It seems that every other day, someone has a festival going, especially here in Austin; there’s always something. I’m okay with that, but over the last few years I’ve noticed a lot of small boutique festivals carving niches for themselves. With this in mind, I was connected with Gordon Lamb, formerly one of the gents behind Athens PopFest, and now the founder of Athens Intensified. The festival takes place in Athens, Georgia (not Greece) on September 11-13, with an extra date on September 20th to fit in The Egyptian Lover. If you’re in the area and interested in going…tickets are HERE. But, otherwise, it’s still a good read at the world of being a festival curator. Thanks to Gordon for his time and to Mike for setting up the interview.
ATH: First off, there seems to always be a festival in some part of the world. What do you think the “festival” experience has to offer that a typical concert/show doesn’t have to offer? How does Athens Intensified highlight that?
GL :That’s true. The festival market is jam packed and the word means different things to different people. For some it’s a few days in a huge field with tons of superstars performing and for others it means a club-crawl or music industry gathering. Thus far I’ve tended to shy away from the word “festival” in favor of the term “event” but they’re certainly interchangeable at some level, I suppose. I think ultimately what the festival setting has to offer is a specific concentration of happenings and performances that can be enjoyed in rapid succession as opposed to one-off shows that end in a few hours. Athens Intensified highlights this aspect by working as hard as possible to have tightly scheduled, easily accessible shows at a variety of venues in close proximity to one another.
ATH: Speaking of the massive world of festivals, do you have plans to grow Athens Intensified in any specific way? Or does the smaller scale fit the goals/mission of your festival?
GL: Absolutely. But the idea is to try grow in a smart and sustainable way. For example, this is the third year of Athens Intensified but the first to have multiple venues. It’s gone from one venue to five and grown from two nights to five over the course of two weekends. The second weekend this year was kind of a fluke due to scheduling conflicts The Egyptian Lover but it worked out great because of our co-promotion with BandSWAP. And, besides, when someone like The Egyptian Lover says he’ll be in Europe your first weekend but can gladly play the following week you make whatever accommodations are necessary to make that happen.
We’re also hosting our first ever skateboard event this year. It’s named The Get Rad Invitational, which is co-coordinated with the Get Rad skate shop here in Athens. This is planned to be an annual, coincidental event presented by Athens Intensified. This year we’re closing a whole block of downtown Athens and hosting skate teams from all over the South East for exhibitions and competition.
But, back to your question, Athens Intensified was never “designed”, if you will, to necessarily be a smaller-scale event but I’m a very big fan of starting small and working upward. Hopefully it under promises and over delivers!
ATH: Unlike many larger festivals, you’re proud to be a festival that strictly picks and selects it’s own bands to play. What is the process
like in determining who you are choosing to play? Are you looking for anything in specific?
GL: To be perfectly honest, there are probably several festivals that have a similar booking policy. Hopscotch in Raleigh, NC—a festival and organization for which I have a crazy amount of respect– is probably the most well-curated festival in North America and none of that is by chance. They are quite deliberate in their bookings. That said, it’s true that Athens Intensified doesn’t accept applications to play or anything like that. It’s a very considered process of making a master list of bands/artists that would be a good fit and sending personal inquiries several months in advance to them. Since Athens Intensified is still fairly new sometimes there’s a a bit of explaining to artists what it is. The main, over-arching principle in booking Athens Intensified is “Do I personally like this music or at least find it to have artistic merit?” If no, then it’s a dead end. If yes, I go from there.
ATH: There’s a pretty wide array of acts from Killer Mike to Cibo Matto to Tunabunny? Is genre hopping something that is personal to you, or are you trying to really differentiate yourself from the standard fare?
GL: My personal tastes are pretty varied and, honestly, I think that’s the case with most music fans. I never wanted Athens Intensified to be identified by a sole genre of music nor a particular set of artists. I enjoy mixed bills and lineups. There’s literally no standard for booking other than “Do I like it?” An artist could be a legend, a current star or a tiny garage band. So far people have enjoyed the mixed-fare. There’s no way to ensure that everyone will like every artist playing Athens Intensified in a given year but when people come to the shows it’s nice for them to at least know that each band was booked for a reason. None of this is just a random hodgepodge of bands thrown together on a stage just to fill a room.
