We had the pleasure of chatting with festival director, Aaron Brown, of UTOPiAfest, a fest that prides itself on a capped audience of 2000, the incredible backdrop of Utopia, Texas being its fest grounds, and a festival that not only brings audiences music but a true escape (really what more could you ask for?). Aaron revealed what it’s like to take on the task of throwing the event together, what makes it so different from your typical musical festival, and what this year’s audience can expect as UTOPiAfest enters its sixth year when the fest kicks off this Friday, September 12!

 

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What makes Utopiafest different from other festivals?

The location, number 1, I would consider it the best venue in Texas, by far, possibly in the southern U.S. It’s incredibly beautiful and sets the tone, not only for the audience but for the artists and the crew. The location is one of a kind in terms of a Texas musical festival. There isn’t another Texas music festival that’s in a better location.

It’s really the four or five things that we reiterate to our audience. We cap our audience so it’s intimate. There’s no musical overlap. This is really what sets us apart and that’s how we define ourselves. You don’t miss any music if you don’t want to. You can hear every single song by every single band with no distractions; you don’t have to run to another stage to catch another act. It’s family friendly, it’s BYOB, it’s got probably the best disc golf course in Texas, I’d say. And that’s all free. And then the bands we bring out—it’s a very eclectic lineup. We’ve been inspired by a lot of festivals, but I would say, Fun Fun Fun Fest, specifically for me, it inspired me in terms of what a festival lineup could be. If you’re dreaming of what to mix together and throw at an audience—people have said our fest lineup looks like a mini Fun Fun Fun Fest which is a massive compliment. We’ve [Onion Creek Productions] worked with them over the last seven years, we’re their official film team. I think their fest is kind of where the punks meet the hipsters and I think Utopia is where the hippies meet the hipsters—we like throwing in our Grateful Grass, Keller Williams, Jimmy Herring from Widespread Panic every once in a while. We like our jam bands, but we also really like our Dan Deacon, Kishi Bashi, and Warpaint and a splash of country with Billy Joe Shaver and then throw in Cold War Kids. It’s all over the place but it’s definitely hipster meets hippie if you’re really trying to define the genre.

 

How did you and your brother, Jamie, who also works at Onion Creek Productions, hook up with festival founder Travis Sutherland?

Travis started the festival back in 2009, he grew up on the property, and the land has been in his family for several generations, I think about 150 years. He does a lot of work with my company, Onion Creek Productions, and I think it was back in 2010, he had done some work with us and he asked us to come film the music festival. My brother Jamie and I were like “What are you talking about, a music festival?” and he said “Yeah, a musical festival, out at Utopia, this’ll be my second year!” We were kind of surprised that he was doing that. We went out there to help film it, it was a full moon; you get there and realize really quickly just how special it is. Jamie and I talked together after that weekend and just said wow, we’d been talking about doing some sort of event or showcase of some sort and this is just meant to be. Maybe we’ll talk to Travis and see if he’s interested in creating the perfect music festival with us, and he was interested so the next year we partnered up and took the festival from about 250 people that year to about 1500 the next year. You know, we’re not trying to create a Bonnaroo—there’s something to be said about a festival where you don’t feel like you’re just in a sea of people. We cap our audience usually between two and three thousand people every year and that’s a good number of people to be around in that big of a space.

 

What advice would you give to those aspiring to do something similar to what you’re doing?

I think I would start by taking a deep breath and a cold shower and just really checking your head because it’s a lot different than it looks than when you look at a festival poster. And I’m guilty of that too. I think people see the surface of the festivals; they see the posters, they go to the fest, they see the bands on stage and they see the presentation of the show and you can’t help but say, “Man, I can pick some really good bands; I have good taste in music. I know what good live shows look like; maybe we can round up some bands and throw a festival!”

What most people don’t understand…my advice is do your research by talking to other people that put on festivals, like talking to me or Graham [Williams] at Transmission [Events] who puts on Fun Fun or Lawrence Boone and Josh Ball who put on The Red White & Blue Ball. Talk to some people at different levels who put this stuff on, they’ll talk to you. I’ll be straight up with anyone. It’s a very, very difficult proposition unless you are already working [in the business]. The only reason I think it works for us, is that Onion Creek Productions has a built in foundation of production. I have a team of people working production, it’s like a military operation. I have a studio and we can execute projects, and we already work with so many artists on the video side. We’ve also worked behind the scenes on so many festivals for years—we’re the official film guys of Psych Fest, of Fun Fun Fun Fest, we’ve worked Auditorium Shores during SXSW; Art Outside; Red White and Blue Ball; we do all these other festivals so we kind of got to see the back-end, inner workings of it. My advice is to be careful, because it’s just- it’s super hard, it’s an exercise in incredible minutia. Every detail has 50 details; every band has a rider and a contract that you have to go through with a fine tooth comb; every food vendor has an issue, it’s unbelievable when you think about it in terms of like, a military operation. If you’re going to build a city in the middle of nowhere like we’re doing, you have to think about everything.

