Barnett English, the mastermind behind Joshua Tree and Guitarfish Music Festivals recently took the time to chat with InTheStu.com and share his knowledge and experience. He has some deep insights from behind the scenes of a music festival that you will not want to miss.
Be sure to check out the Joshua Tree Fall Music Festival, happening October 10-13. You can get tickets here: https://joshuatreemusicfestival.com/get-fall-tickets/!
Here’s the entire interview, or if you prefer, the transcription below:
V: Can you tell us a little about your history and how you came to create Joshua Tree Music Festival?
B: Indeed Vince. I started JTMF 17 years ago. Now, we have had 30 of them, as they happen twice a year. This will mark our 14th official year. We historically have had higher attendance in the Spring (4000) than Fall (2800). Keeping it around this size lends itself to creating real & consistent connections throughout the weekend.
V: I’d love to highlight the amazing setting of the festival. It’s set in a beautiful desert setting. It is communally set up, to facilitate gathering of music and yoga, talks and sharing.
B: The spacing and layout are very intentional and important to us in planning the festival.
V: How did you enter into the festival business?
B: I have had a coffee business (JavaGogo) that I’ve participated in festivals with. I’ve been doing that for over 20 years. Some years back, I went to a didgeridoo festival and it inspired me to propose a festival. The people I was talking to said, “why don’t you do that”, so I did. I set up a festival with my ideas of what I envisioned after years of attending and working at them.
I did not previously have experience in running a festival. There has been a learning curve for sure. Even after 20 years, I’m still learning. The first festival in the J-Tree space was about 500 of our friends, gathered around the lake, until sunrise. We know some things now that we didn’t then, and it’s evolved over the years of doing it.
V: Over the years, what have you found to be the greatest challenges and successes when throwing an event at this scale?
B: Budget! A good rule of thumb is, don’t spend more than you are afraid to lose. I see a lot of people shooting too big when they are first starting out. Make baby-steps. Grow as it grows. Don’t go too big straight out the gate. Also, I never quit my day-job. I would have starved had I banked on just the festival events to support me financially.
V: Essentially, Don’t just be in it for the $.
B: It is a labor of love, yes! My intentions are the music and creating community and shared experience. That shines through in how the festival presents and manifests the attendees and participants feel and perpetuate that. If you focus on making the experience the best it can be, it will eventually become profitable on its own.
V: You have a reputation of being extremely productive, but having a presence that never feels like you don’t have time to interact in a fully attentive way. How would you say you have cultivated this skill?
B: That is good to hear, and it took time to cultivate. I am supported during these festivals by everyone involved. It’s a great crew, and I’m surrounded my best friends really. We’ve been doing this long enough that most things are taken care of by the time the festival starts and I don’t have to be too on task during the actual event. It’s taken a long time, but yes, I am intentional about dropping into and being present in the festival. I’ve learned over the years to really enjoy the thing that I spend so much time planning and cultivating all year.
V: This is something I’m working to cultivate this in my experience as well. When I’m working, I’m working, when I’m playing, I’m playing.
B: It’s necessary to be present in the experience to have the connections and conversations in and with this created community which comes together over the span of the weekend. These conversations can be light and fun, or drop into deep and heavy. It’s beautiful. We just had our summer celebration and it was amazing, filled with connections and shared experience.
Now we are gearing up for October, our 14th annual Fall Festival.
V: Yes, October 10th-13th. I’m very much looking forward to it!
V: How do you see festival culture affecting interactions in the day to day world? Do the connections/community continue outside of the festival experience?
B: I consistently receive reflections of how the festival is life-changing. People tell me of the connections and community they find and participate in, which carries on and through, long after the festival event has transpired. The community created is incredibly impactful. This aspect keeps me motivated to continue planning the next festival. We need this human connection in our lives. In our current world of cellphones and media, we need our basic human, in person connection fed. We have a saying- “The desert is freedom, music is power, connection is crucial.” It’s that last line that is really the #1 point of the whole festival. It’s all about the connectivity.
