Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Panelists ponder “Why Cambridge/Boston Is Not Austin” on Monday during a quieter event at the Together electronic music and technology festival, based in Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Together electronic music and technology festival is just starting its weeklong run in Cambridge and surrounding cities and already the organizers are thinking about next year, including whether performances can move outdoors, how to handle its likely growth, what the city’s role might be and whether Boston would try to reclaim the event.

The first official performances of the festival were at 9 p.m. at Middlesex Lounge, just a few blocks down from the 579A Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, headquarters and participant lounge called the Together Center, and at An Tua Nua in Boston. Tuesday brings Nero and Dillon Francis to Boston’s House of Blues, Bird of Prey to Wonder Bar in Allston as well as two films to the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, not to mention more classes, panels and workshops. It’s the third year for the festival but the first with a physical headquarters, and organizers and media were seeing it as a significant step.

“This is a city-defining festival,” said David Day, editor of DigBoston and moderator for Monday’s “Why Cambridge/Boston Is Not Austin” panel — a reference to the sprawling South by Southwest music, film and technology festival that takes over Austin, Texas, annually. “I would put it head to head with any other city and its producers.”

One thing setting the areas apart is that that Austin largely imports its musicians, while Cambridge area creates its own via creative schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston’s Emerson College, as well as music-focused schools including the Longy School of Music and, in Boston, the Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory of Music. “Soul Clap is probably the biggest music success story out of Cambridge in the past five years, probably bigger than Passion Pit,” Days said of a DJ duo featuring Cantabrigan Eli Goldstein that is known for MIT tunnel parties and regular performances at Phoenix Landing and the Middlesex Lounge.

“This is a festival that’s unique to Boston and Cambridge. We don’t need to be Austin,” said Robin Lapidus, executive director of the Central Square Business Association.

Right band, right venue, right time

But with electronic dance music being one of the few kinds that made money during the recession, as Day told attendees at the Monday morning panel, and a genre immensely popular with the young, there’s actually a fear of growing too quickly.

“We bring Deadmau5 to the Esplanade and it’s going to be a riot,” Day said, explaining that choosing the right band for the right venue — Diplo at Harvard Stadium was an example on Day’s mind — was vital. Doing festival growth right was also on Lapidus’ mind, and on Monday she had a consideration unique to her role in Central Square: “We’ll discuss whether there’s an overlap between Together and the World’s Fair,” she said, referring to a defunct, once annual open-air square event that brought food and music to Massachusetts Avenue for a weekend in September. It was last held in 2005.

But that led Day and Lapidus directly to the question of timing: Keep the festival in early April and you catch students before finals; move it toward guaranteed better weather and outdoor venues and except for the biggest band names the festival risks losing fans who opt to study for tests.

Either way, if Together keeps growing, it’ll be important to bring in food trucks so participants can eat well while on the run from classes and panels to shows and parties. “In Austin, that’s great food on the go,” said Jackie Indrisano, a manager and talent buyer at The Red Room at Cafe 939, and it’s a movement Cambridge has already acknowledged by booking trucks for Memorial Drive slots starting April 29.

Within boundaries, but regional

Panel participants’ talk stayed within boundaries of what could be done with city government, which was represented by city councillor Ken Reeves, leader of last year’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Concerns and Delights of Central Square. Three terms ago he led a public celebrations committee that proposed allocating up to $300,000 in grant money as an incubator for arts endeavors; since it didn’t become law he was glad to see Together working so well on borrowed furniture, club partnerships and popup real estate. “This seems to be running on sawdust and spittle,” he marveled, “and look how fabulous it looks.”

“The city can’t be the only deep pockets,” Reeves said. “We’re willing to be partners.”

That means with Boston too, he said. Stressing that “real regional leadership is needed here,” he noted work started by councillor Leland Cheung and Boston councilor Mike Ross in 2010 at a regionalization meeting at the Museum of Science (which sits astride the border between Cambridge and Boston), a move by the Kendall Square-based Cambridge Innovation Center to open sites in Boston and Somerville and a recent announcement by Lexington and Louisville, Ky., that the communities would work together to lure businesses.

Not everyone saw it the same way.

“It’s pretty said that just last year [Boston officials] were giving a proclamation and now this year no one came forward to say, ‘Where are you guys headquartered?’ No one thought to do that. Cambridge did that. It’s a learning lesson for Boston … Maybe next year Boston will get back in the game and partner up,” said Dave Wedge, a writer for the Boston Herald and panelist.

A panel at noon Friday, again at the Together Center, will bookend the event with a look at where it can take the region. “As giant weekend music festivals packs hundreds of thousands of people into stadiums, how can Boston and Cambridge best take advantage of this movement? How does this intersection of music, art and technology create industry and economy? What new business ideas and models make the most sense in our metro area and the New England region at large?” asks the panel, called “Greater Boston and EDM.”