Gary James' Interview With The Promoter Of
Great South Bay Music Festival
It's an annual music festival on Long Island that attracts thousands of music lovers. Known as the Great South Bay Music Festival, promoter Jim Faith spoke to us about the festival.
Q - Jim, before the Great South Bay Music Festival, you were doing what?
A - I used to run Brooklyn Ampitheatre. I did that for nine years, so I've booked everyone from James Brown to Alice Cooper to The Irish Tenors. I mean everything!
Q - What's this I hear about artists today not wanting to perform at Fair grandstands, preferring ampitheatres instead. Is that true?
A - That's an interesting question. The ampitheatre that I ran was a natural crater. It had beautiful sound. It was amazing, but we did have a hard time getting acts to play there. I think half of the problem was it was outside. It held about ten thousand people but then Jones Beach Ampitheatre is very popular and the bands love going there. So I don't know if that's true. If it has great sound and it's in a great location... Jones Beach is right on the water. I think the acts are going to want to play there.
Q - Jim, the biggest acts in the world have performed at Fair grandstands. I'm talking Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, Van Halen, Aerosmith, you get the picture. And with Sinatra and Kenny Rogers the stage was a flatbed truck and the dressing room was a trailer. Why do acts today need an ampitheatre?
A - If they're going to be on the road everyday, they're pulling in and it's home when they get there. They'd rather have as many of the niceties as they possibly can when they get there, the right food. With the Great South Bay Music Festival I build a site that takes me a week to build. Keeping in mind that they're pulling in from the Pier of Manhatten or they just came from somewhere else that's nice, they just want to be able to have a real dressing room. They want the sound to be correct, the amplifiers to be correct, the food. Again they're on the road every day, in many cases eating a lot of crap food. So they pull into your venue and hopefully they're treated nice and they're treated well. And they want to play better. So, with The Doobs, the Doobie Brothers, we had them a few years ago, we built them a kitchen and they appreciated it. They really did appreciate it. We have dressing room trailers behind our festivals, but we now bring in mobile stages that are huge, but the mobile stage has everything they need. It's big enough and equipped appropriately. I rent them mobile dressing room trailers so they're really nice. Some of them are actually mobile homes and they have showers and everything they need. So again, they're pulling in, they're going to be there for the whole day and they also have a hotel room, but they're going to hang out for the whole day. You'd be surprised. You want them to hang out and walk around a little bit in town. So, we try to make them as comfortable as possible. There used to be one of those band shells on site. As a matter of fact, it was from the World's Fair from 1964 I guess it was, the World's Fair in Queens. They knocked it down, which was insane. I thought it was a pretty cool stage, but they knocked it down and built dressing rooms. But this other stage is just a little too small so we bring in this huge stage.
Q - What about the prices some performers are charging State Fairs, $800,000 for Rascal Flatts? $1,000,000 for Aerosmith? What's going on?
A - As soon as SFX started buying all the promoters many years ago, life changed. Everything changed. All the prices doubled for the artists. When that started, our whole business was I would like to say ruined because artists that were getting $50,000 were now getting $100,000 because they were making sure no other promoters would buy them or could buy them. Everything changed.
Q - When I think of festivals I think of the '60s, '70s festivals. I'm talking Woodstock, Monterey Pop Festival, Atlanta Pop Festival. I thought festivals were out of favor with the public. How is the Great South Bay Music Festival different from the festivals I've mentioned? Are there long lines to use a port-a-john?
