Mike Snow, Co-Founder of Boston Calling, sat down for an interview with The Gavel's Jonathan Reed, to discuss the creation and evolution of Boston's first music festival.
First of all, Mr. Snow, I was wondering if festival production is a full-time job or more of a hobby on the side?
"Nope, it's 24/7, 365 for our two festivals for my partner and I here... It's a lot of planning when you look at the calendar."
Now, about the choice to have the festival twice a year—how did you come to that decision?
"When we were looking at the Boston market, and looking at what a festival is or could be capacity-wise, there's massive festivals—50,000 to 80,000 to 100,000 for things like Lollapalooza—...we thought that the 20,000 capacity was really our goal. [It's] accessible and it can be hand curated and it fit nicely in the heart of Boston. Knowing all that and knowing the great musical history of the town, we really thought that in the spring and in the fall you have two different clienteles, two different tourism and seasonal schedules. We really thought that Boston could handle two festivals."
Are there any differences between the two, perhaps genre-wise?
"We don't specifically set out to make them different, [but] in September you have that giant college influx [and] we do keep that mind. But it's really a function of who's available, how much they cost... They might be on a different tour schedule... they might go record a record. It's a little bit of a crystal ball scenario... It's a long process to get a band from interested to confirmed. There's a lot of moving pieces when you start thinking about a major band and all of the people who work for them and all the schedules."
You were able to get Fun. and The National for the very first Boston Calling. Was it difficult to get those big names on the first try, or were they willing to be involved in a new festival?
"As a whole, in the industry, there aren't a lot of bands that are super excited about being involved with a brand new festival. The track record across the country of new festivals that become old festivals is not amazingly good. It's a very difficult business to master, so we were super fortunate with Fun. and The National signing up. You book your headliners first, especially for your first festival, and we had a great partnership with Bowery. We went out for those bands, [that] relationship certainly helped. Bands do trust Bowery... and when they believe Bowery has looked into it and that the partners are good, it moves down from there. And then your smaller bands, who arguably aren't that small at all—Of Monsters And Men, Young The Giant— they see that bands like Fun. and The National have committed to playing with it, and it starts to take a little more shape."
That's awesome. And then right after, in September, you already had Vampire Weekend and Kendrick Lamar. It seems like it picked up very fast.
"Yeah, we had a really good reputation. Thankfully... [after] a lot of tragedy in Boston shortly before our event, I think that Boston sort of united around our event... We set out to choose our audience well and the bands well, and I think that we hired the right people to get that message across so it went out in the industry. Yes, this is a new festival, but everything was smooth and the bands really liked it. That goes a long way when you have a booking agent who handles three or four bands, and he or she was at the festival and liked the way it went. Then that confidence builds rather quickly."
That's really good.
"It's a nail-biter. (Laughs) You can only do what you can do and hope it goes the way you plan it to go."
I know that there hasn't been much time since Boston Calling began in 2013, but how has it evolved since then?
"I just think our process internally is better. The band conversations are a little easier... the brand has some integrity to it. When the booking side, the business side, of the bands look through social media, the comments are really good, and that certainly helps. And then just dealing with our site, our site changes a lot with deconstruction and things like that... Fans knowing where it is, they know how to get here... [that] has been part of the streamlining process... There are a lot of people who have been to at least one, and they've come back. That's a really humbling feeling... Yeah, its the bands, but we must have done something right if somebody comes back another time to this site and enjoys it."
I know that I am going again this September because of how good last September was. I couldn't really tell you a comparable experience I've had in Boston.
"There's just not a lot of it in New England... We've got great musical history, we've got great venues in this town, but there's nobody doing this right now."
Is that what inspired you to create this?
"Yeah, it was certainly part of it. My partner and I worked for a media company and [had] been to a lot of shows, seen a lot of shows. We were able to take in what people in the other parts of this country were doing. Of course you want it at home. You want it to be in your own backyard. We have the public transportation to support it... There's a lot of risk that goes into parking... as a whole business by itself, and to be able to do this in the heart of Boston and to [know that] we have parking garages and the train everywhere... works in our favor. There's so much pride to be able to do this in the city of Boston, having grown up here."
Yeah, there are many college students (like me) who don't plan on having a car in Boston ever. Its good that I can get there just through public transportation.
"There's so many people from New England who know how to get here, they have their T stop already... When they know how to get there, and they're comfortable with where they are going... [they say] "Listen, I love going to the city for the day. I'll go in [to Boston], I'll go to my favorite restaurant I never go to. I might go to my favorite bar. Then I'm going to go in, see these bands and be able to take the train home and be in bed by midnight. Things are good."
Are there any plans with transportation since Government Center will be closed?
"Most people, if they're on the Green line, will get off at Park street or switch over and just take the T down to Haymarket. As a whole we have blue [and] orange close to the site and then you have Park street with red and green a little further away... It might be a block and a half [walking], but not terrible."
