Boston Calling Co-Founder Brian Appel Discusses Upcoming Festival [Q&A]

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By Caleb Hsu 

Boston Calling’s May 2015 festival will be headlined by Beck, whose most recent album Morning Phase won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, alt-rock legends the Pixies, returning to their hometown to perform, and psychedelic southern rockers, My Morning Jacket. Having attended the September ’13 festival, I urge anyone who hasn’t yet experienced standing in City Hall Plaza’s otherwise-desolate concrete and brick grounds, witnessing some of the most compelling acts around, to get tickets now. The transformation is remarkable, and the community aura facilitated by performances and art is unrivaled.

Produced by Crash Line Productions and curated by Aaron Dessner of The National, this May’s lineup will deliver a total of 23 live acts including performances by Ben Harper reunited with The Innocent Criminals, Tenacious D, the comedy-rock duo Jack Black and Kyle Glass who are nominated for a Grammy award this season, Aussie rockers Tame Impala, Grammy-winning alt-rock singer St. Vincent, Brooklyn’s art-centric TV On The Radio, Vance Joy, country music star Jason Isbell, Run The Jewels, featuring rapper and producer pair Killer Mike and El-P, Tove Lo, and Marina & The Diamonds, in her first performance in Boston since the inaugural Boston Calling in 2013.

I had the chance to chat with co-founder Brian Appel to discuss anticipation for the festival, a look at behind-the-scenes planning, and Grammy Award outcomes.

Berklee Groove: Congratulations on the continued success of this event, now having completed four festivals! How has your approach to building the lineup changed since the first installment?
Brian Appel: The process has definitely changed since we first worked with Bowery Presets when the festival initially started. As we expanded, we hired a full-time talent buyer (MusicFestNW) from Portland, Oregon. We wanted the booking process to be done in-house. The inbound inquiries are wonderful now. We spend a lot of time, starting about a year in advance, preparing for the festivals.

BG: What does it feel like to look back at the whole process, watching it thrive from conceptualization to execution all from an initial vision?
BA: It’s great to be able to take a step back occasionally, even though we’re always moving forward. The thing we’re most proud of is that we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. It translates to people responding well and getting involved. Over 120 bands have spent the day at Boston Calling so far! Our track record with Public Safety and City Hall Plaza is pristine; we are one of—if not the—safest music festival around.

BG: How do you balance artists with established reputations, secured fan bases, with emerging talent who want to participate in the show?
BA: We strive to maintain a perfect balance that works. My Morning Jacket only attracts one type of fan. Marina & The Diamonds caters to younger fans. The festival is successful because of its varied demographics. We want people to get exposure to different types of music. A Marina [& The Diamonds] fan would be introduced to My Morning Jacket, when they may otherwise never hear them.

BG: You launched the Blank Canvas project back in September with great success. How are you looking to further adapt the visual appeal of the experience this season?
BA: We got way more submissions last September than we had anticipated. You’re not reaching the entire potential audience when you’ve just released something new, [yet] we got hundreds of submissions. We were only able to take five of them, and there were plenty of great works that weren’t selected. We can’t wait to see this year’s submissions for Blank Canvas!

“…If there’s a repeat, it’s going downhill.”

As far as enhancing the aesthetic of the site, we feel that if there’s a repeat [of any visual elements of the festival], it’s going downhill. There are always interactive pieces that people can enjoy. We have a new lighting designer to illuminate City Hall Plaza in a way that’s never been done before. It’s a limited space, so we try our best to create a different environment with each festival.

BG: Did you see any outcomes from Grammy wins in regard to the festival’s ticket sales, artist responses, or promotional strategies?
BA: Yes is the short answer. We saw a spike in ticket sales on Friday specifically in response to Beck [winning Album of the Year]. The Grammy Awards reinforced we booked artists that are credible. St. Vincent also won a Grammy, and it was no surprise to us. We’re happier for Beck because a lot of radio stations that don’t play [music like Beck’s] very much are now doing that. They’ve taken a deeper look at his catalog, and it’s only made his star brighter.

“We try and choose artists who aren’t just one-hit wonders.”

We try and choose artists who aren’t just one-hit wonders; we appreciate their entire catalog. Aaron Dessner’s point of view is that booking headliner artists that have an existing catalog is important. You can always go out and grab whatever pop star has a hit on the radio, but it’s bands that have an extensive history (like Modest Mouse, for example) and fan base that we’re interested in.

BG: What benefits do you hope to see from May’s festival?
BA: Well, Mayor Walsh has made it a focal point of his term that the arts are critical. We’re one small part of this effort. [Boston] is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. To have City Hall Plaza twice a year is humbling, and there’s no room for attitude or ego. We just aim to be a part of this exceptionally amazing city. The ability to bring Boston Calling back and make it better, transforming [City Hall Plaza] into something special, is a great opportunity.

Don’t miss out on Boston’s largest music festival!
When: Memorial Day Weekend, May 22-24, 2015
Where: City Hall Plaza
Lineup: bostoncalling.com/lineup
Tickets: bostoncalling.com/tickets

Read our previous Boston Calling reviews:
May 2013
September 2013