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Transmission
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Interview Sat Aug 08 2015

A Conversation With Mike Raspatello, Director and Executive Producer of FESTIVAL

One of the co-founders of North Coast Music Festival is making a documentary that, unlike many music films of the past, will focus on the perspective of music festival attendees. The movie, called FESTIVAL, is currently using an IndieGogo campaign to raise money for the licensing of featured bands' music and archival concert footage. I got the chance to speak with Mike Raspatello, the brilliant and energetic director/executive producer of FESTIVAL, and our fascinating conversation ranged from his inspiration for making the movie and the process of picking the subjects to his thoughts on the rise of EDM and what makes Chicago such an amazing city for festivals.

Let me start off by saying I'm amazed at your career -- you're managing Anheuser Busch's Digital Innovation for its North American portfolio while you're making this film. That's awesome.

Yeah, a day job is necessary for all the obvious reasons, but I'm a wannabe documentarian and very close to being able to say that I actually am one, so who knows if that will turn into a career someday? And then I worked in the festival space and co-founded a couple festivals [North Coast and Chicago Bluegrass and Blues] so once I did that, it was very obvious what my first documentary would be about, because I had a level of access to that world and culture, and I saw a side of it and a story that hadn't been told yet and that provided a pretty cool opportunity.

What originally drew you to the festival world?

I just was a music festivalgoer. I am a music dork, always have been, my friends and I spent a lot more time driving around the country and seeing live music than being in bars trying to hit on girls, probably because we were way better at one than the other. I was at the first Bonnaroo, sneaking out of school to go to Blues Fest in Chicago when I was 14. I've been into Pink Floyd--Pink Floyd's my favorite band, has been since I was 5 years old -- I've been into pretty heady music and live music experiences since long before I understood the party favors that go with them. Coming out of Rivalfish [Mike's first company, a sports website that he sold to National Lampoon in 2008], there was a group of promoters who had worked their way up and they kind of took me into their family to grow additional concepts. I was very, very lucky to team up with guys who had paid their dues from the time they were 18 and on and had grown into a place where they were accomplished enough to throw a major music festival. It had always been number one on my bucket list, since I was in middle school, to create a feature film, and number two was throw a music festival, and whether it was a day job or a nighttime pursuit I've always been pretty focused on knocking those two things off the list.

Well, you've got one of them down and another one well on the way here -- you've raised over $11,000 in just twelve days so far. What's made this film so appealing?

This community of festivalgoers has stories to tell and they have reasons they go to these fests, and they have thoughts on what they get out of it and what other people get out of it. People like to talk about their own experiences, and no one's really given them the opportunity to tell that story -- both their own story and the story of the community they've been a part of. And I think really it's going beyond the seven people we followed to the whole community. Those seven are really a sample, a set of spokespeople for this generation that has driven this third wave of growth of major music festivals in the United States. There has not yet been a story about the people who drive these events...that's really been the appeal. We need to turn the camera back on them.

So you followed these seven people through North Coast 2013, but in the trailer you also show an impressive list of music industry folks to help tell the story. Two questions: how did you pick the seven people, and what was it like integrating the story of the weekend and the more informational stuff into a seamless narrative?

(Laughter) Well, the second is an ongoing challenge. The most recent cut is two hours and forty-five minutes, so we're having to make those tough decisions about the balance between the characters' narrative and the industry narrative. But we have amazing editors. I'm a first-time filmmaker, so I have no idea what I'm doing, but I'm working with amazing people like J.B. Schiess and Marcel [Morin] and Sarah Mueller and Brent Kado and people who have created feature films before and edited things of this length. Working with them helps keep me honest and make those tough decisions on what aspects of the story are more powerful than others.

How I chose the people really started with a post on North Coast's Facebook page a few years ago. We said this is the story we're trying to tell, we're trying to make a documentary about what motivations and stories people bring with them to these festivals, would you be willing to have a camera or two follow you around for the weekend and talk to you at home? We got probably 40 or so interesting people and we then narrowed that down with social stalking and email exchanges, and then we got to phone calls and finally at the end of the day we picked seven people that we felt would be most comfortable. We wanted people who would open up, and we wanted people who didn't just want to be on camera. They already had to have tickets, so we would know their motivation was pure. We also wanted to make sure there was a difference between the people.

Let's talk about your ties to Chicago: you grew up in Oak Park, both festivals you founded are here, and they obviously aren't the only big festivals in the city. What makes Chicago such a great city for music festivals?

