Constant change is not creatively sustainable – O+ Festival case study
You have an idea.
Bring artists and musicians to New York’s first capital city in exchange for free health care from top-notch providers. Maybe you can create a festival that will draw people from around the U.S. and beyond.
But how do execute that idea? More, how do you scale it in a way that’s sustainable beyond being a one-hit wonder?
I wanted to know what happens when a person driven mostly by imagination coupled with the need to survive such an artistic drive finds himself in the role of coordinating a festival that has attracted organizers in Nashville, San Francisco, and Detroit and has drawn musicians as far away as London.
New York painter Joe Concra attended The Truck America Music Festival in the Catskills in 2010.
A few weeks after attending that U.K.-based festival, a dentist in Kingston, New York, mistook Joe as the music festival organizer and said, “The only thing wrong with that festival is that I can’t bring those musicians to play for me in exchange for my fixing their teeth.”
“I will fix these musicians’ teeth,” the dentist said in essence, “if you will bring them to Kingston.”
Let’s bring musicians to Kingston, New York – New York’s original capital – in trade for free health care.
And so – with wide-eyed zeal – the O+ Festival and its winning tagline of “Apply Pressure and Eleveate” was born and launched. In three months. Marvar gathered bands to play in turn for free health care. Concra and Orzo rallied artists to paint public art – murals and other work – on Wall Street. The doctor, Dr. Art Chandler (director of the Columbia Medical Hospital in Hudson) and Dr. Tom Cingel (the dentist with the original request) gathered doctors, dentists, chriopractors, acupuncturists, and other health care providers to offer free care in return for music and art.
1200-1300 people originally converged on Wall Street of Kingston –
90 minutes north of New York City in the idyllic Mid-Hudson Valley. The area is a charming and slowly revitalized neighborhood that has buildings and sidewalks from “Small Town America” and owns bragging rights to sporting the only intersection in the U.S. with buildings dating from the 18th century on all four corners.
In its second year, 2011, the 0 Positive Festival provided
$38,600 of medical services + $17,600 in dental work = $56,200 worth of free services.
Sponsors in 2012 include the biggest proponent of local music in the Hudson Valley (WDST), the largest magazine in the area (Chronogram), the area’s largest health care system (HealthQuest), and a stellar branding and data-tracking business (Evolving Media Network).
41 bands like Dead Heart Bloom, the Felice Brothers, Richard Buckner, and Mercury Rev’s Grasshopper will play. 40 artists will have work integrated into the festival’s urban-small town fabric. Not bad for a group of wide-eyed musicians, artists, and dentists. Any problems?
I sat down with Joe at the Hudson Valley Coffee Traders, located on Kingston’s Wall Street where the festival will launch its third year on October 6. In his angular 40-something face, hints of a boy’s eyes and grin remain.
I wanted to know what happens when a person driven mostly by imagination coupled with the need to survive such an artistic drive finds himself in the role of coordinating a festival that has attracted organizers in Nashville and Detroit and California and has drawn musicians as far away as London.
After all, massive organization eludes the best creative people. Many “habitually creative people” feel challenged enough to organize only themselves enough to survive as an artist or writer and possibly survive a long-lasting personal relationship with one other person. But organize posses of volunteers and businesses and sponsors and music bands and artists and health care providers for a pioneering festival? Not to mention the local politicians who might horn in? And, oh yeah, the 1000-plus, 2000-plus people who attend?
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” co-founder Concra admits of the first year’s breakneck pace. “But it was great. And we’ll never have anything like that first year again.”
That first-time luster with new wonder eyes has faded. What began on a whim has gained the weight of a cause. Challenges on the human scale and economic side have set in.
And within minutes of sitting down, Concra got to the crux of what bedevils many creative people: “Constant change,” he said, “is not sustainable.”
2. Beyond the Novelty Spurt
What Concra meant was this: He’s surrounded by and is one of the artistic people who are not short on new ideas, new angles, new twists, new groups to keep the 0 Positive Festival fresh and exciting every year.
Sounds great, right? Like he’s head of an organization with its own volunteer Creative Department.
But there’s also the problem. The organization is in its fourth year. In the 1960s, educational psychologist Bruce Tuckman theorized in his influential model of group dynamics that most successful organizations go through four stages: Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing. Most groups hang out in the Forming stage and crumble if they ever reach the Storming stage.
The organizers of O+ have had their small storms. Finding dedicated people willing to initiate solving small problems and taking small actions – without pay. Naysayers, detractors, and people with counter-visions – including the temptation to go “big.” Fatigue and a creator’s compromise (i.e., Neither Joe nor his partner Denise have been in their own art studios for a long time.).
But how do you get a creative-heavy group to “norm” – when those individuals’ modus operandis is to resist “norming” of anything? And is that desirable? If so, in what measure?
So, here’s the rub with a lot of big creative projects and visionary projects I’ve witnessed, consulted on, or studied: The Novelty Spurt. The Novelty Spurt is that burst of wondrous enthusiasm we feel for a short period of time on a new project.
