The Music and Nothing Else - Q&A with Mike Bell of New Colossus Festival

PomPomSquad - Photography: Michael Todaro

PomPomSquad - Photography: Michael Todaro

Last month, a group of friends - Mike Bell (Lorimer Beacon), Lio Kanine (Kanine Records) & Steven Matrick (Kepler Events/Pianos) - partnered to produce New Colossus Festival , a new NYC music festival and conference. The festival, which went from March 7th-10th focuses on new, emerging artists from around the world. There are festivals such as The New Yorker, Latin Alternative Music Conference, and Winter Jazz Festival that provide great programming in their own right -- but since the demise of CMJ there haven’t been any NYC events that focus on providing stages and an opportunity to perform live for emerging rock acts with limited resources.

When I learned about the festival I was excited that someone was taking it upon themselves to provide that opportunity to new acts. CMJ (all of its faults aside) created a no-frills environment for fans of music to see live (and curated) music up close and personal in New York City - a powerful tool for discovery. I wanted to learn more about New Colossus Festival and what the founders had in mind when they created it, along with what their value proposition was for local music fans and artists. I would argue there’s not a better feeling as a music fan than the feeling of real-time live discovery. It’s a feeling where you are hearing an artist that you like for the first time in a small venue with other fans and there’s excitement and energy flowing throughout the set and experience. It’s a special feeling. With that in mind I sent questions to Mike Bell, one of the founders of the festival, who was gracious enough to provide me with answers.  Here he touches on cutting the fat of the standard festival experience and the Lower East Side’s history as a hub of live music. 

Where did the name “The New Colossus Festival” come from and are you looking to signify anything specific with it?
There’s a sonnet written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus called “The New Colossus” and it’s featured on the Statue of Liberty. You’ve probably heard it, “give us your tired, you poor...”. It’s a perfect welcoming message to the world that we wanted to convey with the festival. We wanted to celebrate NYC’s history of being a welcoming place and a launching point for all. 

Now that festival is over do you and your partners feel that you reached your objectives? 
I’d say so. We’re very happy with how the first year turned out. 

I’ve read that your festival is looking to fill the vacuum that CMJ’s fall conference created when it shut down in 2016. In the three years since the conference went away what areas of need in the NYC music industry/community did you identify as areas that NCF could help with? 
NYC has always been supportive of music and numerous institutions have come and gone throughout its history. We have no desire to fill any shoes nor participate in the “reboot” culture. Our mission is pretty simple. We want to celebrate great new music from around the world in a live setting and cut away all the fat. 

Looking at the showcase style schedule, the venues, and the spirit, it feels like you’re employing the format established by CMJ and other international showcases for NCF. Based on your knowledge and experience of those conferences/festivals, what did you want NCF to offer that was different or unique? 
I’ve been to and participated in numerous festivals and conferences all over the world and have learned a lot along the way. First off, The New Colossus Festival is all about accessibility. That’s why the badge prices were insanely cheap ($50) and why we chose not to have VIP or industry passes. The main difference we aim to bring goes back to my point about “cutting the fat” in the last question. Our approach is to be exclusively focused on the music and the artists. If you can deliver good music, then everything else such as brand activations, films, comedians, food, superstar headliners, etc. really doesn't matter. 

Were there specific audiences you had in mind for this offering? For example are you looking to provide bands with more resources because majority of them are relatively new or are you looking to market more to a general music fan audience instead of it being so industry specific like CMJ was? 
We want music fans in the audience. Doesn’t matter where they work. As long as they’re enjoying themselves and hopefully supporting artists into the future, then that’s all we can really ask for.  Of course we want the bands to be seen by industry when they’re in NYC and they want to be seen by people who may help advance their careers. However, a room full of crazy fans is going to look a lot better and do more for a band’s career in the long run than a room full of industry people standing in back talking to each other the whole time. 

New York City’s real estate has made it perpetually difficult for night clubs, music venues, and spaces of culture to stay where they currently are or in business at all. Was any part of producing NCF about supporting and providing a big moment for the iconic LES/EV venues that no longer have the national/international moment that a conference like CMJ provided? Speak to the partnership with the venues and what your mutual goals were in working together.
We’re very interested in building community. Gentrification is happening all over, but it doesn’t have to kill culture. The LES venues have always come and gone and sad as it may be, that’s the nature of the NYC throughout its history. One thing that has been consistent since the mid-1800s is that the Lower East Side has been a nurturing home for creative types of all kinds offering live performance opportunities and numerous bygone venues. From minstrel shows, to vaudeville, to jazz, to punk, to hipster indie rock, venues in the area have been there to support artists. With The New Colossus, we wanted to partner with venues who first and foremost have good sound. There’s no point in putting a band who traveled half-way around the world on a stage and the sound is bad. Second, the venues we teamed up with got our vision of supporting great new music and were less worried about ticket sales or bar guarantees.

Your strategy to book NCF a week before SXSW makes sense because you’re able to give traveling artists a chance to play NYC before going to Austin and make their planning as efficient as possible. Is it not financially feasible for your team to produce the festival in the fall when CMJ happened or is it not feasible at this point in the festivals existence to expect bands to book travel for a fall conference style festival? What things did you have to take into consideration with planning/timing the festival?
We felt that March was the best time to do this. The autumn season is great and less likely to snow, but why else would an international band come to North America? It’s expensive for them and we get it. 

From big promoters such as AEG, Live Nation, to smaller promoters, NYC has been a tough market to establish a consistent and profitable festival. What are your team’s larger goals and hopes for NCF and what is your measure of success? For the artists, what would be an ideal outcome for them that you’d want relating to participating in your festival? 
We don’t really have large goals for the festival and will not grow it beyond a reasonable size. A sprawling festival or one with too many parts would  not work for us and could not be sustainable within our mission. As for measure of success, we want the bands to enjoy being part of the festival and get something out of it. It would also be nice to earn enough money to just work on this all year, but that’s not really what this is all about. 

The changing landscape of music with technology has turned everything upside down from 30 years ago where a conference was key for journalists and labels to check out artists because sometimes artists hadn’t released material or had not had it distributed widely. What can a festival such as yours, which is marketed to people within the media and label worlds, offer now that technology has removed barriers for discovery and communication within music? 
I personally love what technology has done to level the playing field for music discovery. It’s great to be able to hear anything on demand and learn more about the artist, the song, etc. within seconds. What technology cannot do is replace the live experience. This is a very different experience than listening to a recording. Prior to player pianos and later records and digital files, the only way to enjoy music was to perform it yourself or be in the same room while someone else to performed it. Thousands of years of history, humans have only experienced music “live”. It’s kind of built into our DNA. I can’t really explain it more than that, but can say that a captivating live performance can win over lifelong fans in a way that a recording may not. 

What are your plans for next year relating to the festival? 
We’ll be announcing our 2nd year soon so stay tuned.