Interview: Nateva Promoter Frank Chandler

On July 4th weekend, millions of Americans will be headed to the backyard for cold beers, hot brats and bright fireworks. The best party of all though, might be the premier of the Nateva Music Festival, held in Oxford, Maine. Bands like Furthur, The Flaming Lips, moe., Grizzly Bear, STS9, Lotus and Passion Pit will descend on an intimate setting limited to 15,000 attendees. Adding some of the touches seen at larger festivals, Nateva will also offer up a Silent Disco, carnival rides, late night movies and a chance for one musically and politically-educated fan to return home with a guitar signed by Bob Weir (by playing the HeadCount gameshow “Reality Check". We've got to get that plug in).

Recently HeadCount had a chance to chat with Nateva promoter Frank Chandler about the long and surprising road he took toward creating this new festival. A music fan with no background in concert production, Frank left his job with a financial firm and bet his nest egg on the idea that upper New England was under-served with great live music. It seems he was half right - it's not just New England. Attracting tickets sales from 12 countries and all 50 states and a writeup in Rolling Stone, Nateva has become a national player before the first note. It is clearly the unofficial "Rookie of the Year" on the festival circuit.

HeadCount: Tell us about why you decided Nateva needed to happen and how it will be different from some of the other festivals?

Frank Chandler: In terms of getting started, it was simple business fact. There was a need in the marketplace. -- It felt like a need to me. -- The need we felt was there were a lot of musically-educated, musically-sophisticated people in northern New England including Boston and north of Boston. And to those folks north of Boston, their musical needs were not being met. Bands would come up the east coast, and then stop in Boston and head south again. When you talk with people, every time they want to go to a festival they drive five to six hours to get to Gathering of the Vibes or Mountain Jam and 15-20 hours to Bonnaroo. So we thought to ourselves: there is a market need. And we felt we could put together an event that could meet that need.

We never viewed ourselves as a national player in the music or festival business; we never viewed ourselves as any body's competition or competitor. We saw ourselves as a northern New England regional event. We don't have Sherwood Forrest, we don’t have 600 acres of land, we are not on an ocean, and we’re not on top of a mountain. What we do have is, really really big name bands, world class bands, in Maine! And we’re going to do it during the nicest season of the year in Maine, and we’re going to confine it to a limited capacity venue. We’re not going to pack in 20 or 30 thousand people, that is not the business plan. It’s not, “Can we just sell 30 thousand tickets?” It’s, “How would you like to see really cool bands? In a relatively intimate atmosphere?” I think that's where we were headed. That's where we began.

When we set up Nateva, Rothbury existed on the same weekend. We understood that Rothbury was going on. We understood they were going to take customers.The biggest place where I felt we benefited from Rothbury not going on this year -- and people are usually surprised -- was not the easy availability of bands and it was not the customers we would get. It was our ability to get the best, the brightest and the most experienced in the festival business, who were otherwise committed to Rothbury.

Describe the approach you've taken in booking bands. What was your thinking in what bands to go after and what kind of music to have on the bill?

I am at heart, a jam band guy. That's what I like. But I like all music. There's a feeling listening to music outside in the summer. That is where all this comes from. There is nothing like being outside on a nice day seeing a band with the sun shining. If you’re going to put on an event in an outlying state like Maine, you need to be able to draw people from outside the area. I knew to begin with a jam base. I knew those fans were cool with packing up the car, and off they go. With jam bands you’re not just drawing from 50 or 100 miles, it’s a different geographical draw. From there it became: “Who do you want to be and what do you want to be?” We wanted to be more than just jam bands. In my opinion on music festivals, you go see the bands you want to see but hopefully you get exposed to bands you’re not familiar with, you’re not aware of, or are a little different. I wanted a good mix and match. I wanted the feeling we were all getting along in the space. Heavy metal banging probably wouldn't have matched.

The first band we signed was Furthur but we didn't announce it till after their summer tour announcement. We knew going into it we were ultimately going to announce Furthur somewhere down the road. The first band we announced was The Flaming Lips. When we announced The Flaming Lips the reason was because they were an indy alt band that was a good crossover band. Jam kids like The Lips. It was a good fit. It was very telling in terms of where we were going to go. You can’t bring on a big alt indy band like that and not give them the support they need. They are an indy alt band and not a jam band. We didn't have the size to have every kind of band like Bonnaroo. We decided to focus on jam bands and indy alt bands, with a little bit of bluegrass, a little electronic, a little bit of reggae, and some new local up and coming acts. In the next announcement we came out with a lot of jam bands and then on the final announcement released what I saw as some strong indy alt bands to support The Flaming Lips.

How will this festival be different from other festivals? What kind of experience are you trying to foster?