I know I’m giving you a really long answer but I’ll wrap it up with this: My first advice is talk to a lot people and get as much information as you can, and then go volunteer or work at other festivals, because you have to understand the language and how it works and the expectations. It’s just like any professional operation or business. If you don’t have a familiarity with what’s going on or speak the language of the other professionals, you quickly get sniffed out as being an amateur and it becomes ten times harder. And I think that’s part of the process, even when you know quite a bit, there’s a massive
learning curve; you’re gonna get smacked up the first year, it’s painful.

Utopiafest had to really rely on our personal relationships with a handful of artists to kind of start the domino effect. That’s what’s interesting about the business too. The bands sometimes are less interested in the money and more interested in who else is playing or who else played last year. They want to sniff out those first time festivals. When you’re dealing with booking agents, the last thing they want to do is send their band to some first time festival that doesn’t know what they’re doing and have a bad experience. So a lot of times I think they’ll, even if the money’s right, they’ll pass on that kind of stuff until you have a handful of bands of note that play it and report back and say yeah it was cool. That was kind of what happened with us with Dawes [who played in 2011]. I had to really pull my personal relationships with those guys to convince them that, hey, when I try and book you guys, it’d mean a lot if you’d play it. And no one else was agreeing to play [the festival] and then they finally agreed and it kind of started the domino effect. Then you get to say, hey, Dawes is on the bill. “Oh okay if Dawes is going to do it I guess we can do it.” No one wants to be the guinea pig.

 

How do you decide which bands you’re going to book? Is it based more on availability or the vibe you want for the fest? When do you start the booking process?

We kind of know what our vibe is. It really is like, what kind of music do we really like, first of all. I think anyone who throws a festival is going to tell you the bands that they booked are somewhat of a reflection of their own personal taste. The organizers of our festival all have a little bit of a varied taste in music but we all have a lot of overlap. Like I said, it’s primarily where the hippies meet the hipsters. So we kind of start there, but I would say the main criteria for picking bands is live performance. There’s kind of three things. I actually call it the “Three P’s.” You got Price, Performance, and Pull. And that’s kind of like, in production, in my world, they say “Fast, good, and cheap. Pick two.” If you can get all three, you’ve nailed it. That’s the perfect project, you know. With bands I think it’s Price, Performance, and Pull. And we try and get the bands that match all three of those. You know, who’s going to put on the best performance, have the most pull, and for a price that we can actually afford. We’re not a festival that can really pay the top dollar for bands.

I’m a huge live music fan. We don’t try necessarily to book the band that has the hit on the radio, because that doesn’t mean that’s a good live performance. I think we do a ton of research. I really look at a lot of live performance videos, especially at other festivals. I think that’s probably the best way to pick a band; either seeing them live, that’s the best, or seeing video of them playing live and seeing how the crowd’s responding, seeing how they interact with crowds. And they also have to be nice, you know, we don’t have room for a-holes out there, and you know, we’ve had a couple. It happens. We do our best to try and book bands we’ve either met or that we get good reports from other festival organizers. We’re looking for the nice people who can blow you away live, and the genre of music is somewhat secondary… it’s more about who do we think is just going to absolutely create that magical show at Utopia. People like Charles Bradley, people like Dr. Dog, people like Jimmy Herring, Dawes even. There’s a whole list of people that just absolutely crushed at Utopia and I hear about it all the time. To the extent that you can go look at Charles Bradley’s Facebook page, click on About, and the first two paragraphs are all about his show at Utopiafest. We didn’t ask him to write that, it just happened. That guy plays probably 200 shows a year- he’s amazing- all over the world, and he’s talking about Utopiafest! I mean, to me, that’s it. It means that much to those guys too.

We also look for those bands that are on that crazy up-swing; like, about to break out. We love to be the festival that turns you on to the band that’s about to just explode. We had Lucius two years ago; we had Dawes right before they kind of blew up. We almost had the Lumineers right before they blew up, but ACL snagged them. This year, there’s some bands that I think, without question, you’re going to see them just-you know, we have a pretty good track record of picking those bands, I mean, look at Kishi Bashi, look at Benji Hughes; Warpaint, they’re just destroying right now. They’re on a massive upswing, but they’re already kind of popular.

We do some live sessions during South By Southwest which we really use as an audition, we use it to put our feelers out to see who’s fresh, who’s coming up, who’s making waves. We’re paying really close attention during South by Southwest, it’s a really cool- the timing works really well because that’s in March, our festival’s not until September. We get to go and invite all these new bands to our sessions, we go see a lot of shows. Inevitably we’ll find two to three bands that we think are going to be the next hot thing and invite them to Utopia. Sometimes we get them, sometimes we don’t. You got to book your bands pretty early. A lot of the logistics come later, maybe like four months out, but I think the booking process really does start [early]. We start booking bands around SXSW.

