Featured Column:Daddy, Where Do Hippie Festivals Go When They Die?
Real True Confessions with Padre Pienbique:
Tucked away discretely in the jambands.com archives is a column I wrote titled: “Daddy, Where Do Hippie Festivals Come From?” I thought that you, the gentle reader, would enjoy a word or two about the underpinnings of tent town from the other side of the stage.
Since most of us find ourselves at one of these things sometime during the summer, it matters not where we attend festivals, as they are in the big picture, relatively the same. For a while it seemed that for every festival that folded, two more popped up in its place. There’s no shortage of fools with money, and groovy dudes with big ideas and little-to-no business sense are littered around every corner.
Even though the advent of weekend jam-a-ramas happened during that magical time long ago when the economy was falsely boosted by better ways to purchase kitty litter online, they survived and even thrived through our post-9/11 recession. Some of them, or at least the gatherings that were hosted by people familiar with the Quick Books accounting program, found ways to keep on keeping on. But, are quality and familiarity the keys to a successful festival? And what happens when quality and familiarity aren’t enough? What happens then?
I happen to have an answer, but like most good answers, one can’t mine any truth out of it without it begging more questions.
As an example, take this bottle of red wine I’m drinking. It’s a decent enough merlot, but I’m not going to get up off my duff to run inside and check the label for the name of the vineyard. I’ve enough sense to give it breathing room and pour it into a carafe, but I’m no sommelier.
To bridge this analogy, wouldn’t I be a fool to take a $150,000 that I don’t have and speculate it all on vineyard futures? Hardly any crazier than I would be if I threw that same cash at a music festival without the foggiest idea how to run one. But none of this stops the inspired fools from gambling- and losing- on these weekend circuses. Three or four years ago I wrote a column “Daddy, Where Do Hippie Festivals Come From?” for jambands.com as fair warning to those who get the itch to throw a party to listen to their girlfriends and don’t.
You see, the Big Wu has hosted what I call a “boutique festival” for several years and we know what it takes to pull it off the right way. Most promoters have no idea what a top-shelf P.A. sounds like anymore than I can tell the difference between an eight and fourteen dollar bottle of wine. Touching on the finer details of festival throwing are the importance of clean Port-O-Potties and a First Aid tent with manned people that have degrees in medicine leaves most would-be promoters scratching their bongs. Promoting festivals is a high-stakes chess match where one relies on the generous disposition of friends and volunteers one minute and shark instincts when dealing with agents the next.
Finding the right combination of music to correctly fill a limited number of time slots is equal parts vision, luck and something I like to call “Budget Tetris.” Vision is important because you’ve got to know what an audience wants to hear, even if they never heard of half the prospective bands on the wish list. Luck comes into play when you realize that half the bands you want aren’t on tour, and the other half are on tour in South Carolina the weekend you want them. Finally, Budget Tetris pits you one-on-one against booking agents that tell you either: “The festival seven hours East of yours committed X amount of dollars, so there’s no reason why my band should play for any different price at yours,” or better yet, “My band is getting even more money than that to play Bonnaroo, so dig deep!”
I’m not bitter about this. I have an agent as well, and I don’t pay him to be a Polly Push-Over. But since I do know a thing or two about booking agents, I’m very aware that: The money “committed” by the rival festival isn’t the actual deal. It’s the figure the agent wants to get from each of us, and he’s going to play us off each other until one caves in and makes a compromise and signs the band for an agreed sum of money. That’s when the agent really turns the screws on the other promoter and attempts to nail the concert coffin shut. In my opinion, the second, “Bonnaroo Gambit” is less effective because they can solve almost any problem by throwing money at it. If you haven’t guessed by now, you’ll find out later that my war chest isn’t quite as full as the Tennessee Sunburn Factory’s coffers.
But trust me, I don’t believe that’s any excuse for a half-assed festival. We’ve always had the knack for finding bands before their agent asks for “$20,000 for one show, but only $30,000 for two sets!” (By the way, that’s an actual quote from an agent representing a band we inquired about. In my private moments, I find myself thankful that we had them at a previous Reunion before their agent confused them with the second coming of Led Zeppelin.
Anyway, back to the art, science, and gamble of promoting festivals that haven’t been super-sized to the point of contesting the Guinness Book of World Records for biggest cluster-fuck. Specifically I’m writing about my festival, which be it through hook or crook, has lasted for nine years.
Which is long time in band years. Not quite as reliable of an age indicator as dog years, band years cruelly mark a musician as old and useless by the time his band has had their fifth practice. If you make it past the nine-year mark doing anything in the music business, you’re as old as Yoda- For seven hundred years have I thrown music festivals Let’s how good you look Hmmm?
