Catching up with the man who builds Bumbershoot’s music lineup

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2013.09.02: Fans @ Bumbershoot - TuneIn Stage, Seattle, WA

I remember when I first met Chris Porter. We were enjoying a concert by a then relatively unknown band at the tiny 150-capacity High Dive in the early spring of 2011.

Porter,  One Reel’s program director, is responsible for putting together the lineup for Bumbershoot. He’s currently in his 17th year of building lineups for Seattle’s annual music and arts festival and each year he works to put together a musically diverse and rewarding experience for festivalgoers.

This year’s Bumbershoot looks to be one of the most musically rewarding in recent memory with dozens of up-and-coming local artists, a healthy smattering of buzz bands and big-name acts like Elvis Costello, Wu-Tang Clan, Neon Trees and, of course, that small little band we watched together at High Dive three years ago (who are now closing down the festival headlining the main stage on Labor Day), Foster the People.

I caught up with Porter earlier this month and we discussed festival fatigue, his approach to putting together Bumbershoot and his recent visit to Reykjavik.

How do you approach putting together such a diverse lineup? Is there a specific methodology you follow, or does it simply vary year-by-year depending on who is touring and who you have on your wish list?

Going into the process, I usually know some general themes and/or genres I want us to focus on. But every year is different and which ones we focus on can (and often do) vary. For instance, almost every year we have focused programming for jazz, blues, and world/global music. Other specialized programming blocks however have varied from year to year. This is somewhat dependent on the amount of demand from our usual and potential audience, act availability, collaboration opportunities, and budget, all the while addressing some of the long standing goals of Bumbershoot (providing a wide mix of arts and genres).

What are some of the challenges of being a non-profit and putting together such a massive event?

I don’t know if it’s so much cause we’re a non-profit, but we (as I’m sure most companies – profit or non-profit) wish we had deeper pockets of funds so we can provide more for our patrons and promote the festival further.

Also – because many people who work on festivals are contracted workers (not with us for a full year), it sometimes means we have to have some turnover in our office and/or festival weekend staff (since many people will naturally gravitate to full year employment somewhere). However, fortunately a great number of people love to work on the festival every year and make time in their lives to do so. So we are fortunate to be able to have their great talents with us for many years. But turnover can be a challenge at times.

Speaking of challenges, it seems like every year the music festival market gets more and more crowded, with this year’s big addition being Live Nation’s failed attempt at a second Sasquatch! festival. How did the second Sasquatch! impact your programming process and do you think the music festival bubble will ever pop?

Sometimes I wonder if the public is starting to get festival fatigue, but overall it seems that there is still enough room for all that currently exist. The second weekend of Sasquatch didn’t seem to have a huge affect on Bumbershoot other than potentially taking away some opportunities for Bumbershoot to book a few acts we were considering. But we fortunately (and somewhat surprisingly) didn’t run into very much of that during our booking process. It seems that we were largely going after different acts. I think the second Sasquatch had more of an affect on Seattle venues and local promoters than it did on Bumbershoot.

You attended the Iceland Airwaves festival in Reykjavik last year. Did you take anything away from that experience that you applied to programming Bumbershoot? And can you talk a little bit about the curatorial exchange with Airwaves and the Icelandic artists that will be appearing at Bumbershoot?

I think I take away a little something from every festival I attend – whether it be a large one or small one (in terms of ideas and inspiration). In the case of Iceland Airwaves, I love the vibe that they achieve there and the fact that probably more people from outside of Iceland attend it than Icelanders. I think Bumbershoot and Iceland Airwaves have some kinship in that our own locally based music is very important to the event producers and the patrons.

Bumbershoot programs around 40 percent local and I suspect Airwaves does even more. Both cities (Seattle/Reykjavik) have great arts and music communities and outlets. I’ve gotten to know Grimur Atlason (Airwaves’ programmer) pretty well and he and I can definitely relate a lot to each other in terms of what we do. The collaboration we are doing is based on the realization that many people love to travel all over the world to attend festivals.

The world is getting smaller and many of us are seeing more and more people from far away come to our respective events. I’m trying to spread the name of Bumbershoot as far around the world as I can, much like Airwaves is. Plus the fact that Reykjavik and Seattle are “sister cities”, we were inspired to find a way to work together.

I’ve done this sort of collaboration (curatorial and promotional) with the Americana Festival (in Nashville) and M for Montreal among others in the past and it worked out quite well. I’m really excited to be working with Iceland Airwaves in the same way. They have facilitated having two Icelandic acts (Young Karin and Hermigervill) to perform at Bumbershoot and we (along with KEXP) helped procure La Luz to play at Airwaves (we are aiming to add one other act soon).

Lastly, next year will be Bumbershoot’s 45th anniversary. Are there any plans in the works to commemorate the anniversary?

No specific plans to share at the moment. We’re fully focused on the upcoming Bumbershoot. We’ll start to wrap our brains around special things for next year sometime in the fall.


Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 14 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, and others and was the founder and editor of defunct music site Ear Candy.