Building a Festival, One Beer at a Time

August 15th, 2010

 Part 1

“…and we’ll do it ourrrr way, yes ourrrr way. Make all our dreams come true…”

Upon walking into Asheville, NC’s Highland Brewery, the Laverne and Shirley theme song really couldn’t help but pop into my head.  For those of you, unfamiliar with the Laverne and Shirley theme, here’s your chance to fix that.

My bandmates and I were given an amazing opportunity and I was very excited about it.  We were about to get paid to work with beer…this was awesome!

This is Highland. This is where we pack the beers

Hailing from the blue collar world of western Pennsylvania, my bandmates and I understood a hard day’s work from the vantage of a steel worker or a coal miner.  We quickly mastered our extremely technical jobs of putting beers into boxes and found enough time to work as many as three jobs at once.  Highland noticed our enthusiasm and we were invited back.

After working a couple of times at Highland I realized the trend.  Look to your left, it’s a musician; look to your right, the same.  Highland Brewery supports musicians!  They understand that making music isn’t always the most lucrative of careers so they scour the local music scene and ask their favorite bands if they’d be interested in occasionally making a few extra bucks…wow!

Well, one day after looking to my right and left sides, I realized that I had been working with some of western North Carolina’s top musical acts.  There really were some incredible bands working at The Highland Brewery and nobody even knew it.  I spent the rest of the day thinking of a way to remedy that problem.

       This is Gene Dolan                        and this is me. I’m Jason

The idea sat, undeveloped for quite a while when finally I sprang it on my band’s manager, Gene Dolan. That’s all he needed to hear.  His gears were now churning and this idea was rapidly turning into a physical thing.  For the next couple of days we had a one-track mind.  The Highland Mountain Medley Music Compilation was all anyone around us would hear about.  Our ideas became refined and eventually a functional blueprint started to evolve.

Being in a band, my number one concern was that the artists get paid.  Being a music fan, Gene wanted to make sure that it would all culminate into a giant, amazing event.  Here’s the 11 step general plan that we developed:

Step 1:  Get 8 or 9 bands, (associated with Highland) from the Asheville/Western NC music scene, who are willing to donate a track towards a compilation CD.

Step 2:  Find a local charity or organization in need of help.  This one is still up in the air.  We just came up with the charity idea a day or two ago and aren’t exactly sure yet, how to handle it.  When we learn more, so will you.

Step 3:  Make a website.  Neither Gene or I are very proficient at web design.  Gene knows way more than I do and all he can do is design through templates.  He’s got the basic shell here,

The two main goals for the site will be to generate digital distribution and to provide information about the project.  We’ll link to Bandcamp for the distribution.  There are plenty of great sites that can provide this service, but I’ve found Bandcamp to be my personal favorite.

Step 4:  Develop a sales pitch / business proposal.  We’ve been researching business proposals for a while now.  It’s been a big roadblock for us as there’s no real template for what we’re trying to do.  Ultimately, we’ve decided that the website alone will act as our business proposal.  We’ve tried to order this 11 step process in such a way that each step will force the next step; i.e. if we’ve got the bands, the website, and the dream we’ll probably be able to get the local media to sign on…a charity wouldn’t hurt our cause either.

Step 5:  Find local media to trade ad space for publicity.  Asheville, NC has great local media.  Even the outlets that are owned by the big media conglomerates still try to keep local, grassroots connections.  We’re hoping that they’ll believe in our vision and become excited about the project.  We’ve planned to have 7 or 8 spaces on the CD packaging reserved for advertising.  Two of those spaces are being used for media; one for print, the other for radio.

Step 6:  Line up distribution with local record and book stores.  Here’s another area that we don’t know too much about.  I’m sure, at the very least that they’ll be willing to sell the CDs on consignment.  We’re hoping that they’ll do it for free if we write the media copy to mention their names.  i.e…

“CDs available at Malaprops Book Store, Harvest Records, and online at  Pick up your copy today!”

Step 7:  Get Highland to provide money for the printing and CD duplication.  Again, this is an example of carefully arranging each step so that it’s difficult for the next step to say no.  We’ve already mentioned this idea to Highland Brewery (while we were working on the “put beers into boxes line”).  They seemed really receptive to it, but wanted to see something a little more concrete.  If we’ve got all the bands lined up, local media support, a website, and all the distribution in order, it’s a pretty good likelihood that they’ll join the project.

Step 8:  Trade ad space to get the compilation mastered.  This one is a gimme.  We’ve already talked to my band’s producer and he’s in.  He’ll get his label a bunch of free press (which he really doesn’t need) and we’ll get an album where the tracks levels aren’t jumping up and down between songs, a minor but important detail.

Step 9:  Sell remaining CD ad space to local businesses.  We’ve not had any confirmations from businesses that they’re interested, but we only have to get four businesses to give us a couple hundred dollars each.  I think it’s possible.

Step 10:  Sell album online and at local merchants.  If we do everything right, up to here, this step should be as simple as putting round pegs into round holes.  Steps 3 and 6 should have us covered.  All we have to do is upload the CD to Bandcamp and give the bookstores and record shops a box of the now finished discs.

Step 11:  Use ALL the proceeds from (at least) 500 album sales and the ad revenue to go towards a small but incredible, one-day festival. The venue, the musicians, the charity, and us, (the organizers) will all get paid.

Here’s where this whole project becomes worthwhile for us.  We want to throw an amazing event.  Something people will talk about for months to come.  If we’re successful in the execution of our planning, we should have all the money we’ll need to make this happen.

I think it’s a solid plan.  It will take an entire community of music supporters to be successful, but that is the direction that the music business is taking us in anyway.

The industry has changed, and there’s only so many times that I’m willing to ask our fans if they’ll give their email address as a vote so we can try and win another contest.  If we’re going to continue to pay our rent while doing what we love, it’s become obvious that we need to create new and innovative ways to gain fans while making money.  Grassroots, community oriented projects seems like the best way to grow at a steady, organic pace.

The biggest successes I’ve seen from being in a band have come from our grassroots approach.  We started as a passionate busking band on the streets of Asheville, NC and grew from there.  We had no idea of what we were doing in the beginning.  We would go to new cities without any immediate plan of returning, all-the-while gaining new fans without asking for their email addresses.  It wasn’t working at all.  People in our hometown were loving us but there wasn’t a single market within four hours of Asheville where people could even remember our band’s name.

Slowly, we learned from our mistakes and we’re finally growing a consistent fanbase all around the southeastern United States.  We push the email list harder than our merchandise and we don’t touch cities where we can’t commit to returning again and again.  I’m seeing this system work.  Now we have 7 cities where we can guarantee a good turnout; and we’re finally hitting new markets, only to find venues packed with fans coming to see us for the very first time.

We’re still a long way from being on cruise control.  We’ve got to be constantly playing shows to gain more fans and collecting an email address and a phone number from every single person who enjoyed our show.  Basically, the trick, (for us) is to make yourself available for the fans to find you and then never let them out of your sight.  It’s the surest way of building long-standing musical success that I know of.

Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be writing about both the progresses and pitfalls of an up-and-coming band and a brand new venture as we turn boxing beers into a compilation CD, and from there into a small, successful festival…and of course, all-the-while we’ll be doing it our way, yes our way…make all our dreams come true, for me and you.