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Boston Calling: A Music Festival with No Off-Season

on February 05, 2015, 9:30am

Welcome to Festival Outlook, a supplemental column to Consequence of Sound’s Festival OutlookIn this installment, Ben Kaye talks to Boston Calling co-founder Brian Appel of Crash Line Productions about bringing the festival to The Hub twice a year, snagging big name headliners, and working with The National’s Aaron Dessner.

I’ve been to every Boston Calling, and if you’ve ever read our reviews, I can’t pour enough praise on the festival. That said, I really don’t know a lot about Crash Line Productions – who you are, where you guys come from, and what started this. So can you just give me a rundown?

Sure. Crash Line Productions is four full-time employees here. It started in October 2012 with myself and a guy named Mike Snow, who’s my partner. We were working together for almost seven years at the Phoenix Media Group, which was The Phoenix newspaper and WFNX Radio. We were both working marketing and events there, and having done many years of events for the radio station and the publication in the city of Boston, we saw that there was an open hole here for this type of event. We originally conceived the idea of doing this sort of gated, ticketed music festival for WFNX Radio, and then when FNX ultimately stopped broadcasting, we thought there was an opportunity to take it and run with it on our own.

As a Bostonian, thanks for filling that hole! We miss WFNX and the Phoenix, man. That’s cool to know that you really couldn’t be more homegrown.

What was nice was in September 2013 we had Passion Pit as the headliner, and the Phoenix and FNX had been covering them and playing them since they were a baby band, and they came on and said, “We heard that this festival was created by some guys that worked at the Phoenix, and we just want to dedicate this whole set to everybody that worked there. We loved that company.” There were probably 20 or 30 Phoenix employees that were at the show, so that was a terrific moment for everybody.

That’s awesome. So most festivals have trouble being profitable early. Was this the case with Boston Calling? Is being a small, two-weekend thing a bonus or a hinderance to the ability to be profitable?

It’s a great question. I’ll tell you the financial benefits of running two a year versus one: It doesn’t help you on booking; you’re not getting any better deals on bands. Where there’s a potential to amortize some cost is when you reach out to a vendor like a stage company or a fence company and say, “I need to rent fencing, and I need to rent it twice a year instead of once.” Occasionally you’re able to get a slightly better rate because you’re bringing them more business.

But every festival has its own balance sheet, and every festival has to sell tickets and bring in people in order to get there. There have been some festivals that have been great for us; there are some that have been less than great but still sustainable. We built this business so we could be here for a long time and not make or break on any one festival. They have to be run as their own events.

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So now here we are, year three. You’ve done this four times already. How’s it feel from the inside? Have you hit your stride? Is there pressure to keep delivering?

There’s always pressure, right? This is a really intelligent part of the country with really opinionated people, so every time you put something out there for consumption, you’re just gonna get feedback. That’s all there is to it. So you have to continually be creative with your curating, and you have to be forward thinking about your site layout and what you did last year and what’s going to be different and interesting and exciting this year. The minute we get complacent and think we can just push repeat is when we feel like the brand is going to start to go down. There’s really no off-season for us, even though we only happen two weekends a year.

But because of that, there really is no off-season. I imagine that you’re working 12 out of 12 months a year trying to put these things together.

We started programming and booking bands for this coming May festival in the summer of 2014. Especially headliners. I’m sure you know what a hyper-competitive festival landscape it is, especially for those top-tier bands. To get them to come to your festival on the day that you need them – that’s a lot of work right there.

Then how do you get them to come to what is really one of the smallest multi-day festivals around? How do you get them to come here versus the Bonnaroos or the Governors Balls? Does it have anything to do with timing? Because you’re kind of at the head and tail end of the season.

The timing is always a big piece of it. Someone like Beck can go and play Bonnaroo or Coachella or wherever he and his management team thinks would be best suited for him, so it’s fortunate that we fall on weekends that we’re not head-to-head with any of the massive festivals. In that regard, we’re okay on timing. Then in year one, it was all about being able to convince agents that this was a good play for their artists. Now that we’ve got four festivals under our belt and have been able to execute them relatively smoothly, it’s not so much about convincing as it is about just making sure schedules and budgets and everything fall in line.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Is there anything special that you’ll do to go after guys like Beck and My Morning Jacket and, last year, Jack Johnson? Because these guys can headline festivals four or five times the size of a Boston Calling, and yet you manage to really just get some knockout acts at the top of the bill.

