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From an alley to Detroit: Laneway Festival’s Danny Rogers tells all

on September 05, 2013, 12:01am

lanewayfestivaldetroit From an alley to Detroit: Laneway Festivals Danny Rogers tells all

Australia’s Laneway Festival, originally called the St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival after the now defunct bar where festival founders Jerome Borazio and Danny Rogers first booked bands, began in earnest in Melbourne in 2004, in a back alley behind the bar, thereby giving the festival its name. Within two years the festival expanded to Sydney before spreading across Oz, eventually island hopping to Auckland, New Zealand and Singapore. On September 14th, the festival is making its proper American debut in Detroit, Michigan, where Laneway promoters have teamed up with Palace Sports & Entertainment, the creators of Movement Festival, and the forward-thinking label Ghostly International to present their own unique flavor to the fans of North America.

Consequence of Sound caught up with festival co-founder Danny Rogers after he just returned from a trip to North America. We spoke about the Laneway festival, from its origins to Detroit, if Detroit’s financial problems will effect anything, and how Laneway maintains its boutique status.

FYI: Tickets to the one day festival are still available, but we’ve got three pairs of passes to give away right now.

Why Detroit? Especially now in light of the city’s bankruptcy? Will that affect Laneway at all?

The decision for Detroit, for us, ironically in some ways, was quite easy. We were invited out by Palace Sports & Entertainment to have a look at taking the festival to America. Some people that were interested in working with us thought that Detroit was a market that if we follow the same philosophy that we had in Australia–where we built the brand really slowly and went in with realistic expectations–we could do something really cool. I went out there about 18 months ago and spent some time and met a whole bunch of local people in the arts and music world, people that were going to help us organize the festival. I felt like we could do something incredibly challenging but super rewarding. That’s what we did, and so we slowly put together all the parts of the puzzle and it just felt really exciting.

detroit mi postcard From an alley to Detroit: Laneway Festivals Danny Rogers tells all

We pulled together what I think is probably one of the most exciting lineups in America this summer — and in under six weeks, which is quite remarkable. When I program Australia, I spend nearly an entire year working on the lineup. The response for all the artists to play was really, really positive, which I think was probably a combination of the festival’s reputation in Australia but also the fact that there isn’t a great deal of options to play in the Detroit market. You don’t have tons and tons of venues, so I think everyone is excited about the possibility to create something really cool there and something that could potentially become an annual event, which would put something positive into the scene in Detroit. Not that there aren’t other positive things.

It’s been cool. I’ve learned a lot about how to promote in Detroit [laughs] – it’s very different than everywhere else. That’s really what I was aiming for: to try and get an interesting perspective. I like to personally be challenged, and I like to work around inspiring people. Those two goals have definitely been met.

Are you saying Detroit courted you?

Yeah. Oh, yeah. It wasn’t like I was driving through Detroit on the way to Melbourne. [Laughs.]

Well, did you have other American cities in mind, or did somebody approach you with Detroit first and that’s when the idea to come to America happened?

No. I honestly didn’t have the ambition to take it to America. I’d been approached by some promoters to consider some other cities, more musically established cities with festivals in them. I was asked to do something in LA and something in San Francisco and Seattle. And I just was like, there’s other festivals already in these markets, some of whom I’m friends with and I’ve worked with them in various capacities. There’s no real reason to launch a festival in those markets. They’ve already got one. All we’re doing is creating another level of competition to an already saturated market.

Whereas, in Detroit, I was like, “There’s nothing here.” But there are a lot of university or college students in Michigan. And then I looked at the numbers at some of the concerts of similar artists, like Laneway-type artists, and the numbers they were doing. Passion Pit, 3,000; The National, 4,000; Sigur Rós, 4,500. So, it’s not like people don’t go to shows in this town. They do. I saw my own acts were doing numbers. Purity Ring had done a 1,000. So, I was like, one and one is definitely equaling two.