And about the college audience— how does that affect your approach to lineups or advertising?
"We announce the show and there's some advertising around that... [and] we do some work on the T. In September, it's a little bit different. We reach out to a lot of the universities and go to a lot of the freshman orientation fairs. But it's so close to when students come back, a lot of the summer orientations for freshman, a lot of schools in the city have opened their doors to us. It's a little more hand-to-hand combat for the September show I guess. I think that [for] students, for May, it's pretty clear--either they're going to be in the city or they're not. No matter what the lineup is, for the student population, it's whether they're going to still be here or not."
I'm from Florida myself, so I can't go to the May concert, but I would if I could.
"And you know, I think there's an awful lot of people that share that sentiment. [They] would come, but [they] pack up on the 15th of May and there's just no way [they] could stay here... That was certainly part of the decision making process, [that] there would be a lot of people that just weren't going to be here for May that would see the advertising and like the bands... and hopefully they would be just as excited about the September showing."
At last year's September Boston Calling, I noticed that Mayor Menino came out to address the crowd. How did you accomplish that?
"We were fortunate that Mayor Menino was such a supporter of the event. He [is] a great public speaker, [so] we did an open invite... and he took advantage of it... He and I were standing on the loading raft for the stage, looking at our cheat sheet, making sure we could pull it off. It was a lot of fun. He was really charismatic and it was great to have him embrace the event right off the bat."
Should we maybe expect our new mayor, Marty Walsh (Boston College graduate), to make an appearance at the September Boston Calling?
"Very possible! The invite has been extended, [but] that's a busy man right there... hopefully he'll take us up on it."
Hopefully! So, onto the topic of alcohol. I heard about Boston Calling getting rid of its beer garden this year.
"We did [that] in May. Yup... so you were able to grab yourself a cup and roam the site a little bit. Because of that... we're having our recycling team roam the grounds much like they do at Fenway. We sweep up at the end, but this time we're really trying to counteract that and keep the site a little bit cleaner. We'll have a recycling brigade going around during the show to try to keep that place clean of plastic cups."
That is a great idea. Its those kinds of changes that make events even better than they were before.
"It's crazy [because] a lot of it isn't about being smart or being good at your job... A lot of it is about experience, and I have been running music events for ten years, and starting at square one with this festival... We thought we knew so much, [but] the amount we've learned in 18 months has been unbelievable... This year we're going to have plasma TVs around the site because we know [it's] football season. We're going to have some interactive games that people can participate in if they're not hanging out to see a band. We're always focused around having good food options. We're trying to make it something you can come to for the day. If you only want to see half the bands... you actually have something else to do."
Yeah, I like those possibilities and I really like the venue.
"There's a lot of people who looked at it before us and said [we were] crazy and [that] its impossible, but... we always saw potential there."
What about the issues of underage drinking and drug use?
"We have the I.D. check [where you] have a bracelet... we've got a multitude of undercovers [cops], a multitude of robed and uniform police officers, as well as security that are always keeping their eyes out for that. We haven't had very many incidents at all of... underage [drinkers] being able to purchase... I think that the people in this town respect how difficult it is to pull something like this off, and how one problem like that can end all of it... The drug use... it's almost impossible to detect.... [A lot of people] understand that, not only will they have a boatload of problems, but that it will create problems that end this thing... Its on everybody's radar... There's many, many uniformed outside, undercover inside, and many t-shirted security that are constantly watching that... When you say music festival, there's no way to get out of a conversation... but I think its been handled pretty well."
Are there any new directions you want the festival to go in the future?
"There's a lot that we're working on, and there's a lot that we're trying out for this festival. At the end of every festival, you throw all of your new ideas and your tried-and-true ideas back on the whiteboard... and look for areas of improvement... Next festival, [we have to see] what the MBTA layout is with the construction over on Government Center. If they change something dramatically, we might have to change where the stages go. Two years down the road, when the project is finished, how will it impact City Hall Plaza? We've seen diagrams but we don't really know. What will that do to change the dynamic of the festival? We've exhausted our abilities to move the staging stuff around the site as it is right now, but once those barricades come down and there's a beautiful new T station there, with trees and benches as they have it outlined, I'm sure it will spark another whole set of ideas and activities we can put into the festival."
In your opinion, what makes Boston Calling worthwhile for students, and any listeners for that matter?
"If I had to pick one thing, it would have to be the different perspective you get when you come to Boston Calling. You've seen that plaza, you know what it is. When you come there and see our festival built on that plaza, and see people enjoying the day... you will probably never look at City Hall and City Hall Plaza the same way."
Boston Calling will take place on September 5, 6 and 7, with various ticket options available here. It will feature various musicians including Lorde, Nas and The Roots, The National, Childish Gambino and more. For a full lineup, visit this page.