Oh, thank you! I guess the way to look at it is a couple of things. One, we are very fortunate about the Aaron Dessner and The National piece of this, the fact that he’s involved with the curation. That band and that guy just have such a sterling reputation in the industry for forward thinking and creativity and credibility, so that helps us a lot when artists make decisions about where they want to play. They were the first band that confirmed for our first festival, and from there you’re able to go to other bands and other agents and go, “Hey, The National’s playing this.” It helps immensely when you have a band like that that’s already confirmed.

And then it just becomes really a conversation with the agent and the artist and the management that says, “What’s the best thing for the artist here?” Take Beck, for example; is it the best thing for Beck to play his own ticketed show in Boston, or is it the best thing for him to headline the festival? Sometimes we make offers for artists that we think are perfect for the festival, but the management team decides they need to play their own ticketed show for whatever purpose. So we lose a lot of artists that way, but on the flip side we get a lot of agents and artists that say, “We want our bands to be on festivals. It’s a great way to get new fans.”

Let me hop back to Aaron a bit. How did you get involved with him, and how involved is he? I kind of find it hard to believe that he’s calling Jim James up and saying, “Look, you gotta play this festival. It’s a great show!” Is he that involved?

We got involved with Aaron through mutual friends even before we launched this company. We went down to New York, and we spent a couple of days with him. We just kind of talked through what our vision was here for Boston Calling, and he was just like, “I love it! I’d love to be involved. I’d love for my band to play. And then more than that, I would like to help shape this and curate this because I think it’s just such an interesting time musically right now, and I just know so many artists.” So that was great from the get-go.

As for what’s it like working with him and how involved is he? The answer is, surprisingly – maybe to someone who doesn’t know him – he’s very hands on, which is great for us. He hops on calls with us on an almost daily basis to talk about what bands or what artists he’s interested in and what he’s seeing happening in the market. And then he has no problem reaching out to his friends in other bands to say, “Hey, I really want you to play this show.”

That’s really awesome! Because you hear, “So and so helped co-curate this festival,” and just on the basis that he’s in a band himself, you have to assume that it’s almost like just stamping his name on something.

It’s a small community of artists, really, and most of them know each other just from playing festivals and being in the same circuit for a long time. It’s really amazing for me – someone who’s not a celebrity and not in a touring band – how easy it is for him to pick up the phone and call an artist, and the artist is like, “Sure, let’s do it!”

And he came to you with the curation idea?

It was a mutual thing. It sort of grew organically.

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

You’ve had The National headline twice, which makes sense because of Aaron’s involvement. But besides them, Marina and the Diamonds, if I’m right, is the first real repeat booking.

I think you might be right. There’s a reason for that, actually. We love Marina. I thought she was exceptionally good when she was here at the first one. What happened was we didn’t realize the enormous fan base that she had. If you remember the first festival, we had an awkward second stage setup, for lack of a better word. The second stage wasn’t big enough to accommodate that amount of people. We put Marina there not knowing that there would be this groundswell of people coming in to see her, so there were a lot of people that said, “I’m super bummed! I got there for Marina, and I couldn’t really see the stage!” Then her agent reached out and said, “She’s gonna tour again. Would you like to have her back?” And we were like, we gotta do this just because so many people didn’t really get a proper Marina show last time around.

That’s rad, man. On the same token, was there any talk or attempt to bring back Girl Talk or Volcano Choir either for this one or September after they got rained out?

Totally. Volcano Choir, we tried real hard to bring them back for this coming May festival. And they’re just not touring anymore. They’re doing other projects right now, so the timing definitely didn’t work. We’re continuing to try to work with Girl Talk to see when we’re able to make that happen again because we know that people were bummed that both of those shows got missed due to weather.

Yeah, I figured that would probably happen with Volcano Choir. But besides that, since we’re there  – and I complimented the 44 Production guys on this too – the way you handled that rainout ran really smoothly. Did dealing with that change any preparation or setup this year?

Thank you! And no. To be sort of humble about it, I think we were well prepared. We had an evacuation plan that we had tested and knew what our procedure was going to be in the case that it happened. And we were lucky that a City of Boston Emergency Management team was on site with us because we saw that the forecast was potentially dangerous for that day. With that and with the cooperation of police and EMS and everybody, we were able to get everyone out. We’re really lucky in being downtown that there’s plenty of shelter for people to go to as opposed to just being out in a field. If you’re just ducking out, you’re just gonna go to a bar for an hour or two during a rainout.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Exactly what I did. And like I said, it felt like everything worked really well from the inside, so kudos! I’ll get back to the location in a second, but while we’re still talking about the lineup in general, I know the openers for each day are always local acts. What about other guys? This year you’ve got Pixies, you’ve had Passion Pit, Lake Street Dive. Is getting those big Boston bands a goal or just good fortune?

