Welcome to Festival Outlook, a supplemental column that provides more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s sister site of the same name. In this installment, staff writer Ryan Bray talks with Shaky Knees founder Tim Sweetwood to discuss the unshakeable energy of Atlanta’s most rewarding festival.
Tim Sweetwood has navigated his way through the US festival circuit over the years, but he couldn’t help noticing that his home base of Atlanta was being under-serviced. Having long thought about pulling together his own festival, he introduced Shaky Knees in 2013. Sweetwood, a promoter with The Bowery Presents by trade, has grown the festival remarkably fast, and Shaky Knees’ third year promises to be its best yet. With a solid slate of festival-tested headliners (The Strokes, Pixies, Wilco, Ryan Adams, The Avett Brothers), middle relievers (Social Distortion, Built to Spill, Flogging Molly), and buzz-worthy up-and-comers (Viet Cong, Steve Gunn, Fences), Shaky Knees is fast emerging as one of the premier mid-sized music festivals in the country.
We took some time to talk with Sweetwood about Shaky Knees and its countrified spin off, Shaky Boots, the challenge of booking to compete with the Lollapaloozas and Bonnaroos of the world, and why smaller festivals can deliver as much bang for your buck as their larger competitors.
Photo by Max Blau
How did the festival get started?
I guess I just always envisioned and wanted to do a festival. I’ve been going to festivals for years upon years, and I thought there was a bit of a gap for festivals around [Atlanta] that catered more to the indie side of things in general, or less of the mainstream. As you can see by the genres I’ve tried to go after, that didn’t exist as a festival.
Was there a specific moment when you first decided to put your thoughts for the festival into action?
I don’t know if there was a specific thing. I had the idea in my head, and I had a lot of work on paper. Year one of Shaky Knees was held in a park that is right next to a venue called the Masquerade, and I used to work at the Masquerade. There used to be all these old, dumpy warehouses and things like that. Once those warehouses went away and it became a park, it just felt like, “Oh, what a cool opportunity.” It felt very in-house, and that mitigated some of the risk. I was familiar with the lay of the land and had promoted all these kinds of artists for years, but I wasn’t trying to be Bonnaroo or Coachella in year one. It wasn’t like we were reaching for the sky. I just wanted to show people what I could do as far as my vision. You’re not reinventing the wheel, but you’re putting up a different wheel and seeing if people will ride it.
How much of a leg up did your background in promoting give you when it came time to get the festival going?
I’ve been promoting for a long time. I own these festivals, but I also work for Bowery Presents, which promotes shows all throughout the Southeast. But I’ve been promoting shows for years. I knew the background, I knew the context, and I was close with the managers and the bands. In fact, in year one, a majority of the bands were friends of mine. That helped get it started. They had faith in me that I was going to put on a nice event.
Is doing a festival that much different than promoting a show, beyond the fact that you’re doing it on a much larger scale?
[Having a background in promotion] does make it easier, but doing a festival is very different. It’s way more of a DIY setup where you’re pulling it together from soup to nuts, whereas a regular promoted show is 99 times out of 100 at an established venue with an established infrastructure. They have the staff and everything that goes with it. You don’t have all of that built in with a festival, so it takes more time. But it’s cooler, because you can make it what you want. You’re not working in a defined space.
Now that you’re in your third year of doing the festival, does it kind of feel like pushing a boulder down a hill? Has it become easier now that you have the foundation in place?
I’d say it’s more like pushing a boulder across a flat field. I wouldn’t say I’m pushing it up the hill or down the hill. Some things are easier. In year one, we were cold calling bands and managers, like, “Come be a part of this.” In year three, everyone’s reaching out to me, and then it’s me fulfilling all of these different aspects of the show. It’s not easier or harder, but there are challenges. You don’t want to do the same festival every year. You want to grow aesthetically, and you have to make sure your booking is on point so fans are just as excited as they were the year before.
Maybe easier is the wrong word, but is there a comfort level? Do you feel like you’re getting your arms around it more?
I’ve got my arms around it more, but I think I’m just as on-edge and nervous about the ultimate outcome as I ever was. Maybe more so because we’re servicing more people, but yes, it’s good to know that I’ve done this for a few years now. I’m not going into it blind like I did on year one.
It seems like those nerves are healthy. The last thing you want going into doing a festival is to feel complacent or overconfident.
