Q&A with Monolith Festival Director Josh Baker
Matt Fecher (left) and Josh Baker with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, whose band headlined the inaugural editon of Monolith
Yesterday's news that the Monolith Festival is in financial straits and in need of a rather large infusion of cash just to continue wasn't completely shocking, especially given the modest turnouts and the fact that AEG Live opted out of helping produce and promote this year's fest, which seemed to underscore the notion that the fest -- in its current form, at least -- just isn't viable from a financial standpoint. Just the same, the news was disheartening for the more ardent music fans who appreciated the adventurous programming and ultimately planned their fall itinerary around the festival. We caught up with Festival Director and co-curator Josh Baker this afternoon and asked him for more details on the current situation and what some of the obstacles he and co-curator Matt Fecher have faced in producing the event.
Westword (Dave Herrera): Is there anyone else involved in putting together Monolith other than you and Matt Fecher?
Josh Baker: For the most part, it is just myself and Matt Fecher. We work with a number of supporters, advocates, partners and volunteers around the event itself, but the bulk of the workload falls on our shoulders.
WW: Can you explain what, exactly, your role is with Monolith and what your duties entail?
JB: Well, we both pretty much do a little of everything. My main focus is sponsorship, business development and booking. We all have our hands in the marketing and promotion of the event.
WW: How was Monolith conceived and has the growth met your expectations?
JB: The event was conceived -- or at least the idea -- when Matt and Erik Dyce had a conversation at Southpark a few years back. Erik suggested we do something similar to Southpark, but host it at Red Rocks. We thought it was a great idea. We sat on the idea for a year and then went full steam the next year.We didn't really have an event until we signed Esurance as our presenting sponsor. At that point we had an event. Then AEG signed on to co-produce with us and the rest is, well, history.
In terms of the growth, we would always like to be growing faster than we are, but we are very happy with the increase in attendance we see on a regular basis. These types of events have to be able to withstand bumps in the road like we are experiencing now. They typically don't become profitable or sustainable in the first few years. We know that. We do feel that we have set ourselves up for our "reward" years in year four and five. Our future for those years looks extremely promising from a sponsorship and fan support aspect. We just need to figure out a way to get there.
WW: Before putting together Southpark and launching Monolith, what was your experience in terms of putting together a festival?
JB: I had ran the Midwest Music Summit for six years. That particular event was more club and small band oriented, though, very similar to SXSW, Westword Showcase etc. I learned a lot, by trial and error, throughout the process of crafting the MMS. We stopped doing it in order to focus on Monolith. I have always promoted shows -- since I was 19, 34 now -- so I do have some history producing events.
WW: Did you have a huge learning curve?
JB: Yeah, just like any business, you learn as you go. Having AEG on board for the first two years was great. They obviously are the best at what they do, so I just tried to learn as much as I could.
WW: How soon do you start working on the next year's installment?
JB: We generally take a month off after the event and then regroup for the following year. It truly is a year round venture.
WW: What, exactly, goes into the process of booking the fest? How do you
determine who will play? Is it strictly based upon your sensibilities?
JB: This year was slightly different than in years past. We spent a lot of time researching bands, small focus groups, call outs to our fans on Facebook and Twitter, etc. We really wanted to book the event to please our audience, so to know what they like and what their favorite bands was very important. From there, we just work with the agents and managers to see which artists are available and which ones might be routing through the area. We definitely have specific type of "taste," but with that said, we are fans of all types of music. We just love a great song and hard working musicians. Being able to support and facilitate those things are the reason why we do
WW: You obviously have great sensibilities. When do you and Matt start
scouting talent, and is South By Southwest still a big part of the
process, in terms of being exposed to the acts? In the past, I remember
running into Matt at a Cool Kids show at Emo's and him saying how jazzed
he was about getting them on board. Ditto Akron/Family.
JB: Yeah, SXSW is huge for us. We also have our unwritten board of directors that is comprised of several bloggers. They act as catalysts for hipping us to new stuff early in the year before it breaks. Gorilla vs Bear, My Old Kentucky Blog, Fuel Friends, Brooklyn Vegan, Cause = Time etc., are all on the "board of directors" per se.
WW: How big of an effect has the weather had on the fest -- big we're assuming, since you pointed to the inclement weather on day one as one of the factors that set you back financially?
JB: Yeah, it was a really bummer. We know we always have that risk, and it's a non-factor if you are sold out in advance, but when you expect to walkup a certain number of people and its 45 degrees and raining -- you know its not going to be good. Sunday was right on track with our projections; unfortunately, Saturday was the culprit of our current delimma.
WW: Why did you choose to have the festival in September, initially? And given the inclement elements you faced in subsequent years, with rain and wind in the evenings, what prompted your decision to continue putting Monolith on that time of year?
