A lot of people talk big.
Few people follow through, fewer still make their dreams come true.
Almost twenty years ago, a couple of friends started Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati. The festival was conceived in a beer tent on St Patricks day- and funded for the first couple years on personal credit cards. In time it grew and the originators-Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney- eventually sold it to CityBeat who runs the festival today.
I was standing next to Sean and Bill when they hatched this dream and they were kind enough to let me join in the fun for the ten years they ran Mid Point. I watched the festival grow from a handful of independent bands performing in a handful of bars to over three hundred unsigned bands traveling from around the world to fill up an entire entirement strip along Main Street.
There always came a point in the festival when I would stop just look at the thousands of people milling in the streets and filing in and out of the crowded bars to listen to an endless rotation of great amateur music. That all this could come from a couple of motivated dreamers, with considerable help from a some very talented volunteers, never ceased to amaze or inspire me.
In the dark years when Cincinnati’s economy crashed it was necessary to open bars and obtain liquor licenses, just for a single weekend, so the musicians had somewhere to play. I remember one night watching workman painting the ceiling of one such temporary venue as the first festival goers of the weekend streamed in.
During those years I did what I could for the festival. I was one of many judges. I listened to an endless array of music, helping to decide which bands got to play the festival. Some years I was a stage manager and other years I just tried to fill in wherever I could.
Mostly, I did a lot of photography for Mid Point. Not that I was an expert, quite the contrary.
The gig meant learning on the job under less than optimal conditions. Specifically, it meant learning to shoot, literally in the dark, with mediocre equipment. The venues were often just getting by financially and no one had money to invest in lighting. So you learned to do with the little talent and lighting you had.
Gradually my work improved and the last several years I was either rewarded with, or assigned myself, the title of managing photographer. With the help of a couple other volunteers we photographed and marketed the festival to the best of our meager abilities.
After Mid Point Bill Donadebian launched Bunbury Music Festival. Two years ago he threw a quiet trial festival. It was small but well received.
Last year marked the first real year of the festival and it ran like a swiss train; though Bunbury is and was not Midpoint redux.
Where Midpoint rightfully prided itself on being a vehicle for unsigned bands to congregate meet and learn their trade, Bunbury was designed, from the start, to be a full blown music festival featuring some of the best touring bands playing out today. The festival is three days and nights over six stages along Cincinnati’s historic riverfront.
I’ve been fortunate to help out with Bunbury as well. From the start my alter ego, Flowers For The Void Media Co. (fftv) has run photography for the festival. It’s a world away from the early days of Midpoint. For starters, there’s plenty of lighting and my gear is up to the task.
Moreover, these days, rather than standing next to a make-shift stage, six inches off a beer soaked floor, shooting earnest unknown amateurs; I stand in a pit with a large number of professional photographers-men and women who shoot festivals and shows in all kinds of venues across the country, all year round. These men and women are true artists who work their asses off.
Working a festival often means running from show to show for ten or twelve hours a day while carrying heavy equipment. Editing the work can be incredibly time consuming. One of my photographers wore a pedometer this year and found that he had walked ten miles on the first day of the festival.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t payoffs.
Before us is the headliner for the night, The National. In back of us are twenty thousand screaming fans. The band comes on and there are spotlights, strobes and smoke. The sound from the PA’s- just a couple of feet away- is deafening. If you happen to cross in front of one, the sound will literally pound right through you. Over three days you come to learn that the phrase, “roar of the crowd,” is cliche, but not inaccurate. There are times when the crowd becomes a single snarling animal demanding to fed, appeased.
Sometimes gigs like Bunbury can be the best thing in the world. When things are on; and a band is on fire; the crowd is alive and you’re on your game; it’s possible to plug into all that energy- if only for twenty seconds or a minute at a time. It’s like someone plugging a 220 volt power line into the back of your skull.
Though the best part of the festival, however, is not getting paid to be a rock and roll photographer; nor is it getting high on the energy flowing back and forth between the band and crowd.
Rather, the best moment every year is when I stop and look around and I think: we did this. We came together again-combined our efforts and determination again- and threw a party for sixty thousand people. Many of the people who run Bunbury were there for the Midpoint days. It’s literally a homecoming,
It’s also a well organized and damned entertaining party.
The second best moment is when I’m through for the night and get to put my cameras down and lift a beer with my fellow photographers.
Or maybe that’s the best moment. It doesn’t matter. I only know I’ll be there again next year. Growing up is so overrated.