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Playing the Biggest Festival in Town When You Aren’t Invited: Dos and Don’ts

July 16, 2011

In our case, we played at Artscape, the biggest outdoor multiarts Festival at least in the mid-Atlantic region. We weren’t booked by Artscape and we don’t have street performance licenses. Suck it, usual channels!

A perusal of the submission guidelines for most festivals reveals that they either expect you to use some horrid 3rd party press kit service or to upload all your stuff – including videos, which are large files, you know – on their web site and then, after you’ve spent the better part of your afternoon doing so, they tell you three screens down the line that it’s going to cost you $35 to submit. Doesn’t mention if you’re going to get paid for the gig if you happen to get it, either, making it very difficult to determine what gamblers and stock traders and economists (but I repeat myself) call the “EV” or expected value.

My buddy Mosno did go through the Artscape website this year and get booked. And Acacia Sears did so by using a horrid 3rd party press kit last year. So Artscape has at least a modicrum of taste and therefore might have booked us if I had wanted to part with my $35.

But as you’ll see, this gig ended up being our most expensive ever. That’s why it’s not just dos, but don’ts, too.

Do: Ride your bike to work, and make sure your route takes you through where the festival will be

For one thing, it’s good exercise. Exercise will help you get through those four hour sets that buy groceries, or a half hour set in the 95 degree weather that is common at festivals in Baltimore.

Now, maybe it’s not feasible for everyone to get a day job in the city where the festival they want to play is being held, and make sure they have that job when the festival rolls around, and then make sure that they’re going to be able to ride their bike through when things are being set up.

That’s okay, I’m sure you can probably make a special trip and pretend you’re riding home from your job.

I stopped by on my way home and talked to Andy Rubin from Cyclops Books. I’ve played some shows for Andy, opening for traveling acts, running a second Saturday open mic, and playing as a duo with Andrew Luttrell for the Acoustic Harvest last year. He had booked a couple people to play Friday night in his tent at Artscape (the McTell Brothers and Shane McGowan . . . the second isn’t actually Shane’s name, but I’m not inclined to do research at the moment), but told me no one was playing at the bookstore and we could play on the sidewalk around 9:00.

Which brings us for our next Do:

Do: Get a show in the neighborhood the night before you play the festival, especially if you can play on the sidewalk

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Jon, playing in the neighborhood isn’t the same as playing at the festival.”

Well, I know. But you’re going to do some promotion for the next day, and if you’re smarter than I am, you might actually be able to get those people to come stand by your tent the next day in the scorching heat and look like there are a fraction of the number of people as interested in you as are interested in the [cencored] pop music that’s coming on the big stage up the street right after you play.

Which brings us to our first “Don’t”

Don’t wait until after your pre-show show to discover that you’re playing at the festival proper

Granted, you probably won’t even know that you’re playing that show. We certainly didn’t.

We set up on the sidewalk, just me and Jen, and started playing to the people waiting for the bus. There were four folding chairs, and our audience played musical chairs throughout the night. There was this one oldish guy who was extremely impressed and needed to tell us between every song. Matt Kelly (leader of Harwood) happened to be walking by and I forced him to play a song for the nice people by making a pointy looking object in my pocket and aiming it at him. He was very good at attracting the attention of passersby.

Do: get a good support act for your pre-show show

Oh, and Artscape was kind enough to start the fireworks at the end of our set when we went into “Fireworks at the Carnival.” My dad was there and didn’t think that people appreciated the trouble and expense of getting those fireworks to go off at the end of our set.

Do: Publicize your ability to get the festival to send up fireworks on demand. Also, write a song about fireworks, because they’re awesome

The best part was we were able to play on the street without a street performer’s license. You need one of those to busk in Baltimore. It didn’t occur to me to put out my guitar case, but eventually Jen had the good sense to remind me that we had CDs we could sell. One person gave me a dollar. That’s okay. A couple others gave us ten.

Andy Rubin told us he had a slot at 12:00 at Artscape tomorrow and we could come back. I said yes very quickly, then started the mad dash to get the full band together to play the show.

Me: Tim! What are you doing tomorrow at noon? I’ll tell you what you’re doing: You’re playing at Artscape!
Tim: Oh, sorry, I’ve actually got a yard sale.
Me: No offense, but your wife is better at selling things than you are. [Vision of Tim at a yard sale: Sitting there. Perhaps with a box next to him. But maybe not.] I think you’re doing Artscape.
Tim: Okay, I’ll give it some thought.

 ?!@#$! Well, let’s try Joe . . .

