa Thomas writes in the letter, "then Troika would retire." She cites the Indy's Hopscotch Music Festival, increasingly self-supported local labels and venues, and a proliferation of smaller fests as indicators "Troika has been outgrown."
"Ending things is hard enough," she told the Indy. "Ending things on a positive note, you hardly ever get that opportunity." Thomas has been involved with the fest since 2003, and after years of booking local luminaries like The Rosebuds and Portastatic and now-notable indies like Man Man and Screaming Females, she feels comfortable retiring the festival.
Co-organizer Mimi McLaughlin noted the festival made money for the past three years. "I find that a high note," she says.
The festival did have some rocky years. McLaughlin recalls 2007 as being particularly rough. Headliner Les Savy Fav dropped out and volunteers scrambled to salvage the final show. She and Kyle Miller of Churchkey Records tightened the festival's focus in its last three years, according to James Hepler. Hepler, the drummer for I Was Totally Destroying It, volunteered for Troika in 2005 and 2006. He says, "The people who ran that festival deserve a rest if they want one, and we're all better off thanking them for their efforts rather than lambasting them for not wanting to continue."
Of Troika's retirement, he continues: "It was Melissa's festival. It would burn out when she burned out."
Troika hit a high point in 2010, and it's unclear if 2011 could measure up to that success. Thomas says she wanted each year to outdo the last, but she felt she couldn't make the festival any larger this year than it was last year. "We can only go so far," says Thomas. "Last year was our biggest budget, hovering around $20,000."
Indeed, Chaz Martenstein, owner of Bull City Records, says Troika last year may have been "trying to be a little too big"; it threatened to burn out volunteers and bands, especially on the heels of Hopscotch.
Last year's Troika sometimes frayed at the seams: Jeremy Blair has covered several Troikas for his Secret Carrboro Ninja Patrol blog. He says that the volunteers seemed edgy and tense, unlike at previous festivals. Blair says he saw a shouting match between Churchkey's Steve Jones and a hired soundman following an expectedly rowdy Red Collar set in the Trotter Building. Thomas, who broke up that argument, says there was "no reason" for what she calls an overreaction. Blair and Thomas also agree that several hundred dollars disappeared from The Pinhook cash box at the door. It was the "first year we had money go missing," says Thomas.
Sponsors helped pay for some of the festival's expenses, says McLaughlin, but those were small-budget sponsors. The majority of the funds came from ticket sales. Thomas says she would have had to accept corporate, liquor or cigarette sponsorship to ramp up the festival, which she's "never been willing" to do.
Following Thomas' announcement, social media was awash in speculation that Hopscotch, the Independent Weekly's music festival that happens in September, had "killed" Troika. But several Troika volunteers, organizers, performers and supporters disagreed there is a connection. "Did Hopscotch kill Cherry Bounce? Did Hopscotch kill SparkCon?" McLaughlin asks, a tad incredulous.
Thomas admits Hopscotch complicated matters. "We can't compete with that, obviously," she says. She wasn't willing for Troika to be the festival of next resort for local bands that didn't make Hopscotch. She also felt she couldn't invite some high-profile local bands because they had played Hopscotch two months earlier. "We also had to work three times as hard to make sure we offered something different," she says.
Hopscotch founder and director Greg Lowenhagen says he had initial meetings with Thomas in late 2009, when Hopscotch was in its embryonic stages: "Melissa mentioned how she was prepared to end Troika under certain circumstances."
McLaughlin says she attended a meeting where Lowenhagen presented his vision to the Troika committee. The festivals, rather than competing, would fulfill different roles, according to McLaughlin, Hepler, Martenstein and others interviewed for this story. Lowenhagen adds that he was "hoping to form a cooperative spirit between our two events. From the beginning, Melissa was really insightful and positive. We agreed we could coexist in a way that might benefit us both." Thomas organized free parties during the day at Hopscotch, while Troika 2010 had one Hopscotch-curated bill (though the lineup was announced last-minute).
"The energy and the notoriety that [Hopscotch] brings to the Triangle I think creates a halo effect," says Miller, a primary organizer of Troika. "I think that has a lot of positive value to everyone around here that's involved in music."
When Troika began in 2000, Durham was a different city with a fledgling music scene. "Durham was struggling to maintain enough venues to support the number of bands in town," says Ross Grady, who has been a vocal, knowledgeable figure in local music since the early '90s. He maintains Trianglerock.com's exhaustive local show schedule, DJs WXDU's longstanding Local Live radio show, and was the Indy's lone music critic for a time. "There were plenty of folks in the Triangle, even in Durham, who didn't realize that Durham even had a distinct music scene, let alone one as weird, DIY-focused and rabidly self-supportive as it was."
Today, releases by Durham-based Merge Records dominate the national charts. The town has grown to support the Durham Performing Arts Center, which draws high-ticket legends like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Nightclubs, including The Pinhook, Casbah and Motorco Music Hall, consistently offer high-quality music almost every night of the week.
So Troika, homegrown and locally focused, was perfect for a town on the upswing. In its early years when it was known as the Durham Music Festival, says Thomas, there were only a couple of stages on a single street. Durham grew, though, and venues some years were spread throughout town. But Thomas is glad to say that, in what ended up being its last year, Troika was again a walkable festival.
Thomas says she is ready to focus on other priorities. "I want to maintain my label," she says of 307 Knox, which has released music by Future Islands, Gray Young, and Birds and Arrows, among others. She wants to dedicate more time to her family, her work with Girls Rock and her own music. (Thomas plays drums in 8 Inch Betsy.) "I think that's where my dedication and my volunteers' dedication was waning a little bit," she says.
McLaughlin expressed a similar desire to reclaim personal time. "I had decided prior to Thomas' announcement that my involvement would be less," she said. "I wanted to focus more on my kids and my family."
Yet with McLaughlin playing bass in The Pneurotics and Magnolia Collective, Miller and Jones running Churchkey Records, and Thomas' own band and label, the loss of this festival doesn't mean its organizers will stop contributing to local music. Durham natives Rich James and Noah Kessler, who have played together in metal bands Hog and Tooth, say Troika's demise won't significantly impact their hometown's now-thriving music scene.
"It looks like the Troika 'brand' might just have run its course, but I'm fairly confident something will jump up in its place in the not-too-distant future," says Martenstein of Bull City Records. He also releases local records and is as invested in Durham music as one can be.
Within hours of the news, Martenstein says several local music advocates were already emailing, brainstorming a replacement. The fledgling ideas largely focus on having a fest in the spring, when it won't ride too closely to Hopscotch's heels. "Durham has always been a do-it-yourself kind of town, so it's just another step in that direction," Martenstein says, "a sideways step as opposed to a step back. Even if it were a step back, there's nothing wrong with that."