There is a lot of stuff I would like to be just like. And, a lot of things I would like to be different from. The biggest thing about the festival is we are a small regional event. It is capped at 15,000 people so you’re going to go out and you’re going to see these bands that you may have seen with 30 or 40 thousand people and you’re going to be in an area that's not that huge, no one’s more than a 5 minute or 10 minute walk to the main stage. We are trying to create a family environment. It’s not for kids; it’s not a kid’s camp. It’s definitely an adult party, but it’s a party where children feel welcome and parents don't have worry about bringing them. While we respect people’s personal choices and people’s right to partake in what they like, they need to be cognizant of what’s going on around them too. Everybody should be feeling welcome. We've got a big kids’ area, big Kid’s Tent with a lot of activities. Late night movies, Silent Disco, and all this is going on in a relatively small area, it’s pretty intimate. Nateva offers the ability to see a lot of different bands in a very convenient location and not have to deal with a big city. You’re in Maine in the right time of the year to be in Maine.

Are you doing anything to bring a socially conscious element to the Festival?

We have a few groups like yourself. We are working with Clean Vibes in terms of dealing with our recycling. We are trying to be as conscious as we can. We are encouraging carpooling with economic benefits to carpooling. We are going out of our way to deal with our impact.

You mentioned you have an all star team assembled to put together the festival can you tell me something about yourself and your background and how you came to be in this position and who are some of the other people involved?

None of the all stars have a name like Frank Chandler because I am not an all star. I have tried to surround myself with people that are smarter and more experienced than me, with the hope they will raise me up to their level. My background is in financial services. I had been there for the past 21 years. Sales and distribution was my expertise. I found myself in a situation where my division was shutdown and I was let go. So I took a moment to reevaluate where I was in the world and this is where I came up. I saw an opportunity to combine my passion for music with potentially a livelihood! And I think everybody should enjoy what they do, get some validation in what they do, and a sense that they get joy from it. That was what shook me out of the box. I was stung by this idea that there was this market demand and I came to the point where I thought I can do this, I can come up with the solution to this problem. Then went out and raised money from three friends, one of whom was my former boss. None of them were interested in festivals; none of them were music people. All of them just looked at the stats and believed we could do this. From there, I put together a team of three or four people who began to work very diligently on the business side of things. Then it became time to pick and choose who was going to do what for us and we began to assemble a very experienced team. So when we look at the Kid’s Tent we hired the guy that does the kid’s tent at Vibes. We hired Clean Vibes for our clean up. We've gone out and hired the folks that are head of security at Bonnaroo and run security for Phish are our security. A person feeling safe is the beginning of establishing a community. People have to feel safe and secure. The people that are vending are the guys that ran vending at Phish Festival 8. Everybody we surrounded ourselves with do this as their business. This is their livelihood. Even our parking team is what we thought to be the best in the country. When you arrive at Nateva, a professional group of people are going to get you processed and get you in. We have gone out of our way to hire the best people we could find. These people were not available until Rothbury closed most of which would have otherwise been attached to Rothbury

We got more interest from volunteers about Nateva than any other festival. More than Bonnaroo. You’re striking a cord with our kind of kids, we really wish you luck. Maine has a great love of music, its part of the culture there. It’s a big hangout state, people hangout and listen to music.

Every year I see some guy like me rent a field in Maine and he hires, I don't know, Steppenwolf and Big Brother and says, “I am going to put 30,000 people on this field.” Even with a lot of activities, people will not just throw their money at you. You have to give them a good reason to head up there. You have to put up a legitimate lineup to make a legitimate festival. We have a lot of genres. You can find new music, local music and big name bands. One of the issues we faced was we were charging $249 for a weekend pass, with camping. That's a lot of money. There is no question that's a lot of money. We respect the economy, we respect our customers' wallets, but we were always gonna be a small regional event that was capping its attendance and if you want to have world class bands and less than 15,000 people, someone has to pay for those bands. That was an issue. We realized that there were people that were willing to pay that money who were tired of walking 45 minutes from their campsite to their stage. We are selling $89 day tickets too. For those who just want to come in for Friday or Saturday. It’s $89 we have parking three miles down the road. So if you can stay Friday night and Saturday night pick the day you want to go to the show. Go swimming in the lake the other day! Spend the day for $89, take the bus from parking for 5 minutes and you’re at the festival. That's shorter than the walk at Bonnaroo from your tent to the stage. Come to Maine and enjoy what it has to offer: Two days of camping, partying, hanging out in Maine and a great concert. Different strokes for different folks. We are excited about what we are bringing.

Someone asked me today, “Do you expect to make money?” No! I expect to throw a great event. What am I hoping for? that everyone arrives safely, has a great time and gets home safely. And they tell their friends what a great time they had and they think about coming next year. We are building a business, not throwing an event. An event we expect to throw every year and improve every year and grow with our customers.

That is the way you have to approach these things. It’s difficult to make money in the first year. It’s about creating a good experience. The northeast is an interesting market. It is an underserved market. Do you know how many people are coming from Maine?

About 30 percent, but what is surprising is the rest are coming from everywhere. All 50 states are represented as well as 12 countries. South Korea, Denmark, England, Japan... it’s astonishing. One really cool thing we are doing is we will broadcast live on Furthur has agreed to be part of that service. People can watch the festival online and see great bands, great video and audio set ups, cool art installations and just a cool scene. Keep in mind it is only going to be 15,000 people; I haven't heard any other promoters putting a cap on festivals.