Euphoria Brass Band at Carlsbad Music Festival Village Walk, 2015

A Composer’s Take on Building a Festival

In an issue devoted to “doing it yourself,” the ultimate musical challenge may be “imagineering” a festival. Composer Matt McBane did just that as director of the Carlsbad Music Festival. The festival was founded more than 12 years ago — essentially the entirety of his professional career as a musician. He shares his experience here, either to provide, as he says, “an inspiration to younger musicians with visions of how they want to shape their musical world or a cautionary tale to those who prefer a saner life path.”

Getting it going

The Carlsbad Music Festival was born out of dissatisfaction and love — dissatisfaction with the musical world that was presented to me, and love of the music I was learning about in and out of school. Living in Los Angeles after graduation, I found no existing organizations or communities interested in nurturing the work of a composer at the beginning of their career and very little opportunity to hear the work of my peers once outside academia. I also had a sense that I wanted to do something with my life that served the community in addition to following my muse as a composer. My experience at the Bang on a Can Summer Institute showed me that composers with a vision and dissatisfaction with the status quo could change the musical landscape.

I came up with the crazy idea to start a festival at age 23 — with no real prior experience other than organizing a few musical concerts in college — in part out of missionary zeal to share the music I loved and in part to figure out how to have a musical life for myself in the world as a creative musician. The idea for the first year was two concerts in a weekend plus outreach events in the schools in my California hometown of Carlsbad (a beach town north of San Diego) with several friends from USC including the Calder Quartet (which served for the first 10 years as Founding Ensemble-in-Residence). To this humble series, with the support of a risk-taking grant from the City of Carlsbad Arts Office (thanks, Colleen Finnegan!), I gave a somewhat grandiose title: the Carlsbad Music Festival.

This first year, I did literally every job that went into making the festival happen: from programming, to program layout, to writing a major new piece (my string octet “2×4” — check it out!), to writing grants to fund the event, to marketing, to setting up chairs. That first year, I worked incredibly hard, and the necessity of hard work has been one of the constants across the past 12 years.

From this first year, the Carlsbad Music Festival has grown to become an organization with four part-time employees that puts on two major events of “adventurous music by the beach” per year: our three-day festival in August and one-day Village Walk in June. Each event includes more than 60 performances and draws on average 4,500 audience members for a total of 9,000 annually.

Wu Man at Carlsbad Music Festival

Wu Man and Son de San Diego perform at the end of a year-long residency in 2014.

The festival has garnered widespread critical acclaim including praise by the Los Angeles Times, Alex Ross of The New Yorker, and just about every local paper. We have presented world and national premieres by master musicians such as Wu Man, David Lang and Steven Schick; we have championed emerging musicians such as Jennifer Bewerse, Scott Worthington and Trouble in the Wind; we have helped bring together disparate music scenes for new collaborations; and we have built a substantial audience for adventurous music where one didn’t exist before.

Shaping the vision (continually)

From the get-go, I had a clear vision of what I wanted the festival to be. However, a key to its success, growth and sustainability has been the continual expansion and refining of this vision. As my musical perspective broadened, the festival grew, our audience developed, and I learned how to run an organization.

The most consequential reshaping of the vision of the festival to date came in its seventh year with a move from its library auditorium home out into the streets of the historic Village neighborhood. This decision came from an openness to new ideas and a continual rigorous evaluation of the vision of the organization.

The festival started out and spent its first six years growing and refining as a handful of ticketed concerts on a weekend in an auditorium in one of the city’s libraries. However, despite the library’s charm, it was located in a strip mall with little character, surrounded by recently built tract homes (your typical SoCal suburbia) and was a venue that felt appropriate to only certain genres. This limited what the festival could be, the range of music it could present and how much it could actually feel like a “festival” as opposed to concert series.

Opus Orange performs at Carlsbad Music Festival

Opus Orange performs at Carlsbad Music Festival.

Opus Orange performs at Carlsbad Music Festival Village Walk

In 2010, I took a leap to present our first “Village Music Walk” to kick off the fest on a Friday. Inspired by my experiences in DIY venues in Brooklyn (where I live) and by festivals that made creative use of their city like Big Ears in Knoxville, Tenn., the music walk took place in businesses (record store, art gallery, etc.) and public spaces (train station, parking lot, etc.) throughout the city’s historic core near the beach known as The Village. This event was such a success and revelation about what the festival could be that the next year, we moved the entirety of the festival to the Village forgoing $12,000 in funding tied to the library venue and moving from the known to the unknown (much to the consternation of our board).

In its current state, the Carlsbad Music Festival maintains its highly curated ticketed concerts but has a wide range of free concerts as well (60 per festival) in an array of venues. This allows the festival to present a huge diversity of musicians working in different forms and at different stages of their careers, all under the large umbrella of “adventurous music” — everything from contemporary classical to creative rock bands to world music to experimental instrument builders to all kinds of music that can’t be categorized.

Finding the mission

Once in the Village, the true nature of what the Carlsbad Music Festival is revealed itself. Two words began to emerge as a description of its mission, musicians and audience: “adventurous” and “community.” These two words now permeate our organization and are used as everything from marketing taglines to conceptual guides. I didn’t realize when I founded the festival, but as the organization has developed, I see that these two concepts have been through lines from the get-go, and they were only allowed to fully bloom with this venue move.

In many ways, the journey of the festival has resolved several of the dissatisfactions I had with the musical world I was presented and allowed me to share a wide range of music I love with the broader public.

In imparting whatever wisdom I can, I think if you want start an organization, a crucial thing is to know clearly why you want to start it. What do you feel is lacking in your musical world that a new organization can change? What are the things you love in your musical world that a new organization can better serve?

One of the things I have seen through starting and running my own organization and through watching friends start and run their own, such as New Amsterdam Records, wild Up and Switchboard Music, is that musical culture is not a fixed thing that has to be handed down to us from above, but is something to which we all contribute and help shape. So, think about what you’re dissatisfied with and what you love, what you want to change and what you want to share. Then, if you’re moved to, start your own organization. Your passion and ideas can help build the musical world you want to live in.

Also, be ready to work very hard!

Create Your Festival

Intrigued at the thought of starting your own music festival or presenting organization? Matt McBane offers a great list of questions (and his answers) to start off your exploration.

1. What do you love and want to share with the world?
For me, I wanted to share the music of the composers I loved with the broader world. It was also critical to me to build an organization that could support the work of emerging composers and performers.

2. On the flip side, what are you dissatisfied with and want to change in the world?
At the time of the Carlsbad Music Festival’s conception, I felt that the existing Southern California music organizations I knew of seemed closed off to emerging composers or to composers crossing genres and working outside of academia.

3. What kind of musical life do you want to create for yourself and how does this dream organization fit into that concept?
I wanted to find a community of like-minded composers and musicians. I wanted to include this sense of community in the fabric of “Carlsbad.”

4. Which artists and people do you want to work with?
It was important to bring in both my friends, whose music I loved, as well as some of my musical heroes like Michael Gordon, Steven Schick, Wu Man, David Lang and Shara Worden.

5. What are other like-minded organizations with whom you can partner?
Partnerships have been one of the most crucial elements to the Festival’s success. For instance, our long partnership with ArtPower at UCSD has resulted in six co-commissions.

6. Who are some of your dream collaborators?
I still have a long and ever-expanding list of musicians I would love to bring to the Festival and each year I check a few names of that list.

Matt McBane

Matt McBane has been described as “a natural composer, a fresh voice ” by Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times and as having “a fantastic intuitive sense that is backed up by a serious amount of compositional craft” by Sequenza21. …more 

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