James MacDonald, Festival at the Farm: Keep It Simple

We had the real pleasure to catch up with James MacDonald, director of Festival at the Farm, which brings together a stacked two-day lineup on September 16-17 in Canton, MA. The headliners are Lettuce (Saturday) and The Wood Brothers (Sunday), but both days feature incredible top to bottom lineups. Great local acts Julie Rhodes, The Ballroom Thieves, Session Americana, and Twisted Pine complement artists from across the country, like Brett Dennen, Lee Fields, and Marcus King. One of the things I most appreciate about this festival is there are no overlapping sets. There are two stages, and you don’t have to choose–that is pretty rare. As you’ll see in our conversation with James, there is a lot of effort to make this experience as comfortable as possible. I can’t wait to get there.

RLR: Can you talk a little bit about the history of this festival?

JM: The event in and of itself was founded last summer as “Festival at The Farm.” It’s a stand alone event. But previously, I worked for Life Is Good Festival, so I have a long history creating a certain kind of event, for a certain kind of audience. That festival ran at [Prowse Farm] from 2000-2010. And I really loved that event and when it went away, it seemed that there was still an audience that appreciated what we were doing, and loved that site specifically.

It’s a really beautiful and convenient spot. It’s inside of 128, the loop that goes around the city. You get off the highway at exit 2B, you take one right turn, and the festival is immediately on your right. We’ve got on-site parking and we’re trying to create an event that’s as comfortable as possible. It’s 5,000 people max and we don’t want to get bigger than that and get into shuttling people. So it’s really built for convenience.

You know, a lot of people don’t want to go to the 80,000-person festivals, especially if you’re going to bring the kiddos. I’ve got a daughter of my own, and that’s always inspired me. It’s really cool when kids are there sharing the music with the adults–it’s not just for twenty year-olds.

RLR: As a dad with two kids, I appreciate that there’s an effort to make this festival family friendly: the kids tickets are cheap ($15) or free, there are games for them, the food seems on the healthy side, etc. How does planning a festival that a family can enjoy impact your decision making as you plan for the year?

JM: I want mom and dad to be able to have a beer and see one of their favorite bands and relax, and we also created activities in the festival where the kids can run wild and go bananas. How cool is it that some kids will be able to say their first concert was Festival at the Farm?

Music Festivals have become this thing for 18-25 year olds and there’s a lot of offerings for 18-25 year olds to have that experience. But for the 25-40 year old that is a parent, and still loves music, it felt like the festival world was becoming exclusionary. I wanted it be integrated, not like there’s a kids area over in the corner. And maybe there are some people who don’t want to hang around a five year-old who is rocking out, and there’s plenty of other options for them. For me, I just think it’s cool that we can share this with every age group and make a festival that welcomes everyone. That’s a distinction we take a lot of pride in.

RLR: What is your process for curating the artists who are going to be on the lineup and achieving a certain amount of balance in the lineup?

JM: Balance is a good word. Some of it is just dumb luck–or, dumb luck born out of a mission. The mission is to create a festival that is accessible. There’s a lot of great bands that I personally enjoy that wouldn’t fit at Festival at the Farm. So it’s about finding the balance that connects with the hard-core music fan, who knows The Ballroom Thieves before they break–they’re going to get a lot from this festival, because they can see The Ballroom Thieves, or Lee Fields, or Kat Wright, because they know those bands and they’re on the edge.

 


 
There’s a lot of other festival-goers who come to this who are looking for this to be their introduction to some cool bands. Maybe they came to Life Is Good and they have built up some trust in what we offer. I love that there’s going to be a mom out there, who came to the show because she wanted to have a fun day with her family, and she’s going to fall in love with Brett Dennen or Lettuce. So when thinking about balance, if I think a band is going to turn off either one of those audiences–in other words, if the band is so poppy that they don’t satisfy the musically adventurous in the crowd, or if the band is so adventurous that they’ll turn off the casual musical listener, they’re probably not the right band for this festival. It’s a balance between finding the credible, interesting musical acts and the accessible acts that give people the opportunity to discover new things.