There’s no other festival like it, so that’s going to be really positive, so local promoters aren’t going to get their nose out of joint, and the agents aren’t going to feel like they’re potentially damaging relationships. People do go to concerts; they just buy very late, and it takes time to establish. And also the people on the ground were just really cool, and they said, “Look, we know it’s going to be hard; we’re not confused, but we feel if we put our neck out now, then in three to five years time we might establish an iconic event in Detroit, and if we can do that, that would be incredible.” That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to just go to Seattle and try and become a promoter in a market there. I go to those places regularly enough, and they’re great cities, and I enjoy going to them, but they didn’t spark my imagination to do something like this. There’s a long answer.

dannyrogerslanewayfestival From an alley to Detroit: Laneway Festivals Danny Rogers tells all

So, you’re in Detroit. Is that how the partnership with Movement and Ghostly International came about? Or did that happen separately?

They were literally the first people that I met, I mean apart from the people at Palace Sports that brought us over to Detroit. The Movement guys in particular, the first meeting I had with our partners was with them as well. They showed us, obviously, where the Movement site was and all these other possible spaces that they had looked at in the past. I literally spent three full days and nights hanging out with those guys really learning about what was going on. That was also very inspiring because, firstly, their festival is a real success. It does 30,000 tickets a year. They’ve built this really amazing, fucking incredibly cool city of Detroit festival that people go to, so I was like, hang on. Anyone who tells you people don’t go to Detroit, well, they’re proven wrong in two seconds here. Music is something that people will do whatever they can to be a part of.

And I just like those guys. They’re really down to earth. They’re incredibly passionate about Detroit. All of them could have, at any point, gone on and gotten different jobs working for all these EDM people out there who basically know nothing about EDM [we both laugh], but no, they stuck to their guns, and they’re promoting in Detroit, the home of techno and the home of such great music. They’re just so proud of it. I just walked around when I was with them, and I met a bunch of people they knew in the city, and they’re all the same. I was, “This is fucking cool. This is so genuine.”

They weren’t trying to show off, and they were very welcoming. From the beginning, I said I’m not interested in doing it if it’s going to compete with you guys, but they knew that my heart was in the right place, and I was planning on doing it a good five months after them, and they said, “No man, whatever we can do to help you. Whatever can be another great story for Detroit, we think this can be one.” We then just agreed that they would be involved and they would help us, and they’re on the ground doing street marketing and putting their fantastic reputation in the area onto our stuff, and I think it’s a great way to connect Detroit in a deeper way. The biggest challenge we’ve had has been how do you spark anyone’s imagination about a festival from Australia? Wow! Who gives a fuck? Do you know what I mean? It’s not like they’re going, “My god! Laneway’s here!” It’s really down to the lineup and also just us really showing that we’re committed and trying to do something cool, and in three-to-five years’ time, people will start to go, “That’s really cool.” That’s sort of what it’s all about. It’s pretty exciting, man.

laneway2006 From an alley to Detroit: Laneway Festivals Danny Rogers tells all

When you first began these events were literally in an alley right? Laneway is Australian for an alley, correct?

Yeah. [Laughs.] That’s right.

How then did you convince Australian bands and even non-native bands to come to Australia and play in an alley? How did the festival actually take off? I can see if it’s a handful of local flavor, but you got major talent from the get-go. How did you convince all these people to come to Australia and play in an alleyway?

It was probably a good timing thing. The Avalanches were the first act and were all friends of ours. I was like, we want to do something different. I was inspired…I had been living in New York a few years previously and I was really inspired by the street parties, a couple that I went to in Brooklyn. I just went to a few and it reminded me of that community spirit. There’s no rules, but people don’t necessarily need rules because they respect the neighborhood. You go to these events and they’ve got so much flavor and vibe. I just really wanted to do something that was a dip of the lid to those types of events. I explained it all to the Avalanches and they were like, “That’s the only thing we would bother getting back together for.”

Getting them, being quite a prestigious Australian band at the beginning and them really putting their name to it early on made our lives a lot easier. Other artists were, “Oh, the Avalanches are playing. We’d love to be on anything the Avalanches are part of,” and that sort of got it going.

