— Singer-songwriter Erin Barra shelled out around $4,000 to travel to the Sundance Film Festival this month. The 26-year-old had to pay her own way from New York City, plus cover expenses for her tour manager and the two musicians who accompanied her to Utah. She hired a publicist to help her get local press, even though only one of the six shows the Salt Lake City native booked in her home state was a paying gig.
“If I can meet somebody out there who puts music into film and we develop a relationship, then the investment of going to Utah could pay off tenfold,” said Barra, whose lawyer and business manager also attended the festival on their own dime. “The potential return is much higher at Sundance because of the correlation with film.”
Sundance concluded this past weekend, but Barra’s odyssey there seems to embody the independent spirit of the festival, which was founded in an effort to help low-budget films reach a wider audience.
Substantially more festival-goers turned up to see the dozens of big-name hip-hop and pop acts that performed in clubs and bars on Main Street over the course of the 10-day event, however, than ventured out to watch little-known artists like Barra play at the Sundance ASCAP Music Café — an intimate venue that hosted 23 performers including Ingrid Michaelson, A Fine Frenzy and Natasha Bedingfield.
During the last decade, the number of musical acts at Sundance has ballooned — as has the number of corporate sponsors and celebrities who turn up absent any connection to any of the movies in the festival. This year, more than 50 performers descended upon the mountain city, leaving fans with a bevy of shows to choose between nightly.
Like Barra, many of the musicians are hoping to raise their professional profile and maybe even score some film work. But the latter goal might be especially difficult to achieve. Loretta Muñoz, the ASCAP executive who books the Sundance event, said the songwriter showcase has resulted in a number of networking opportunities over the years, but cited only one artist who was asked to become a part of Sundance’s composer lab after performing at the Café.
Instead, it’s often established acts that steal the spotlight. Rappers Drake and Wiz Khalifa played invite-only shows at the Bing Bar, a multilevel space decorated by the Microsoft search engine. The DJ Deadmau5 and LMFAO, famous for a party anthem about taking shots of alcohol, performed at the Park City Live venue. And at a pop-up version of the posh Tao restaurant, T-Mobile and Google Music sponsored concerts from somewhat less commercial acts like the Civil Wars and the Whigs.
And that doesn’t even include the gigs by Common, James Murphy and Ice-T, all of whom performed in conjunction with various films.
On Main Street, the primary spot for party-hopping, hundreds of festival-goers tried to elbow their way into these exclusive events each evening in blizzard-like conditions. One of the hottest tickets in town was for Drake, who attracted a crowd comprised largely of young women dressed in faux-fur leopard coats with their cleavage spilling out.
Following a time-honored hip-hop tradition, Drake took the stage more than an hour late. He arrived sporting a bright orange Patagonia jacket and multiple gold chains around his neck, and he was surrounded by an entourage filled with handlers and security guards.
Asked why he wanted to perform at Sundance, the 25-year-old said he was eager to get in front of an industry crowd.
“Sundance has always been this thing I wanted to attend no matter what. I like the acting crowd, you know? It’s less confrontational,” he said. “And I’m sure there’s great people here from every genre, but I’m proud that there’s hip-hop acts here.”
Bing initially set up shop in Park City three years ago, because it wanted to spread the word about the then-fledgling brand, company director Lisa Gurry said.
“We’re geared in many ways for helping people find out about entertainment, and this provides a great launching pad to connect with entertainment fans in a credible way,” she said, adding that Bing banks a number of interviews and musical content to offer online after the festival.
Kathryn Burns, owner of Park City Live, chose to reopen her venue — formerly known as Harry O’s — during Sundance this year because it’s easier to land big-name acts during the indie film showcase.
“When we’re trying to book artists, we tell them that because this is Sundance you have some really elite people in the crowd — celebrities, independent film directors and producers, tastemakers — people who are trendsetters,” she said. “So artists sometimes cut their rates because they might want to break into film.”
Days after the festival wrapped, Barra had yet to see her Sundance investment pay off. She said she did meet a few filmmakers — one of whom, interestingly enough, wanted to feature her song in a movie specifically made for the deaf.
“It was a total whirlwind,” Barra said, sounding fatigued. “I think it will take some time to tell if it was all worth it.”