Arts Enclave's Blog

Gathering of the Vibes Director Talks About Surviving in the Music World

Part II of a Two-Part Interview with Ken Hays

Click Here for Part I

The Gathering of the Vibes music festival is primed to rock ‘n roll into  its 15th season honoring Jerry the Garcia, and introducing thousands of new fans to bands with great vibes of their own.

There’s food, arts and crafts, sunshine (and sometimes rain) at Seaside Park in Bridgeport Connecticut. And for four days, the air above the shores of Long Island Sound will be filled with music you rarely get the opportunity to hear live. Bands like Furthur  with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Jimmy Cliff, Little Feat, Dark Star Orchestra, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Rhythm Devils featuring Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzman and Keller Williams. The Vibes homepage gives you the full lineup, which includes the perennial Wavy Gravy (who MC’d Woodstock) as VIBES Master of Ceremonies.

Little Feat, playing at the 2010 Vibes -- press photo courtesy GOTV

 I talked with Festival Director Ken Hays back in April, first about his concept for the festival (which we covered in an earlier post), and then we got down to talking about how bands survive in this altered music world, where YouTube controls the fates of as many musicians as American Idol. How do you launch with a creative sound and find your listeners, when they are already bombarded with so much else to see and hear?  Here’s what Ken had to say…

Arts Enclave: What is the Gathering of the Vibes “sound”? We know it originated with the Grateful Dead, but it’s morphed quite a bit, hasn’t it?

Ken Hays: Absolutely. Over the years, it’s really become more about the diversity of genres. The Grateful Dead was a culmination of all different musical genres. Jerry Garcia’s love was initially bluegrass and so we now cover everything from bluegrass, funk and gospel to rock n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and reggae…every musical genre.

AE: Was it always like that?

KH:  That’s been consistent throughout the years. Back in 2003, James Brown was with us, and our sound has really been evolving. It’s challenging to keep new and fresh artists coming in and not become stagnant and repeat artists year after year. We do have some artists who have been with us from the beginning, but it’s important to keep fresh blood coming in, and to foster and enhance the creative musical element. 

AE: Who’s been with you from the beginning?

 KH: There are just a few bands that have stayed with us since the beginning. Deep Banana Blackout, Reid Genauer from Assembly of Dust (he might have missed one year), Strangefolk  has played 13 or 14 Gathering of the Vibes. 

AE: What does it mean to the band to be in the festival? 

KH: We had 2300 band submissions for 2010. It’s very, very difficult for bands to break into the larger festivals like ours. One of the most difficult parts of our job is to say ‘no’. We hate to not be able to extend an invite to so many incredibly talented bands, but there’s just limited time available on the stage and we have to be really selective about who we choose.

AE: All the bands are paid?

 KH: We put out a flat guarantee offer to our bands, because it is a festival.

AE: How is this different from other venues?

KH:  Traditional indoor concert venues generally offer the band a flat guaranteed amount, like we do, plus, when they reach a breakeven point, there would be a split in percentage—that which goes to the promoter and the venue, and that which goes to the band. So if they sell out a 500-person room, they have the potential to make more than the guarantee. They would make what you would refer to as “back-end percentages.” That gives the band motivation to get as many people to show as possible, working with the promoter to try to fill the house. That’s the usual concert-venue model, where the band’s name alone is the draw for the audience. 

AE: And what about your model?

KH:  We just do the flat guarantee, but they get the exposure in front of 20,000 people who come to the Gathering of the Vibes Festival each year.

AE: The website looks fantastic. The way you’ve got the video from last year and the slide show from 2008, it really is pretty inviting.

KH: It is. The website really shows the Vibe, if you will, that we want to get across…that Seaside Park is an absolutely beautiful venue.

AE: Are there special challenges to being in Connecticut?

Connecticut has just taken such a beating in this economic downturn. So many people here were in the finance industry, and then the insurance industry in the Hartford region got hit too. Connecticut has taken a harder beating than most, but hopefully the economy is shifting and people have a little more confidence.

AE: Does that affect your ticket prices?

KH: Absolutely. We put together our budget for the year…and we think about how the economy is looking, where are we are at today, and whether people are going to have money to purchase tickets. The whole concert industry has been down pretty significantly and that affects the ticket price for a lot of these bands that go out. Ticket prices determine whether they bands can afford to go out, because if people don’t have $35 to afford the ticket, you know, they’re not coming to the show.

AE: What does that do to the bands? 

