Mike Morris discusses UTOPiAFest with founder Travis Sutherland. UTOPiAFest takes place in Utopia, Texas, September 4-6 this year.
Where Y'at: How did UTOPiAFest start?
Travis Sutherland: Growing up on the Four Sisters Ranch, I never realized how blessed I was to live in such an incredibly unique and wonderful place. Music was always integral to my life, but I never truly experienced live music until I left Utopia for college in San Marcos. Then I became obsessed with going to shows and festivals, and started working behind the scenes in various capacities. In the process, I came to know a lot of great bands personally. After a particular performance by one of them, the thought occurred to me to invite some bands I knew to play at the ranch. I wanted to give people in and around Utopia the opportunity to experience live music, and give city people the opportunity to experience the country. It ended up being nine bands and 200 people, all of which I knew, on a Saturday in October. Everyone loved it so much that I decided to keep doing it, and try to make it a little bigger and better every time.
WYAT: This will be the 7th year of the festival. How has the festival changed over the years?
Travis Sutherland: It's grown and developed beyond my wildest dreams. In fact, I never even considered trying to expand it exponentially until Onion Creek Productions offered to co-produce it after I invited them to film the second one. Dedicating a great amount of time and resources, they helped increase the audience from 300 to 1500 at the third fest. From then on, we kept trying to make it a little bigger and better, creating the best festival experience we could imagine. We lengthened it to 2 days and an extra 'pre-party night', and added a variety of great activities and workshops. Now, we've hosted some of my favorite bands in the world, and turned it into an extremely well rounded and quality experience. What I love though, is that it has still maintained the intimate, family vibe that was there since year one.
WYAT: UTOPiAFest is BYOB; old school Jazz Fest goers remember a time when that festival was BYOB. Is this something you see being sustainable as the festival grows?
Travis Sutherland: We are unique in that attendees don't have to give us any money after buying tickets if they choose. They can park and camp for free, and bring all the food and drinks needed for the weekend. BYOB has always been a cherished staple element to the fest, but to be honest, the policy began because we had no choice. Believe it or not, prohibition still existed there. But, similar to having little-to-no phone service, we've made it into a positive, and people really love and appreciate it. What's interesting though is the county just voted to overturn the ban in a limited way, and we may be able to set up a general store outside the gates that sells beer. The BYOB policy would remain, but we'd encourage people to stock up there. Hopefully that can help us recover some of the massive opportunity cost resulting from being BYOB.
WYAT: How have you managed to attract some of the larger acts to the festival? What acts are you personally excited for this year?
Travis Sutherland: The short answer is paying for them. Our talent takes up the majority of the our budget. It was definitely a challenge to convince 'bigger' acts to come that third year though, because we didn't have any precedence of significant numbers or recognizable names. After we were able to book a few higher-tiered acts, we started to develop a really positive reputation in the artist and agency community by taking great care of the bands, and from the fantastic reception and energy from our audience. We go out of our way to ensure bands don't see it as another payday, but a relaxing and enjoyable vacation. Many bands stay the whole weekend, and immerse themselves in the experience. Our crowd is very respectful, and gives the performers massive amounts of energy and enthusiasm. Now we have agents pitching amazing well-known bands to us, instead of having to convince them to give us a chance.
This year, I'm thrilled to welcome back Charles Bradley, who gave one of the most memorable performances in the festival's history in 2012. I think Tune-Yards is one of the most fitting bands we've ever had. I can't imagine how magical and powerful Explosions in the Sky, who we've courted for years, will be. The band that is going to come out of nowhere and steal the show is Les Hay Babies, which I'm bringing from Canada to play Texas for the first time. I even booked a mini-Texas tour around their trip, and I can't wait to introduce them.
WYAT: How has the diversity of acts changed since the first year?
Travis Sutherland: The general idea hasn't changed at all - a wide range of genres featuring the best musicians possible. Having more available spots and many more bands to choose from has enabled us to further diversify the lineup, and bring in some of the best musicians alive. We never want to be pigeonholed into a genre, but keep the music positive, powerful, and basically mind-blowing.
WYAT: Is there an active effort to attract local vendors and artists to the festival?
Travis Sutherland: It doesn't take any effort to attract them, but we have almost exclusively local food and retail vendors, from Austin and the hill country, including some in my family. The music lineup has a strong representation of Austin bands we love. We're very much into supporting and promoting the local scene and economy in Austin and around Utopia.
WYAT: How have you maintained the intimate and unique experience which makes UTOPiAFest stand out from the crowded festival scene?
Travis Sutherland: Obviously the biggest intimacy factor is capping the audience. We're at a size that gives you the festival atmosphere, but is never overwhelming in any way. There is little to no waiting in line. You can easily make it to the very front of the two stages. You're never rushed, crowded, or stressed. The smaller size enables you to develop real friendships and relationships with other attendees.
One of the main things that makes it unique is the location. It is absolutely one of the most gorgeous places in Texas and beyond. There is no sign of civilization. You can actually see the stars at night, and the air is incredibly refreshing. Being in a huge natural amphitheater created by the surrounding hills, combined with the best sound company in Austin, Nomad, and no noise pollution, makes for the best listening experience imaginable.
It's also unique in that, whereas the primary draw for most festivals is the names of the bands, people want to come to UTOPiA for the experience. Being in a literal and figurative Utopia, playing disc golf, hiking, or biking in the hills, camping under the stars, learning from workshops, taking a break from technology, fellowshipping with some of the most genuine and fun loving people you can find, coupled with absolutely amazing music, makes for a truly uplifting, rejuvenating, and refreshing weekend. It's also one of the only festivals I've been to where it's not weird to see children, in fact it's a wonderful element to it.
WYAT: What's your favorite aspect of UTOPiAfest?
Travis Sutherland: In a word, the people. UTOPiAns are from such a wide range of ages, places, and walks of life, but they are all so real, respectful, kind, passionate, considerate, creative, helpful, and really into enjoying life. We don't have to have a lot of security or rules, because the crowd is so responsible and self-policing. My family truly appreciates the respect they have for the land and their positive behavior. Otherwise it wouldn't happen.
What has amazed me the most is the personal and business relationships that have sprung from the festival. Many couples have met there, one of them got engaged there, and this year we're hosting a wedding. There's probably been a few conceptions as well. Many lifetime friendships and partnerships have been born there. It has changed peoples lives in all sorts of other positive ways. Being able to play a role in all of it is truly humbling and rewarding.