Scott Bell (BLED Fest)

For its ninth year running, Michigan-punk festival Bled Fest has cemented itself as both a good time (it's an anagram for founder "Big Love"s Educational Fest) and a staple in the local community. This year's headliners, Andrew W.K and Anti-Flag, will take their main-stage spots in a converted school cafeteria in the small town of Howell, Michigan. There will also be a flea market-style gymnasium, classrooms with floor acts, and supportive record label sponsors. Staff interviewer Laila Hanson spoke to Production Manager Scott Bell about the Fest's setup, its band selection process, and just how involved the key players are with integrating Michigan bands and the community of Howell.

Can you describe what your duties are with Bled Fest?

For Bled Fest, there’s a pretty dedicated team who shops and buys…we decide like, headliners later down the road, and then you kind of pick bands that you like, that you want to play the festival. And at this point with Bled Fest being 6, 7 years, there’s plenty of agents and bands and friends of ours on tour who have either played it before or heard about it from tour mates or friends. At this point, you get a lot of people who hit you up and are like, "Yo! We know Bled Fest is in late May, and we want to play." With a couple years under our belts, it gets a little easier as far as rounding out the schedule with bands you want to see. That’s the most important thing for us when booking a festival like this. I want to book bands that I want to see, you know? Otherwise it would just be another day at a show that I wasn’t particularly fond of. That’s the best part about Bled Fest; it’s a complete labor of love as far as like-minded bands.

To give you a makeup of the whole fest, it’s seven stages. Depending on the years, it has changed, but the cool part about it is it’s indoors, and it’s in the old high school. We took the cafeteria and [split it] into two stages. We build the two stages; we have full light rigs and everything. Those are our two main stages, that’s where Andrew W.K and Anti-Flag [will be]. And for merchandise, it’s pretty cool, it’s in the gymnasium, it’s kind of like an expo, flea market feel, it’s just like this huge…all our merchandise goes there. So it’ll be a million tables, all of the vendors and sponsors, and local record labels. This year, our presenting sponsors are Run For Cover Records and Top Shelf. It’s all connected with high school hallways; I’m sure you remember navigating those as a kid, and the sea of people that creates. There’s the entrance to the area, like the lobby, and we do a stage there that’s got a full set up and everything. And then we have between three and four school room stages. We spend all day, or a good part of our day, picking up school desks and moving them out of a room. [Laughs] We just set up the PA, a house show-sized PA, in the corner of the room, and kids just pack in until you can’t fit any more people in a classroom. Then there are kids watching from the hallway. It is really cool, because it’s on the floor, you know? And kids go back and forth between all of that.

I would comfortably say that it’s probably the closest to Rock and Roll High School, the actual movie, that you can get without having to have Ramones’ acid-washed jeans and throwing fireworks at your teachers. There are no teachers there; we’ve taken the school completely over. It’s a pretty rad feel, and of course it’s Michigan in late May, so it’s usually gorgeous outside and everyone’s just excited that winter is over kind of thing. [Laughs] It’s an official start of summer kind of thing.

Bled Fest is an acronym for Big Love’s Educational Fest after the founder. Is he still involved? Has it always been intentional to have it in a school?

He stepped aside and we kept it going. [In] it’s early days, it was a really low-key event. The name is the only vestige of those first two years, or whatever. The high school, the hookup for that is, my boss Nate Dorough, he is well connected with the city of Howell, and that community. They’ve allowed him to have access to it. He’s been pretty invested as far as local music goes, with the Howell Opera House and other things, so they trust and allow him to do [his] thing for one day and wreak havoc with super loud guitars.

How else does the community of Howell embrace it? Do a lot of locals come to Bled Fest?

Oh yeah. Now that it’s grown to include really notable, national bands, and up-and-coming punk, metal, indie bands, we always maintain a plan to keep as many local bands and younger bands involved with Bled Fest. It’s Livingston County, and we want to make sure to have as many slots as we can for bands [in the area] that deserve that shot. Because the festival started for them, and we try to keep [it] going. A good third of the Bled Fest lineup is Michigan bands that kids care about, and bands that deserve that slot, and bands that care about the festival, as well, like return bands.

It’s a high school, it’s all ages, it’s drug and alcohol free. It’s not like your typical festival, where it’s just a big beer drinking festival and stuff.

You mentioned sponsors earlier. They’re smaller sponsors as opposed to huge corporations. Is this intentional?

Yeah, it’s a chicken and the egg thing. A good example is Capeside Records, who have been [supporting] us forever, and Run for Cover Records, who were also a sponsor last year. Was Bled Fest successful in the beginning because it was embraced by the local community, or is the local community involved because we built a cool festival? You really can’t have one without the other. There’s a place for everybody. We’ve talked to custom guitar makers in Michigan about demos and stuff. This year I’m especially excited about it, just because Run For Cover and Top Shelf are music sponsors. Their business is putting out records, and that’s just like, at the core, the most important part of this, you know? It’s definitely a reason to get excited when anyone’s involved in that that wants to be involved. I’m always flattered when record labels, companies, of any kind, are just like, "Hey, we wanna be involved in what you guys are doing." We’re still a very small, people-driven company. Our first love is music, especially live music, so when a business of any kind is just like, "Hey! We really want to be involved at some level," whether it’s like "we want to sponsor the back of these fliers" or whatever. We have a Michigan radio [station] sponsor on the back of one of our fliers, so that’s local too.

What are some of the last minute prep jobs for Bled Fest?

At this point, we’re just trying to be as vocal as possible about it. You’re making sure all the bands know what time they’re gonna show up. The bands start pretty early, so our day starts at like, 7:00 AM, we’re up at like 5 - 530. The day before is just a very long day of prepping the entire Howell high school. Flyers up for shows, building the stages, making sure all trash cans are where they need to be. [Laughs] Anybody whose first Bled Fest it is, making sure they know, "This is where this happens, this is where the bathrooms are." Making sure we’re stocked up and ready, making sure the PAs are ready to go, so when all hell breaks loose the next day, we’re ready to deal with anything, you know? We always tell our interns or whoever, "It’s going to be the hardest, but also the most fun day you’ll have all summer. You’ll be so exhausted, but it’ll be the most rewarding day you’ll have all summer, without a doubt."