With Its Second Annual Festival In The Books, Fortress Presents Is Breaking Out And Promising To Bring More Events To Fort Worth Throughout The Year.
The hottest ticket in Fort Worth this month came from the same company behind the city’s hottest ticket from two months back. And if Fortress Presents has its druthers, things are going to stay that way for a long time.
After throwing its second-annual Fortress Festival in April, and then the June 6 pre-opening party for the Takashi Murakami exhibit at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (which, at $150 a head, gave attendees an early look at the show, early access to the gift shop and a party featuring DJ sets from A-Trak and Sober, as well as a dance show from the acclaimed Jabbawockeez), the team at Fortress Presents says it’s now going to make a concerted effort toward bringing events to Fort Worth — and eventually across all of North Texas — throughout the calendar year.
In addition to already confirming a 2019 version of Fortress Festival, this effort is initially manifesting itself in the form of a new music series going down this summer at The Modern called, rather simply, Modern Music. The monthly series kicks off this Thursday, June 21, at The Modern with a set from Helena Deland, followed by a July 19 date from Gingger Shankar and an August 16 showcase with Zhang Hungtai.
As Fortress Presents dives headlong into this new chapter for its company, we recently caught up with co-founders Alec Jhangiani and Ramtin Nikzad for a chat about out what their new commitment means both for the Fort Worth music landscape and for the long-term future of their still-growing namesake festival — and, perhaps more important, what brought them to making this move.
Here in Dallas, we’ve got Homegrown, which was started by a bunch of guys who owned venues, and then they transitioned into doing a festival. Or, by a similar token, you’ve got JMBLYA, which is run by the ScoreMore group that had been doing shows for a long time before dipping their toes into the festival thing. Out in Fort Worth, you guys seem to be going down the opposite path — doing a festival and then getting into events after. Is that an accurate representation of what you guys are up to?
Ramtin: I think that’s pretty accurate. You mentioned our backgrounds: We found a formula that kind of worked in a previous life — Alec and I had worked in a film society background, with Alec having started the Lone Star Film Festival, and I was on the team that worked with AFI Dallas. So we were working together around 2012 and, through that, we found that you can really capture a year-round audience that likes what you’re doing. So, even though a festival may only be a couple of days out of a whole year, you still have an audience that’s interested and willing to engage with other things that you do. So it really worked out with the film society stuff — we were able to create a whole year program with different events and screenings and things like that.
OK. So it doesn’t sound like this transition you’re making in music programming is an accident — it sounds like something that was in the cards all along. Like, there’s a direct correlation.
Ramtin: Yeah, when we started the company, it was always part of the plan that we would have a year-round presence doing a number of things, with us building out the Fortress Frestival as the flagship first. So, for the first year, that was still very much full-time — just because we’re talking about the first year of a festival and it was so much work having to build everything from the ground up. Now, in the second year, we’re able to get a few more things off the ground, like these shows that are going at The Modern over the summer, plus some other things that are more white label.
Alec: Right, to Ramtin’s point, from the beginning of the company we always had in mind that it would be a year-round, experiential company. It obviously started with the festival, but the intent was never to be just one event. We’re responding to an actual consumer trend, and how the third generation is spending so much more on experiences, and so on and so on.
I imagine that doing events beyond the festival as well as the festival itself, that the one would inform the other. And obvious thing that I was thinking of is, for instance, if you look at a company like Spune which used to do the Index Festival: Selling event tickets, they amassed a massive email list, and that helps at the festival — and, vice versa, and having an active email list from the festival probably helps to promote their events. Is that the case with what you guys are doing? Are there other ways in which the festival and the year-round events hold one another’s hand?
