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, thereâs 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, thereâs 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. Thatâs 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 wasnât particularly fond of. Thatâs the best part about Bled Fest; itâs a complete labor of love as far as like-minded bands.
To give you a makeup of the whole fest, itâs seven stages. Depending on the years, it has changed, but the cool part about it is itâs indoors, and itâs 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, thatâs where Andrew W.K and Anti-Flag [will be]. And for merchandise, itâs pretty cool, itâs in the gymnasium, itâs kind of like an expo, flea market feel, itâs just like this huge…all our merchandise goes there. So itâll 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. Itâs all connected with high school hallways; Iâm sure you remember navigating those as a kid, and the sea of people that creates. Thereâs the entrance to the area, like the lobby, and we do a stage there thatâs 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 canât fit any more people in a classroom. Then there are kids watching from the hallway. It is really cool, because itâs on the floor, you know? And kids go back and forth between all of that.
I would comfortably say that itâs probably the closest to Rock and Roll High School, the actual movie, that you can get without having to have Ramonesâ acid-washed jeans and throwing fireworks at your teachers. There are no teachers there; weâve taken the school completely over. Itâs a pretty rad feel, and of course itâs Michigan in late May, so itâs usually gorgeous outside and everyoneâs just excited that winter is over kind of thing. [Laughs] Itâs an official start of summer kind of thing.
Bled Fest is an acronym for Big Loveâs 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] itâs 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. Theyâve allowed him to have access to it. Heâs 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 itâs 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. Itâs 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.
Itâs a high school, itâs all ages, itâs drug and alcohol free. Itâs not like your typical festival, where itâs just a big beer drinking festival and stuff.
You mentioned sponsors earlier. Theyâre smaller sponsors as opposed to huge corporations. Is this intentional?
Yeah, itâs 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 canât have one without the other. Thereâs a place for everybody. Weâve talked to custom guitar makers in Michigan about demos and stuff. This year Iâm especially excited about it, just because Run For Cover and Top Shelf are music sponsors. Their business is putting out records, and thatâs just like, at the core, the most important part of this, you know? Itâs definitely a reason to get excited when anyoneâs involved in that that wants to be involved. Iâm always flattered when record labels, companies, of any kind, are just like, "Hey, we wanna be involved in what you guys are doing." Weâre 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 itâs 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 thatâs local too.
What are some of the last minute prep jobs for Bled Fest?
At this point, weâre just trying to be as vocal as possible about it. Youâre making sure all the bands know what time theyâre gonna show up. The bands start pretty early, so our day starts at like, 7:00 AM, weâre 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 weâre stocked up and ready, making sure the PAs are ready to go, so when all hell breaks loose the next day, weâre ready to deal with anything, you know? We always tell our interns or whoever, "Itâs going to be the hardest, but also the most fun day youâll have all summer. Youâll be so exhausted, but itâll be the most rewarding day youâll have all summer, without a doubt."