By Kathryn Menu
The man hired to produce Chris Jones and Bill Collage’s MTK: Music to Know Festival this summer talks about why the East Hampton Airport is a good fit for the festival, helicopters and all, and how parlaying a youth spent attending concerts into a career as a festival producer for events hosting thousands all began at a small theatre in Connecticut.
By Kathryn G. Menu
Now that the location of the MTK Music To Know Festival has been set for the East Hampton Airport, as a festival producer what is appealing about the site?
I think one of the most appealing things about the site for me is the way we have it set up. It has natural boundaries, the site is surrounded by trees, which makes it visually very appealing. In terms of location, especially considering the traffic concerns people had with the previous site in Amagansett, there are a number of ways into the venue, keeping traffic off the main streets and making it a little easier for everyone to get in and out of the site.
I would imagine one of the drawbacks to hosting a music festival at the airport would involve air traffic, specifically how to preserve sound quality with aircraft and helicopters landing nearby. How are you dealing with that?
The plan we have in place has the stage set as far away from the active runways as possible and we are bringing in delay speakers that sit halfway down the concert field, which will not make the music louder off the property, but will make it louder at the back of the concert field.
In a perfect world, there would not be planes landing at a concert, but all of our sound professionals agree it will have a pretty low impact.
I heard a rumor that you got into this business by basically walking into an executive’s office and demanding a job. Separate fact from fiction — how did you find yourself in this field?
Demanding might be a strong word. Insisting might be better. It happened during my mid-20s awakening. I went to school for broadcast journalism and then I realized it was not my calling. It was really innocent how I became what I became. I woke up one day and I thought, I spend so much of my money on concerts, how can I make that my job? I went to The Globe Theatre in Connecticut, a theatre with about an 1,100 capacity, and I basically walked in and said, ‘I work here now.’ They all looked at me like I was crazy, but they gave me a desk and not a job, but an internship and that developed into a job when the person I was interning for left. Shortly after that, I developed the Gathering of the Vibes Music and Arts Festival, which I co-founded with Ken Hays in 1996. And that was the beginning of my festival career.
One of the criticisms laid out by some residents concerned about the festival was a lack of experience in festival production on the part of festival founders. As the architect of the festival, what is your experience in this field?
I co-founded the Gathering of the Vibes, a music and art festival in July that now does about 20,000 people per day. I am also a founding producer of the Green Apple Festival, which at its beginnings was a festival that happened on Earth Day simultaneously in eight cities. We did festivals with 15,000 to 50,000 people in parks across the country, including Golden Gate, Central Park, Santa Monica Pier, parks in Dallas, Miami and more. I have also worked, not as a producer, but as staff at festivals like the All Good Music Festival, the Rothbury Festival in Michigan, Bonnaroo. So I have 16 plus years of festival experience, including being at the helm of a number of festivals.
The centerpiece of the Green Apple festival was Earth Day at the Mall in Washington D.C., which featured Sting, John Legend, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, Toots and the Maytals, Joss Stone. John Dindas, who is the production manager for MTK was actually at the helm of Earth Day at the National Mall and the same day I was producing Earth Day in Morocco in Rabat with Seal performing. I was actually hired by the Moroccan government, indirectly by the King of Morocco, to produce a free Earth Day concert in their capital. It wasn’t the worst gig in the world.
Do you find your musical preferences direct you toward working with specific artists or events?
Yes and no. I grew up as a Dead Head throughout high school and college and went through that phase where all I wanted to listen to is them. But I think now I have a very rich and diverse taste in music so I have the luxury of liking everything I work on. It’s harder to be passionate about a project if you don’t love the music, but I don’t know I ever encountered that.
What drew you to work on the MTK Music Festival?
We were introduced by mutual friends and I met with Chris and Bill for lunch in the city one day, and they were just great guys with a great vision. I meet a lot of people who have it in their heads that they are going to do a festival and most of the time people have no understanding about how much it takes in terms of dedication and the ability to execute a vision. From the first time I met them they really got that. They both bring really different things to the table. Bill, as a screenwriter, has a little of that Hollywood mentality, where everything is grandiose and Chris, as the guy who has hotels all over the world, he is very much about the nuts and bolts. With a pencil and a napkin he could draw out his entire vision of what the concert field looks like, from where the tents are to the parking. He is very tactile and can express his ideas.
The East End has not hosted a multi-band music festival of this scale in several years. Outside of the economy, what makes this part of the country ripe for a successful festival?
I think it’s a very culturally rich area and I think as Bill and Chris said at the announcement about the lineup, there are a lot of tastemakers and a lot of people who are usually the first to know about things that live out there.
To me, it was an appealing, beautiful place and an underutilized area full of people willing to give things a chance. Also, to a certain extend, the Hamptons are so far away from the rest of the world it becomes difficult for people to get these experiences. To go to a festival in Boston or Washington D.C., it’s a haul, and a lot of people miss out on those experiences. It is a hungry market of really receptive people interested in art and music.
How have festivals evolved during your career? Are we seeing an emphasis on more intimate events and festivals? Is music still the focus, or have festivals become something bigger than that?
I actually think that it is a little of both in terms of size. When I first started out there were not a lot of music festivals. Gathering of the Vibes was certainly the biggest in the Northeast, at least when we first started, and over time I think, as has happened in a lot of businesses, it became very chic to be as big as you could be, which at the Vibes we were never interested in. That bred Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits and Coachella and to that extent a lot of it is being as big as possible, but as a result you have seen a trend towards smaller, more intimate festivals a la MTK or the Wilco Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts, which is geared towards their fans. Instead of trying to do a 100,000-person event, the idea is to make it 7,000 people and make it the coolest experience they have ever had. That is the same idea with MTK — take a small group of people and give them a life changing experience.
For more information on the MTK Music to Know Festival presented by Bing, visit www.musictoknow.com.