Homegrown fun

Saturday’s Eagle Rock Music Festival goes for quality over quantity

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/3/2013

Local music lovers will converge on Eagle Rock this Saturday for the town’s annual music festival, which to some may look and feel different than in years past.

The popular and eclectic Eagle Rock Music Festival, presented by LA City Councilman Jose Huizar, is back again from 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday with fewer bands and stages but a more focused local vibe. The last remaining free festival in Los Angeles this year will feature 35 performers, including headliners Bosnian Rainbows, which includes members of The Mars Volta, as well as String Theory and special guest band Poolside.

Festival organizers at Center for the Arts Eagle Rock, a nonprofit organization with just four staff members, decided to scale down the event, now in its 15th year, following years of attendance that topped nearly 150,000 people along Colorado Boulevard, the town’s main strip. As well as nearly half as many bands, the festival will also feature one main stage and six other stylized stages, instead of the 11 stages used last year.

“When you have that many people it loses its charm,” said Julia Salazar, executive director of Center for the Arts. “We wanted to focus on making it more local, more community focused. Eagle Rock is this small town in the middle of Los Angeles. It was losing its charm. So we got back to the roots. That was what we were hearing from the community.”

‘Best of both worlds’

For the Center’s director of events, Brian Martinez, who has worked on the festival for the past 13 years, the decision to scale back meant he was able to focus more of his attention on the participating venues and restaurants to make the remaining stages creative, innovative installations.

“That’s kind of how we built this, as far as the big crowds,” he said. “We get to be really creative with the space, curate to the space and work with the folks who run the space so when you walk in you feel like a lot of thought has been put into it. This year has the best of both worlds, from the very beginnings of it to the pinnacle, which has been the last couple of years, with the huge turnouts. I mean we’re talking oceans of people.”

While there will be less entertainment, Salazar said it’s about quality and not quantity. They are utilizing the same amount of advertising but using “the right messaging.” In the end, though, however many people show up is fine with the organizers.

“If the same amount of people show up, then so be it,” said Martinez. “For us, at least on our end, we’re really trying to focus on listening to the community, working with the community and making things a lot more manageable for everybody.”

Salazar added that if fewer people show up, that would be OK as well.

“People have been mostly supportive of our decision to scale down, because I think people who live in Eagle Rock want to be able to walk around comfortably and see the bands. Last year, we brought in $2 million worth of business just that day. So businesses do very well. Neighbors forgive the parking issues. They know we listen to feedback and the Center for the Arts is very important to them, so they’re mostly supportive.”

Martinez, who grew up in Eagle Rock, said the town is a special place, one that he seeks to protect as curator of one of the largest music festivals in Los Angeles.

“I’ve seen this town grow and develop,” he said, “and within that I’m also protective of Eagle Rock, so I make sure the quality of what we’re doing with something as big as this is something that folks who also grew up here or have lived here a long time respond to and respect.”

Humble beginnings

The festival began in 1998 under the moniker “Dahlia Days,” with a handful of bands playing inside cafés and shops. Each year the crowds grew, until they were spilling into the streets. It became clear to everyone that there was an appetite for this type of event and that it needed to expand. In 2006, the Center for the Arts began negotiations with the city to close a half-mile section of Colorado Boulevard to accommodate the festival’s increasing attendance.

“That really changed the evolution of the festival,” said Martinez. “It was a very naturally grown, grassroots kind of thing. It started as a community based thing and still is in various ways. We’re just adapting every year to the different challenges we have.”

This year the festival cost about $200,000 to put on, not to mention all the human capital, logistics and infrastructure something of this magnitude requires. The organizers have four staff members but rely on “an army of volunteers” to pull the festival off each year.

“It definitely takes a village,” Martinez and Salazar agreed. “Average festivals take about 10 months to a year to put it together, we did it in under three months,” Martinez added.

And that’s along with everything else that the Center for the Arts puts on, including concerts, exhibitions and educational programs. This year, they weren’t sure that they could pull the festival off because they started late due to a late vote on their budget from the nonprofit’s board of directors.
“It’s a very intense process,” said Martinez. “The reward at the end of the day is everybody coming to the festival and supporting it. That makes it worth it. We feel a commitment to bring that back year after year.”

Give and take

The festival is not something to be taken for granted, however. While the event is free, the center is asking for tax-deductible donations of $10 and $20. A $10 donation comes with a download of songs from 22 of the festival’s performers and a fast track through the security line into the event. A $20 donation comes with the download, fast track, access to the VIP area at the front of each stage, a T-shirt and a pair of tickets to other concerts held at the Center for the Arts.

“No one will be turned away for lack of funds,” said Martinez, “but it’s a similar pitch like you hear on NPR and public radio stations: If folks don’t support it, it’s one of those things that can go away. We’d like to keep it going. We’re really happy and excited that we’ve made it this far and we’d love to continue it.”

“We had to come up with that model just because the infrastructure was becoming costly,” said Salazar. “We break even. We’re not in this to make money but we want to cover our costs.”

For Martinez and Salazar, the best part of putting on the Eagle Rock Music Festival is giving local emerging artists the opportunity to play in front of thousands of people. 

“That, to me, is what’s really important about any kind of scene, whether it’s an art scene or music scene or whatever scene it is, to create a platform for those folks to go on to bigger and better things, and the Eagle Rock Music Festival has been that for its entire existence,” Martinez said. 
“Especially in the last seven years or so, we’ve been able to have bands that play who have gone on to bigger and better things because of organizations like ours, that are really pushing for that and letting people know that that’s something that’s important and they should support it,” he said. “I mean, it’s huge, man.” 

For the complete lineup, VIP access, and more information, visit eaglerockmusicfestival.org or cfaer.org.