Newport Folk Festival

You can’t buy the kind of buzz below. Everybody wrote out of passion.

I was aware there was a Newport Folk Festival, I was aware it was hipper than ever, but whatever marketing and promotion there was either I didn’t encounter or it slid right off of me, I’m immune to hype, as are so many.

But I’m not immune to buzz. I can tell when something’s happening. And when a bunch of people e-mail me about something unsolicited, when I don’t even write about it, I pay attention, I know something’s going on.

Doesn’t matter if it’s on TV or in the newspaper, they’re there last, and they’re so easily bought. It matters what real people, trusted sources, have to say.

And I wasn’t going to print all this, although I was thinking that I missed out and should go next year, but today I heard from Jay Sweet, who I don’t know but the below writers testified about. He was testifying about Marc Geiger. And the important thing is Geiger was totally on this, the Newport Folk Festival, even though it hasn’t yet broken through on a mainstream level. (Sweet’s e-mail is at the bottom.)

The point is there’s a following for this type of music and these acts.

It’s not all Top Forty all the time.

I’d posit that the fans of niche artists are more passionate than those of Top Forty hitmakers. They own these acts, they buy all the music and go to the shows, and they allow for missteps the same way you forgive a child’s mistakes, they’re in it for the long haul, they want to see how it all turns out.

The passion of a fan is stronger than any record company president, more powerful than any under the table payment. It’s love, it’s real.

Something’s happening here. It bubbled up on my radar. I figured I’d let you in on it.

I just got back from the Newport Folk Festival.  Two sold out days, probably 50,000 tickets.  Very few acts on the bill get any radio play at all.  Also, I am not sure if any of the acts are on anything but a small independent label.  These fans are devoted.  The mainstream media and music business is totally missing what is going on in the Alt Folk world.  Five years ago Amos Lee would have been a superstar.  He really should be one now.  The problem is only his fans ever heard his name.  The demos for this music is basically educated, affluent ,men and women from 20 to 65.  These people will be devoted fans for life.  Advertisers would drool to have access to these folks.  Yet there is really no mainstream media that pays attention to these artists.  Sure college radio plays these artists.  But there is no commercial radio format for these acts. Satellite radio plays them only sporadically.  Wake up.  This could be the future of music for the next ten years.  Just look at what happens when these acts get exposure.  Mumford and Sons and the Avetts are only the tip of the iceberg.  

James Del Balzo


I spent last weekend at the Newport Folk Festival, which has become one of my favorite events of the summer. They sold out in advance this year for the first time in many years, and I have a feeling that will be standard for them going forward. Even with very limited slots (3 stages, 2 days though music only until 7pm), they really nail it on the booking. They cover a lot of ground, and go out of their way to represent their folk roots (they are a decade older than Woodstock, after all) as well as support developing artists. I saw a handful of really great sets from bands I haven’t been able to see live yet.  It’s very human sized, yet still feels like a major event. And the audience there is younger than you might think. In some respects, it’s a festival for people (and artists) that don’t love the typical experience at much larger events.

Jason Colton


I agree with your view on festivals. For my money the best festival is Newport Folk. A great mix of legendary and emerging artists playing in the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It doesn’t get much better than that.

David Griffith
Sony Music Entertainment



For all of the reasons you mentioned, the Newport Folk Festival, the first popular music festival remains the best. 10,000 people a day, not 100,000. An extremely knowledgeable and appreciative crowd. Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris as headliners, not Radiohead and Coldplay. An undercard that features some of the finest young artists out there, along with veterans like Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Mavis Staples. City? Well technically Newport is one, but it’s no Chicago or Austin in terms of size. Venue, the most beautiful imaginable. An 18th century fortress surrounded by Narragansett Bay. Artists don’t come there for the money, they come because it’s the Newport Folk Festival, and you’d better believe that still means something. Music budget? Tiny compared to the big boys. In case you don’t think that Newport is still relevant, this year was the first sell out in the festival’s history, and this is the festival where Dylan went electric in ’65.

Maybe I’m just too old for sleeping in the mud or standing in the desert heat, but for me the Newport Folk festival is, was, and ever will be the greatest American music festival.