ATH: Also. A great deal of the acts hail from Athens. Do you feel that their participation is your responsibility to grow the awareness of the city itself, or do those just happen to be your favorite bands this year? Or both?
GL: Well, there’s a reason the name “Athens” is in our name. It’s because this event was born here and I love the city of Athens. It’s home. I can spend hours talking about the minutiae of Athens civic, economic and cultural history, of which the University of Georgia plays a huge role. I just love this town and am thankful that I get to live here. A lot of folks never really find their “place”, so to speak. I was lucky and found mine a long time ago. There’s no responsibility on Athens Intensified to grow the awareness of the city itself or even its native music scene but I do like very much that there are, at any given time, several hundred bands working in Athens. All the Athens bands playing fit the same booking policy as above. I’m personally a fan of each of them. If there is some collateral exposure for the city of Athens through this event then I’m quite happy for that but I don’t necessarily see myself as an ambassador for the city or anything. I just want to promote well curated events and support artists that I think are worth supporting. Even so, I can’t help but think there’s something special about hosting an event in Athens. It’s a pleasant place to see shows and socialize and, you know, it’s got that special something that keeps people living and creating here for decades. It’s worth noting, too, that if time and space were no limitations the number of Athens artists could have easily numbered over a hundred. The lineup in no way reflects to totality of what is worthwhile in Athens music but it does very much reflect a high quality segment of it.
ATH: How does BandSWAP fit into the whole equation of Athens Intensified? Can you tell us more about that project?
GL: BandSWAP is a really neat idea created by Fort Collins, CO organization SpokesBUZZ. The idea is that bands from different US cities are hosted in other cities and then the bands from those host cities are flown to the first band’s city to be hosted. Its concentration is on local scenes throughout the US and supporting touring musicians through chances like these to be hosted and also facilitating industry panel discussions. The one we’re hosting in Athens is a discussion on independent touring. BandSWAP approached Athens Intensified a few months ago as a way to help co-promote our two events which overlap somewhat. The parent organization, SpokesBUZZ is also a sponsor of our local band stages this year which just speaks even more to their commitment to local music scenes.
ATH: Athens Intensified is fairly new to the festival circuit, having started in 2012. What’s been the most difficult thing about curating the festival itself? Any regrets? Any things that blew your mind?
GL: Absolutely no regrets. Although there are times of exceeding frustration and stress it’s all very worthwhile and rewarding when it comes together. The main difficulty in curating is what a lot of promoters go through: booking agents hear the word “festival” and immediately get dollar signs in their eyes and subsequently some acts just get immediately priced out of the running. That said, there are several wonderful booking agents and agencies that I’ve worked with over the years who are just great and really seem to “get” the ideas behind Athens Intensified. The things that have really blown my mind during the booking process is how easily some deals come together for major acts and how hair-pullingly difficult some tiny bands can be. Again, everyone who does any type of booking has gone through this so my experience isn’t all that unique but it’s still something that both pleasantly, or unpleasantly, surprises me all the time.
ATH: If one was to start their won festival, even on an even smaller scale, what do you think is the best piece of advice you can give them?
GL: The best piece of advice I can give is one that was given to me a long time ago:
Work from where you’re at. Start anywhere. Throw a one-day event at a park or a friend’s backyard if that’s all you can afford at the beginning. Other tidbits of advice are: Don’t try to compete with other events. The fact is you’re not Live Nation, Insomniac, or Lollapalooza. Don’t try to do what they do. Do what you can do. Find out what makes your event special (e.g. its time of year, its booking policy, etc) and go with that. Be scrupulously honest in how you present your event to both performers and potential sponsors. Don’t ever build your event up as something bigger or more impactful than it actually is. Don’t be phony. All you’ll do is burn bridges and, for all the changes in the music industry and the refusal of some to understand this point, this is still a business based on relationships and people will remember how you treat them. Don’t waste money but don’t be scared of spending money, either. Don’t be scared to say no. Remember that every one of your ticket buyers are essential to the success of your event. Never ignore their needs or concerns. Be available to them. They’re not numbers on a ledger; they’re music fans just like you and their experience of your event matters very much. Most of all have fun. There’s too many people that spend years and years promoting events that aren’t having fun at all. This kind of stuff is too much work for it not to be ultimately fun. There’s plenty of other businesses to be miserable in. It’s not worth polluting your passion (i.e. your love of music) with misery.