It’s both. We wanted Pixies since before we even conceived of this festival. If you ever listened to FNX, you knew that was like the number one band of all time on that radio station. For us, we knew eventually the timing’s just gotta work out to get Pixies on this bill. We’re lucky that it happened, and we’re so excited that they’re coming. We think that’s just going to be an enormous night when they take the stage.

As far as for trying to book local, we will always have spots for local bands. It’s the core of what this is about and making sure that the city is represented properly. We wish that we could do more for local Boston bands; we started this Block Party series last year where we do 20 block parties between the festivals, one a week, where we bring in a stage and we have beer and wine in downtown Boston, and we only book local Boston bands for those. If we just said, “We’re only gonna have Boston bands [for the festival],” I think we would be leaving a lot of opportunity on the table, but we try to have a good mix.

Sure. I mean, I’m looking at this year’s lineup, and you do have this really great mix. You’ve got Beck and My Morning Jacket, Pixies headlining, and then you’ve got Jason Isbell, Gerard Way, Run the Jewels. One thing I’m noticing is that the past three festivals seem to have lacked EDM. I’m wondering if that’s a conscious call, if it has anything to do maybe with fallout from the Avicii incident at the House of Blues or anything at all?

Nope, I don’t think it can be tied to any other events that have happened in Boston or in the EDM community. I think you’ll see EDM on these bills in the future. I just think for the last couple of events, it’s just not the way the lineups have come together. Sometimes putting a DJ on just in the middle of the afternoon for the sake of making sure that EDM is included isn’t necessary the best direction. For us, we want to make sure that our days are somewhat cohesive, but we’ve by no means actively or consciously stepped away from EDM; it just hasn’t fit in with what we’ve curated over the last couple of events.

Speaking of keeping the flow of the day together, how big a part of that is in your booking? Do you book for May or September based on sort of the style that’s coming together for that month? Is there a lot of “We want these guys for this month, these guys for that month,” or even a lot of “We want a lot of this type of indie rock this time and folkier stuff next time”?

The May or September thing usually becomes a function of tour schedule. TV on the Radio is an example of a band that we just knew whenever the timing worked, we wanted them on the bill. We just had an open-ended offer with the agency that just said, “When the time is right and these guys come through Boston, we’d love to have them.”

It’s funny you ask that. People actually have brought that up to us a lot. They say, “Oh, it seems like your May lineup really skews indie rock, and then your September is a younger college-based audience.” I have to be honest. I think that that’s a little bit of a coincidence. I don’t think that we conscientiously go out there and say, “Let’s curate for a 35-year-old guy” versus “Let’s curate for a 21-year-old girl.”

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Photo by Ben Kaye

What’s funny is that even if it’s not intentional, it kind of works out because Boston, colleges, September – it would be right when everybody’s there. And in May you might have fewer college-kid numbers.

It’s worked out! Yeah, I won’t argue that with you. I think we’ve definitely seen the benefit of having the hundred thousand-plus college kids in the market when our September show rolls around.

Generally, are there any specific challenges or advantages to booking a smaller festival? Does it give you the ability to go all killer, no filler?

When I look at festival bills that are released for these amazing festivals with 125 slots, on one hand you get super jealous because there’s so much music out there you’d love to bring that you just can’t given our size. But on the other hand, what it does is give much more importance to every slot that we book. We can’t have four sleepy shoegazer bands in a row, right? Because you’re just going to lose the crowd. You have to give good thought to how the day flows and what’s happening top to bottom.

What’s interesting is it’s a huge win we think – and we’ve heard from the artists and the agents too – when they book a band onto Boston Calling, and they know their band is going to get 100% audience attention when they’re on the stage versus having to compete with three or four other stages or activities that are happening. I didn’t think about that when we started this thing and when we laid it out the way we did, but the feedback that we continually heard from the bands was, “This is amazing! I’m not competing with Drake on another stage and just hoping that I can get someone’s attention here.” That’s been an accidental success point for us in terms of programming.

What about having to do it twice a year? If I’m remember right, Sasquatch! tried to do this last year.

Yeah, Sasquatch! They’re also Memorial Day weekend, so that is one where we’re always the same weekend, so we sometimes have to share talent and fly a band across the country. But typically one or the other is who gets the artist that weekend. They announced that they were gonna do two weekends, and they pulled the plug on that before it even happened. It’s tough. Not only is it a talent booking issue and making sure that you’re programmed properly, but it’s also just knowing the market that you’re in and hoping that there’s not audience fatigue that says, “I can only do this once a year.”

