When Brian Appel announced the inaugural Boston Calling music festival last spring, the reaction was, “great idea, great lineup, terrible location,” he says. The former director of marketing at local radio station WFNX and now-defunct alt-weekly the Phoenix had decided to hold the event in downtown Beantown’s City Hall Plaza, a notorious eyesore of red brick, concrete, and bizarrely shaped buildings that’s been due for a renovation since 2011. To the unimaginative eye, the space was completely inconducive to two stages, two beer gardens, 20,000 people per day, 18 bands, and a lot of loud music. To Appel, however, it was perfect.
“It’s right in the middle of the city,” he says. “There’s nothing more Boston than the bricks and the buildings that surround it. I’m a little bit envious of Coachella and Lollapalooza and their parks, but we’re doing our own thing over here and so far it’s working out pretty well for us.”
Indeed, Boston Calling has surpassed Appel’s expectations. The first edition of the festival on Memorial Day weekend of 2013 was so successful that Appel and Mike Snow, former operations director at WFNX and Boston.com and his co-founder of Crash Line Productions, held it again that Labor Day. (Even though they originally planned to hold the festival twice a year, Appel knew it would be “foolish to build a model based on selling out.”). This year, they’re doing it on the same dates but with an extra 2,000 tickets per day (to a total of 22,000 per day) and a Friday lineup in addition to Saturday and Sunday. With this weekend’s Boston Calling — headlined by Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, and Jack Johnson — sold out, and September’s nearly there, it’s clear the two have capitalized on a niche market and raised Boston’s cachet as an undersung music town.
Appel and Snow originally got the idea to put on the city’s first music festival in conjunction with WFNX — until the radio station went off the air in May of 2012. By that point the two had already secured a lease from the Mayor’s office, so they pressed on with the preliminary planning process. A few months later they launched Crash Line and brought on board the National’s Aaron Dessner to curate the lineup and establish the festival’s brand. “They were thinking a lot about what makes a good festival for the audience and the artists,” Dessner says. “Having played hundreds of festivals around the world, I had a lot to say about that.”
Together, Dessner, Appel, Snow, and the “people behind the scene in [Crash Line] that don’t sleep and just drink caffeine and come up with new ideas every day,” says Appel, decided on two central rules — schedule bands on two stages with no overlap, and allow readmission, so attendees could patronize local establishments between sets. The last point was especially pertinent during the very first Boston Calling, when inclement weather drove many patrons to the warmth of nearby bars and restaurants. “I have to say when it was pouring rain, I was pretty happy we weren’t in the middle of a big grassy field,” says Appel.
Like many urban music festivals, Boston Calling contributes heavily to the local economy. Last year, Crash Line worked with the Boston Redevelopment Authority on a developmental impact study, which has shown promising results. “It’s a weekend that typically does not see a lot of downtown tourist activity,” says Appel, “so the anecdotal feedback was busy weekends for everyone from Dunkin Donuts to Faneuil Hall. The actual data shows really positive effects in the area between hotels, restaurants, bars, and convenience stores.” He declined to give more details until after May 25, when the company would have a full year’s worth of numbers.
A few Boston-based companies have done their part to support Boston Calling as well. JetBlue, which agreed with the festival’s audience and vision from the beginning, has stepped up again as a sponsor, along with beer company Samuel Adams, which came aboard this year. “They’re both companies that have deep roots in the area, so they were natural fits for us as partners when we started this event,” says Appel. “Plus the activation is on site, so it’s added incentive and added environment for the attendees.” Festivalgoers can also drink their Sam Adams Summer Ales in good conscience, as a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales go toward funding the music therapy program at the Boston Children’s Hospital, run by one of Appel and Snow’s former supervisors at WFNX.
As for supporting local bands, which WFNX and the Phoenix championed, Appel and Dessner have tried to strike a balance between area acts and bigger-name draws. “There’s always going to be folks that say, ‘How dare they consider themselves a Boston festival when there’s only three Boston bands on the bill,’” Appel says. “If we had an all-local festival, I don’t think we’d be able to draw the numbers we need. We love the local music scene. We’ve been working in it for over 10 years now, so for us it’s making sure they’re recognized and they’re valued, but it’s not the sole focus of the festival.”
After last year’s Labor Day Calling, which saw tickets purchased for either Saturday’s indie and rock-focused lineup (Vampire Weekend, the Gaslight Anthem) or Sunday’s electronic acts (Major Lazer, Flosstradamus), Appel spread out the lineup more evenly this time. The idea to add another day actually came from mellow guitar troubadour Jack Johnson, who was looking for a New England tour date around Memorial Day. “We thought he would be the perfect guy to do a Friday night,” says Appel. “He draws a great crowd, his team is great to work with, and they were on board to try this out with us.”
Boston Calling’s two-edition format has proven unpredictable in the past — Coachella has successfully expanded to two dates and a cruise, but Washington’s Sasquatch! Festival canceled its July 4 date, which had been scheduled this year in addition to its Memorial Day edition, due to low ticket sales — but Dessner isn’t worried about its future. “It’s definitely become well-known now,” he says. “We’ve been selling tickets before the lineups are even announced, which is a sign that people are having a good time and have trust in us even before there’s a lineup. People know it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be good artists, and they seem to be getting better each time.”