I didn’t have Joe’s number.

Me: Jen, what’s Joe’s number?
Jen: 410- …
Me: Crap, I can’t dial 0 on my cell anymore.

Don’t: own a crappy cell phone

It’s just going to frustrate you. Throughout the night, besides just my bassist’s number, I also tried to get the number of Andy Rubin (who is “Andyrubin” in my phone directory now because I can’t type the space after saving his number when he called me), Eduardo from Gallery 788, and Matt Kelly, who has two zeroes in his telephone number.

After our pre-show show, we went to Joe Squared and listened to some Red Sammy. Jen had a mojito.

Do: Get a mojito at Joe Squared

They’re apparently fantastic. With mint grown on their roof.

Then we walked back to our cars.

Which had been towed.

Don’t: Park at the parking lot at 21st and Howard. You will be towed!

In fact, don’t take any chances with parking during a big festival in Baltimore. Everyone uses it as an excuse to make money. Tim got a parking ticket the next day at Artscape because his little slip was “improperly displayed.”

His window was down. The wind blew in and flipped it over.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It cost us $300 to get our cars out of hock.


It could have been worse. I didn’t get a $500 parking ticket like Boy Without God, who must have been speeding while parked in a school construction zone.* I mean, I still have my health. Ask me again at the end of the month, we’ll see how it goes after I don’t eat and frigging food ihatetowersgrowelgowel. uhhh … Anyone wanna buy an album? I’ve discovered the secret of successful marketing: desperation. Delicious, delicious desperation.

[*Thanks to Lexa for saying this and allowing me to steal it.]

Fortunately, Alex had parked several blocks north and was able to give us a ride to the towing place.

Do: Marry someone who doesn’t park in the same lot as you so they can give you a ride when you get towed

I solved the problem of being unable to reach Joe by having Jen tell him to call me.

Two minutes before I called, Joe was saying to himself, “What am I going to do today?”

We were just in time with the answer to his question. Another two minutes later and his answer would have been “Discovering a cure for cancer” or something. (Music is the bestest!)

Tim had apparently called earlier to tell me that he was indeed going, which you probably knew already since I mentioned his parking ticket several paragraphs ago. Well, I would have been more on time returning his call except I couldn’t get my phone to turn on in the morning, even when it was plugged in.

Don’t: Yell at your crappy cell phone

The neighbors won’t like it.

But there we were, playing as a full band at Artscape on 13 hours notice, when sometimes we can’t get something together even with a month’s notice. Jen had an old set list for us to use. I forgot my capo, but fortunately Jen’s piano has a transpose function. We had to finish by 1:15 to keep the actual stage up the street from getting mad at us.

It went well, to start. Then about 5 songs in, I realized that I was thirsty. And my guitar was becoming very difficult to play.

It wasn’t as hot as HonFest 2010. But there I had two bottles of water to drink, and only sweated out three of them. My sister has a picture to prove it.

Don’t: Wear polyester blends in the heat if you can help it

Unless you, like me, can’t stand to pay more than $4 for a shirt. (Goodwill, people!) But I don’t have any red short sleeve pure cotton button down shirts. But at least I didn’t look like I’d joined a wet button down contest. Joe’s a real sweater. Just in case you thought bassists aren’t hard workers. (Working hard for you and you!)

Okay, my dad, who’s reading this over my shoulder (the internet’s out at mine and Lexa’s house, thanks to Cavalier forgetting to tell us that they need to actually plug in their cable for our internet service to work; I just didn’t want anyone to think I live with my parents . . .), is slagging on polyester.

Do: Buy polyester if you hate ironing


It was hot. Some guy gave us some water from his own personal water bottle. I found out shortly afterward (oo, try to guess the next sentence! is it something horrible? did the guy poison us? what did he do, what did he do?) that there were big water coolers right in front of us the whole time. C’est la vie. Live and learn.

I made a sign, taped to the inside of my guitar case, that told people they could help us get our car out of hock by buying a CD or giving us a tip. People bought CDs, and paid a lot more than a dollar for them.

Don’t: Be honest with your customers and potential fans

No? Okay, that’s a horrible way to put it, I admit. Let’s be positive!

Do: Incorporate fiction with a strong basis in real-life situations into your writing, playing, and marketing

There we go.

So, that’s how we played on a guerrilla stage at Artscape 2011, without paying for the submission fees or getting in trouble.

Except the trouble we caused ourselves.


p.s. Pictures soon — I might be able to snag one of Andy with us playing with the fireworks in the background. I’ll add them to the post if I get ’em.

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