I 100 percent agree. It drives you to market more, to come up with better promotions, and think more outside the box. It makes you constantly think about it. The more attention you give to the festival, the better the end result for the ticket buyer.
The Replacements at Shaky Knees 2014 // Photo by Max Blau
The lineup this year is really strong, but also very diverse. What has your philosophy been for booking Shaky Knees?
The strategy for booking, and I know it sounds kind of cocky or selfish, is kind of based on whatever it is I’m into and what I would want to see at a festival.
That’s inevitable, though, right?
Yeah, 100 percent. The thing I don’t do at this festival, and Shaky Boots as well, is compromise to the things the industry says I should be compromising to. A really good example would be if an agent comes to me and says, “Hey, I’ve got this really hot band.” They’re either up-and-coming, or they’ve been around for 10 years and are established. That’s great and all, but if I don’t like to listen to them, I kind of don’t want them on my festival. That’s what I’ve stuck to, and knock on wood, but it seems to work.
When it comes to booking, I think you should be diverse, but not too diverse. I don’t know. I’m a fan of all the festivals out there. I’m a festival junkie, but sometimes it’s cool when you can just take a few hours and visit one stage, or just turn around there’s another stage with the same kind of genre that you’re into. Take a band like The Strokes, who are headlining one of the nights of the festival this year. They’re not one particular genre, but they fit in that genre of rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve got influences of indie rock, pop rock, a little punk rock, whatever it may be, but at the end of the day it’s all still rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of other festivals get into, “OK, we’re gonna have a lot of hip-hop, a lot of electronic, a lot of R&B, or jam bands.” I see those as bigger categories, but I try to simplify it. If they have a six-string instrument, it’s rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s almost like you’re throwing your own party and everyone’s invited.
I think that’s a really good way of looking at it. It’s like, “Here’s my idea for a festival this year, and I hope 40,000 of my friends want to come along and see the same thing.”
When it comes to creating a unique lineup, that seems like it would be harder and harder to do with each passing year. There are a lot of competing festivals going after a lot of the same bands.
Yeah, I do think it’s getting more stressful. With so many festivals out there, it’s like you said — how do you differentiate yourself? I love the fact that we’re looked at as a national festival, but from a booking standpoint I try to make it a little bit more regional. It’s OK if there’s a festival in California or Washington or Colorado that has a lot of the same artists. They’re all the way across the country. Do I want people to travel to come to my festival? Absolutely. But I’m concerned first with how different we are regionally and secondly how nationally different we are.
Edward Sharpe at Shaky Knees 2014 // Photo by Max Blau
What acts on this year’s lineup really jump out at you?
You know, the funny thing is a lot of the acts that I wanted to get I got, and the bands I wanted that I didn’t get we’re in conversations with about next year. There’s always a little bit of disappointment when you can’t get who you want, but that’s just how it goes. My wishlist of bookings never ends up being what it is. If I have a wishlist of 100 bands I’m going after, my guess is I get 45.
But in its own way, that’s kind of exciting, that element of never really knowing what you’re going to end up with.
Yeah, absolutely. I can’t divulge too much about who was offered on first or last, but there are definitely artists this year that I’m excited about that weren’t initially discussed, who came along in the process. An agent comes up and says, “Hey, these guys are available. Do you have any interest?” And it’s like, “Cool, I didn’t think they’d have any interest in doing my festival. Let’s do it.” There’s been a lot of acts that I’ve always been excited about that I’ve tried to get over the years — i.e., Mastodon, Tame Impala, and Flogging Molly. Ryan Adams was a fantastic addition that we’re excited to have. I know he’s playing a lot of festivals, but he doesn’t do every one, and he only goes out and does festivals every five or six years. It’s flattering to know we have him, and there’s a couple of other major festivals who don’t.
You mentioned in an interview a few years back that you wanted Shaky Knees to be a festival specifically for fans who are coming out for the music. That’s interesting considering how more and more people are going to summer festivals because it’s sort of become the thing to do. How important is it to you that Shaky Knees hangs on to that purist approach?