JB: Well, there are a number of reasons that factor into that time decision. One, it's a good routing time with other festivals. We can pick up artists who are routing to/from other festivals such as Bumbershoot, Treasure Island, etc. Two, there are not many weekend dates available at Red Rocks and to get a consistent weekend year after year, you kinda have to take what you get. We have considered a time change, but have not been able to secure a date that did not conflict with another major event.
WW: How important has Red Rocks been as a draw in terms of attracting talent?
JB: It has probably been our biggest catalyst. The allure of the venue to a new audience is undeniable. The media and out of town fans have always seemed to latch on to the festival, in large part, because of the venue.
WW: Have you considered moving it to another time of year, or changing venues?
JB: We have/are considering a venue change. It's not that we want to move it; it's just that it's so expensive to produce a show there, that we have to end up passing those expenses on to our fans in the form of ticket prices. We want to keep ticket prices low, but there are so many fees that we just cant absorb them all. The venue does provide some limitations in the form of logistics and capacity issues on smaller stages -- which were evident this year. But the pros far outweigh the cons.
WW: What would you lose if you left Red Rocks and what things would you potentially gain?
JB: I think we would gain a whole host of new amenities our fans would be happy with. These might include camping, more VIP and side event options, more smaller stages, cheaper merchandise, cheaper tickets etc. Again, its not something we want to do, but at the end of the day, we have to look out for what is best for us, the fans and the event.
JB: I am sure it has an impact. I mean people are spending money all summer on tickets, so there is definite competition for expendable income. I go both ways with it -- part of me feels like it's an advantage to be one of the few big fall events. The flipside is that we might have a better competitive edge if it were in early August. Again, you run up against things like Lollapolooza and other big regional events that compete for traveling fans. Those fans are our audience too... so it is a toss up.
WW: How big of an impact did parting ways with AEG have on the fest? Their decision to opt out this year seemed to underscore the notion that the festival, in its current form at least, just isn't viable, financially.
JB: Well, I suppose you can look at it that way. I just think that timing was not on our side with the AEG relationship. They started Mile High and Rothbury, and we were the smallest of all of them. It's not that they did not dedicate time, but they needed to focus their attention to their own events. Coupled with two years of losses out of the gate, I just don't think they wanted to stick around and endure the growing pains with us, which is completely understandable. We had to really get creative to even pull this year off. Obviously, we fell short, but I think we showed that it can be done on our own providing we don't have several factors -- economy, mother nature, etc -- working against us.
WW: What have you learned from past years that you've implemented to improve the fest?
JB: Really, just trying to run a more efficient operation. We are constantly trying to find ways to save money and run a more lean event. You learn that some things are luxuries and, unfortunately, need to get cut. We have a great vision for the aesthetic of the festival in future years, but some of the extras have been on hold until we can get the basics down.
WW: What we you do differently now if you could?
JB: If I had it back, I would have just done one day this year. But that is hindsight. Next year, not sure. Id like to think we can continue to build this as a two-day event. We are oh so close.
WW: How did this year's turnout compare to past years?
JB: Definite increase. Last year was dismal. The addition of marquee headliners, strong support and a growing base of fans all contributed to our increased sales.
WW: Aside from attendance, what are the other major hurdles you're facing
and have faced?
JB: It's no secret that we are a sponsorship driven event. Whether you like it or not, as a fan, it drastically impacts the price you pay for a ticket. We have been fortunate to have Esurance on with us every year. They have been the driving force behind the event's existence thus far. In terms of additional sponsorships, they were slightly down this year due to a number of marketing budgets being cut.
WW: What's the biggest thing that has tapped your resources -- was it procuring the talent or venue rental or something else you didn't consider initially?
JB: I think it's a combination of variety of things: Venue expenses, talent, production -- those are all things that go hand and hand with any big event. We are just trying to get creative on reducing those expenses.
WW: Since Monolith is truly a boutique festival, if you were to move toward booking bands that were already planning to play in the area rather than bringing them in specifically for Monolith, how would that change things? We it be a step forward?
JB: Not really. I don't think it's ever going to happen that we get all the bands we need that are going to be in the area at the same time. It's just the nature of the industry. I think we did a good job of working with routing artists and minimizing specific fly-in dates this year.
WW: You've set $250,000 as the goal for how much must be raised for the festival to continue -- is that a realistic goal? How much time have you given yourself to come up with that sum?
JB: We are setting our mark at two to four weeks. We have been getting a good response so far, but nothing is moving just yet. That number is the "magic number." We are optimistic and aggressive. Trying to find the right scenario is the focus of our world right now.
WW: This year, you revealed the acts slated to play in a piecemeal fashion via various social networks such as Twitter and Facebook: How was the campaign conceived and how effective do you think it was?
JB: It was a love/hate relationship. A lot of people liked it, and it was a great way for us to offer a continuous build to the lineup. It was also a great way to gain some visibility for the local and regional acts, while we had everyone's attention. Of course some folks didn't like it. But, at the end of the day, it was a great way for us to build excitement for the event. In terms of effectiveness, it was one of the single biggest marketing campaigns we have done.
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