At her keynote address during SXSW 2014, Lady Gaga spoke emphatically to defend her own choice to perform under the auspices of large corporate sponsors. Lady Gaga's well attended showcase during the festival was funded by Frito-Lay for the purposes of promoting Doritos tortilla chips. While the correlation between Doritos and Lady Gaga might not be readily apparent to most people, for Lady Gaga it is clear.
“Without sponsorships, without these companies coming together to help us, we won’t have any more artists in Austin. We won’t have any festivals, because record labels don’t have any fucking money.”
While she is correct to point out a severe lack of funds for organizations who actively participate in the music community, Lady Gaga is wrong to assume that those types of hurdles might incapacitate artistic production and community gatherings. A festival can be born not because we capitulate to questionably-motivated deep pockets, but simply because enough people want it to happen. Here's the story of how we did just that.
In January of this year, I met with Jenna Carrens and Michael Landon, who run Attendance Records and Estuary Recording Facility, both out of mutual admiration and to discuss the possibility of throwing a party during SXSW. Attendance Records is an incredible non-profit organization that brings Austin musicians into public schools to supplement otherwise halted arts programs and Estuary is responsible for the production of countless beautiful records (including the just released Hunting Songs by RF Shannon). Before meeting with Jenna and Michael, I was of the mind to opt out of SXSW entirely. Attempting to carve out a niche during such a hurricane of a week in Austin seemed impossible. But as the three of us got to talking, it became clear that we had an opportunity to have some fun and bring people together, and we shouldn't squander it.
As we dug into the nuts and bolts of putting the event together, two things became clear: (1) we couldn't afford to do anything, and (2) we had so many brilliant artists willing to perform that we couldn't contain this to a single day show. We weren't about to let the first thing stop us so we called up Bryan Parker, whose deep love of the Austin music community is apparent in his work at Pop Press International and True Sincerity, Adam Hilton, whose Accrue Cassettes label is an integral part of Austin, and Justin Morris, the mad scientist at Western Dynamo. My colleague Andrew Stevens also suggested we bring in Vincent Bancheri, who runs the Portland-based label Mama Bird Recording Co. With seven entities total - non-profits, small independent businesses, and little labels - we still didn't have "any fucking money." But we were on our way.
After a short hunt, we found our venue. Up Collective is a gorgeous space in East Austin that contains artist workshops, a gallery, and a yoga studio. Plus, they have this phenomenal backyard flanked by gardens. We could run two stages simultaneously - one in the backyard and one at the upstairs gallery - almost squeezing in everyone we wanted to play. Ricky Jaén, who runs Up, was so supportive and excited about the event that we began to see the shape of our gathering. In truth, we knew we had no choice, we had to extend this thing over two days to properly do it justice. We were getting in deep. What started out as a little day show quickly became something featuring 34 bands and a conference (on audio engineering and production, run by Western Dynamo), over two days with indoor and outdoor stages.
There are a lot of pieces to consider when something becomes this scale. But the luxury of having so many collaborators meant that certain aspects were a bit off my plate. Procuring audio equipment, for example, was a bit of a herculean task that I could largely ignore while I helped to put together schedules and procure some donations. Organizing such a large number of bands should have been more difficult but everyone we work with, both Punctum Records artists, and the other folks who joined us, was so generous and selfless that things seemed to fall into place. And a few non-corporate businesses who support our community regularly and with integrity donated cases of beer, or offered to feed our attendees with hot dogs, bake vegan donuts, and hand out free ice cream. This was going too smoothly, something had to give.
But it didn't. The next step in setting up the event was perhaps our most ambitious: we built a stage. That backyard at Up Collective is gorgeous, but it needed some love. Thanks mostly to Michael Landon's experience building skate ramps and Morris' previous construction work (though it didn't keep him from smashing his hand with a hammer multiple times), and in weather that oscillated between below freezing and 85 degrees, we spent six days constructing a 12"x16" stage out of plywood and 2x4's sturdy enough for the most raucous performance and pretty enough to hold our best looking artists. The positive vibes from Western Dynamo's Jon Roberts, who worked daily to help build, and the many other folks who stopped by while we were making this thing made the time and effort breeze by. While it might have been the most arduous piece of the puzzle, building the stage allowed the seven of us to get our hands real dirty together - it was the locus around which we all became a bonafide team and would become a centerpiece of sorts for the entire event.
