On Sept. 9, 2010, the first Hopscotch Music Festival hit Raleigh. The event lured more than 120 bands from all over the world to the capitol's downtown area, packing clubs and keeping a crowd of 5,000 dancing through a downpour thanks to the hip-hop bombast of the infamous and influential Public Enemy. By almost every measure, it was an enormous success, cementing the Triangle's place as one of the nation's musical hotbeds and proving that a festival adventurous enough to book plenty of punk, metal and experimental music can still entertain droves of fans. Despite all that, the first festival lost money, about $50,000.
"The big acts [on the main stage] in City Plaza all gave energetic, exciting performances, but it was the opening acts I'll remember forever, the locals — The Love Language from Chapel Hill and [Raleigh's] The Rosebuds," Steve Schewel wrote of the festival a few days later for Durham's INDY Week. He has since sold the paper, but his Carolina Independent Publications still owns Hopscotch. In his column, he explained that the event would continue, calling it a "gift to the musicians, to the clubs, to Raleigh, to music fans from the Triangle and all over."
Hopscotch, which returns to Raleigh on Sept. 5, is done losing money. During the past four years, the organizers have refined and expanded their approach, hosting more than 450 bands and 60,000 attendees during a trio of three-day events. But one of the biggest reasons that Hopscotch stands apart from the state's other large festivals — Merlefest in Wilkesboro, Moogfest and the new Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville — is its focus on local music. Of the more than 170 bands booked for this year's festival, 65 hail from North Carolina, constituting about a third of the total lineup.
"We try to book people each year that haven't had an opportunity," offers Hopscotch director Greg Lowenhagen, explaining that they place a greater emphasis on artists from Raleigh and its surrounding areas. "We want those bands that are locally here in the Triangle to get that chance. The reality is that there's a lot of bands here. But we've found ourselves reaching out a little bit farther, and I would say that our new definition of local probably is the state of North Carolina."
This year, 10 N.C. artists from outside the Triangle will play, a slight uptick from the nine that were included in 2010. Some of those in-state inclusions are given early slots at one of the festival's 14 indoor venues, many of which overlap with the headlining sets in City Plaza, the heart of downtown Raleigh.
But Hopscotch also allows other area acts greater opportunities. It has become an unofficial tradition that at least one of the two main shows gets a local opener. This year, addictive Triangle pop-rockers Lollipops and Gross Ghost will get their chance, the first warming up for indie rock icons Spiritualized and The Breeders, the second leading off a party that includes world-renowned DJ A-Trak and dance-rock dynamo Holy Ghost!
In 2012, Shirlette and the Dynamite Brothers, a muscular ensemble melding funk and rap, got the chance to open for The Roots, one of the world's most famous live hip-hop bands. Shirlette Ammons, the group's Durham-based MC, says that it was not only an opportunity to play with artists who inspire her, but also a chance to get in front of a large crowd that included many out-of-town visitors.
"Hopscotch creates a really cool opportunity to create a large fanbase from abroad right here in our own neck of the woods," she says. "When we venture out on the road, hopefully we can get some of those same people to come check us out."
Ideally, Hopscotch's presence would also enhance the state's ability to book marquee talent. Some of the festival's most exciting selections have come through on tours that hit other parts of the state — such as the violent rock voyagers in Swans, who played Asheville and Charlotte following their 2011 appearance. Others have returned to the state more frequently since playing the festival. Nashville's William Tyler is a strong example. The shape-shifting guitarist has played many N.C. gigs since hitting Hopscotch two years ago, occasionally laying down licks for Durham's Hiss Golden Messenger.
"If we can tell that good things are going on in the state, then it trickles down in ways to other places in the state," speculates Charlotte's Josh Robbins. He books Treasure Fest, a small but ambitious rock festival that hits Plaza Midwood each spring. He also plays bass in Late Bloomer, one of two Charlotte acts appearing at this year's Hopscotch. "I think it helps, having something like Hopscotch. I think people just remember it. They'll remember something like The Breeders playing. Or with Pissed Jeans playing, maybe Pissed Jeans will remember playing Raleigh and come back to the state. That's what you hope, at least."