Ken Shane


Not sure if you have taken a look at Newport Folk Festival in some time but the 51 year old two day event in Rhode Island sold out during weeks before the event date! That is fairly rare in this day and age. More importantly, it is not just drawing the older crowd from decades past. Today’s NFF with their mix of new and old talent is drawing the youngest crowd it has in some time.

The setting inside of Fort Adams and the fact that they keep the attendance tight to around 10k people makes it one of the more special and grassroots experiences today.

The Decemberists, Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch, Rowlings, Middle
Brother, Delata Spirit, Gogol Bordello, Wanda Jackson and even Pete
Seeger came back for the love.

Did I mention that Newport Folk is now a non-profit?

Here’s a bunch of links if youre interested.


Jeff Carvalho


I just wanted to give props to Newport Folk Festival. I was there a couple of weeks back and was struck by the amazing job Jay Sweet has done to mix new and established acts as well as appealing to young and older fan demographics. And because there are only 3 stages and it’s quick and easy to make your way from one to the others, every stage and slot had nice crowds.  

It would be impossible to place one label on the crowd I saw there… Certainly Not hipster or hippy although I saw plenty of both. Maybe the closest would be yuppy but I saw lots of tattoos, piercings and college-guy baseball caps mixed in.

And the coolest part about Jay’s curating on this thing is that it sold out for the first time in its history.  Obviously many less tickets than the 4 big ones you mentioned but still a bright spot in this time when festivals are being cancelled from lack of sales (MTK and Truck Festival in the past week alone) and as you mentioned the bix box festivals seem to going more for whatever will sell tickets.

name withheld


Your piece on festivals could not have been more timely for me. Just over a week earlier, I attended the Newport Folk Festival here in Rhode Island, as I have for the past 11 years. Many people will be aware of its legendary reputation, but in its 52 year history, this is the first time it has ever sold out both days weeks in advance. Since a new booker, Jay Sweet, came on board a few years ago, attendance has steadily built. The festival is now a non-profit organization and has a budget which is barely a fraction of Coachella or Bonnaroo and the like, yet we get amazing talent on the bill. Some of the folk purists might complain that it’s not strictly folk music anymore, but I disagree. It’s a very broad genre, and there’s something here for everybody. Some of the artists might be lesser-known, and others will just make it work because they want to play here. What they all have in common is quality—they can all play. We know we’re going to see real magic created up on those stages. Additionally, a strong online community has been built via Facebook, which thrives year-round—you can actually see the excitement building there in the weeks leading up to the festival. This year, early-bird ticket sales were strong, despite the line-up not even being announced until several weeks later. My faith in their booking policy is such, that when I see a bunch of names I don’t recognize, I get excited because I know I’m going to find several new artists who I’ll love. In the week since the festival, I’ve been checking out their stuff on Spotify and have bought several albums and a DVD from artists to whom I was introduced at this festival. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Sarah Heaton


Hi Bob,

I’m a long time reader, first time writer. I co-founded Partisan Records and run Knitting Factory Records and also founded management companies indie outlaw and Figure Eight Management. On the label side, we put out records by Deer Tick, Mountain Man, Middle Brother, Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, and more. We handle management for Deer Tick, Middle Brother, Wye Oak, and most recently Ben Kweller.

I agree with most of your points here regarding festivals and the impact they’re able to have on the visibility of an artist, provided of course that the artist is legit– writing great songs and performing them in a way that’s at least convincing enough to get their point across to a large audience… Or moreover, an artist that is able to leave every single audience member feeling exactly the way they want them to by the end of a set. An artist has to play an undeniable set that will generate significant word of mouth, which new converts will then post clips of to Youtube in order to share this experience with their friends (via Facebook and Twitter). It’s a viral world, and this routine is one of the few strategies in the industry that’s still proven to WORK!