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Photo by Ben Kaye

So why do you think Boston Calling is able to pull that off when somebody as big as Sasquatch! can’t?

I can’t say why it didn’t work out for Sasquatch!, but for us, I think we’ve been able to do it because this is such a vibrant market for music and live entertainment. You touched on it earlier, where you basically have an entire different composition of the city in September than you do in May with this influx of college kids. Even if you came in May and you’re just not interested in September, there’s likely somebody here in September that can step in and take your place.

That makes sense.

We’ve been fortunate in that regard. I think the market will tell us, though, when they’re all set and they don’t want this twice a year.

We’ve talked about the lineup pretty intensively, but what about the location? Why City Hall Plaza? I mean really, it’s an ugly-as-hell place.

(laughs)

You guys make it look as good as you can, and you make it really quite efficient, but why not, like, Boston Commons? Why not some place bigger where you can have competing sets?

That’s a function of what the city will and won’t allow. There’s some regulations that state that with the Boston Common you’re not allowed to do ticketed, fenced-in private events, especially that have alcohol involved. So it’s a nonstarter on a lot of pieces of land in Boston we think would be good for this.

But to be honest with you, as ugly as City Hall Plaza is, we take some pride in working in this difficult site and making it vibrant for the weekend. We know every brick; we know every measurement out there. We found a way to fit two gigantic stages on there, and it works. We like the fact that we’re downtown, and we give people the opportunity to take advantage of that. Not everybody that’s coming to this festival is from Boston, so it’s nice to not feel like you’re keeping these people fenced in and contained for 12 hours. You let ’em go and explore Faneuil Hall or whatever they want to do, and they can come back at their own leisure. We think it’s more than just a festival; you get to really experience Boston if you come.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

You’re not really the size of a destination festival, but you’re saying you bring in outside people. Do you even think of yourself competing with guys like Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Coachella?

Not really. Sure, in a very general business sense, you’re competing with any event that’s happening at any given time because we’re just competing for a ticket sale. As far as making it a destination festival, about 20% of the people who are coming to Boston Calling are coming from outside of Massachusetts. For us, that’s a really nice ratio. That’s hotel revenue that’s coming in, that’s restaurants, that’s just adding to the economic impact of the downtown area. That’s what the city of Boston likes to see when they give you a license to put on an event like this.

20% sounds like a pretty good number for an event this size.

Yeah, especially on weekends that are otherwise pretty quiet in downtown Boston.

Given the location – and you do a great job making that place accommodating, and you make it work so well – it feels like there’s only so much you could possibly do to expand. You added three acts on Friday; is there anything left? How do you get bigger?

I actually think that the answer is you really don’t. Unless we move locations, which at the moment we just have no intention of doing, we can’t just all of a sudden add a third stage. We can’t add another 10,000 people to our capacity given our space. So we’re cool with it! We like where we’re at. We like our layout. We’ve even had to work through some Government Center T [station] construction over the last year and a half. Is it perfect? No. But is it amazing that it’s downtown Boston and this is happening? We think so. We’re not changing anything or looking to grow this much bigger than it currently is at the moment.

I think the only way that we would potentially expand and grow in this market is if we added a bit of a South by Southwest model to it, where we started to incorporate venues around town and program for the week leading up to the festival. But for the site that we currently have, I think at this point what you see is what you’re gonna get in terms of staging and capacity.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

I notice you’re actually emphasizing “the site that we have now,” “the way it is now,” “currently.” Five years from now, 10 years from now, could you see this doing something else?

I mean, when you run a business, you always have to be sort of opportunistic and be able to take things as they come. If somebody came to us and said, “Hey, guess what? The Boston Common is now open for this type of event because the Olympics are coming” – this city is gonna undergo a dramatic transformation if the Olympics are coming here in 2024 – I’m never putting my flag in the ground and being like, “This is it! I’m not moving!”

But given what the current landscape looks like, we’re super happy and appreciative of the space that we have. And that’s where we’ll be for the foreseeable future.

Sure. I keep pushing, but I hope you understand that what you’ve done with what you’ve been given is far and away better than I could’ve imagined.

Oh, no, I don’t feel like you’re pushing at all. I get where you’re coming from. You’re like, “Just move it to some grass! Please!” (laughs)

(Laughs) You just get that pavement vibe of a touring Warped Tour festival, and you’re like, “Jesus this is uncomfortable.” But it works, man, it does.

Thank you.

Have you started booking September?

Oh, yeah. September is well on its way.