06 June 2009

Interview with Chris Johnson of The Deep Blues Festival

Written By Ira Brooker

There’s a reason the summer festival season is the high point of the year for a lot of concertgoers. Like cooking burgers or shooting hoops, watching live music is one of those indoor activities that takes on whole new dimensions when moved outdoors. Every summer sees a ton of ink spilled on the likes of Sasquatch, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, but oftentimes it’s the smaller, more niche-y festivals that capture the true charm of the season.

As difficult as it must be for mega-fest organizers to wrangle all of their various stars and stages, their more understated brethren face a different, possibly even more daunting set of challenges. Case in point: The Deep Blues Festival, a Minnesota-based celebration focused on a fairly specific genre-within-a-genre.

Borrowing a name from blues aficionado Rick Saunders website (inspired in turn by Robert Mugge’s documentary and Robert Palmer’s book, both titled Deep Blues), founder Chris Johnson describes the Deep Blues Festival as “a niche event that I don't think has to be a niche. I really think anyone that enjoys music can find something in these bands that they can be very happy with. This music is blues and blues influenced. The bands have put their own spin and direction to where this music is going. You'll find folk, country, rock, punk, bluegrass, and many other sounds.”

Johnson got the idea for the fest after watching a number of his favorite artists play to sparse crowds in clubs around the Twin Cities. Believing that this music deserved a wider audience, Johnson started booking some Deep Blues acts for block parties and charity events he helped organize. “After one party with the Black Diamond Heavies and Scott H. Biram, they suggested I rent a room and sell tickets so I didn't have to pay for it all myself. I liked this idea and thought I might put on a show with four or five bands. I wrote emails to about 20 bands from across the country, and almost everyone replied immediately that they wanted to play. Rather than turn any down, we planned a one day event for 18 bands. From start to finish, this happened in under 90 days. That was the first annual Deep Blues Festival in 2007.”

Suddenly, Johnson had become a full-fledged concert promoter, and he was working more or less without a template. “There is no other fest like this,” he says. “Trust me, I wish there were. I never would have done this and would just buy a ticket and travel to see theirs.” Once the bands were booked, the next order of business was to line up a venue. “I planned the first fest as how I wanted to see an event as a fan: family friendly, outdoors, continuous live music, affordable, et cetera.” Deep Blues eventually set up shop on the grounds of a rural golf course near River Falls, Wisconsin. The inaugural fest was marred by a full day of pounding rain, but still drew an enthusiastic crowd of about 200. “They stayed through the rain, and almost everyone there thanked me for having the event and encouraged me to try it again,” Johnson says.

And so he did, expanding the festival to three days the following year and moving the venue to a fairgrounds in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. The buzz from the first year allowed Johnson to book more than 40 acts, including comparatively bigger names like Delta blues legend T-Model Ford, Flat Duo Jets founder Dex Romweber and gonzo one-man band Bob Log III.

Even though attendance at the second installment grew to 500 people per day, with even more expected for this year’s 74-band set at Minneapolis’ venerable Cabooze club, the Deep Blues organizers remain a long way from easy street. “We have almost no cash sponsor support,” Johnson says. “Our bands are relatively unknown. Our ticket sales have been small, but there are a number of fans from all around the world that appreciate what we're doing.”

Unable to lure the corporate sponsors who back the bigger festivals, Deep Blues takes a more organic approach that relies heavily on online word-of-mouth. “We've had volunteers help with our website and through their blogs to help spread the word,” Johnson says. “It's really up to the fans. If they think $100 for 74 bands and 5 days of music is a value, we won't have a problem coming back even bigger in 2010… The bands themselves are probably the biggest marketing tool. They tell their fans and post to their email lists and websites.”

Johnson points to that DIY attitude and spirit of community as the major factor that sets fests like Deep Blues apart from their mass-market cousins. “Many of these bands knew and supported one another long before we started the fest. I do think we've helped and encouraged them to build new and stronger ties with one another. They tour together. They support each other with local shows. They'll turn their fans on to one another. At the fest, you're likely to see the front of the stage filled with as many musicians as fans. Van Campbell of the Black Diamond Heavies was quoted as saying that this fest is like getting ‘to the island of misfit toys.’ Everyone belongs here, and they don't often feel that support.”

With little money to be made, a roster of largely unknown acts and a perpetually uncertain future, Deep Blues appears to be one festival that, in clichéd terms, really is all about the music. “I've always encouraged the bands to think of this festival as theirs,” Johnson explains. “If there is a profit (maybe this year we'll have one), it will all be split between the bands. I'm not doing this for my gain. I've given all my time for the past two years and quite a bit of money to make this happen. I've been fortunate, and this has been my way to give a little back. Some people support the classical arts. I choose to support alternative and outsider blues.”


1 comment:

Nate Dog said...

i really like what chris is doing, but i hope i didn't piss him off. i was in his tape trading group for a while and i was supposed to send him something a few years ago and never did because i'm a lazy retarded kid. last time i tried i couldn't get back into the yahoo group, figure i've either forgotten my password or i was kicked out...
-nate croson