The problem with hosting a festival, especially one that’s situated around your own band, is that several, if not too many factors have to taken into account when prognosticating the attendance. Every year we weigh the history and longevity of the Reunion vs. the relative popularity of our little band, divided by the weather forecast, times the sum of cost of the garbage and pottie man, minus the square root of negative-one on the current jamband index. Which tells us well, nothing in the way of figuring out how luxurious a budget we can spend on our gathering. Keep in mind that one of the biggest issues we faced in the past was how to accommodate more and more people buying tickets. Since the wheel goes round and round, not up and up to suit the egos of the hosts, we were really caught in a pickle as to guess how to budget for Reunion #9.
I say “budget” instead of “invest” because we’ve always blown our wad on things the average Reunion attendee could enjoy instead of cutting corners and pocketing the difference, which we could have done, but that goes against every reason we invented the Family Reunion in the first place. To quote my fore-mentioned column:
When the Big Wu threw the first Family Reunions, the plan was simple: Take the best aspects of all the festivals we’ve played (great music, the best sound system money can buy, backstage beer and catering that made one forget about home) and make it all happen in one place. While we were at it, we felt it would be prudent to eliminate the crap both literally and figuratively; a lack of clean Port-O-Potties and a plethora of bone-headed security goons come to mind.
In case you’ve ever wondered, you can’t have the best that money can buy unless you spend the money. And if your budget is limited like ours, you’ll find that the true mark of a successful festival is when you break even. That means that you’ve tapped out every resource at your disposal, accepted every legitimate offer to help, and created a time and space that upon reflection, leaves everyone that went thinking that they couldn’t of had a better time if they tried. Which, if we’re talking about the fun had by anyone at a Big Wu Family Reunion, it’s safe to say everyone tried as hard as humanly possible.
The marked difference between the Big Wu Family Reunion and almost every other festival in United States is that until last year, we had never lost money. And that was only a couple thousand dollars, which I’ll gladly pay any old day to throw parties like that.
This year was a different case. We got started out of the gate a little late: Bands were harder to book, the website, ticket release date, and overall feel took a little more time to come together than usual. On the other hand, the rising cost of everything and the ungodly extensive promotional powers of 10k Lakes Fest, Wakarusa, and yes, Bonnaroo, creates some stiff competition for those elusive festival dollars.
On top of that, the above festivals possess the kind of marketing savvy that small fries like us can’t match. They make an honest effort to get prosperous companies to sponsor their events, whereas we’ve had to raise funds the old fashioned way, by choosing bands carefully and throwing a festival worth buying tickets to. Thus the money raised through our early discount ticket “First Cousin” program generally raises the seed cash to get the party started.
Since we don’t sell enough tickets to attract mega-sponsors like Best Buy or Bud Lite, I thought we might, as a courtesy and tribute to fellow musicians, to simply rename features of our festival in their honor: “The Michael Jackson Neverland Day Care,” “Pete Townsend’s Internet Village,” and the “George Michael or Not? Port-O-Potties”.
Let’s see Bonnaroo top that.
After we got our ducks in a row, we felt confident about our program- the old “Build it and they will come” attitude. Everything looked good until the first ticket count came in two weeks after sales began. That’s when we noticed things were seriously amiss: Tickets sales were at half of last year, and last year was initially slower than the previous year.
Before I get too far with this story, let me comment on the relative meaning of the words “worry” and “responsibility,” with a theory about “liability.” Unlike the world of big business, where CEOs receive two million dollar bonuses for losing thirty million in any given fiscal year, and cashing in even bigger checks as a consolation prize for resigning after they dragged their company through destitution, if we “lose” eighty-thousand dollars on the Reunion, we’re responsible to pay off the debts out of our own pockets.
Which gets us to worry. Try and remember the last time you knew you’re fucked: Your Spanish final is coming and you haven’t studied a thing outside of a futile last-minute cramming session, or you see sirens in your rearview mirror and a breath mint only adds insult to impending doom. Now imagine that feeling, except that the Family Reunion financial punch line won’t be told for another eight weeks. The resulting feeling is the very essence of “worry,” and it begins to permeate your life whether you’re awake or sleeping. That peaceful feeling of falling into dreamland is rudely interrupted by an abrupt and unstoppable wave of anxiety/panic that grips your heart, jolts you awake and won’t let go until the last drop of fear’s thick, black poison is wrung from your chest.