The Novelty Spurt is comprised chiefly of three parts: The Lightning Bolt, the Energy Jolt, and the Brick Wall. And after the inspiring Lightning Bolt strikes and after we make a frenzied dash with the Energy Jolt, we inevitably face or crash into A Brick Wall. A series of them, actually.
Brick Walls come in many sizes and shapes. Your body crashes. An unexpected emergency comes. Or, more likely, you face the inevitable challenges of execution (how are we going to get things done?), resource allocation (how are we going to fund it?), collaboration (who’s going to help and how?), promotion (how are we going to get anyone to know what we’re doing?), and launch (when and how will it happen?).
You know, the technical stuff that many artists would just assume not even name, let alone think about in any systematic way.
This probably wasn’t what Concra had in mind when, as a trained painter, he said, in essence, “Let’s have a street party and get some musicians free health care.”
So, what happens when we’re beset by disappointment or problems we’re not sure we can identify, get to the root of, and solve? We try to get that endorphin-rich Novelty Spurt “lovin’ feeling” again. For the creative-minded, novelty can be addictive.
In the case of O+, organizers and volunteers get excited less by developing repeatable systems for counting wrist bands or recruiting area college students or selling t-shirts than by offering more novel ideas: “Let’s add this element!” “Let’s bring in these people!” And so forth.
What’s a visionary to do?
3. Keep the Vision & the Heart
Concra has good instincts that have gained him the respect of his peers and of the greater community.
Whether he knows it or not, his way of managing volunteers lines up with what motivates most human beings.
If someone wants to do something or if someone proposes an idea, he told me, he lets them do it. And he usually says in essence, “This is yours. Now do something.”
In other words, he gives them autonomy – a huge motivator for most human beings, especially ones who enjoy creative-oriented work.
“And I just remind them of things like, ‘Our colors are white, black, and red, and we do have a goal. Don’t forget the goal.’”
And the goals are crucial parts of the vision and ideal that grew out of a dentist’s random request.
The O+Festival has two chief goals:
- Give musicians and artists access to care.
- Build community.
That Joe keeps reminding volunteers of the goals also reflects good instincts. Meeting that first goal literally puts a smile on Joe’s face and on musicians’ face.
When I asked him what keeps him going, he said, “I know a vocalist. Very talented. But she never smiled. Sings these beautiful songs but hardly smiled.” The clincher? “But then the first year of the festival she gets her teeth fixed. I saw her last month. All smiles.”
And community. To Joe, community isn’t a concept. It’s a visceral experience. Like art. Like music. So what people come away with at the O+Festival, whether they are aware of it or not, is “what it really feels like to live in a small town.”
Strangers and local businesses chip in time and money to the cause. The festival has added to the neighborhood’s revitalization. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, fewer store fronts on Wall Street are empty since the festival started (and it didn’t open during exactly one of the nation’s most economically booming epochs!). “A community buzz happens,” Concra says, “People reach out and connect in ways that don’t always happen these days.”
Several music festivals have had do-good motives like raising money for farmers or to raise awareness of mental health. And the mega-music festivals try to evoke a pseudo-Woodstock experience with hordes of half-dressed people at camping sites listening to mediocre bands.
But scale and high quality mean everything to Concra. And here’s another take-away for visionaries: knowing when to grow and knowing when to keep right-scaled.
Big does not always mean better. Numerous businesses and ventures have failed because they tried to franchise something that thrived because it was artisan-based or homegrown or they tried to get big and compromised their vision and ideal.
“Don’t think 20,000 people,” Concra says, as if speaking to other eager people who have volunteered their ideas for growth. Think instead, he tells me, of a 2,000-person festival in which people come away with a meaningful, human-scaled experience of being in a creative small-town community where people genuinely care about each other.
“It needs to be small and walkable.”
And think of 10 such 2,000-person festivals across the country. Organizers from music meccas like Detroit and Nashville are talking to the O+ founders about replicating the model there.
“I’d love to send Hudson Valley bands to Nashville for a show,” Concra says.
Note: Since my original interview with Joe in 2012, the Petaluma Health and Wellness Fair in Petaluma, California has launched O+ Petaluma.
Meanwhile, the bills get bigger. Joe and a few other people seem to do 80% of the nitty-gritty. And the painter of canvases that often evoke the whimsical with the melancholic has not been in his studio in months. This creative organizer knows that bringing in systems and norms is needed so he can “get out of the way” and focus on the big picture. But how?
“Something’s gotta change.” Joe takes the last swig of his coffee.
Maybe what needs to change is less constant change. Or maybe what has to happen is big change the size of a big Storm.
Until then, hope for good weather in Kingston, New York (exit 19 of the New York Thruway) from October 10-12 when 45 bands and 40 artists participate in a one-of-a-kind smart-scaled festival that includes film, workshops, and classes for adults and children.