We actually did pull it off and it was a really cool street party and everyone had a really cool time. The word got out that it was a great event. At the time, it wasn’t as huge (and it still isn’t in some ways). But there wasn’t as many, there certainly wasn’t a cutting edge, interesting music festival of this type (even at its early beginnings with only one stage) in Australia. There was a lot of talent that just couldn’t get here and a lot of talent that wasn’t getting considered for the bigger festivals. So, the next minute, Broken Social Scene are on the door. I’ll never forget seeing 10 of those guys trying to play on a stage that was three by three meters, man. I was like, “This is a major fuck up. You came all the way from Toronto to play in a shit alley on a three by three meter stage.” And they loved it, man. I was a bit of a fan, and I remember, I went up to Kevin [Drew], the main guy, or one of the main guys, and Brendan [Canning], and said, “Thanks so much. I feel really bad to drag you guys so goddamned far to play on a piece of shit stage,” and they said, “No man, this is like one of our favorite gigs ever. Seriously, it’s fucking insane and we’re going to tell everyone about it. And so the following year Feist played and that was the year she had “1,2,3,4”. She heard about it and her agent reached out.

It just built very organically. We’ve really had our success by giving the artists an incredible time, both in front of really great audiences, but on a personal level too. We’re music fans, and we love a good time, and we treat everyone like they’re coming to Australia, and we want to give them a great experience, so people go back saying, “You gotta do that show, it’s really special.” In Australia…it’s the number one choice these days.

And a lot of these musicians can probably tell, like you said with the Movement people and the Ghostly people, that your heart’s in the right place. That probably makes them feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more willing to come down and play.

Yeah, I think so.

You’ve mentioned in the past the urban nature of your events. Is that important to you guys, keeping it in a city, rather than throwing out into a giant field in the middle of nowhere?

As the festival has grown in its status or popularity or whatever, I’ve tried to keep it…it’s still city-based wherever possible, so in Australia it’s certainly city-based. I love the idea of sort of coordinating between. It’s sort of more on streets that are edged on the parks these days, if you can imagine. In Australia every space is unique. There’s not one space in Australia where another event is held on the same space, if that makes sense. We’ve gone down and found a spot in the city and sort of turned it into a festival space. So it’s a combination of streets and parks. As it’s gotten bigger, we’ve tried make it an event that has some space and you’re not just stuck in an alleyway for nine hours. That was great for a few years but after the third one, we were like, alright, the fucking good times are over. [Laughs.]

I looked at all the sites downtown in Detroit and I was going to use the Movement site and they were going to help me put it together there but because their events are designed around DJ stages predominantly, we just couldn’t logistically make it work. We ended up moving it out to this Uni and this amphitheater called Meadowbrook. It’s actually more of a green field there but it’s a really cool space. We’ll be using this amphitheater but we built two stages in the Uni and it’s going to be all around the university. I would never have done it if I didn’t feel like it was going to represent Laneway in a positive light. I think when people see that site they’re going to be really impressed. It’s unreal. But it’s definitely our closest version of Laneway meets Coachella. It’s more of a green field site and it’s actually quite pretty, ironically. A lot of people look at Detroit and think immediately of burnt down houses and stuff, but that’s in the background. [Laughs.]

Part of the guiding philosophy behind the festival is obviously size and location are certainly part of the experience, but you also say ‘and the way we encourage the community’ is also a big part of Laneway. How do you encourage the community and how does the community give to Laneway to create that experience?

Great question. It’s simple things done really well. Everything from, as an example, again in Australia and in Detroit, lots of local vendors, a lot of local designers and artists who set up “stores” and will have a proper, well-placed boutique market area. You guys come down, you set up, we’ll pay for it all and hopefully you can sell a beautiful ring or a jacket you made at home on your sewing machine. We just really try to encourage local craft and local artists to come and use Laneway as a voice and we’re always trying to improve on that every year. That’s one example. Local products wherever we can, whether it’s a local home brew, using a lot of the local restaurants, which we’re doing in Detroit. So Slows Bar BQ will set up like a pop-up restaurant. And just celebrating all the positive things around it. There were various conversations about various charitable bodies that are involved in Detroit and having stands. Just try to give people an experience they don’t forget where they don’t feel like a number.