The fun of this is that it keeps coming back to haunt you at random, and not surprisingly, the most inconvenient moments of the day. Carrying this five-ton weight on your back takes a toll after ten or fifteen days. Forty of fifty days leaves you emotionally despondent, incapable of dealing with everyday tasks like going to the post office, and just plain miserable to boot. To make matters worse, the specter of last minute miracles taunts your soul, cruelly raising your hopes until The Fear comes and twists your sack into a Gordian knot of failure and depression.
If you’re a little shy on Greek mythology, the Gordian knot was a challenge posed by Zeusian priests at Phrygia. A knot so intricately tied that the ends were buried within the knot itself, it was prophesized that whomever could undo it would become the next ruler of Asia Minor. Alexander the Great rolled into town at age 23 and solved the puzzle with deceptive ease- he drew sword and cut the knot in two. Funny thing, this approach was considered for a day or two- simply cutting our losses and canceling the whole shindig. However, instead of becoming the undisputed rulers of Asia Minor, the Big Wu would’ve ended up washing dishes at Denny’s to pay off our debt.
Instead of cutting our losses, we cut the next available thing, the budget. Although the Libertarian in me finds tasks like this to be almost fun, there’s no joy in fucking with the lifeblood of the Reunion. Except that we were on track to lose eighty thousand dollars, and as I said earlier, those were real-life dollars, not the theoretical funny money that’s thrown away like toilet paper by golden-parachuted executives with nothing to lose.
So there in front of us was the challenge: How do we rectify the budget crisis without blowing a gaping hole in the soul of the Reunion? Gone were some of the more luxurious facets of our party- First-rate catering for the musicians and crew were cut down and replaced by the culinary magic of our chef, Monty Behm. Although we were able hide some of our cuts with smoke and mirrors, other victims of the budget snipping were too obvious to ignore: Gone was the second stage, and to accommodate a tighter production schedule, a couple of the more, umm- I’m trying to say this diplomatically- “inconsequential” bands were cut as well.
This was perhaps the most grueling of the necessary tasks: Long have I held in contempt promoters that dangle and ditch offers to play their events. There’s nothing more frustrating than committing to a date, turning down subsequent better offers, before watching helplessly as the carrot is mercilessly taken away at the last second. It’s bad enough to be on the sucker end of this, but to be the loser that pulls the promised carrot from musicians that are both excited to play and fully committed to the cause is a new and even shittier feeling than I had known before.
If cutting the bands wasn’t bad enough, it really hit home when every other time I answered my phone that week, there would be an understandably cranky guitarist on the other end, angrily asking “Why do you feel it’s okay to cut my band from your fucking festival?”
How do you answer that?
Basically, I had no answer. I just stood there and let them blow steam, reassuring them that yes, I am an asshole, of course my soul should burn in hell, and that I should take a flying leap off the tallest building in town. And if I do live through the festival, I’m invited to their next gig where they’ll take turns on stage kicking me in the crotch during the drum solo. Beyond that, these folks were really understanding of the situation.
Finally, I can add the word “hypocrite” to the long, long, looooong list of salty adjectives people use to describe me.
Back to the story, we cut the suspect eighty grand from the budget, ticket sales picked up despite our luck, and as it shook out, we about broke even. (We may have even profited around $37.12, but we’ll see These chunks of good fortune have a way of slipping away) As for the most glaring of changes- the magically disappearing second stage- everyone I talked to truly appreciated the newly installed thirty minute break in between bands. It seems that even Big Wu fans need time to take a leak, get more beer, and yes, let their ears rest. Talk about happy accidents!
To the bands we cut, I’m still awfully sorry. They didn’t do anything to deserve getting the shaft in the way that they did, but as I told them, the anger they feel getting cut a month before the Reunion is only a fraction of what they would feel when they found out that they weren’t getting paid at all after they played. After all, I have spent some time on the other side of the fence, and the grass is anything but greener- it just reeks of bullshit.
To the faithful that did attend, I can’t say enough: It has become a common sentiment that this was the best Family Reunion ever. Not only was the weather dry and sunny, but excessive heat kept us all from digging around the beer cooler at 11am, saving us from ourselves and keeping us all fresh for the long haul. And let’s not forget about the bands!!! Each and every one of them threw down, and threw down hard. They treated the audience right, and I know the musicians walked off that stage with a fine, fine feeling in their hearts. Kudos!
As for the vibe- musician and family alike- it’s never been better. Gone were the mandatory drug casualties, loonies throwing axes and freaks simultaneously starting their own cars on fire while passing out in the driver’s seat. Yes, the vibe was king and we were all under his gentle rule.
This is after all, the reason to go to a “Non-aroo”, a less-than megafest: When you have the right bands to start with, there’s no reason to hire every band in the world and randomly assign them to play on any one of ten stages. Most people I know only have two ears and one attention span. Good luck choosing the right act to watch when four of the other ones you want to see are all playing at the same time, a mile apart from each other.