A - Yes. We bring in so many of them because we do sell a lot of beer so there aren't long lines. Then they start doing other things which are not cool, (laughs) if they can't get in quick enough. In terms of festivals, it's the year of the festival. The festivals are popping up everywhere because the venues that are my competition for that weekend are showing two acts for $70, $80, $90 and $100. We're charging $30 to $50 for a ticket and we have seventeen acts, seven in one day. So people are just getting smarter and saying, "You know what? We don't want to pay $100 to see one act when we can go to a festival and see twenty on four stages," and that's what we give people. Last year we sold over 23,000 tickets over the four days. It's just they got a lot for their money, plus they get to hang out and sit on the grass. We're right on the water. I would say we're closer to the Woodstock thing than the other festivals 'cause the other festivals are aiming more at the Millennials, the seventeen, eighteen, twenty year old kids. We're not. We're a bedroom community and I'm an old hippie I guess. So, I'm sixty-two. I love legends. We've had everybody from B.B. King to The Doobie Brothers, but we've had 311, bands like that that bring in a much younger crowd. But we also have Hot Tuna every two years and Lou Gramm and Jefferson Starship. I brought in Odetta before she passed away. We were one of B.B. King's last gigs. A lot of jam bands. We bring in Umphrey's McGee, who's coming in this year and Moe and bands like that. A lot of singer / songwriters. We've had a lot of the folkies play. We're a little bit of everything, but a lot of American music. We don't do any tribute bands. We don't do Top 40. We don't do any cover bands. It's all real bands and people that I love. So that's how we approach it. I guess it's closer to a Woodstock thing. We try to bring in families. So on Sunday morning I have a children's artist come in. We've had Laurie Berkner for the last couple of years. Kids love Laurie Berkner. She's educational and she'll bring in a couple of thousand people. So, we start off Sunday at twelve o'clock or one o'clock with Laurie Berkner. Families are there. We have a kid's zone, a kid zone stage. So we try to create that groove too, which I think is closer to Woodstock than say the Coachella Festival today and these new Millennial fests. Oz Fest, where they probably don't want a lot of kids, we want families. We want it to be just a peaceful thing. We're going for Crosby, Stills And Nash and Joe Walsh, John Fogerty. Those are the kind of bands we're looking at.
Q - When you're booking an act, and I guess you've answered this question, will you book someone that you don't necessarily like or are not familiar with?
A - I typically won't. I have to say I did make that mistake last year. We booked this tour, Christian Parry, Kobe Kole, who happens to be a really serious songwriter and Rachel Platten. She was part of the tour and we figured first night we were gonna open up a Thursday night. The village was allowing us to do one more night. We wanted it to be a safe night. We didn't want people running through the village at four o'clock in the morning, drunk and dropping bottles on people's lawns. So I thought it was a safe show to bring in which would be gentle on the village because they've been very good to us and it turned out to be that. It was a nice show. They were good. They're all talented. It's not like a Rhianna kind of thing or a Beyonce kind of thing. They're all serious songwriters, but it's Pop and it was my mistake. I would not buy any of their music, but I figured we would go in a different direction. I did respect what they do, so I did put that on, but I learned last year I will never do Pop again. So we're doing Country this year on the Thursday night and going in that direction.
Q - Country is the new Rock.
A - Yeah. A lot of it is pretty cool. I love Alison Krauss. There's certain Country acts I absolutely love. I'm not a big Country fan. I'm more of a Jazz and Rock fan.
Q - This festival has been going on for ten years now?
A - This is our tenth anniversary.
Q - As time goes by, is it easier then to get the name acts to come onboard?
A - As time goes by it's easier just to get people to come to the festival. So in terms of the audience, now there are people who put aside that weekend every year just to come because they know that we're gonna lay our new music on them or they know that they're gonna hear people that are quality and the sound is good. It's safe. They can bring their kids. We have a fan base which is kind of cool at this point. Regarding getting the artists, there's so many venues on Long Island it's getting harder, but in a way it's getting a little easier because the artists want to come back. They'd rather be at our festival in front of say seven thousand people rather than whatever they have to put up with at the other venues like Jones Beach or Westbury. Westbury, the spinning stage and Jones Beach you can't drink and you have to be seated. Certain acts it's not conductive to that act, like 311, they want to stand on the lawn and jump around and drink right in front of the stage and they can do that at our festival. Same thing with Hot Tuna. They want to sit in their lawn chairs and have a beer in their hand and watch the band. You can't do that at Jones Beach and Westbury only holds three thousand, twenty-seven hundred. There are pluses and minuses. The artists now want to come to the festival, so that's good because they know that we're serious and we do the right thing. And we've had people there that they respect like B.B. King and the Doobie Brothers, so they know we're gonna treat them the right way.
Q - How'd you get to be a festival promoter? Were you a former manager? A former musician?