Ramtin: I think it’s what you mentioned. The really big one is that you start to get ticket buyers and people who engage with you on social media, and you do you kind of collect a group of people who are attending your events. And that’s the first idea, to not go dormant in them for the whole year, and to come back to those people with more events before just dropping another festival on them. But beyond that, especially in you know in Fort Worth, there’s still just so much room and so much need for other things all throughout the year. There’s some of that going on, but it’s a city that’s growing and it seemed like a no-brainer just to be able to take advantage of some of the relationships that we have and some of the venues that are available, and to try and do what we can. There are obviously some venues doing shows throughout the year, but they’re mostly country and maybe some other kinds of music, but far less of what I guess you might loosely call indie or alternative or things like that. So we just saw an opportunity to do more of that throughout the year. But there are also smaller correlations — like bringing in an artist that might be emerging and just getting them in first part of their career, and then you sort of have a funnel between them and your business.
Yeah, absolutely. And with the booking agents as well. That’s very much how ScoreMore did it — they were working with Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole seven years ago, which is how they were able to keep booking them once they really blew. Past that, you mentioned the venue situation in Fort Worth and the city just changing in general. I know that when I think of the Fort Worth music scene in general, I tend to think of places like Lola’s or MASS or Shipping & Receiving. You guys seem to be working outside of the traditional Fort Worth music scene parameters by working with The Modern or with the Fortress Festival pre-party you threw at The Black House. Are there venues that you consider your home bases? Where do you see yourself fitting into the Fort Worth music scene in that regard?
Alec: That’s something we’re starting to think more about now. Our partnership with The Modern has been a bit of a natural segue; it’s where we’re starting because they wanted to have more of an ongoing music program for a while. So that just the first natural step. Something we’ve we started talking more about if how can we get onto the calendars of the existing venue here and hopefully add more value to what they’re already doing? This is the year where we hope to start branching out beyond the festival and, as we start to do that more, we’ll start to look for more opportunities. We have already talked about some opportunities with the group at Ampersand about doing some tonight over there that are maybe more electronic- and hip-hop-focused. And that always going to be our objective — to look at the scene and see what not here already or maybe what’s not as well represented, and to try to bring that into the mix. Like, right now, hip-hop is definitely hugely lacking as far as what’s represented in Fort Worth. So that’s going to be a priority, along with some more progressive stuff.
Which falls in line with the festival and how you’re booking things there, right?
Alec: Yeah, definitely! That was a big criteria for us out of the gate, just not turning our back on anything and hoping to include all genres. We hope we’re starting out with a particular direction that doesn’t already exists in large format in Fort Worth. And then, down the road — there’s no specific plans for it now — but maybe opening a new venue of our own depending on how it all shakes out with other people that are doing things. That might be an option as well.
For now, it does seem pretty clear that The Modern is your home base, between the festival and this summer series. How did that relationship comes to be?
Ramtin: Well, we started really working with The Modern back when we working with the film society and the film festival. We did a whole run of arthouse film screening just year-round at The Modern. So we go a good ways back with the Modern staff, and when we started Fortress Festival, it was just a natural fit to put it there. So it was always going to be a part of the festival itself. And then there’s the Modern auditorium, which is a room with just really great acoustics and set up really well to do a certain kind of really intimate, smaller show. I think there’s a capacity of 240 seats in there. So it seemed, again, like just a very natural fit to the start a year-round music series there, which as you mentioned, gets started this summer — one in June with Helena Deland, one in July with Gingger Shankar and one in August with Zhang Hungtai. This is what is basically the first season of what’s branded as the Modern Music series. And then we’re going on from there.
I also understand that you recently brought on some additional full-time staff to help with the booking side of things. I hear more staff, I think more events. Am I right?
Ramtin: Yeah, when we first started, it was Alec and me working with a lot of contract staff. And I think that really is sort of the best way to start — to get your feet on the ground to do what you need to do for those first few years as you come to understand what the ebbs and flows of the business looks like. But, from the beginning, the idea was always to bring in some full-time staff. And then you get into a pattern and a rhythm where everybody understands how everyone else works and it becomes just that much more of a practical way to work, having a core staff and then bringing on additional staff as needed for other events. We started that with hiring Lauren Garcia, our business development lead, last fall. Around the same time, Matt Ostasiewski came on full time as our talent buyer. And then, a little over a month ago, we added a second talent buyer in Quinn Donahue. And we’ve also working with Max Gregor, our production lead. So just having just that staff alone allows us the flexibility to be able to take on events at very notice at any time.