Now the question is: Can we do it again? I wish I had an answer.
I don’t see a trend where people are becoming so flush with extra cash and spare time that they’re ready to commit weekends to every festival on the docket. Nor do I see the Big Wu undergoing some kind of popularity renaissance, all but assuring us of salvation from financial liability. But can I accept the blessings of being in this band without caving in to the temptation of throwing another party?
For good or evil, I doubt it. Not at least, in the way we’ve done it the previous nine times.
There’s no way in hell the rest of my co-patriots in the Wu would allow me to commit their fortunes to this dubious roll of the dice. I mean, for the first time in months, we’re all breathing a hell of a lot easier, having barely escaped abject poverty and the mutually assured destruction of band moral.
So I’m already tossing around questionable ideas for the next one. Perhaps someone with more money and common sense would want to buy the name “Family Reunion,” drop the “Big Wu” part of it and keep the tradition alive. I mean, half the challenge of promotion is awareness, and this party already has a recognizable moniker. Even better, since I have several months until it’s time to agitate this bee’s nest of stress and glory, why not con a recklessly huge company into underwriting the whole affair? If say, something truly pernicious, like big tobacco, was promised a captive audience of two thousand people for three days, do you really think they would think twice about cutting a $90,000 check? In lieu of paying for a ticket, Reunion goers would have to sign a petition to influence Toys-R-Us to carry candy cigarettes again. How does that grab ya?
Maybe not cut me some slack, I’m just brainstorming. If you have a better idea, let me know.
As for you, you can drive safe, be nice to your mother, and drink your milk!
This month’s Old Style Zealot is none other than the one guy that didn’t read me the riot act for being cut from the Family Reunion, Willie Waldman. Always unpredictable, yet remarkably on the spot with a paycheck for a gig, Willie puts the “working” into the phrase “working musician”. And that friends, deserves a cheers. (He also actually likes Old Style beer, so poo-poo on you unbelievers)
RECIPE RERUN ALERT!
While researching a couple of previous columns for this one, I ran across a recipe that is just too good: Good for you, good for your dinner partner, good for the Listerine company, good for almost everything under the sun. It’s worth a repeat, and since I doubt you made it the first time I printed it, you’re getting one of the most valuable things in God’s creation- a second chance. Use it!
The recipe of the month isn’t an entr You’ve had enough of those, so I won’t tell you how to make another dish you won’t cook. Instead, I’m sharing the blueprint for more than just a condiment; it’s a secret weapon.
If you peek at the recipe, you’ll notice there’s enough garlic for this to qualify as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Unlike Saddam’s phantom stash of said WMD, there won’t be any trouble finding you in a crowd, a city, or even a dessert. This shit will transform you into a fragrant, yet distinct, culinary terrorist: blowing up bland food, undermining white toast, toppling the vast powers of Listerine. Yes! You will rock! And may God strike down the poor fool who thinks you should consider of other people’s personal preferences when you VASTLY IMPROVE everything you eat when you accent your meal with ROULLIE! (Pronounced: Roo-Wee)
Basically, rouille is a French garlic/peppered mayo. Made fresh, it beats the shit out of anything in the fridge. Its uses are almost limitless: Dip your bread, slather pork chops, dab any vegetable… It just works.
Even better, it’s easy to make.
Gather the ingredients below:
6 CLOVE GARLIC
1 TEASPOON SALT
12 LARGE BASIL LEAVES
1/3 CUP RED POMENTO or) ROASTED RED PEPPER
1/3 CUP PACKED BREAD CRUMBS
1 EGG YOLK
1 CUP OLIVE OIL
FRESH PEPPER (to taste)
HOT SAUCE (as you like it, you dirty sinner!)
Okee-Dokee- In a food processor, (use your Mom’s if you have to) add and process each ingredient, in order, one-by-one, i.e.; Add garlic, then process while taking a swig of Old Style. Add salt, process while taking a swig of Old Style. Add basil, process while taking a swig of Old Style. And so on until you run out of thinks to stick in the chopper. When everything has been added and processed, hold the chop/puree/whatever button a little longer. The rouille will thicken (a little) after a couple minutes. The final result will have the consistency of a good salad dressing. Did I tell you that you can dress salads with rouille?
One final note: Due to the wonders of using raw egg yolks, rouille will remain fresh for about one week if refrigerated. Try to remember the date that you make this, food poisoning sucks ass. But I doubt that past-due rouille will be a problem- you won’t have any left after a few days. It’s just too damn good.