Down in the Reeds 2022
From Down in the Reeds 2022; Photographs by @rm88 and Michael Mann, courtesy of Down in the Reeds Festival's Facebook page Credit: Jen Saavedra

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The year’s Down in the Reeds Festival has been canceled due to lack of funding. The announcement came via email and social media this morning, Friday, May 12, from the festival’s organizers, stating “due to circumstances out of our control we were denied two significant grants that have carried the festival for the past couple years and there is no current financial way that we can move forward with the 2023 festival.”

According to Down in the Reeds’ Chris Naoum, the festival has previously relied on support from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and HumanitiesDC. (Last year they were also able to take advantage of the District’s Special Event Relief Fund by switching trash pickup to the Department of Public Works.)

“Some years we received both,” Naoum tells City Paper via email. “Some years we just received one and had to fundraise the rest on our own.”

Started in 2019 by the folks at the nonprofit Listen Local First DC, the free daylong music festival has taken place every year since (aside from the pandemic canceling the 2020 event), with the goal of celebrating the city’s cultural diversity and music’s healing powers. The genres and artists featured at Down in the Reeds have spanned a full spectrum of sound and style, aiming to draw audiences from all wards and backgrounds. And, following Listen Local First’s mission, the festival sought to provide opportunities to D.C.’s musicians.

“That means … putting substantial resources into providing a platform where artists can grow within their community and beyond on a national level,” the team writes in the cancellation statement. Listen Local First DC events, such as Down in the Reeds, have provided local acts with touring opportunities, brand sponsorships, and more, they write. The 2023 event was scheduled to take place on Oct. 14 at the Parks at Walter Reed.

Unsurprisingly, putting on even a small local music festival for free is no easy feat—especially if that fest aims to pay artists well. The festival has largely relied on grant funds, sponsors and outsourcing wherever possible. The team writes, “We want to provide a completely unique experience but without guaranteed ticket revenue or dedicated financial support from local government and large financial partners these events are not generally sustainable.” 

For 2023, Down in the Reeds’ nonprofit partner, Think Local First DC, was awarded an $18,500 grant from DCCAH. As event-specific funding, the money is tied to Think Local First. But because the nonprofit is going through a major restructuring, they were unable to collect the grant, therefore leaving the festival without funds due to the city’s Clean Hands law, which basically forbids organizations from working with the government if they owe the government money. Down in the Reeds couldn’t find a workaround despite their best efforts. The HumanitiesDC grant was denied for a second consecutive year.

“Without having the DCCAH fund and the Humanities funds, we’re really starting from like zero,” Naoum says. Last year, Down in the Reeds was able to fundraise to make up for the lack of money from the Humanities grant. He says it was a lot of work, but it was doable. However, having to raise more than $50,000—2022’s event totaled around $55,ooo, Naoum says—was too big of a hurdle.

The team says they’ve been lobbying the local government for increased financial support—arguing that events such as Down in the Reeds provide cultural, community, and economic return of investment. They write that “a handful of agencies have been supporting our festival and others,” but go on to note that Down in the Reeds hasn’t even been considered for entertainment relief funding over the past three years.

To City Paper, Naoum elaborates: “I think the larger issue is that our festival was not able to apply for any of the Bridge Fund or venue relief funding that the city has been offering over the last couple years. Reasons range from not having a brick and mortar, not having over $15k in physical assets, not being a nonprofit, not being a sole proprietor, and having received a small amount of [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant] funding that covered the loss of the festival in 2020.”

As the statement notes, “Many states around the country have been providing extensive funding to their music festivals and cultural events through federal relief funds.” Naoum points to recent approved legislation in Illinois that award $22.5 million in grant funding for 89 projects across the state intended to support local festivals and attractions that drive tourism.

The statement goes on to say the city has increased financial support “for city produced events that benefit their preferred partners and an increased focus on attracting Live Nation produced events rather than supporting DC’s independent producers and promoters.”

Down in the Reeds organizers say they hope to take the small amount of cash they still have to present some music before the year ends. “We hope to focus all of our energy on supporting others that are putting in the hard work and advocate for independent promoters producers and venues to succeed going forward,” the post says, thanking supporters over the years. “Music Heals.”