V: Yes, it’s so important these days to have opportunities to connect. Our culture is so advanced, but we so often forget to take time to just enjoy one another.
B: That’s exactly why the festival experience is so powerful. I believe some of the crucial aspects to support and facilitate this experience are being outdoors, powerful live music, and multiple day campout. With that trifecta, amazing things happen.
V: As you are putting together the line up, how do you discover and choose the music?
B: Actively seeking good music. Since childhood, when I bought my first album with my older brother, I’ve been intent on searching for interesting artists. From that point on, I’ve been a “music junkie”. I’m always looking for new music. Watching line-ups of other festivals, or referrals from friends who see an amazing band, like you. I’ve sought and found artists and bands in many different venues and contexts, from festivals, albums, shows, music shops, live music, videos, etc. I have a short, but amazing list of bands I want on our line-up.
V: What is the single most important thing a band can do to increase their chances of getting in to a festival like JTMF?
B: Seeing live music and listening prolifically to music is how I discover the artists, so perform live and put your music out there. Musicians will do well to be present in various settings and venues to get their music out there. Live music is a large part of my “seeking” process to find bands/ artists to include on festival line-up. I get recommendations from peers who see live music. Festival is live performance, so having that translate directly, is important and necessary. To curate the festival line-up, the artist/performers must have a solid live offering. Social media presence does factor in, however, if I see them or get referral that their live performance is dope, that carries the most weight.
I look for if an artist has found and honed their unique sound and vibe. That is what speaks to and excites me. The artist must translate live to be appropriate for a music festival. It’s like a live “mixed tape” with portelettes, ha!
V: Is your process the same for electronic music & Dj’s:
B: More or less. I gravitate towards music that I like. So I book bands/artists that I find interesting and solid. Their name recognition isn’t really important to me in setting the line-up. It seems to have worked well thus far. People have come to trust my offering. Most of the line-up, is unknown to the festival-goers. It’s really great to see people arrive at the festival and performances, not knowing the artists and watching their jaws drop.
V: Yes, that’s exciting, and part of the draw of your festivals.
V: Do you find yourself primarily working with bands that have booking agents? Is that a factor that can help a band?
B: Not really. Agent, great, no agent, great. It’s not really a factor in whether or not I book them. It’s about half and half with our artist line-up; having agent or not. I don’t really care if they have facebook likes. If they put on a solid live performance, that overrides their social media presence. I don’t care if they have two likes, one being their mom, one being their girlfriend.
V: How do you go about working out the scheduling with all the international acts you book? The logistics seem kind of nuts. How do you navigate logistics of getting the world band out to the venue?
B: I cannot afford to fly bands out, its gotten more “complex”; meaning expensive. I begin reaching out early to international artists, so that they can piece together a tour around participating in the J-Tree Festival. They coordinate a larger tour with participation in our J-Tree Festival. We have a Mongolian metal band, the Hu coming out, we are super stoked about. Another band from Mozambique is also coming. I reached out very early in the year to give them time to put a tour together, so that they can participate in JTMF.
V: What are your intentions for the future of JTMF and Guitarfish? Do you want to keep attendance more or less the same?
B: We would love to sell some more tickets but a crowd of 4000 max feels right to me. If we can get our ticket sales consistently to 4000, this would allow us to compensate the artists and crew a bit more. We don’t want to embellish the festival with gimmicks (huge ferris wheel, etc.). The music and the shared communal experience is of the upmost importance. We want to keep the festival financially accessible.
Barnett’s parting words of wisdom:
We are creating a communal aspect of music sharing and expression. We work hard to create this shared experience and translate that through all aspects of the festival. One way we do this very intentionally is one single stage performance at a time. Everyone can connect to the same performance, which everyone bears witness to. This shared experience enhances the experience for the viewers, as well as the artists. As an artist, your dream of sharing your music with an audience, and baring your soul, with a full crowd, is an energy unparalleled.
Thank you for sharing your experience and perspectives.
Thank you Vince for your insight and interesting questions. Looking forward to seeing you in October!