It’s super important. If some of the headliners or bigger bands each day, be it The Strokes, The Pixies, Noel Gallagher, The Avett Brothers, or whoever, are playing, if you’re fans of them, you’re likely to find other bands early in the day that you’ll like that maybe you’ve never heard. Maybe they’re in the same genres, or they might be influenced by some of those bigger bands. For instance, one of the [acts] I’m most excited to see this year is Steve Gunn. Steve put together one of my favorite albums from last year [Way Out Weather], and he’s playing maybe an hour after doors open one day. I’m willing to bet that of the 40,000 people who go to Shaky Knees this year, probably 39,150 of them don’t know who he is. But go check him out, because you’ll probably dig it.
The festival is just really, really based on music. When I say that, I mean there’s stuff like food trucks and bars and vendors and things like that to help you enjoy your day, but ultimately you’re there for the music. We actually put way too many bars and way too many restrooms out there so that if I say, “Hey man, I’ll be back in five minutes. I’m gonna go to the bathroom and I’ll grab us beers,” you can actually achieve that. So many festivals these days, you’re always caught up in a long line for something, or you’re walking three quarters of a mile to the other end of the festival to see what you want to see, and that inhibits your ability to see the other stuff that you might want to see. We want you to see as much as you possibly can within a day.
Alabama Shakes at Shaky Knees 2014 // Photo by Max Blau
Right. There’s so much other stuff there to divert you from the stages at most festivals that has nothing to do with music.
Exactly. But at the same time, I don’t dog, say, Coachella, because it is what it is. It’s an event. Obviously people love it because it sells out in advance every year. But again, I think a good philosophy to go back to is that idea of not reinventing the wheel but creating a different wheel for people to enjoy.
You’re also putting together Shaky Boots, which is an altogether different type of festival the weekend before. What’s it like trying to pull together two very different types of shows, with one catering to rock crowds and the other to mainstream country fans?
Half of it is really easy because you’re already doing one festival the week before. There’s a lot of services and vendors and things like that where if you’re using them for one show you just use them for the other. You’re good to go, no big deal. But you’re right, [Shaky Boots] is a completely different genre geared at a completely different fan base. There’s definitely challenges there for sure. I wanted to always set one up from a business standpoint in the state of Georgia, because it didn’t exist. That blew my mind. I know country is global, but the South goes hand in hand with country music. Here’s this big state of Georgia, and they don’t have a country festival. It’s like, “Huh.” Also, festivals in the country world have always been different. What we’re trying to do with this is give country music more of the indie and rock fest treatment. When you traditionally go to a country festival, people bring their chairs, find a spot, and plop down for the day.
They kind of resemble state fairs more than rock shows.
That’s right. I think what we’re trying to do is introduce country fans to this new concept. There’s not one stage, there’s three stages. You bounce around like you would at an indie rock festival. It’s been a challenge educating people to that, but the response has been like, “Oh, cool. I never thought about that, but that could be a good thing.”
Yeah, it kind of brings the country festival into the 21st century a bit.
Yeah, and don’t get me wrong: Shaky Boots is not the first country music festival, but we’re just trying to do it a little bit of a different way.
Have you thought ahead as to what you’d like the festival to be five years from now? How do you see it growing?
I just want to see the brand continue to develop, but I also want to see fans of the festival and fans of the music make it a staple in their calendar year. We have established that it’s the second weekend in May, which happens to be Mother’s Day, which some people don’t dig. But everyone has a mom, so bring her to the festival. Mark it on your calendar and know that we’re committed to getting better each year, and not necessarily bigger either. The end goal is to sell out as a festival, but at half the capacity of the Bonnaroos and the Coachellas so that everyone there can enjoy it. We want the guy who is standing 20 feet back from the stage to enjoy it as much as the guy who is standing 200 feet back from the stage. It’s a business, don’t get me wrong. The business needs to be profitable, but when your business gets too big, sometimes it’s harder to service the ticket buyer in a way that’s really satisfying. I think if we keep things running at a medium level, we can give our fans what they’re looking for.
That’s an interesting approach seeing as most festivals equate bigger to being better. There’s no moderation.
Yeah, but I mean, look at something like the Newport Folk Festival. That thing is amazing, and it sells out every year. People get so excited about it, but they do 20,000 people a day, and that’s what works. There’s people who travel pretty far for that, and everyone goes home happy. If you could combine all the hip elements that come with, say, Coachella with the intimacy of the Newport Folk Festival and put me right in the middle of all that, that’s sort of our end goal.