Recently with festivals has been a growing trend in the music industry and been popping up everywhere. I interviewed Alex Pinto who was co-founder of a up and coming jazz festival in the San Francisco area about DIY festivals.
What was the reason you wanted to start SF Offside Jazz?
SF Offside was started to fill the perceived programming gap in the regional jazz festival circuit that failed to provide enough quality opportunities for Bay Area jazz and creative musicians to present their own work. The major Bay Area festivals typically limit local performers to education showcases, tribute shows or matinees and most of the headlining acts would from anywhere but the Bay Area. We felt that by creating a platform, a brand, a mechanism to support the local scene, we would draw local, national and international attention to the incredible talent right in our own community.
How did you go about choosing the bands for the lineup?
We wanted to accomplish specific goals when programming the festival:
1) Hire exclusively local talent: The mission of the festival was to serve the local jazz and creative music scene. We were inspired by the food and art movement, which really celebrate the idea of buying local and supporting local enterprises and people, so our feeling were to bring that same attitude to music. We also looked to the Montreal Off Festival, Table and Chairs in Seattle and Winterfest in NYC as models.
2) Hire a diverse range of talent: We made an effort to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Bay Area in our lineup plus actively sought out female band leaders and instrumentalists. This again was in response to how major festivals typically are programmed. We didn’t want our festival to be a bunch of white guys playing music for other white guys!
3) Hire younger talent: Jazz as a genre is horrible at promoting young acts. We really wanted to give the young innovators in our scene a space to showcase their skills. Every other genre of music is actively seeking out the next new act and pairs established acts with up and coming ones. Jazz festivals typically program the same lineups, featuring the same people they’ve been featuring for the past 20 years.
4) Program only performers presenting original music: There are so many wonderful composers and improvisers in the Bay Area and we wanted to hear what they were creating. Plenty of jazz outlets are committed to maintaining the traditional canon. We wanted to offer a different experience for our attendees.
How did you go about finding the venue/venues?
Finding venues was at times simple, at times difficult. We had to balance our budget, attendance expectations with what would feel good and make for a positive experience for the bands and listeners. We could’t book a 800 person room – we weren’t big enough yet – but we couldn’t just play at the pass the hat cafe either. We worked with venues that we already were familiar with and thought had a edge or cool factor. We did make some mistakes, but generally worked with venues that loved our idea, supported our concept and were affordable. We wanted to step away from the typical institution or concert hall vibe of many larger jazz festivals and bring the music to where younger audiences and audiences who typically don’t interact with jazz and creative music had an opportunity to check out our festival.
Offside Jazz focuses on only locally grown talent, why limit the jazz festival in such a manner?
I think I got to why we programmed only local talent above.
You yourself were one of the local artist that played at offside jazz were their any difficulties associated with playing the festival that you created?
I didn’t encounter any problems programming my own acts or integrating myself into the festival. I never made myself a nightly headliner, but I did see it as an opportunity to collaborate with musicians I hadn’t really played with before and to step forward and present my work to a larger audience. I think it also demonstrated to the musicians and local stakeholders (press, venues) that I was serious about the festival and believed in it, to the point that I would even play at it. It also provided me with additional touch points with the press, it rounded out our festival narrative. My festival co-founder was an active promoter, music blogger in the scene so I think our involvement added a level of credibility to the festival.
What were some of the biggest difficulties that you came across starting your own festival?
The festival turned from an idea into an actual event in phases. First we had to agree on a name. Second we had to create all the online elements (website, logo, Facebook page, Twitter, etc). From there we needed to draft press releases, send those out to our contacts in the press. All the while we were locking in venues and securing bands. And not every band or artist wanted to perform. We operated on a shoe string budget. We couldn’t really guarantee bands that much money because we really had no idea if we would make any! So it was mostly a lot of members of the music and creative community coming together and trusting my festival partner and me and supporting us by working for a reduced rate or offering a space free of charge or including our festival in the major write ups on the local music scene.
Our second year we did get fiscal sponsorship, which allowed us to apply for grants and accept private donations, but that added just more paperwork and legal obstacles. The festival became a legitimate business, I opened a bank account for the festival, managed all our finances, presented our books to our fiscal sponsor, collected W-9s from all our artists and filed taxes for the festival. It became too much.
I regret that we only managed to launch 2 seasons. We had a lot of momentum. We had extensive press coverage, huge support for the local musicians and creative community, but I ended up moving to India and now I’m in Seattle. Perhaps we can do one last festival to wrap it up, but I think if we could’ve done it for 5 years, 10 years, it would have become a significant event in the Bay Area music community.