WIN FREE TICKETS TO UTOPIAFEST!
Submit a photo of yourself enjoying Firemans #4 in a can and be entered to win The Official Beer of UTOPiAfest VIP package that includes:
4 VIP passes to UTOPiAfest
2 night stay in the Little River House (Friday & Saturday night): http://clearspringslodgingutopia.com/lodging/little_river_house.html
The first EVER Real Ale Firemans #4 YETI cooler
Ice for the entire weekend thanks to the team at UTOPiAfest
Additional contest details & entry information can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Real-Ale-Brewing-Company/85360426538?sk=app_95936962634
UTOPIAfest is in it’s fourth year, and has grown from an attendance of about 200 people to 2000 people in that short time. Part of the reason is the location – the beautiful Texas Hill Country – and the other part is the purity of the concept. A festival in an awesome location? Check. A music insider’s personal selection of the bands? Check. Free Camping? Check. Age range from 8 months old to 80? Check. BYOB. Check…wait, a family-friendly festival where you don’t pay $6 for a beer or bottled water? Not business as usual, tell me more.
NOTE: Less than 300 tickets left as of Sept.8th. Get tickets HERE
AMFM Magazine spoke with the festival founder, Travis Sutherland, and his partner Aaron Brown of Onion Creek Productions, a film production company that has produced content for clients like National Geographic, Sony, and SXSW.
AMFM: Tell me about the inception of UTOPIAfest.
TRAVIS: It was the summer of ‘09, and there are so many links to this story but the shorter version is it was the combination of several different realizations. The first and foremost was I grew up in Utopia. Utopia is an unique, amazing place with such raw beauty, and I was fortunate to be out there. Ever. It dawned on me that one day I would be steward over some of the land and what a huge responsibility and also what a huge blessing that was. I just started considering what that might look like and what I might be doing out there. I was hoping one day that it would be at least self sustaining, like pay for it’s taxes for example. But then I also wanted other people to be able to experience it. I would always try to get my friends down there and it was always hard to convince people to go. I thought it was a shame that only the limited amount of people in my family were the ones out there in this huge and gorgeous place, and we were the only ones ever out there to see it.
TRAVIS: Music was always kind of integrated into my life but I never actually experienced live music until I left Utopia. I went to school at Texas State and then I migrated up to Austin and I started working shows in different capacities. I did security, stagehand work, and I’ve also been and I would do shows when I could. I just fell in love with the whole experience. In the meantime I started to get to know really great musicians, obviously being around Austin. That summer after a particularly good show by some friends of mine it, it occurred to me how many awesome bands I knew personally.
I knew the ranch would be an incredible setting for a show. So I planned a show for the Fall, just one Saturday of live music. I tried to invite all the friends and family I could. Definitely nothing grandiose. My motto was to be just to keep it small and to keep it simple as possible because I didn’t want to make it a job and i didn’t want to make it a big thing. I just wanted to throw a good show, throw a good party. I invited 10 bands but I think it ended up being 9 bands. I invited all my friends and family and did the little bit of press that I could and the whole business and marketing was kind of like the biggest challenge from the beginning but again I didn’t have any plans to make it like a big deal.
Everything went really well and we had about 200 people show up. They all just had an amazing time. I think the majority of them had no idea who any of the bands were but they all agreed that they were just really incredible musicians. It was mostly family and friends, and it was such a good vibe – everyone really loved it. We lost a little bit of money but got pretty close to breaking even.
My family and I agreed that it was a success because of the experience we created for people. We decided to do it again the next year but we added on a Friday and we had 12 bands. We increased the attendance by roughly a little over 100. It was the same deal again where a lot of people didn’t know the bands but they all loved them and everyone had a great time. It felt like I heard from every single person that was there the first couple of years personally. It was overwhelming, they would come up to me and be like ‘this is awesome, this is so awesome! We love this!’ The second year I hoped to capture some better video from it. I got to know the guys over at Onion Creek. I’ve both seen their work and worked with them, and I knew that they were really really good at what they did. So I invited Aaron Brown to come out and film. Aaron getting on board was the catalyst for bringing it to the next level.
AARON: It’s pretty simple. Onion Creek Productions is my brother and I and a couple of our employees and we film a variety of things, a lot of music festivals; Fun Fun Fun Fest, SXSW Main Stage. We film Psych Fest amongst numerous others, we do Music videos too so, we were well versed in filming music and seeing how music production works from behind the scenes. What we liked and what we didn’t like. When we went out to film Travis’s show we had really no idea on what to expect we just knew that it was really far and remember debating whether or not we should go because it’s a 3 hour drive and its a commitment. You have to make plans and say, ‘ok now we are doing this.’
