(ASBURY PARK, NJ - JUNE 19-21, 2009) - The fourth annual Wave Gathering music festival took place in Asbury Park during one of the wettest Junes in memory. The festival got off to a good start on Friday night thanks to a break in the weather, but had to battle the elements through most of the weekend. The rain definitely kept some people away, but couldn't stop another excellent festival from taking place. In many ways, this year's festival was better than any of the previous years.
This was the year the Wave Festival really got ambitious. They set up Saturday to be a block party on Cookman Avenue featuring six bands on a grand stage, tons of vendors selling food and drinks, and the ability to roam around completely free of cars. It was a good idea, but the execution was a bit off. The stage was placed near the Brick Wall and Market in the Middle yet vendors were located from the stage area all the way up to Synaxis. I'm not sure if they were truly expecting a crowd of that size, but even a beautiful sunny day would have been hard pressed to need that much space to hold everyone. They would have been much better off closing off one block and placing the vendors closer together.
The music on Saturday kicked off with Christine Martucci at noon and the rained came down heavily throughout a great set by Matt O'Ree who even went so far as to apologize for the rain.
"We'd like to thank you all for coming out," said O'Ree. "Sorry about the rain. It's probably our fault somehow; it always rains when we play outside."
Thankfully the rain stopped during the set by Outside the Box who followed O'Ree. These kids (I can't believe we can still call them kids since they've been playing for so long) really shined on the big stage. One of the many highlights of the festival for me was seeing Keith McCarthy react to a cover the band played. There's probably no YouTube footage of it, but it rivals anything up there involving me and Red Wanting Blue.
The outdoor stage continued with The Reveling, a band that includes Jay Weinberg – Max's son – on drums followed by Val Emmich who had a very impressive set in front of a rather good crowd. As the rain stayed away, more and more people seemed to check out the festival. I think the outdoor stage was a good idea, but I wouldn't have stopped the music from going on throughout the town at the same time. One thing I really like about the Wave is that if you don't enjoy the band on stage you can always go somewhere else to check out a different band. During Saturday's show outside, the only music in town (that I was aware of) was the outdoor stage and a special open mic at the Twisted Tree Café.
Red Wanting Blue from Ohio was up next. Many people have long known how much I like this band and I'm guessing that I'll never live down the scene during the Wave judging from how many people have mentioned it to me. Scott Terry, the lead singer of the band, who hails from South Jersey, had his father in the audience for a crowd much larger than they normally see during their annual visits to The Saint. This must have been a bit closer to the crowds they generally get in the mid-west where they have regularly played shows in front of 1,800 people. From the reaction in the crowd, I'm guessing they gained quite a bit more New Jersey fans that day and that's exactly what the Wave Gathering festival is all about – emerging artists… introducing music fans to great artists that they've never heard about. There's a lot of discussion going on right now about how the Wave Gathering Festival should proceed for the future and whether that emerging artist theme needs to change. I've heard people discussing such things as:
1) Should they start booking bigger names?
2) Should they utilize a single stage rather than roam through town?
3) Should they simply focus on Cookman Avenue and the Saint?
4) Should they have two outdoor stages – top end and bottom end of Cookman?
I don't think they need to book bigger names. This year's festival contained shows held in roughly 20 different venues. Most of the venues were located in the Cookman Avenue area, but a handful was along the boardwalk and The Saint and Asbury Lanes both featured shows as well. With the possible exception of Asbury Lanes (and the Outdoor Stage, of course) none of the venues were large enough to really support big name acts. For whatever reason, Madison Marquette and their Live Nation venues (Stone Pony, Wonder Bar, Paramount Theatre, and Convention Hall) chose to sit this one out. Without those venues, the only options for big-name acts are the outdoor stage on Cookman or possibly putting the festival on the beach (ala the old WNEW concerts in the late 80s and early 90s) or at Sunset Lake (ala Clearwater Festival).
Once you start bringing in big name acts you will almost certainly gain larger crowds, but you'll gain a very fickle crowd rather than a passionate one. There are at least 100 people I know that have been to every Wave Gathering and look forward to it each year. Those are the passionate people. Small numbers right now, but growing and the numbers could grow much more. This year's Wave Gathering Festival was not marketed to indie music fans at all in my opinion. They went with the Asbury Park Press/Metromix instead of music publications like The Aquarian; with radio stations like WRAT rather than NPR based like 90.5 or WXPN (although I notice that 90.5 has been put back on the list of sponsors for the Wave's website, for some reason they were taken off the site for several weeks), and had much less media coverage than a festival like this should have had. The festival wasn't even covered in all of the newspapers in Monmouth County much less the state or tri-state area. Part of that, I believe, stems from the Asbury Park Press connection. I have seen them sponsor events in the past in which they basically try to prevent any other media outlet from covering the event. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but that's what I've noticed with prior events. I'm not sure if it happened here or not, but it may have played a role.
