Tropical Heatwave evolves to keep pace with music festival culture

Tropical Heatwave sticks with a formula that works: eclectic bands. Lots of them.
Published May 8 2013

By Jay Cridlin

Times Staff Writer

With new music festivals sprouting up seemingly every weekend in Tampa Bay — Antiwarpt, Funshine Fest and the Gasparilla Music Festival, to name just a few — it begs the question: How is Tampa's original music festival, Tropical Heatwave, keeping pace?

Now in its 32nd year, WMNF-88.5's annual extravaganza of the eclectic will bring nearly 60 bands to 10 stages in and around Ybor City's Cuban Club on Saturday. And for the first time in years, the 2013 edition is a two-night affair, with more artists performing on two stages at the Cuban Club on Friday night.

The festival evolves every year, said WMNF station manager and head Heatwave honcho Randy Wynne, and it remains WMNF's most prominent fundraising event. Last year's Heatwave drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people, raising $43,000 for the community-supported station.

"When Heatwave started, it was more of a wild party, and it gradually got more and more of a serious-music approach," Wynne said. "But it's always had this criteria of live excitement, bands that have something visual about them. . . . No matter what genre you do, it should be something that is compelling in a live setting"

He said new festivals like Gasparilla and Antiwarpt have adopted a similar approach in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, respectively. "The truth is, Heatwave influenced them," he said. "Gasparilla has a lot more money than we have to book big-name acts, but I think the approach is the same, of eclecticism. That's unusual for a festival, to really be eclectic and have alternative rock next to R&B bands."

To keep from remaining staid, every year WMNF surveys Heatwave attendees to get an idea of what worked, what didn't and which artists they'd like to see back. For example, last year fans complained about security at the Ritz Ybor, a first-time venue. "People felt like they were being harassed, and there were long lines, which doesn't work for Heatwave," Wynne said. He said the venue has pledged to make fan access a little easier this year.

The surveys reveal a lot about fan demographics, too. A few years ago, Heatwave began spreading into more Ybor City clubs; last year featured 13 stages, nine of which were outside the Cuban Club. Wynne said more young fans have tended to gravitate toward the local and indie bands that play those club stages.

One thing, he said, has always been consistent: Fans come because they want to discover new acts. Even if they manage to see less than a fifth of the bands on the bill, it still makes for a mighty exciting night. "That's part of the fun of it, is figuring out a strategy to get as much as you can out of it."

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