It’s out by Garner State Park and Lost Maples (DIRECTIONS). The drive out there is so unbelievable, it is so dramatic and beautiful. That part of Texas is really under rated and kind of under the radar in a lot of ways, which is great because it doesn’t have a ton of people out there. It’s very sparsely populated but its just rivers and almost mountains. Its like where the hill country almost turns into mountains, and its lush. Its gorgeous. So on the way out there we got into the mindset of ‘Wow, whatever this festival is… its cool to be out here.’
You get the sense of being out in the real rugged texas hill country. As soon as we drove onto the ranch, once you go through the first gate it still takes like a good five to ten minutes to get to the festival grounds. You keep seeing barns and farm equipment but all of a sudden it opens up s and it’s this natural amphitheater. and as soon as i got there it was just… it was dramatic.
AMFM: So the acoustics must be amazing.
AARON: Oh they are phenomenal. It’s unbelievable, we were blown away right from the beginning. Travis had basically organized UTOPIAfest for the first two years completely alone. I was struck by the detail and the organization and the quality of the bands that he had had out there. For one guy to spearhead the initiative and put this all out there together with the help of his family and friends is amazing. I was really proud of him. (L-R: Travis and Aaron)
Every music festival i have ever been to has really been focused on the financials. It’s a business. This was the first music festival I had gone to that money was not a factor. It was really about putting on an amazing experience for family and friends. and doing it in a place and with an amount of people to where people would actually got to know each other and it was a little community. We met people. Which never happens at any music festival that I have ever been to.
AMFM: So you have people returning each year?
TRAVIS: there are people from the beginning that have been coming back
AMFM: And so there were 200 people in the beginning and now you are up to 2000
TRAVIS: This year it will be right about 2000. If you include bands and crew and the volunteers it will be over 2000 this year.
AARON: I was only there for one night and i remember filming, Wino Vino i think, which was just a amazing band. I had never heard of them but Travis had hand picked them and they were just unreal. I remember a full moon rising behind the stage and at that moment it gave me the chills – it gives me the chills now.
AMFM: So this festival is actually a festival like all the other festivals started out to be which is where you can discover super bands which you have probably not heard of. When I saw the Balalaika Brothers were going to be playing, I thought ‘ok, now this is going to be fun!’ That’s a band who deserves to be more widely known than they are, they are phenomenal.
AARON: Thats the point, and Onion Creek Productions is really primarily TV and production. We do not really venture out of that area. We produce products with National Geographic and Discovery Channel, We do so much music production and video production that after we got back i remember talking to my brother Jamie and just saying ‘ God that venue is just the best i’ve ever seen and especially in Texas.’
I said we should talk to Travis because he can’t do this thing all by himself and there is obviously some opportunity here. We talked to him and we basically said listen, ‘ we see what you’re doing, and we see the scale it’s at and we bring a little bit of the infrastructure and perspective on some of the behind the scenes of other festivals and the video component is super important to us. Maybe if we teamed up, there might be an opportunity to grow it but not with the end goal of making it a mega festival because that’s not our goal.
AMFM: You’re going to cap the attendance?
AARON: Absolutely. Quite simple we all said ‘now listen, the only way that we would be interested in getting involved is if we can really create the music festival that we all have wanted to go to ourselves.’ There are music festivals all over the country. Some are international, and they’re great but they’re really big and far from perfect. There’s a lot of down sides to seeing music in that kind of environment. Mainly too many stages, too much omusic overlap, to many people. Thats a big one, just too many people it, whenever your too crowded you can’t enjoy a performance. Your supposed to you have space to dance and enjoy yourself.
UTOPIAfest has been compared to Woodstock, but I don’t think we even want to be like Woodstock, that was just out of control. But in spirit absolutely, in spirit and feel for sure.
AMFM: And it’s a Texas thing too, so I’m assuming that most of the people that will be attending this festival are people from around Texas?
AARON: The majority, but last year i remember hearing people from five or six different states, represented in several countries as well. There were people from Europe, Denmark, we had some people show from Mexico.
AMFM: Are the bands are specifically from Texas?
AARON: No not at all, a good percentage, but we also have several international and national touring bands. Last year be brought in Peelander Z from Japan and then we also had Art vs. Science from Australia. Smoke Fairies from England. This year we’ve got Mexican Institute of Sound, from you guessed it, Mexico, Plastics Revolutions from Mexico. The lineup is basically our opportunity to hand pick the bands that we not only want to see but are convinced that they will blow you away in a live performance setting. That is our criteria.
