[This post is by FMC contributor Daniel Eno.]
The first annual JP Music Festival, held in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston in August 2011, was praised as an instant success and a model of effective local event production. FMC spoke with the event’s founders Rick Berlin and Shamus Moynihan, and marketing director Charlie McEnerney, about the planning and execution the festival, and the guide released shortly after the event titled “15 Steps to Starting a Local Music Festival (during a bad economy)”.
What was the inspiration behind the Jamaica Plain Music Festival, and how did the committee behind the festival come together?
Shamus Moynihan: I’ve known Rick for more than a few years, and he approached me with the idea for the festival at the laundromat where we run frequently run into each other. A light bulb went off in our heads; it was such an obvious idea since there are so many musicians and artists in Jamaica Plain.
The first call I made was to Randace Moore who works for Boston Main Streets program, and is in charge of the Jamaica Plain Main Streets’ program called First Thursdays. The first Thursday of every month, all the local businesses between Centre Street and South Street in Boston open up their businesses to artists and musicians. She opened up doors for us that we would never have been able to if we didn’t have a “city insider,” and then slowly we started adding more people to the group.
Rick Berlin: There are so many reasons why the city is incredibly cautious about allowing something like the JP Music Festival to take place in a location as beautiful as the location that was suggested, Pine Banks. Because of the particular effectiveness of Randace and Shamus, we won over some very difficult hurdles in terms of getting permits. There’s a long story about how even two days before the festival we didn’t have all the necessary permits.
This group of people collaborates magnificently. To anyone trying to do something like this: Be aware of who you ask to do it with and be sure that you’re going to enjoy being with them on an ongoing basis.
SM: The key is to find people who do what they say they are going to do. I can tell you I’ve never worked with a group of people like the JP Music Festival committee. Anyone who says they’re going to do something, they get it done. When we had our first meeting after the festival…David Mueller [JP Music Fest’s finance director] said, “it’s amazing what you can do when nobody cares about taking the credit.”
Why do you think it’s important to promote local artists in the communities they’re from, and why is it important for community members to be connected to their local artists?
RB: The reason we kept it local is because there are so many artists here, and because we did not want to be in a situation where we were trying to find rock stars that would need to be paid.
These days there are many more working artists than successful artists, and a lot of them are deserving, creative, and brilliant, and they rarely get to perform for a crowd of this size.
We always want to emphasize that it’s Jamaica Plain-centric, but also inclusive. The rule is one person in the band has to live and/or work in Jamaica Plain and then you’re eligible. All of the small local businesses support the festival…so much of it comes directly out of the neighborhood, and there’s a pride and humility about it.
How did the idea for the guide, “15 Steps to Starting a Local Music Festival (during a bad economy),” come together?
Charlie McEnerney: At the FMC Summit in October, which was 4 or 5 weeks after the festival, there was a panel about how to grow local music communities. I was sitting in the audience thinking that somebody from the JP Music Festival should be telling our story.
The economy, even though it’s getting better, is still not great, and we put together a festival that cost $15,000 and covered a lot of the expenses. In a way it was a really good antidote to [the idea that] the economy is bad and musicians aren’t selling a lot.
There are a lot of cities and neighborhoods and towns like JP that have a really diverse music population. JP is unusual in how many musicians, but I think it does exist in a lot of places…and there are so many ways to create a festival that are very community focused.
It’s interesting that you put special focus on making a guide to putting on a festival in a bad economy. Do you think that businesses were perhaps more open to offering support because of the weak economy? Were businesses looking for creative ways to find new audiences?
SM: I think most of the participation came from pride in the neighborhood. Our biggest sponsor was a little Irish diner, which was the last business we expected to give us a bunch of money.
RB: A lot of these businesses did not know if the festival would come off, so they did it out of love and belief in the idea. They wanted to see it happen, but they were cautious. Now they have seen it work, it will be much easier this time around because everyone wants to jump on board.
Any other place that tries this needs to look at their own idiosyncrasies, and capitalize on them. There won’t be a JP Music Festival in Avalon, Tennessee; you need to grow the festival up from your neighborhood in a way that’s specific to the neighborhood.
Did you put together a roadmap for the festival in the planning stages that eventually grew into the guide or was the guide written retrospectively?
RB: You know, there’s no way we could have written the guide until after the event was over. The thing about the template is it’s a jumping off point. Your world is different from what we suggest in the write-up…but I think that anybody who wants to [put on a festival] could benefit from following it in some way.
CM: Since the festival we’ve had people reach out and say “I want to play next year’s festival” and we ask if they live or work in Jamaica Plain and they say “no.” There have been cases where people have been kind of irked and our response has been, “What’s happening in your town?” and we feel the mentality should be “You can do this yourself.” If you live in Quincy, or Newton [editor’s note: both cities outside of Boston] or wherever, I guarantee you’ll have musicians and you’ll have an audience. The idea is to have a hyper-local thing, not a citywide event, which will always entail a lot more politics; the goal is to be about the neighborhood and about the people.
JP Music Fest leveraged a lot of social media tools to help raise awareness (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud) and fundraise (Kickstarter). Were any or all of those tools particularly effective for getting the word out?
CM: The Soundcloud mix in particular, was really effective. Rick and Shamus were booking the bands and sending emails about who was playing, and there were a lot of great artists that I hadn’t heard of. So I started putting the mixtape together, which got us an article in the Boston Globe. We sent writers information about the festival, but who the hell wants to read another press release? I think having something people can listen to is another great way to get the word out.
We also had Facebook and Twitter pages set up, and it was easier to do because it was so hyper-local. I already knew a lot of the JP people on Twitter, and we were able to make sure that there wasn’t any way people didn’t know about the festival.
I have people who say to me that they don’t like Twitter. You don’t need everyone to be on Twitter, you just need one person in a group of friends to be on Twitter and then that person becomes the emissary of information for that group of people.
Are you planning to make any changes to your strategy or execution for the next festival in order to make the festival even more cost-effective?
CM: It’s not necessarily about making money for the producers. We did it as a promotion vehicle for the bands, so that more people know about the bands. You want people in the neighborhood to know about all the great things that are going on around them so that they go out and buy some of the records. It’s had a lot of great local repercussions; we’ve had people already reaching out about sponsoring this year’s event.
Did any of ideas for the next festival or guide originate from feedback you got from community members, audience members, or musicians themselves?
RB: The woman who was in charge of volunteers at the festival made a really good point after the event. She said that having fewer people that are excellent is better than having a lot of people you can’t trust. I think that’s a really important caveat to bringing on volunteers.
CM: I was talking the other day to people who helped plan the [electronic music and technology focused] Together Festival that opened in Central Square [in Cambridge, MA]. One woman said it has been harder over the years because of the economy, and that it’s been hard to find sponsorships. When the economy is bad, everyone has to cut budgets and it makes things really lean. My intention with this document was to say: Don’t let that stop you.