Newport Folk & Jazz Festival Producer on Power of New COVID-19 Relief Fund: 'We’re Invested in Our Community'

Jay Sweet Newport Folk Festival
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Newport Folk Festival Executive Producer Jay Sweet speaks during day two of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 27, 2019 in Newport, R.I.

"We're giving our funds to artists: 'If you can do the festival, I need you to have this. If you can’t do the festival, I need you to have this.'"

Jay Sweet was shell-shocked. On Monday (March 30), the producer of the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals scrolled through the list artists who had applied for the Newport Festivals Musicians Relief Fund. The tally was long -- and all of the names were familiar.

“You think you know how much need is there,” he said, still scrolling. “And then you realize how much more is needed.” 

The Newport Festivals Foundation, the nonprofit that sustains both Rhode Island festivals and contributes to a number of musical education programs, had launched the fund to alleviate the financial impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on their community by emptying their own pockets. Many of the artists who have played Newport Folk and Jazz are still reeling from the income that disintegrated following the cancelations of tours, festivals and album releases, and five hours after the announcement, hundreds responded to the call for applications in the hope of receiving support from the initiative. (Both Newport Folk, set for July 31-Aug. 2, and Newport Jazz, Aug. 7-9, are proceeding as planned at the moment, though Sweet is in close contact with the Governor of Rhode Island and local authorities regarding whether or not that will change.)

Giving is already built into the Newport Festival Foundation’s model -- for each artist on either festival’s lineup, it makes a donation on the artist’s behalf to an organization of their choosing before they hit the stage at Fort Adams -- and this fund is undeniably a strain on the foundation’s own modest resources. For Sweet, who joined the organization as Newport Folk's producer in 2008 and now produces Newport Jazz as well, it’s a necessary expenditure: you can’t have a festival without musicians, and those musicians need literal and figurative gas in the tank of the band van if they’re going to make it through this trying time.

“It’s been an emotional 48 hours, because I’ve been talking to artists and helping them get the word out for our Newport Folk and Jazz families,” he says. “It’s hard to put this into context until you start talking to artists individually and when you hear their stories. It puts a sharper point on what we’re all going through.”

One of those conversations was with the family of John Prine, who’s performed at Newport in recent years and was hospitalized on Sunday night (but is now in stable condition) with COVID-19. Another was with Matt Vasquez, the frontman of Delta Spirit, who has performed at Newport Folk with his band, solo, and with two supergroups (Middle Brother and Glorietta). Delta Spirit is scheduled to return to Newport Folk, and wanted the donation in their name to go towards relief efforts in Austin, that had been established to aid local musicians and hospitality workers following the cancelation of South By Southwest.

Sweet took a cue from Vasquez with the Newport Festivals Musicians Relief Fund by directing funds to Newport Folk and Jazz performers, past and present, when they need these resources the most. Additionally, there are still a dozen or so artists to be announced for this year's lineup -- and many of them have chosen to donate to Newport's relief fund instead of another organization to support their fellow performers.

Below, Sweet walks through the Newport Festivals Musicians Relief Fund, how it will work, what the pandemic's impact on the music industry at large means for the festivals.

Let’s start with the inspiration for this relief fund: you had a conversation with Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez about Austin, and how its music and hospitality communities were struggling following the cancelation of SXSW. When did you realize that you wanted to get involved with COVID-19 relief?

Right then. When Matt told me some of the needs he’s facing, I had a meeting with our whole foundation, and I said, “Look: We’re in for a pretty big change in the next couple months.” Everything started being canceled, but it’s not just the touring income [for the artists]: touring increases the merchandising income, the streaming income, licensing -- live [profit] doesn’t stop on ticket sales. It’s a domino effect. I kept hearing these personal stories, so I said, “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.” We just decided that we needed to address the needs of our folk and jazz families and our local community immediately. I was getting emails from bands saying, “God, I hope these festivals still happen, I need it now more than ever -- but I don’t know if we’re going to be a band by then.”

If there is an emergency fund, this is the break-the-glass moment, right now. We are clearly far from having unlimited funds. We are one-tenth the size of almost all these festivals that are canceling. We just felt that if we have anything -- anything -- we have to give it, because either way, we’re in danger. If we don’t give it, and we don’t provide the assistance, we’re just as endangered as if we do. And if we can, the hope is that when the time comes to have these festivals, we have a bunch of artists who can come up and play it. We only had two ways to go, and we chose the way that has a positive feedback loop. We’re hoping that if we can get these artists through a tough period of time, and if we can throw our festival, they’ll be able to get there.

Since Delta Spirit, other artists you've announced on the Newport Folk lineup, like Barrie and Drive-By Truckers, have chosen to take that donation the festival makes on their behalf and use it to support COVID-19 relief efforts in local communities. Are you hearing that the remaining artists you have yet to announce feel the same way?