I was at the Pitchfork fest in Chicago and I really enjoyed it a lot. The lines to get in were super minimal. The ticket price was really reasonable. It was really easy to get around there. Alcohol was well-priced. You could feel that people felt like they were treated fairly and treated like music fans instead of numbers. So, that’s what we really try and aim towards, just being an event that has a sense. And also just looking after the people in the community where we’re putting on the event. There’s numerous examples of us sort of helping, leaving legacy things like building things that can stay there 20, 30 years and just try to prop up neighborhoods. We’ve gone to places in Australia where there were more working class neighborhoods just looking to get some recognition. They’ve opened the door with open arms and we’ve just tried to nurture those relationships and give them as much exposure. Sometimes an art center in one of the neighborhoods, no one’s really heard of it outside of the neighborhood, so we’ve gone out of our way to bring it into the festival and suddenly it’s like a big part of the event. Just stuff like that.

That and like the pop-up restaurants you mentioned. That’s going to effect people after you’re gone. People are going to remember that place and they’ll go to it and that’s going to help those [establishments]. That’s really forward thinking. You don’t really see that with a lot of festivals.

Yeah! I also think that the sort of music that we’re programming is to discerning music fans, so the people that are going to come to the festival are going to really appreciate the details. And they’re the sort of people that have high expectations and they go, “Wow! Slow’s Restaurant is there,” or “that special restaurant from Sydney that my wife and I go to once a year, they’ve got that set up here.” All that sort of stuff to me creates a sense of being part of something and I think being part of something is really important. I love the idea with Laneway, when it comes around every year, everyone in the neighborhood and community is talking about it and they’re all positive and they all have a sense of being part of it. I think that’s a big thing, ya know.

Many festivals (in America at least) cover multiple days, but Laneway’s always been one day. Couldn’t you expand it to more than one day and build on that sense, that feeling of camaraderie?

Yeah. We’ve started to think about it for years going forward. I think for Detroit we just need to get it right with one day and once we get it right we can see what we do next.

But your Aussie shows are single days too.

Yeah, you’re right. We’re also thinking about it here as well. We’ve really built this up slowly and even though it’s been eleven years, it’s slowly been building and the last, say, four years, it’s really come of age. But we still know we need to get it right. So if this year goes really well and we sort of sell-out and everything feels like we could go two days then I’ll be pushing off. I’ve already got proposals to ask for two days. If we could, it’d be great. It’d be really great because there’s a lot of artists that we’re actually having to say ‘no’ to which really sucks. An artist you really like and I’m like I’m sorry I just don’t have a slot this year and it’s always disappointing for them.

Now you have eight cities, you’re in four countries, your lineups and attendance have increased magnificently over the years. Do you still consider Laneway a boutique festival?

Oh yeah. I mean, we don’t have a city anywhere in the world where we sell more than 15,000 tickets. I think it’s still boutique. We still have a ‘no headliner’ policy. Actually I tell a slight lie. We did sort of go for what we consider headliners in Detroit with Sigur Rós and The National just because we felt the market there really probably needed a slightly bigger couple of acts on the bill but the general feeling is we try to keep all the artists treated equally. But in my opinion, absolutely. Absolutely.

You’ve programmed a stage for Field Day London but when are you really going to hit Europe?

Well, we’re looking at doing an event with the guys from Field Day next year in Croatia and we’re also looking at doing something in Scotland maybe next year or the year after. Again, it’s sort of similar to Detroit. If it happens organically and in a good way…to be really honest, I’m not chasing to have events all over the world. You really do rely on really good people on the ground (like we are in Detroit) to be able to handle the day-to-day otherwise I couldn’t put on an event on my own from Sydney in another country. If the right people are around and it feels good and everyone thinks it’s a great idea, then yeah, who knows. You just gotta stay excited and go from there.

The Avalanches were once your band in residence and as you said, the first Laneway was put on through the assistance of the Avalanches, so I imagine you guys are rather close. When is their next album coming out? I’m getting too old to wait!

I’ve been waiting as long as you have. [Laughs] I would say, I mean, there’s a very strong and from what I’m hearing a very, very, very, very good rumor that it’s going to come out next year. I’ve never heard it more definitive than next year but then I have heard it coming very soon for a long time. I know that Robbie [Chater] has been working really hard recently to get it done, so let’s cross our fingers. I haven’t heard anything, but I’ve heard people who’ve heard it and people were very positive about it. So we’ll see mate!

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