A - There you go. I guess a lot of people start off as musicians. I was a musician until I was in my early thirties and I always handled my business. I always handled the business for the band because I had young kids. I had a daughter when I was twenty-one. Then I got divorced and got my kids in my divorce. I fought for my kids and I got them. So we were together as a single father with a three year old and a six year old. So I stopped playing. I put my guitar down and started booking and creating shows. It's all that I really know. I was living in Brooklyn. I started just booking things and creating arts and crafts shows or whatever I could think of. Booking The Drifters and The Coasters and all those bands in those days. It just got bigger and then I started booking towns and moved out to the Island and started booking towns and villages and concert series. Then I got the ampitheatre. While I had the ampitheatre I created South Bay and I went from there. So that's really how it progressed. I was a booking agent too. I also worked with Peter Duchia in Manhattan. When I put my guitar down I needed a full-time job, so I cut my hair and put a suit on and worked on Madison Avenue. Peter Duchia was the house band at the Waldorf and his father was Eddy Duchia, a famous piano player. Peter had an office on Madison Avenue. He still does. I want to work there, booking the Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Republican Party. He was best friends with the Kennedys, the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts. He grew up in society. That music is Swing, but it's very, I hate to say, very White, but it's two step. And he was the king of it. So he was the one who was always hired at all the country clubs. He was great to me and his musicians were Sinatra's guys. I learned a lot working for him. He's still out there plugging away and doing his thing and playing for those events. I think the first time I ever saw an event they had a comedian play at a Time - Warner building or something. So it was one of those hotels in the city and I had to stay over. I watched how this whole thing went down and I was just like kind of amazed how easy it was to do this. I just saw it. To me it was like, I can see this from beginning to end, how this works and how easy this is. The other one is when I was on the road when I was a musician. I got up in the middle of the night and was wandering around a hotel in Japan. I was touring with Pink Lady, if you remember them. It was kind of funny. They were only around for one summer. They did a TV show Pink Lady And Jeff and I wound touring with them in Japan. It's kind of silly I guess. I woke up one night and wandered into the promoter's office and he had this whole thing laid out, the whole map with the pins and all the cities and everything. Again it just made sense to me. I thought I can see this. I know how this works. Like I said, I always handled business in my band. So that's how I progressed I guess into just doing more music and booking it and the agent thing and creating shows.
Q - When I spoke to Cedric Kushner back in 1982, he said he started off as a promoter with $500 in his pocket. He told me if someone wanted to become a promoter in 1982 they had to have $250,000 and be prepared to lose $100,000 before the whole thing turns itself around. So, how much money did you start with? You had to have some money behind you, didn't you?
A - The first year we did it, our biggest headliner was Richie Havens. What could he have been at the time?
Q - Maybe $7,500.
A - Yeah, $7,500, eight grand. He was our big headliner. We had Foghat on the other stage. Then we had all local bands. It cost you like $8 to get in and we had about three thousand people there. Sold a lot of beer and that's how we started. We always made a little bit of money, a little bit of money. 2012 I had the worst year. There's an old promoter's saying that if you haven't gone bankrupt at least once you haven't paid your dues. So 2012 was mine. What happened was we had Levon Helm booked on Friday night. Six weeks before that he died. On Sunday we had the biggest lightning storm of the year coming through. Everybody knew about it for days. So nobody was buying tickets. I'm a person that pays everybody no matter what happens. I don't call everybody up and say, "Hey, make deals." My partner decided he didn't want to be involved. He didn't want to pay everybody. So we had hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. So I wound up buying my partner out by bringing in a new partner and paying everybody off and we were back in business. The next year was good and last year was the best we've ever had. So that's how this business works. (laughs)
Q - The festival runs what, four days a year?
A - It's four days, yeah. Thursday through Sunday, usually the second week in July.
Q - So what are you going with yourself the rest of the time?
A - I do a lot of corporate stuff. I have another festival that I'm doing in three weeks. It's called Winterfest. Winterfest has been around for seven years. It was created by the East End Arts Council by the Long Island Convention And Visitors Bureau and by the Wine Council out on the North Fork to bring people to the region during slower months. In February and March it's dead out there. There's a lot of snow at times. The wineries are closed. The hotels are empty. The delis are empty. So they created this thing which has like sixty venues in the theatres and the vineyards and there'd be music everywhere. People can bounce around from one place to another. But it wasn't going anywhere really, because, in my opinion it was local acts and they can see them anywhere. So they hired me last year to come onboard. The first thing I said is we have to bring in headliners 'cause the media doesn't care about the local acts. The only way this is going to move forward is if we bring in headliners and give the media something to bite into. Sure enough, it worked. They weren't huge acts, but there was Room Full Of Blues, Stanley Jordan and 10,000 Maniacs. It was very cool. We had like sixty to seventy bands playing and the local bands. You could come out for the weekend and see five bands or go to a vineyard and see a wine thing. So it worked and this year we're doing it again. We have people like Judy Collins booked. Randy Brecker, Dirty Brass Band and Jefferson Starship and a little bit of everything. It's for five weekends and it's throughout the East end. So that's what I'm doing now and I have a couple of towns and villages that I book their series, their Summer series for, and corporate stuff. For Brothers International I went to St. Thomas and booked Heart for their corporate event which was really nice. So that's what I do.