KH:  The question becomes, “can a band break even on a lower-priced ticket, say a $25 dollar ticket?” And can a promoter break even on a lower-priced ticket? A number of bands have decided to be very cautious about their ticket price points, and whether they want to tour the United States this summer. Several have decided to go to Europe instead to branch out and try some new out-of-the-box thinking to expand their fan bases.

AE: The Eagles were doing their Farewell Tour for how many years? And they were sometimes $200 a ticket.

KH: Yeah, there are very few bands in the world that can demand $200 a ticket anymore.

AE: And for how long—now they’re on a triple ticket stadium tour with the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban both opening for them.

KH: Well, it’s supply and demand. And when you have a $200 ticket and you’re not filling the venues, then that speaks volumes―that you’re priced too high or you’ve played the market too many times.

AE:….Lots of artists cancel tours due to lack of sales. 

KH: It’s not that uncommon. People don’t understand, unless they’re in the business. The overhead costs and the expenses incurred by being on the road are so high, with tractor trailers and tour buses and hotels, insurance, and the road crews. If you look at the nuts and bolts behind the music, there are some really considerable expenses that are unavoidable.

AE: Can musicians afford to stay in music or are they going to be forced into other things?

KH: The majority are forced into other things. They end up coming to the understanding that ‘this isn’t working, our love, our passion for the band isn’t getting us to where we need to be…and maybe we all need to sit down together with our finance person and determine if it makes sense for us to continue what we’re doing.’ And maybe it’s some creative, outside-the-box marketing ideas, or a new album that can shake things up. There are so many incredibly talented artists out there that should be playing in front of thousands of people, but it’s a lot of hard work to get to that point.

AE: Do you see solutions in terms of getting their bands noticed out there, trying to break through to another level…Is there a pattern that works better than others?

KH: I think bands are in a special position today with computer downloads and streaming audio. Now there’s new and different marketing ideas, and there’s never been a better time to get their music out to potential fans with FacebookTwitter, and YouTube and all the viral marketing media available. Look where we were five years ago with Facebook and the viral marketing behind bands and look where we’re at today. Just imagine where we’re going to be in five more years… 

Music is more accessible than ever before and I think that’s only going to continue. But it’s more than just what you do on the web, you have to rally the grassroots, fan by fan, by signing autographs and shaking hands. You have to do whatever you need to do to survive and thrive as a musical entity. It’s challenging, there’s no doubt about it―it’s a tough, tough business.

AE: What do you think today’s bands should do to promote themselves?

I think I’d go back, honestly to the old concert model…I think it’s a good idea for up-and-coming bands to follow the same kind of model that the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and Metallica had, which is to allow their fans to record their concerts and then share those live performances with others…get them intrigued by what the bands are doing onstage, so they’ll come out and buy tickets and check the band out.

AE: Where is music is headed? A couple of years ago they were saying because of Napster that the recording industry was going under, and it didn’t actually happen. So where do you think it’s going now?

KH: To make money on CD sales for up-and-coming bands is enormously challenging, unless you’ve got huge, huge marketing and advertising budgets from a major label, which comes with its downsides as well. What I would recommend more than anything is always retaining creative control of your music and intellectual property control of your music. Never give it away.

The labels typically don’t like to give free reign to artists, particularly up-and-coming artists. Once you’ve become a John Mayer (AE: a local boy from just a few miles away), for example, he can retain creative control now, and that was one of his stipulations. As much as you possibly can, try to retain creative control in the studio and make sure the CD or the album that is released reflects exactly what you want it to, and not what a record company executive or an engineer might want.

AE: Any final advice to musicians?

KH:…with record labels, get a good attorney to represent you who has experience in the music recording business—not a lawyer who closes on real estate properties. It’s intellectual property and you need an intellectual property attorney who specializes in music rights. It’s a negotiating process, but at the end of the day record labels have a whole lot of money, and hopefully you can come to terms that make sense and that both parties are comfortable with.

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There’s only 12 days left until the Gathering of the Vibes comes to Bridgeport! Visit their site at www.GOVIBES.com to learn more, and check out the first Arts Enclave interview with Ken Hays from last month.

The crowd at 2008 Gathering of the Vibes - Photo courtesy of GOTV

If you can get to the Northeast for the weekend of July 29th to August 1st, then buy your tickets AND GO BACK IN TIME to when music was live and a little bit messy….to when you judged for yourself what you liked and didn’t like, rather than listening for judges to tell you. Sit on the ground with friends and strangers, feel the music in the air, catch the ocean breezes, and let the Vibes come to you.  Buy your tickets by tomorrow (7/18) and save $20.

Where else but the VIBES?

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