Secret Stages, a two day festival in downtown Birmingham featuring loads of great smaller bands, starts on Friday, July 31, and runs through August 1. Festival organizer Travis Morgan was nice enough to sit down and answer some questions for me. If you’re in the greater Birmingham area this weekend, make sure to check it out.
BNKO: This is the 5th year of Secret Stages. What inspired you to start the festival?
Travis Morgan: The festival was organized by several folks, including myself. Secret Stages started in the wake of City Stages, which a much larger scale outdoor festival in downtown Birmingham. When City Stages went under, we saw the need for a festival, but a much different one. We focus on up and coming or under the radar music who are mostly based around the southeast. We feel this type of music festival is an imperative element to a thriving music scene in Birmingham.
What are some of the challenges of planning and executing a festival? What are the most rewarding parts?
The challenges usually are funding and having a small staff, but with a festival with so many working parts. It’s much harder to sell a festival this size and of this scope than something that will automatically attract tens of thousands of people if you book a certain band. It’s much easier to reach your audience and your sponsors.
We are all into challenges, but due to the approach and personal outlook of our festival, we are at a disadvantage. People aren’t as accustomed to going to see a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of. They’d probably likely pay 10 times the price to go to see a bunch of bands they already know. So, we now have a pretty solid 4 year track record of amazing bands.
Secret Stages is more difficult to sell to sponsors. This is more of a group partnership between the bands, attendees, the festival, and the sponsors to put on an event that helps celebrate the incredible music coming out of Birmingham, the Southeast, and beyond. Once sponsors can see how they are benefiting their community, I think they are much more likely to jump on board.
Additionally, the city of Birmingham has implemented extra permit costs to us and other outdoor events. Partially because of that, we have eliminated our outdoor stage, which we’ve had since the beginning.
The rewards certainly outweigh the challenges. When the festival is in motion and especially when it’s over, it’s easier to see what we have achieved. We are able to bring together a wonderful selection of open-minded folks to celebrate a love of music together.
How do you select the bands who play? What’s your curatorial process like?
Rashid Qandil books all the hip hop. At this point, I book everything else. I think I booked 52 bands this year.
My approach is a little bit different than looking at what other festivals are booking or what’s at the top of the charts. I have to go much deeper. I usually go to a lot of shows, festivals, follow a lot of smaller labels, and have a relationship with hundreds of folks around the southeast. My criteria is really based on a few factors. Can the band write great songs? Not just one great song, but many. Can the band perform really well? Is the band great live? Is the band unique is some way wether it’s their genre/style, lyrical style, sense of humor, or what have you?
I stay in touch with bands, talent buyers, booking agents, labels, music journalists, and radio deejays and literally build a spreadsheet of hundreds of bands which I whittle down to about 50 or 60 each year.
Are there any bands you’re especially excited about this year? Anyone you’re psyched to see live for the first time?
This is always the question that makes me feel funny. The real answer is that all the bands that are playing made it through so many hurdles to play the festival. All of these bands are special. I have seen a bunch of these bands, but I have never had a chance to see most of them before because they may not have played in Bham ever before.
I’m really excited to bring so many of these bands to Birmingham. And I’m not sure any of these bands have played Birmingham before.
Bear Medicine, Bonnie Montgomery, Bo White Y Su Orquesta, Buke and Gase, Culture Vulture, Dot.s, Early Walker, Gold-Bears, Small Reactions, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Landlady, Onawa, Raindeer, Ryan Schaefer, Sweet Crude, TONE, White Reaper and Waking Astronomer.
I’m super excited to see these Birmingham bands Timber and Shaw for the first time.
I’m also really excited to see what Birmingham’s Dead Balloons, Taylor and the Puffs, and Eleven Year Old bring to the table.
Festivals can sometimes be strange to play. What do you think makes up the best kind of festival set?
The cool thing about Secret Stages, is ours is made up of 6 relatively small venues, plus a VIP venue and this allows for so much intimacy. Since people aren’t usually too familiar with many bands, it is a time when attendees are first being exposed to a band. It helps if a band brings all their energy and engages the crowd. It also helps when the audience is quiet and respectful to the bands which they typically are. It’s a great platform for the bands and for the audience to hear great new bands. These are short sets from 45 minutes to an hour. Not too much time for people to get bored, but if they do, they can always check out what’s happening next door.
Where do you see Secret Stages going? What does the festival look like in another five years?
We are always shifting things here and there, but our mission statement will always remain in tact. Our bands are the little engine that could…The kids on the baseball or softball team that show so much promise and we are just giving them a leg up.
I hope our reputation continues to be favorable. I hope to have more support from the City of Bham and recognition for the importance of our festival model.
In five years, I hope to double our attendance and add more venues.
For those of us who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Birmingham music scene, recommend a couple of local bands (they don’t have to be playing Secret Stages, just in general!).
Right now the biggest band from Birmingham is St. Paul and the Broken Bones. They have recently done some dates with The Rolling Stones opening for them. They played their first show at Secret Stages in 2012. There’s also Lee Bains and the Glory Fires who played previously and are now signed to Sub Pop. I think the other bands on the rise are WRAY, Future Elevators, The Green Seed, and Banditos (who recently moved to Nashville).
I personally think Through the Sparks is one of the best bands to come out of Alabama ever. I am biased because I have been working with them for a while, but they are fantastic.
Where’s the best place for out-of-towners visiting for Secret Stages to have a drink? A great meal?
What a question! Bham is definitely a food town. There are too many. Within our footprint, you must try Carrigan’s, Brick & Tin, El Barrio, Trattoria, and Urban Standard. Beyond our footprint I love Ollie Irene, Olive Branch, Chez Fon Fon, Betolla, Bottega Cafe, Hot & Hot Fish Club, Silver Coin, even a sandwich at Diplomat Deli is amazing!…But there are so many good ones.
If you had a time machine and could use it to go back and see one show (one you missed, one you weren’t born for, one you want to relive, whatever), what would you go see?
I would have loved to see Pink Floyd in their prime with Roger Waters.