However, I think your focus here seems to be a bit narrow. There are many smaller festivals in the US that serve to introduce fans to new artists… And do so in a really beautiful way– encouraging collaboration, placing more of a focus on developing artists than the headliners, treating every performer virtually the same. Their goals aren’t to please sponsors and advertisers– it’s to please fans and the performers themselves. Case in point– Newport Folk Festival. Over the last few years, Jay Sweet has taken the legendary festival– traditionally thought of as strictly a "folk festival", mostly due to the ongoing involvement of George Wein and Pete Seeger and of course the name– and transformed it into a weekend of music discovery and collaboration. The talent buying has shifted from acts that should fit strictly within the "folk" idiom to acts that simply write great songs and perform them in a way that’s genuine. While Jay has had to work within some confines (performers should have some loose connection to "folk", at least within their songwriting), he’s done a stellar job of incorporating the new generation of rock ‘n’ rollers into the festival… After all, Newport is where Dylan went electric, and that’s one part of Newport history that Jay wants to emphasize. Jay has created an environment of forced exposure– where the traditional folk crowd can watch Pete Seeger perform with Elvis Costello and Jim James– three generations of songwriting, all born in folk, all coming together to share songs.

I had three of my bands play the festival this year. One, Middle Brother, was one of the most anticipated sets of the festival. However the others, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside and Mountain Man, got just as much out of the festival. They spent the weekend collaborating with the other artists there. John McCauley, singer of Deer Tick and Middle Brother, led a singalong featuring Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, The Decemberists, The Low Anthem, and a whole bunch of artists that very few have ever heard of ( =wB7q6DjtqOk). All of those artists, together on one stage… No one is thinking about how many records those guys have sold compared to one another. There’s no status there. Everyone is an equal. They are there to share songs and that’s it.

Jay is solely responsible for that. Yes, he books artists that no one has ever heard of… And he markets those the hardest leading up to the festival– even going as far as to help land them press in Paste, Spin, Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal, etc… He wants to develop talent. And when the festival rolls around, he puts those baby acts up on stage with Elvis Costello, Decemberists, Jim James… He understands the value there. He knows that if he can create a situation where a David Wax Museum, who no one has ever heard of, can play a song with The Decemberists, who no one can escape– that will become a YouTube video and a story that fans will share with their friends. He also understands the value of that YouTube video having "Newport Folk" in the title.

Further, Jay doesn’t have the convenience of mega-sponsors. He books the festival on a very modest budget, and very recently the festival has received 501(c)3 status making it a not-for-profit venture. The fees paid to my bands that played the festival this year were not slim by any means… Certainly not as much as one could expect to see from a C3, but what Jay offers beyond financial compensation– in genuine grassroots marketing and old-fashioned cheerleading, is well worth taking a little less cash. While the major festivals have sought to expand the number of bands playing with the idea that that will enable them to squeeze more dollars out of sponsors and boost ticket prices, Jay has sought to keep essentially the same number of bands but to generate more situations for artists to collaborate and create a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience for fans. Further, as I mentioned earlier, his talent buying decisions in recent years have enabled him to build possibly the youngest audience the festival has ever seen– artists like Jim James, Delta Spirit, M Ward, Gogol Bordello, Dawes, and more have attracted a younger crowd to the festival and given them the opportunity to witness said collaborations which keeps them coming back year after year and bringing more friends each time. The festival sold out for the first time in 30 years last weekend. Jay and I threw after-parties each night at Newport Blues Cafe– another first. We put together 4 benefit events that raised over $20,000 for a variety of causes. Artists played for free, and every single artist I spoke with said it was one of the best weekends they’ve ever had playing music. And you know how artists talk to each other– they’ll surely spread the word.

Yes, festivals do still work. But it’s not just the C3s and Golden Voices who hold the power. Guys like Jay Sweet are recognizing the void of something real and genuine in the festival circuit, and giving power to the artists that play that noon set on the small stage.

All the best,
Ian Wheeler.


Two years ago when the outside world didn’t know Newport Folk still existed. Marc Geiger tracked down my number and called me up himself.

He said that the buzz he was hearing directly from his artists was that something truly different and unique going down in Newport, and he wanted to know about it first hand.  He not only asked about our philosophy but he asked my WHY I was doing it personally.

He actually listened, and then asked if he could put me on speaker.  I guess WME was having a retreat in Palm Springs and he wanted his people to hear about our three year plan.

Again, they LISTENED and since then Marc has helped convince a lot of people and artists when it comes to Newport even though there is no real money in it for them.

The only other big leaguers (and their direct team) who have taken the time to reach out, make a personal connection and back up their talk,  Paul Tollett and Coran Capshaw.

Go figure.

Jay Sweet
Newport Folk Festival

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