Set your ears to Long Beach, where Busker Fest will be taking place in just a few days. This charming music festival will conclude the season-long celebration of the 10th anniversary of the city’s Summer and Music (SAM) festival, which this year also included: Bicycle Drive-In, FKA720, and Twisted at the Pike. SAM, produced by the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, has consistently provided free music to the public and provided a platform for local artists to showcase their talents for their fellow citizens. As the festival’s first decade draws near its conclusion, the Weekly spoke with Rand Foster, one of the event’s founders to shine a light on Busker Fest and share the story of the festival’s origin and what folks can expect as they venture into Long Beach’s East Village Arts District to listen to and cast their votes for the best act of the event.
OC Weekly (Scott Feinblatt): How did Busker Fest originate?
Rand Foster: Ten years ago, my partner Justin Hectus and I approached the city about doing a series of a series of downtown concerts, kind of spotlighting local artists. It grew out of a frustration with there not being any clubs to play, and at the time there was some legislation pending about a busker bill of rights. From that we designed our series, and we decided we would end it with a day’s worth of artists playing on the streets (playing busker style) and give [attendees] wooden nickels to kind of reemphasize the importance of throwing, you know, money at artists on the street and supporting them…We did it with a prize going to the artist who collected the most nickels, and everybody got paid along the way too.
What was that about a busker bill of rights?
At the time we were doing it, there [were some] high profile buskers who were getting harassed for being out on the streets playing. So we were involved with a movement to develop a kind of bill of rights for buskers that I think we took from Salem, [MA]…there were several of us involved in it, and we took it to city council and I thought it had passed. Subsequent to that, I learned that nobody really knew what was in it, but whatever happened with it, it did end up alleviating a lot of the stress on people that were out playing music on the street. So it seemed like, “Why don’t we just become a lot more welcoming of that?”
When the SAM festival began, it was much larger. How did it get pared down to a few choice events?
With our first year, we actually did 40 shows between June and September; we did every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, which was crazy. We realized at the end of it that the amount of work that went into doing a weekend’s worth of small shows [was] the same as the amount of effort that went into the big shows…so after the first year we cut back to, I want to say maybe eight shows, and it’s kind of been a progression of adapting and changing [of] our key shows over the years. We did one show back in the beginning that included swing dance lessons and swing bands, and [we] tried to pick different genres to spotlight. Over the years we’ve settled into the ones that really are the crowd pleasers, but honestly, those are the ones we find to be the most fun to put together, as well.
Since the early days, how has Busker Fest transformed or adapted for the city’s requirements or for your vision?
The city has been super supportive. We haven’t made any changes from a city standpoint. The changes we’ve made have just been more experiential. When we started out, it was literally bands on corners, and after the first year we heard a lot of “I couldn’t see,” “I couldn’t hear.” So, to address that our first step was putting everybody on the back of flatbed trucks, which raised them up and increased the sight lines beyond the first three or four people. A couple of years later, we addressed the volume issues, which we [had] kind of left to the bands previously, with requiring that they use only battery-powered [amplification] and that everything they did was self-contained…we had one band that did an ice chest full of car batteries with a solar panel on top, and it was a really amazing science fair project, but it really didn’t address the [issue of] “How do you take your music and play it on the street in a practical way?” So, from that point, we added a small sound system, which is mostly condenser mics to pick up handclaps and stomps and acoustic instruments that [can’t be heard] beyond the first few rows. We [also] give everybody a vocal mic, and we give everybody one guitar amp…so everybody kind of has a starting baseline that allows everybody to be heard, and then everything around that is up to the band that fill in. So there are still a lot of battery powered pieces of equipment that people bring in; but a lot of people go organic, and they’ll bring in a choir or they’ll bring in a horn section or things that kind of naturally have a little more sound to them, a little more wallop!
How do you select which bands are going to be part of the show?
Part of our objective every year is to make sure it’s a compelling, interesting show. So we try to try to be diverse. There are some genres that are just difficult — we’ve had a lot of people ask that we have more hip hop representation, but we just don’t have a lot of bands that are available or that they reach out to us; most of the bands come through band outreach or bands that we see out and about in town playing. We try to limit it to Long Beach bands.
To what extent are the participating bands fresh-faced newcomers versus established acts?
It’s a little bit of both. This year’s a little bit more heavy on established acts because it’s our 10th year. Our policy has always been “You can’t play Busker Fest twice,” because we want to keep the program fresh, [but] this year we were like, “Well, if they haven’t won before, they’re eligible.” So we went back to a lot of our old favorites just because we want to deliver an over-the-top show. That said, I think we only have one repeating band.
Being that this is a community event, who all is involved in the festival’s production?
From the beginning, we were very volunteer oriented. We’ve continued that way. Most of the people that you see working (except for a couple of people managing stages that have some technical background) is [a] volunteer or working at a very discounted rate. [There are a] few people, designers and other [specialized] people we work with…we don’t ask to volunteer. Again, the whole idea of this was kind of putting back into the community. So our, our goal, even when we were doing 40 different shows was “How can we pay local bands to play in Long Beach?” because, at the time, I think there were two or three venues in town, and most bands [had] to leave Long Beach in order to do shows. That was a big part of it, you know: let’s keep our music community in town; make it so bands can play hometown shows; and actually have people come out and see them and [allow the bands to] get paid for [performing].
Busker Fest will take place on Saturday, September 8, from 5PM – 11PM at the intersection of 1st and Linden Ave., in Long Beach. The event is FREE, and there will be a free bike valet on location. For more info, visit the Summer and Music festival site.