With so much to accomplish, the date of event itself snuck up on us. I woke up that first morning, March 12th, a bit overly excited. So I took a handful of leftover posters (beautifully designed by Maseman) and ran downtown to tape them to walls and light posts before sunup. This overwhelmed me a little bit. I thought back to when I first moved to Austin over five years ago and walked around in awe of SXSW. That I might someday participate in this way - even just putting up posters in the convention center for an event I helped create - I could never have imagined it. And amidst the laments of the changing face of SXSW, that we were pulling something off that had our fingerprints on it in an uncompromised way, made this event feel larger and more attainable than before.
But when I got to the Up Collective, all those good vibes were almost immediately squashed. Someone in the surrounding neighborhood saw us setting up and threatened to call the cops unless we had proper permits - of which we had none. He was incensed, and I think that reflected more those concerns about the larger SXSW - where it is common practice for a multi-million dollar tech company come into a mostly undisturbed part of town for a day, completely realign it for the purposes of their own promotional party, and leave the next without hardly cleaning up behind. We started to tense up. All of that work might be down the drain before the first band even gets to play. But Ricky spoke with the man and explained the event. His demeanor changed, he smiled, shook Ricky's hand, and left. And then the music started.
Once it began, the first day flew by. We darted back and forth between stages and our booths, exchanging high-fives along the way. People started to show up, then a lot of people started to show up. They told us our event felt like old Southby. Bands told us these were the best sounding stages they played on all week. 16 bands played that first day, many incredible Austin folks but also artists from as far away as Tel Aviv. We couldn't have dreamed up a better lineup. Both for their talent and their generosity donating their time and skill, playing without ego.
We all woke up Thursday morning to the news of the tragedy on Red River. At first it was something too foreign, too at odds with all of Austin's expectations for the week, to grapple with. As details became clear, its effect became pervasive, highlighting our interconnection in the worst possible way.
At our event, the tone was somber and reflective at first, but became gradually more celebratory of one another. My own experience tells me that tragedy should be held together. We became a site of that, as I'm sure many places throughout Austin were that day and in the days ahead. There was meaning and immediacy at the Up Collective in the same way as the day before, but also different. I felt grateful for every performance that took on a quieter tone and each one that turned up the volume.
Again, that second day flew by. Perhaps even more so because everything we learned at day one was seamlessly implemented at day two. 18 bands performed on March 13th without a hitch. And remember the man who came out the first day to shut us down? He came back the second day, had some ice cream, a beer, and enjoyed the music.
As we started to wrap up the second day, it was clear that You're Here! was an actual music festival. At final count, over 1,200 people attended the event. We got to hear 1,530 minutes of music, eat hot dogs, meet new folks, sing, and dance. And that outdoor stage is just too pretty to deny calling it anything but a festival. We named our event You're Here! to emphasize presence, highlighting a phrase we say because we're happy to see each other. This was our music festival because it brought together all these incredible folks - artists, audience members, small businesses, little labels - and we couldn't be happier.
So, Lady Gaga, here's how we did it, and how we will continue to do it. Seven entities came together and chipped in a few hundred dollars each to cover things like space costs, audio equipment, beer, and wood to build a stage, 34 bands donated their time and talent, and countless folks came together to gird it all up. There will always be artists in Austin because we're the ones who really have a say in the matter.
And it's impossible to do this justice, but thank you to everyone who was part of this whole thing - the bands, those who donated, people who came out. It was a true joy. And to the six other groups who collaborated with Punctum Records to pull this off (pictured below), you guys fucking rule.