Posted May 5th, 2015 (9:30 am) by Stacie Sullivan
Mountain Jam
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Mountain Jam will return to Hunter Mountain, New York on June 4-7 for it's 11th installment. This year, the festival has taken it's lineup to the next level with headliners including The Black Keys, Robert Plant, and Alabama Shakes. Gary Chetkof, President of Radio Woodstock and Founder of Mountain Jam gave IYS the inside scoop as to how the festival runs.

IYS: To start off can you tell me a little bit about the history of Mountain Jam and how the festival got started?

Gary Chetkof: Mountain Jam got started totally as a one day, one time event for Radio Woodstock’s 25th anniversary, broadcasting from Woodstock’s independent radio station. We had about four bands on the main stage that day and it was very successful. Everyone afterwards said “Hey do this again next year” and I was like “I don’t think I’ll do it again next year, but maybe I’ll do it for the 30th anniversary.” Then we had so many calls from people that had a great time that I was really inspired to do an annual festival. We did two days with camping the following year and eventually we went to a three day with camping, and now we’re doing four days. It was a really organic and spontaneous birth and growth.

IYS: This year is the festival’s 11th installment… I’ve definitely heard a lot more buzz for the festival within the past couple years, which is awesome. In what ways has the festival grown over the past decade?

GC: Every year we would meet and ask ourselves how can could make it better and what happened this year that we can improve upon? We constantly took that view to reinvest in infrastructure and people to make it an easier experience for fans. I was a big festival and concert goer so I knew how I wanted to be treated. The mantra was always to treat everyone the way you would want to be treated when you went to a festival. It was always known as a very good vibe type of festival. The people are courteous and friendly. All ages attend [the festival]. There’s families with little kids, people in their twenties, and people in their sixties who come. It’s always very diverse music and the focus is always on great live acts. We’re not interested in ingenuine studio produced bands. We’re interested in who can put on a great live show. There’s always an emphasis on improvisational and spontaneous jams with bands getting together with other bands. As that all grew in the right direction, we also increased our talent budget so that every year we’ve been able to grow the festival.

IYS: So are the radio listeners the main source of your attendees?

GC: It certainly started out that way. Originally it was a Hudson Valley radio station celebrating it’s 25th anniversary and then word got out. A little bit more people came from Albany, New York, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, Boston, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. Now it’s at the point where every state is represented and we even have a lot of international people coming to the festival, so it’s become less of a local crowd. Local is still a very important element, and the highest percentage people attending are local, so it is clearly a regional if not national festival.

IYS: It definitely seems like you guys are competing with larger festivals and you have a pretty exciting lineup this year with artists like The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes. How do you go about curating the lineup every year?

GC: The radio influence has something to do with it because Radio Woodstock is a very well known and regarded progressive radio station and it’s always been that way for 35 years now. We ride the cusp between the great classic bands of the past as well as the new upcoming artists. The station reflects classic and new rock, and the festival does too. The diversity we get is because everyone at the radio station is really on the forefront of music and what’s happening now. We really want that to come across at the festival. It’s always been diverse, but it’s certainly more diverse now than ever before. We have the resources now to get the bigger bands to come. The rest of the festival lineup is pretty much similar to what it’s been in the past, but to get the Black Keys is another level and that’s what we reached for this year.

IYS: Is there any particular artist that you would want to play Mountain Jam?

GC: Yeah, I still have my dreams of Eric Clapton or Paul McCartney, and Jimmy Page, but I have to be realistic too. Some of them could happen and some of them probably can’t.

IYS: Well, Paul McCartney is still playing the festival circuit so you never know.

GC: I don’t know if our venue is big enough for that, and that’s the one thing that’s interesting about Mountain Jam. It’s not one of those 40,000 or 60,000 person festivals. It’s still relatively small by today’s festival standards. The grounds are not so spread out that you have to walk for miles, so it’s still in a pretty intimate setting. It’s a very beautiful setting which I think is really important if you’re doing a festival. I’ve been to festivals that are just horribly ugly, and that’s the other thing. You can camp here, you’re in the woods, there’s beautiful grass, mountains, and trees, and everything is so green, so that has a lot to do with it too. Also, being on a ski mountain it’s a natural amphitheater because the stage is at the bottom so everybody can see. You’re not on flat land trying to peek through somebody who is 6’3” in front of you trying to see the stage. There’s a lot of freedom at Mountain Jam to move around and get a good site of the stage and have the freedom to play in the woods. It’s got camping, hotels, ski lodges, so it really offers a lot of diversity and variety.

IYS: Sometimes I think smaller is better. I was reading about Hunter Mountain and definitely sounds like a unique and special place to hold a festival. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of another festival in a similar setting so I’m sure that plays a role in the success and having people want to go and experience Mountain Jam.

GC: Yeah, you know what else is special about it and it seems kind of minor, but there is infrastructure there. You’re not in the middle of a desert or some country field where there’s no buildings. There’s buildings, there’s shelter, there’s real bathrooms, so if it’s raining you have a place to go. It’s not just tents everywhere, so it is an interesting and unique location. In this crowded world of festivals, to have that uniqueness about you is important.

IYS: Is there any kind of work that goes into getting the festival running every year that might surprise attendees?

GC: You know, I always say this... If the attendees could listen in on one of our four hour meetings where we discuss crazy little details like how somebody gets their ticket and go through the line, the details that go into the planning and mapping it out, and getting all the permits takes on a whole other life. Dealing with the local authorities is another thing. No one would ever imagine the level of planning that goes into minute details. Planning it is like a year round business, but you’d never have any idea unless you could listen to one of these meetings. If people could just listen, they would never believe what we talk about.

IYS: I can only imagine the kind of work that goes into planning an event with thousands.

GC: The crazy thing about is that when you’re done you have to get up and do it again the next day. It’s four days. By Sunday you’re wiped out and I always have a sore throat from all the people I’ve talked to. The amount of human interaction is staggering.

IYS: How early do you start planning the festival in the year? Do you start planning as soon it’s over or do you take some time off and then start putting in the work again?

GC: When it’s over you take a couple week break and then you start discussing all the things that worked and didn’t work. You do an assessment of the year by sending out surveys to people, and then you take that and focus on what didn’t work so that you can improve. At the same time you’re starting to think about booking talent because everyone books really far in advance. It pretty much is, maybe except a couple weeks here and there, a full year event.

IYS: With all the growth you’ve had I’m sure there have been some changes to the festival. Are there any changes or new surprises that returning attendees can expect to see?

GC: Last year we had a big new stage and started doing workshops. The workshops were really well received, so we’re doing a lot more of those. We’re putting more bands indoors than we have before as well. We’re focused on getting higher quality and more diverse food and beer options. There’s a couple more activities for kids, so we’re also focusing more on families. We have a movie night now for them. We’re constantly trying to improve all of the little stuff. Other than the music, the only other thing you can improve on is the extra stuff like the food and the art. We have a lot more visual art this year than we had in the past. Production lighting for shows at night will also be a cool thing this year.

IYS: To wrap up, In what ways would you like to see Mountain Jam grow in the future?

GC: I think that I’d like to see the onsite camping expand into other areas on top of the mountain which would be really cool. I think incorporating more art and non music attractions would be cool to do more of too, and of course get some of those great headliners I mentioned earlier that I dream of having.

Mountain Jam is going to be huge this year, so don't miss out on all the action. You can visit the Mountain Jam site for more information regarding artists and ticketing information. IYS will also be covering the festival, so stay tuned for more updates!

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