Each year, the topic comes up at least ten times: there are so many festivals. It’s true, there are a lot. Many go just as easily as they came, some barely missed in so doing. All of this begs the question: “What separates the winners from the losers?”
Certainly there is nobody who has the absolute answer to the quandary. Some might say “they didn’t book the right bands.” Tell that to Langerado who had headliners including Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket, Trey Anastasio, Beastie Boys, Phil Lesh and R.E.M. amidst the top of its final two years’ billings. Others might note location. To those, 10KLF would say, “Really? How much better can it get when attendees have to decide between camping locations that boast being nestled in a rolling forest with many hills, dales and hidden lakes vs. camping right on the shores of Lake Sallie or on the hills overlooking the water?” As an added bonus, all of the pristine locations had permanent bathroom and shower facilities with running water. Â
Nope, there is no “secret formula.” But if there was, Ken Hays, founder of Gathering of the Vibes, would be the cat to look to for it.Each year, 20,000+ fans, both old and new, flock to the Vibes, Bridgeport, CT’s seminal event that turns 17 this year. Obviously this is quite the milestone, but to hear Ken talk about it, staying genuine and true to the original mission, rolling with the punches, planning well and a pinch of luck is all it takes.Â
With the event less than a month away, Honest Tune‘s Pete Mason sat down with Ken to hit the high points by discussing the evolution of the Vibes from being an event that drew 2,000 patrons in its first year to being one that has clocked in at 20,000+ for the past few years, what factors into keeping such a successful track record, and what makes festivals in general such an increasingly prevalent part of the music scene.
Pete Mason: Your festival started in 1996 with Deadhead Heaven and has grown for the past 16 years into one of the largest festivals in the country and the largest in the northeast. Looking back, how has the growth of festival scene in past decade affected the music scene and industry?
Ken Hays: Certainly, when we started back in 1996, there were many fewer festivals than there are today. It seems like every weekend throughout the United States there is a music/camping festival. I think festivals in general are good, not only for up and coming bands because they are exposed to tens of thousands of people, but festivals are good for the attendee, because when you look at the dollar value and the number of artists, when you break it down per artist, itâ€™s a great value. Festivals are a great financial value for the quantity and quality of musicianship that one can experience over a weekend.
PM: In the June issue of Relix, Mike Greenhaus mentions that festivals, rather than Phish, Widespread Panic, moe., etcâ€¦ are the true heir to the legacy of the Grateful Dead. Do you agree with that assessment?
KH: Mostly, as it pertains to community and friends and family and gathering, which absolutely parallels myself and my friends who were out touring and having a whole lot of fun with The Grateful Dead.
PM: How have the emergence of families and their kids as a market for an audience contributed to the evolution of Vibes?
KH: Starting right from the beginning with Deadhead Heaven, we had a family camping area and childrenâ€™s activities, then it got to a pointwhen our Kids Corner grew up, and the kids are now in their early/late teens and they donâ€™t want to get their faces painted and hair wrappedand such, so about 4-5 years ago, we incorporated a Teen Scene with a stage that was really tailored to kids that are incredibly talented performers. Itâ€™s a great opportunity. Last year we had just under 2,000 kids under the age of 15 come with their parents, and the year before that it was 1,600 kids, out of the 20,000 people a day who come to Vibes. Itâ€™s great to see these kids grow and flourish and love the Vibes. I remember last year around 9-10pm on Saturday, a dad with his two kids hand in hand came up to me and said â€œI asked my kids, for a family vacation if they wanted to go to The Vibes or Disneyland, and they said Vibesâ€, and that really hit home. Thatâ€™s the essence of what we started many years ago. So many of the Vibe Tribe come every year and itâ€™s incredibly humbling and I am incredibly appreciative of the support and allowing me to do what I love doing for so many years.
PM: What improvements have you brought to Vibes in the past few years and how did they come about? Is there anything specifically new for this year that fans can look forward to experiencing?