Indie music fans (and fans who will attend shows by artists they haven't heard of) are a niche, but if you reach out to a wide enough base you could easily fill the town with indie music fans. Asbury Park is perfect for such a festival. Throughout my life, cover bands have owned every town along the shore except Asbury Park. This is in original music town. Thanks to artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, and Nicole Atkins, Asbury Park is known nationally for music. A festival based around emerging artists in a town known for original music would be one rather easy to market in my opinion. There's no reason the crowds at the Wave Gathering Festival have to come from Monmouth or Ocean County. Instead of vendors selling windows and doors, there could be vendors with more of a national focus. We have millions upon millions of people just a short drive or train ride away. That's where you'll find the indie music fans. I'm not trying to knock the Press or WRAT, but those are mainstream media outlets. It's kind of like promoting PBS at a strip club, if it's not the right target audience it just won't work.
Thanks to the Internet, it is easier than ever to promote an indie music festival like the Wave. In fact, I'd spend probably 80% of my marketing budget on the web as a festival like this really shouldn't have boundaries. Through the last 20 years, I've seen thousands of people visit Asbury Park from cities around the world. They came largely due to a love of Bruce Springsteen's music, but many were total music fans as well who just wanted to see the city they romanticized. I'm betting people like that would love to visit Asbury for a music festival. The Internet is the way to reach them and have them help spread the word. I wouldn't ignore the local media either. I would make sure EVERY newspaper in New Jersey previewed the festival. Go after the New York and Philly papers too. For some reason, when I searched for information on the festival this year it was like it had become a small-town event. The festival lineup included some of the best up-coming acts, yet I couldn't find any coverage of it outside the Jersey papers. That needs to change.
I know many people – even people involved in the festival – who are under the impression that the Wave only features acts from New Jersey. That's just wrong. While the festival does present a pretty good who's who of the local scene, there were around 50 acts from New York's music scene, artists from Philly to California and a handful from around the world. These were not just local artists; they were emerging artists – those creating a buzz in the industry. For that reason, you need to have the publications who write about the next big thing previewing and covering the event and you need to have the DJs who spin the next big thing hosting the event. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We had mainstream America running a festival for niche America. It was a clash of cultures. While the festival ‘s music selection was impressive and I largely saw good crowds at every venue I went to, I believe the festival can continue to grow if it utilizes the right components – instead of the components used this year. Mainstream music festivals are like Toms River Fest. They get big name acts and big crowds but nobody really cares about them. They can take place anywhere. And guess what? There wasn't a Toms River Fest this year (even after drawing numbers like 60,000 fans one year) because the fan support wasn't passionate; it was just mainstream folks out to see mainstream acts. Give me the die-hard music fans over that any day.
I'm also not in favor of the one-stage idea. I think that one-stage festivals can be great, but they too can take place anywhere. Marketing a festival like the Wave Gathering in multiple venues that you can walk to is an exciting concept that not many use. There are a thousand one-stage festivals; by doing that you lose a great marketing opportunity. The two-stage idea could be interesting though. I can easily imagine singer-songwriters performing throughout Cookman Avenue in venues like the Twisted Tree Café, America's Cup, The Showroom, Munch and Synaxis while stages showcase bands on both ends of Cookman Avenue. From the Synaxis area, you couldn't hear the stage at the other end and the venues did a good job of blocking out the sound as well, so people could have their choice of seeing two bands or several singer-songwriters at the same time and bounce around from place to place. The two-stage idea would also allow a venue like Asbury Lanes to remain part of the festival even if the music stayed on Cookman. Have the Lanes run one stage and The Saint run the other. It would connect the city in a smaller, more manageable fashion.
Personally, I think the festival should either focus solely on Cookman Avenue to the Saint (an area that is completely walk able) or focus on the entire town and include the prominent venues owned by Madison Marquette as well. If they want to include the entire city, the festival needs to work something out with Madison Marquette. And, if Madison Marquette really believes that music and entertainment is the key for Asbury Park, they should want to be part of such a festival. Unfortunately, with MM sitting this one out, it really does give the impression of MM/Live Nation vs. everyone else. That's not good for the Wave Gathering, not good for Asbury Park as a whole, and not good for MM as they miss a wonderful opportunity to bring tens of thousands of people to a music festival to showcase the town.
The Wave Gathering has shown it can exist without the major venues in town, but unless it wants to focus solely on the Cookman Avenue area there really isn't any reason NOT to include those venues. Asbury Park is a name throughout the country. When someone in California reads about a music festival in Asbury Park, chances are their first thought would be of the Stone Pony. The festival needs to decide just how much of the town does it want to cover and why. It's admirable to want to include all businesses, but it doesn't make much sense unless those venues are part of it.
The people involved in the Wave Gathering Festival will have to make several big decisions over the next few months. I'm hoping they take a good look at what they're doing and decide to continue the festival as one for emerging artists. Work hard to reach the indie music fans rather than veer off to a different direction. The music fans are out there. Hell, WXPN has millions of listeners across several different states - get stations like that involved with the festival. When I created Upstage Magazine, I knew I was going after a niche audience but the audience continued to grow as I kept at it. The Wave Gathering Festival can continue to grow as well. We just went through 2 1/2 days of rain as the festival took place yet I saw decent to great crowd numbers in at least 30 of the shows I attended. That's a really good number considering the weather. If this year did not meet expectations, I wouldn't necessarily blame the weather – I'd blame the proponents used. If you reach the passionate music fans, you still get them to come out even in bad weather. The mainstream folks stay home.
Keep aiming for the passionate music fans...
What are your thoughts? Have suggestions for the Wave Gathering Festival? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.