Alec: The other big additional part of this is the private events services we’re going for other people. There’s a certain element of that for our own events, but when we had Matt booking for a client’s charity ball and do the Murakami thing and the festival all at once, it became clear that we needed some additonal hands on deck. That’s when that lightbulb went off, especially when you factor in what Lauren’s doing for us on the business side of things. We’re just trying to build that whole side of the business aggressively. And it just adds a whole another shows in to book.
From a consumer standpoint, it does seem like lot of what you guys are up to kind of remains to be seen. We talked a little bit about it with respect to filling the Fort Worth void and beginning to work with other venues, so I understand that some of it is kind of a wait-and-see game. But is there any hint or tease as far as what the consumer might be able to expect?
Alec: I think the big thing is that people will start to hear announcements from us on a much more frequent basis. We’re really going to try and stay on a pattern of announcing things regularly — like where, as we’re kind of closing up one series of events, we’re announcing the next group of things. And that’s even going to be the case with Fortress Festival itself and trying to announce that lineup much farther out than we have in the past. We basically want to always have something going on that people can engage with, and not even necessarily exclusively music. So we’re going to be looking into other cultural mediums, like visual art, film and even culinary activities. So there’s nothing super specific yet that we can point to, but I think it’s pretty sure that before we’re even close to done with The Modern’s summer series, we’ll have announced something else.
Ramtin: Like, we don’t have any mandates for that, or growth just for the sake of growing, but I think just because there is still so room to do stuff, we’re going to take the opportunities as they come. But at the same time, we also want to focus on the events that we do have currently, and find ways to add an extra dimension and experience to those in addition to growing.
And Fort Worth is the identity, right? You’re a Fort Worth company and all of your events are being thrown there. You have your eyes on Fort Worth and your thoughts on what Fort Worth needs, and you hope to fulfill thouse. Is that accurate?
Ramtin: Not necessarily. There’s just so much in Fort Worth right now, and there’s just so much space and room to worth in Fort Worth right now. And, it’s kind of our natural habitat because of the community that we came out and the community that we’re used to working in. But that’s not necessarily by ideology or even by design — just for the time being and for the short-term future. Really, we see all of North Texas as one big genereal market. Like, you people from Fort Worth are definitely used to going into Dallas to do things, like whether it’s for a show or otherwise. And we’ve seen that with Fortress Festival the other way around, just from the ticket-buying info we get, that there’s quite a bit of interest and support on the other side from Dallas and the Dallas suburbs. So when you look at all of that, it’s hard to it’s hard to look at Fort Worth as being separate from the rest of the pack. But as far as the geography of where our events are happening within the next few months, yeah. They’re in Fort Worth.
Alec: One thing that’s really important that we talk about a lot too that we want people from all over North Texas feel ownership and inclusion — we don’t want it to ever be, like, this is a Fort Worth-owned brand or -owned event. We’ve both lived in both cities and worked in both cities — in Fort Worth and Dallas and some of the suburbs as well — and we have at lot of North Texas pride. We just feel like, on a national stage, there’s a lot to be built out in terms of the art and culture here. The idea with Fortress was always to kind of represent North Texas as a whole in that regard. Something we’re definitely looking to do is more events throughout the Metroplex, so that we can kind of spread the ownership around so that people feel included, so that the people from Dallas don’t feel like this is a Fort Worth thing that they’re coming over to but that it’s just a North Texas event and a North Texas company and brand. For now, though, ultimately, it’s just really important to us that people know that we’re not just a once a year experience, and that we’re becoming a year-round brand.
Believe it or not, this lengthy interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Cover photo of Fortress Festival 2018 by Karlo X. Ramos.