RLR: What is something you know about planning a festival like this that you think most people who attend festivals wouldn’t know?

JM: It’s a great question and a timely one too, thinking about things like The Fyre Festival. When I read about something like a Fyre Festival, it’s shocking to me, because there is so much that goes into a festival. I think what your question gets at is this: when you put a couple thousand people together in a field and it’s under your direction, you are implicitly promising a safe environment. There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility to get it right. So it comes down to how many emergency exits do we have and are they well lit, do we have enough ice and water.

So just as much as I’m thinking, “How does Marcus King Band fit into this lineup?” there is a different part of you that’s almost a different kind of person altogether that goes, “How much fencing do we need?” And everything from all those operational details down to what the signs say are really important, because people want to come to an environment where people don’t have to worry about their safety and don’t have to worry about their entertainment, to a point where people don’t even realize it’s happening. I am passionate about running this festival, and I’m on Amazon ordering wristbands and toilet paper. People who come to the festival think I just book bands for a living, that’s rock n’ roll, but you know I also have to buy sunscreen for the information booth.

RLR: I’ve heard some musicians describe themselves as small business owners. I think for the casual music fan, they might think that takes away from the creative experience, but for many artists it enhances the experience in a lot of ways, because you’re in control and getting to exercise different aspects of your brain.

JM: I am definitely a small business owner. I worked for Life Is Good, but now I’m on my own and it’s definitely a mom and pop endeavor. I actually feel really connected to a lot of the food vendors on site and the artists and craft vendors, because they’re also running small businesses and we have the same concerns about making sure we’re insured and all of those things. It’s definitely been an entrepreneurial adventure. And festival-goers might see Six Chair Productions, and they might think that’s an office when it’s actually a guy in his dining room, and is more of a start up thing. So I am definitely an independent business owner, it just so happens that my business is live events.

RLR: One other challenge when it comes to balance is that tension between doing new things and maintaining what people are looking for.

JM: In general, simplicity is the guiding principle for this event. To that end, I think the festival business gets in its own way. How many festivals have four or five different price levels and the ticket price is going to change in two weeks, and special gold tickets are available, and there’s just all this stuff that someone is expected to understand in order to participate.

For me, it was like: we have a farm, it’s a festival, this will be called “Festival at the Farm,” and we keep it that simple. On day one, we’re going to tell you that Brett Dennen is playing Saturday and Martin Sexton Trio is playing Sunday and we’re not going to make you wait four weeks for a special announcement. I want to do this thing well and meet people’s expectations.

 


 
I don’t feel the need the engage in the festival industrial complex, where the only way to gauge success is if you have a bigger headliner, and more people, and crazier art. I want to run festival that people love and people trust. If they fall in love with what they do, they’ll sign up whether or not we book their favorite band. I want this to be a relaxing weekend, where you park on site, you walk 100 yards and you’re at the front gate. And if you want to leave and go get lunch, fine; the wristband will let you back in. It’s about making it as easy and accessible from the minute they discover the thing on-line to the moment they walk out.

RLR: You have to be really excited for the lineup this year.

JM: I love it, as a music fan. And Boston is a competitive place, so I’m thankful for every band that has ever said yes to us, because there are a lot of other places they can play. I’m pumped about the lineup; it represents a lot of good local music. The cool thing that Matthew Stubbs is doing at The Sinclair every Monday–he’s playing immediately after Lettuce on Saturday night, so I’m excited that people who want to hang out a little longer and have another beer will get to know Matthew Stubbs. And you know, Julie Rhodes, Dwight and Nicole up in Vermont, Ryan Montbleau, and then even as you get a little bigger, Martin Sexton and The Ballroom Thieves have Boston roots. And that is intentional, because this would be a different festival if it were in Topeka. But there’s a lot of good music here in Boston and it’s great to represent it.

 


 
You can get tickets for Festival at the Farm here. See you there in a couple of weeks!

 

Photo credits: Rich Gastwirt (stage); Owen S. Jordan (kids).

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