Alright, so the first thing that comes to mind -- I'd probably answer this question differently if you asked me ten times -- but the first thing that comes to mind is the level of energy in the summer. As you know as a Chicagoan, people are in it to win it for four months every year where there's a concentrated level of excitement and energy around a Chicago summer. So anything, whether it's a music festival or a sporting event or any of the street festivals, comes with a level of excitement that you probably don't get in a place that's a warm-weather city year-round.

Secondly I think there's always something to be said for festivals that are in the middle of nowhere and they create their own city and there's camping and it's a whole different experience. But Chicago has the unique opportunity for a music festival that's set against a beautiful skyline. There isn't really another opportunity to go to another festival that big and be surrounded by one of the most famous skylines in the world. Even the festivals in New York are a little more removed from downtown.

Then also, beyond that, I think you have to at least mention Chicago's strong roots in a few different styles of music, mainly R&B and jazz. The longest-running music festival in Chicago is probably Blues Fest [editor's note: since 1984] and that's for a reason. So it has a history for these types of events and a history of blues music, which you could sit here and argue led to rock and roll and then hip hop. And then there's big band music, which was big at the Green Mill and grew into dance music from generation to generation and finally evolved into what we call EDM now.

raspatello.jpg

What do you think of EDM's growth and how it has powered this third surge of music festivals? How is this festival crowd different from festival-going crowds in the past?

You know, that's definitely a question that gets debated pretty heavily in the film, and I think part of it's a demographic issue -- it's undeniable that millennials are a bigger group of people than Gen Xers, so their festival-going habits need to be supported by larger events. And as this group of people continued to grow, it was able to support the DJ culture coming back in a more mainstream way [from Europe, where it had been big for the previous decade].

So there's both this demographic aspect and there's also the experiential side of it. There's a production value with DJs and really an experiential aspect of live electronic music that's not matched by another other genre. The scale of a festival plays perfectly into the massive production ideas DJs bring to the table. You know, the Black Keys are an amazing Lollapalooza headliner, but if there weren't also acts like Skrillex wanting to play out of a spaceship and Deadmau5's level of production and the stage show those guys are bringing to the table, I don't think there'd be as much of a reason for festivals to reach the scale they have. The level of immersion is unmatched in electronic music and that plays very well to the festival footprint. There's been a commercialization of rave culture and it's taken that out of the warehouses and the underground clubs and into a place where those artists can really breathe and really thrive and create a stage show on the scale of Pink Floyd.

Speaking of which...I have to ask. What's your favorite Pink Floyd album?

Dark Side for sure. It's been my favorite album probably since I was 5 years old. I can honestly remember where I was when I heard it...in the passenger seat of my dad's Honda Accord, driving in the rain.

Excellent choice. Alright, back to business: what aspect of festivals do you think could improve the most over the next 5-10 years?

Hmm...I think it would be an easier answer if you asked me five years ago. Now festivals are really run by professionals. You have the upstart promoters, the guys like my old partners who have grown a lot since I left that industry -- they've learned, and they've become amazing at it. The industry has forty years of hindsight. I think there were originally issues with food, and amenities, and just general festival-goer comfort, but that's been solved in a major way where now if you have the money to pay, or even if you pay for GA, there's a level of food quality, beverage quality, bathrooms are plentiful and cleaner. You have shade where you need it, you have water where you need it. I think the one place that remains a challenge is that as you grow as big as you are and there's a mainstream festival about every 200 miles around the country, you get to a situation where you don't want every bill to starting looking the same. So I think what has to happen now is the niche festivals, the smaller jazz or world music festivals or smaller underground deep cut trance festivals, it would be cool to see them reach a level of professionalism and production that allows them to thrive as kind of a subset of festival culture. But that's really already largely happening.

Okay, one last question. What's the best festival you ever attended?

I should just go with the first one that came to mind: Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis. It's been around forever. I don't know why it's not more famous, because it's big, like Lollapalooza big. It's right along the Mississippi River, kind of Lollapalooza-ish in that it's a long strip of major stages. I got to see the history of Memphis music and also see a major music festival and also included one of the first long road trips I ever took to go to a festival. So Beale Street Festival in like 2001 will always be a special memory. But then I also have to say North Coast, because the first North Coast, just from a professional standpoint, we started with a bunch of guys in an apartment opening a spreadsheet and starting a budget, literally from step zero. And then eight to nine months later, you're looking at 30,000-45,000 people losing their shit over Chemical Brothers or Umphrey's, it was mind-blowing to be privy to something being created from scratch. I had never been part of something that was so organic before.

~*~

If you'd like to support FESTIVAL, you can do so at its campaign site on Indiegogo. Nineteen days remain in the fundraiser.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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