Just to reiterate, every single time someone confirms to play the festival, we promise on a handshake -- none of this is written out -- that we will make a donation to the music program of their choice before they step foot on the stage. The one bond we will not forego, whether we have the festival or don’t, is that bond. The remaining dozen or so artists have all so far chosen to donate to our own [COVID-19 relief fund]. It has nothing to do with our agreements or anything: it’s our handshake deal that we will help the situation however we can before the event… This ripple effect will not change immediately, and we realize that. What we’re offering is a tiny band-aid. That’s it. It’s the most we can do, but it’s the absolute minimum of what we need to do. This isn’t coming from a place of anger or frustration, but trying to keep the glass of spirit half full.

What does this mean for you, in terms of the economic impact this could have on the Newport Festivals Foundation?

Not to sound like a bad movie, but so far, paying it forward -- if we ever get in the position where we need help, people will be there for us. You don’t expect it; there’s no quid pro quo. This is a one-way thing, and you just know it’s the right thing to do. If you keep doing the right thing, that’s just what you do with a community.... A lot of people would throw their hands up and say we’re going to hunker in the bunker and wait until everybody tells us it’s okay to come out. We want everybody to do that, but for us, we can’t ignore the fact that by doing that, we’re putting our entire community at risk. 

If the Newport festivals do take place as currently scheduled, what happens when the bulk of your lineup have to adjust their plans or run into scheduling issues now that festivals have been moved to every weekend this fall? Is there a plan in place to deal with those concerns, and have you had talent have to drop out already because of this?

A major headliner just did that to me last week. It was really sad, it was somebody who’s never played the event, but I’m looking at it as a door closes and a window opens. The reality is, for every artist that may have to change their plans, there are half a dozen that have reached out who said, “If it happens, you should just make it a free for all -- everyone who shows up will play.” There were 13 bands, not artists, that showed up at the festival last year that were not on the bill. We have double that, already, asking to come, even if they’re not officially announced or anything. We’re very fortunate that this is the community Newport created: if one band has to pull out, there are three who’d offer to jump in on it before they’re promised anything. “Pay me for a hotel room and make sure I get a meal ticket.” I’ve been in the business a long f--kin’ time. I just don’t think it exists everywhere else.

Activism and speaking truth to power are entwined in the fabric of Newport -- Pete Seeger is a founding father of American protest music, and he’s a formative figure in the legacy of Newport Folk, too. This is the kind of year that feels like it needs Newport Folk, in a spiritual sense. Does this intensify the “what if we have to cancel” conversation?

That’s the thing that I keep getting freaked out about. I know I’m not objective, and I feel that way, and I keep thinking, “Maybe I’m overthinking this from the outside perspective.” I cannot underscore how many people that are objective as f--k -- people who throw other festivals, who have canceled their festivals -- have said, “Newport has to happen. We need it. Do whatever you need to throw this g--damn festival.” It is really a very, very small beam of light in a f--kin’ hurricane. I’m fascinated that it’s artists -- not their management, not their agents -- saying, “Can I come? I just want to be there when it happens.” If it happens, we would have one of the most cathartic Newport experiences in its history.

It’s been pretty difficult for me to be at that crossroads where all of this emotion is happening. I’m trying to plan for the best and prepare for the worst. At the same time, this is why we’re doing these exact things: we’re giving our funds to artists in case they can come, and if they can’t, the investment is equal. “If you can do the festival, I need you to have this, and if you can’t do the festival, I need you to have this.” Doing something now shows that we’re invested in our community and our future, more than, “Well, we can’t spend it because we have to be careful: we can’t spend anything on anybody, everybody’s on their own.” That’s what a lot of people are doing. We’re totally gambling on the other side. We’re going to help and support so we can ensure our viability in 2021. 

When you came aboard with Newport Folk in 2008, you obviously didn’t set out to work in the nonprofit sector, and the foundation was established in 2010. How has all of this changed, or deepened, what you hope to do with the Newport festivals?

I was the producer of the Newport Folk Festival, and George [Wein, Newport Folk and Jazz founder] was producing the Newport Jazz Festival, and there was this foundation that was very small. I said, “We can’t keep going by just being a festival, it’s not going to work. The marketplace isn’t going to allow it. This community needs to be built on the back of doing good. It’s that simple.” Luckily, George backed me… We don’t use the term family lightly. You either get it or you don’t. There are so many that don’t, but the ones that do, I have to be there for them. It’s now a part of the DNA of this foundation. It’s our only currency. These familial bonds are the only way we sell tickets, put on these events, raise money for music programs and education -- this is the only way. We’re not some massive, national, publicly-traded corporation. We are microscopic. We are hand-to-mouth, just as are the majority of artists. But if I got an extra piece of bread, I’m not gonna store it away for some other time. I’m going to share it.