 

What’s your favorite moment from a past festival?

One moment that stands out for me, and for a lot of people that were there, two years ago in 2012 we had seven inches of rain on the first night of the fest. It was unbelievably difficult for my crew, the audience, and the artists. It presented almost an impossible situation. It was out of control, you could not control the elements. We had to shut down a stage, but our crew rallied and I just told everyone, listen, we’re in this together, everyone’s got each other’s backs, and whatever we do we’re going to keep the music going as long as we possibly can and we’re going to get every band that’s scheduled to play on one stage. We had to shorten some sets, we had to close a stage, but as long as we can keep the music going, we’re going to do it. A little while later Charles Bradley came up, and he’s in his mid-sixties you know, this guy, he’s not a spring chicken. And he just played, I mean, it was just unbelievable. We’re talking about just torrential rain and you’ve got a thousand plus people out in the audience that just stuck it out. And it’s probably midnight, and he just couldn’t believe it. He’s just such a presence and he just like let it rip. He was in the moment and everyone there was in the moment and then the power went out and everyone just thought, oh well, that’s it. So we rushed back and fixed the power and five minutes later people started walking away from the stage and then the power came back on and Charles jumped back out there and everyone screamed and came running back to the stage and he kept playing. And he was so moved by it, and he’s in this velvet, sequins-y jumpsuit, and he just started crying and said “I can’t believe you people are out here, in the rain, for me. I have to come out there with you.” He jumped out there in the mud and the crowd just embraced him. Then the band kept playing and it was just one of those moments, you can’t plan for it. I think that’s why he wrote about it on his Facebook page.

 

 

It’s interesting because when you look up Utopiafest, that’s the one set that everyone talks about. That everything kind of went wrong but then he turned out this amazing set.

And it’s weird because that was the most challenging night of the fest ever. That paid off. It looked like it was going to be a huge disaster and a big disappointment. And it turned out to be the best night. There’s a couple dozen of those types of moments. You know, Lucius playing a secret show under a dry waterfall, acoustic, for three hours to fifty people- unbelievable. Everyone cried. It’s a powerful deal. And it’s unlike other music festivals. It’s not…you know, people’s cell phones don’t work out there, which adds to it. The land is incredibly powerful; there’s arrowheads all over the place that’re thousands of years old, so we’re not the first people to be celebrating on this property. I don’t know what it is. I guess just being out there, it just kind of, it sounds cheesy but it’s truly got that Woodstock vibe to it. everyone’s got a perma-grin on their face, there’s kids running around, people having the time of their life. That’s what’s weird about it; you go to ACL or these other fests and there’s kind of these “fest-heads” that kind of let loose and get out of control and don’t care about the other crowds. People kind of respect each other a bit out there [in Utopia]. You feel it. No one’s completely disrespecting each other. It’s a very…I don’t know what it is. I like it. I like it a lot. You become a community of sorts.

 

What’s one direction you’d like to take the fest in but haven’t gotten to yet/one idea you really want to implement?

Name tags [laughs]. I want everyone to wear name tags. It’s on the verge of that. Having no musical overlap and only having two stages, the entire crowd kind of goes back and forth the whole weekend, of course people are breaking off and doing their own thing for a while, but for the most part you’re seeing the same people at every show and you get to kind of know people. Name tags would just push it completely over the edge, like “Hey what’s up Roy! What’s up Ryan!” it would completely break down that barrier. …and I’m kind of joking, but I’m kind of serious [laughs]. I think it would be insane to go to a music festival like that where you actually know what everyone’s name is.

 

Who are you most excited to see?

That’s hard to pick… Benji Hughes. He’s not at the top of our lineup, but people who know Benji Hughes are freaking out, because the dude does not play shows very often at all. I don’t think he’s ever played a festival. it’s a coup that we got him. There was a recent article, who called him the best song writer you’ve never heard of. He’s beyond talented. His image totally doesn’t match up to his music, which I love. I’m really curious…I wouldn’t say I’m most excited to see him, I’m just more curious to see him than anyone. But most excited might be Kishi Bashi; Dan Deacon, man holy sh- I mean, I don’t know. It’s hard. And then you got GZA with Brownout. Last year we had Bernie Worrell with Brownout, and a lot of people, unfortunately I missed a lot of that set because I was dealing with some guys in the parking lot that were causing a little trouble, but Bernie Worrell is a founding members of P-Funk. He also played with the Talking Heads for years and years and then he did a collab with Brownout that just floored people. It was pretty amazing. He’s the godfather of funk and keyboard. He’s very very famous but not many people know him, basically.

 

Thanks so much for talking to us, we really appreciate!

It’s nice. It gives me a chance to remind myself why we’re doing it.

 

UTOPiAfest is THIS Friday, and is almost sold out. Get your tickets here.

Find more about Onion Creek Productions here.