October 24. Ottobar. Baltimore Folk Fest. You in? For the first time in the event’s four-year existence, the organizers are turning to a crowd-funding campaign to help finance the move to such a fabulous place as the Ottobar. There are only 11 days left to contribute and they have raised only 14 percent of their goal. Translation? Go help them out! There are a lot of great acts slated to play this year – Bumper Jacksons, Haint Blue, The Manly Deeds, Big Hoax (above), among others – so there’s really no reason to not help. We recently caught up with Alex Champagne, who, for all intents and purposes, is the mind behind the festival, to talk about some of his favorite festival memories, why it’s important that the festival reaches its Indiegogo goal and what we can expect from this year’s event. Enjoy!
So, how did the Baltimore Folk Fest come to be? Whose idea was it and how did it get off the ground?
A few years ago, I was setting up a lot of shows in Baltimore, booking them and running sound. I was working with great folk artists whose music really meant a lot to me. I started to notice that many of these artists were being overlooked when it came to local festivals. They might not be the loudest or most exciting performers, but their music has just as much heart and always seems a little more genuine to me. I sat down with Dan Cohan of The Manly Deeds and Sandy Robson (aka Letitia VanSant) and we brainstormed venues, artists and concept. We picked two venues (Joe Squared and The Windup Space) that we had worked with previously and were only a few blocks away. Sandy helped a lot with press and promotions for the festival. Dan made sure that everything ran smoothly at Joe Squared, and I did the same, as well as run sound for the two separate stages we had set up at Windup Space. It was all kind of a whirlwind. I was running around trying to make sure all the artists were taken care of. Everything seemed to run fairly well, and people seemed to really enjoy their evening. Every year we have added more venues and stages, more artists, and expanded our reach across the country with touring performers. This year I wanted to take a step back and try something more organized, more focused.
What’s the selection process for the bands like? How do you decide who to approach and then how does the negotiation go?
Most of the artists I book each year are performers who I see making an impact in the folk music community, not just in Baltimore but surrounding towns. I think this year’s line-up has a great mix of musicians from Baltimore, D.C., Annapolis and Frederick. We also get a lot of submission emails from people looking to perform each year. I try and be fair, listening to every artist that reaches out to me. If they blow me away and I think they fit in with what our festival is all about, I will invite them to play. My focus has always been about keeping it local, though, and highlighting the artists that make our city a great place to catch live music.
Is this the first year you’ve put together a crowd-funding campaign? If so, what led you to do so? If you’ve done this before, have you experienced success in the past with it?
This is the first year I have organized a crowd-funding campaign. The types of spaces we were using previous years did not have as much overhead, and we were able to easily pay their staff and sound guys with ticket sales from the door. This year, we are utilizing one large venue as opposed to multiple smaller sort of DIY spaces. Ottobar is one of my favorite venues in Baltimore and wins awards year after year for best venue. They have a great staff and great sound equipment and I’m happy to pay their fees. I just can’t front that kind of cash this year. The fundraiser is also an attempt to offer fans some special incentives, like VIP treatment and exclusive merchandise (t-shirts, patches, posters, etc.).
What are some of your favorite memories from Folk Fest past?
Oh man, every year always has these special moments and there have probably been great performances I have missed each year because I’m running around from venue to venue making sure everything is running smoothly. Some of my personal favorites would be The Alternate Routes, who closed out our first festival in 2012. The year before, I spent a month on the road, running sound for those guys and their songs started to really speak to me. They were kind enough to play my favorite song, “Love Me For Nothing,” and dedicate it to me. Our second year had a lot of great moments, mainly because we expanded so much from the first year. Baltimore’s Barrage Band Orchestra marched their ramshackle gypsy ensemble over a few blocks. It was a cool way to get people on the streets intrigued and interested in the festival that night. Haint Blue also played their very first show that year. They worked incredibly hard on making sure their set was tight and that all their friends were there. The venue was so packed that they unfortunately had to turn people away at the door. Last year’s festival was the first time we were able to have the Manly Deeds on a larger stage. Previous years, they played at the smaller Joe Squared. With a bigger space, they were really able to get the energy going and get 100 or so people dancing. They are one of my favorite local artists and a big inspiration for why I love putting this festival together every year.
What are some hurdles you’ve experienced through the years? Is there anyone you have attempted to book in the past that didn’t go your way?
Some of the biggest hurdles I’ve experienced in past years is coordinating with multiple venues. Each one has a different way they like to do things, respond to your ideas differently, or are only willing to offer a certain amount of help. We have also received criticism that it has been difficult in previous years navigating and planning between all the venues and trying to catch your favorite artists. You might have one band playing and then 15 minutes later ,another artist you want to see is playing two blocks away. I took all of these critiques into account while planning this year. This is why I am excited to be working with one venue. We’ve streamlined coordinating with Ottobar and attendees can easily walk upstairs and downstairs to catch all the artists they want.
What would your dream folk fest look like in terms of artists?
This might sound like a cop-out, but every year has kind of been my dream folk fest in terms of the artists I’ve booked. Every year I have invited or taken submissions from truly talented and passionate bands and everyone seems to really enjoy being part of the festival. Are there national artists I would love to have headline a Baltimore Folk Fest? Sure. That could be really cool. But there are dozens of other folk festivals or festivals in general that highlight amazing national acts. With Baltimore Folk Fest, I’ve always wanted to highlight local talent, and that’s what we’ve done pretty successfully for three years and counting.
Are there acts this year you are looking forward to seeing more than others? If so, which ones and why?
The Bumper Jacksons are one of our headlining acts and I’m super excited to have them be a part of BFF. I booked some shows for them years ago when they had just moved to the area. After years of hard work and finding some of the area’s best musicians to join them, they have really made a name for themselves and they put on an amazing show. The End of America, I have been working with for years — probably one of the oldest bands I’ve been booking in Baltimore. They have played Folk Fest and dozens of other events I’ve organized, and every time, they put on one of the best performances again and again. They are not from Baltimore, but they have definitely assimilated well in Maryland’s music scene and gthey ain new fans every time they play. This will be the first time they will have a full band with them, so I’m really excited for that. Hagerstown’s The Plate Scrapers are playing Baltimore Folk Fest for the first time. I have heard great things about them and I’m really excited to welcome them.
And finally, what can we expect from this year’s Baltimore Folk Fest?
This year I hope attendees will find we have provided a great venue and the strongest lineup of artists to date. Trying our hand at a crowd-funding campaign, we hope to offer some special incentives for fans to buy their tickets early. We’ll have a VIP section in Ottobar’s balcony. On top of reserved seating, VIPs will have their very own bartender to take and bring them their orders, so they’ll never have to leave their seat for a drink.