KH: Thereâ€™s nothing radical from last yearâ€™s setup to this yearâ€™s other than a much larger enhanced School of Rock/Teen Vibes stage, the music [is scheduled to go] later or earlier (laughs); main stage with STS9 will end at 2am, then Silent Disco on the beach and the late night stage will continue until the sun comes up. For those that arenâ€™t ready to crash at 2am, thereâ€™s plenty of killer musical and artistic forms that they can experience.
(Referring to Silent Disco): I always wanted to do Vibes on the water- The Hudson River, Long Island Sound, Lake Champlain. To offer people the ability to go swimming and dancing in the Long Island Sound while listening to a band is a beautiful thing to watch and experience.
PM: With members of the Grateful Dead nearly every year, fans know what to expect at Vibes. How do you keep the lineup fresh and inviting for fans who have come in the past as well as new fans who need to be sold on a lineup to make the weekend?
KH: Myself and the people closest to me, right after Vibes, we get together over drinks and do some brainstorming and throw out some ideas and contact booking agents and see if the bands are planning on touring and ifÂ the tour routes into Connecticut. Then hopefully we can come to terms on finances and if the stars align, weâ€™ll get them on board for next year.
This year, having Primus return with us, having The Avett Brothers with us for the first time along with Steel Pulse and (the original lineup of) Strangefolkâ€¦ its been 12 years since STS9 was with us last, latenight with Conspirator and Big Gigantic Underground Conspiracy and all the Dead members and their various side project, I think we have a really well rounded lineup that, based on Facebook fans and message boards and emails, people are digging the lineup so I’m pleased with how it all came together. Itâ€™s a puzzle â€“ always has been and always will be.
PM: Bonnaroo started out as a jam band festival and has morphed into the largest festival in the country, combining acts of all kinds, major names and a few jambands still. How has Vibes been similar or different in that respect?
KH: Bonnaroo came out right out of the box with a mind blowing lineup and took the jamband scene by storm and it was spectacular. Vibes is a little more grassroots, starting out with Deadhead Heaven (1996 – 3,500 people in attendance) and in 1997 when the name changed to Gathering of the Vibes, we had about 7,000 people. There was never a business plan or a marketing strategy, we were winging it and we were never shy about that. We did the best job we could throwing a party for all of our friends, thatâ€™s how we kind of approached it, and itâ€™s a little different 17 years later.
PM: How did a festival like Vibes grow to be what it is today, having had to compete with the expansive and competitive nature of festivals in the Northeast? How did Vibes rise to the top among these many festivals?
KH: I think, going back to the community aspect, we are a family; this is how Vibes Tribe has been and always will be. It is an opportunity for the Deadhead community to gather with friends and family as we once all did on Grateful Dead tour, when the Dead would come to Chicago or North Carolina or California – that was when I would see all my friends on those few occasions, when the Dead were on tour. That was the opportunity we had together over a couple day run to hang out and then get back on the road again. It really has become an annual tradition for thousands of people in a beautiful waterfront setting in a user friendly environment.
PM: In what ways can the festival scene throughout the country continue the success heralded over the past decade without turning into a corporate behemoth supporting dying labels and nostalgia acts?
KH: In the words of Phil Lesh, â€œSearching for the soundâ€ â€“ keeping your eyes and ears open for a new, innovative, distinctively creative musical entity; thereâ€™s some amazingly talented bands and musicians that donâ€™t get the recognition they deserve and I think of myself as a promoter that it is my responsibility to search out those bands and do everything I can to expose them to the Vibe Tribe and hopefully theyâ€™ll be as excited to see them live.
In 2010, Honest Tune‘s Jeffrey Dupuis gave the advice to “Buy the ticket, take the trip.” after his experience in Seaside.
It’s still not too late to take the ride to Vibes, 2012.
(we are told that there are very few VIP packages remaining), head over to
— Honest Tune Magazine (@HonestTuneMag) July 9, 2012