AMFM: And the type of music?
We are not a folk festival and we don’t seek to be anything like a folk festival even though we are in The Hill Country. We do have elements of it but we also have live electronic and jam bands and indie rock and sometimes hip hop.
Because we are based here in Austin and the Austin music scene is brimming with talent right now, in fact its about to spill over in some ways,is an opportunity to hand pick some of the bands in Austin that we think are just doing it right or are right about to break. It’s our opportunity to also help bands brake into a new level because we do get big national bands like Doctor Dog and Victor Wooten.
I think Victor is the best bass player in the world. Charles Bradley is, to me, the best soul singer in the world right now. Jimmy Herring of WideSpread Panic thats one of the top two jam bands in the world. These are big names, and a lot of these bands are playing at the big festivals like ACL and Bonnaroo and Coachella, a lot of them.
AMFM: So this is going to be a monster, it’s already picked up more media attention this year. What are you going to do, close it out early? Get your tickets online and close it out early? Raise the prices? How are you going to handle this?
AARON: The model will allow a couple hundred people more each year and well let it grow until we have the feel that it is the size that it should be and we will end up caping it. I can’t imagine it getting over 3000 the next ten years. It’s hard to say but we will continue to increase the quality of the bands all across the board. Spend a little bit more money on bands so we will raise the ticket prices and also as demand continues to increase the ticket price will increase just a little bit. It’ll be something that we will feel out every year i think.
Here’s the thing, my mentor in NY when i was working there business wise said something really simple along a long time ago an now he’s a billionaire, he said ‘Focus on the quality and the money will come.’ And this festival is a perfect example of a group of guys and girls who really are passionate about the quality of the experience for the people that come and the bands, the vendors, everyone. That is out number one biggest priority and i don’t think you can argue that because if we were in it to make money, it be easy. We would sell alcohol. We would book a band that would bring in 10,000 people right off the bat. It’s not hard to do that. That is the model of your typical music festival these days.
AMFM: Have the big sponsors been calling? trying to see what you guys are doing over there?
AARON: We have to be careful because we work for them in some capacities in other projects but the fact of the matter is they do their thing and it’s provided a great opportunity to define ourselves against a lot of what they are doing because it’s created a vacuum and i think people have… its not uncommon to hear people say ‘you know what i’m just tired of the big festivals. i’m tired of it. its not for me. i’m too old for it.’ or whatever their reasoning is. That’s why we’re doing this and in my mind music is one of the most ancient parts of human culture, back to when they were beating sticks on rocks around in a circle. Its one of the earliest ingredients to community, to communication and to feeling a sense of camaraderie with your fellow person. Why would you spoil that, there has been so much that has no soul or heart, its commercialism. We dont say we don’t include commercialism but we pick our sponsors and our vendors and everyone involved in this festival just like we pick our bands. We say no to a lot of people and i think that is where the quality starts.
AMFM: what about the age group in the festival attendees?
TRAVIS: Eight months to 80, literally, some of our biggest fans are in their 80s. And we definitely intentionally keep it that way too, keep it appealing for all ages. Families are a big part of it that is something that even the younger kids and kids around our age really liked is the amount of families this year, and yeah we definitely want to keep it that way. We were actually surprised in the amount of kids last year so this year it encouraged us to do more for the kids like performances and activities. One of the things that someone said last year that has really stuck with me and I’ll always remember is that they were really struck and really appreciated the wholesome vibe.
AMFM: Will there be alcohol at this event? Is it for sale or is it sponsored?
We decided for a few different reasons to make it BYOB. Thats our policy. We are doing it for several reasons but alcohol is part of music festivals and is the biggest money maker. We are sacrificing 50 to 60% of our potential financial gains because A: we don’t want to deal with all the red tape and B: how cool is it that you can bring your own and not spend 6 dollars or 8 bucks a beer.
Everything we do is geared towards a somewhat specific type of people and by and large they are all super responsible and super compassionate for their neighbors and that’s why we haven’t had a list of rules or anything like that.
And you go to the bigger festivals and it almost feels like you’re walking into a prison environment i mean you’re getting padded down, your getting searched and your fenced in. You’re not allowed to go into certain places i mean i don’t think that it takes that… there are so many things that takes away from the real heart and soul of enjoying a really magical musical performance. There are so many barriers.