Secret Stages started as a protest.
The music discovery festival, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this weekend, was initially designed as a rebuke to Birmingham’s then-dominant music festival, City Stages.
In 2009 — the final year of City Stages’ slow march to obsolescence — editors of local music blog bham.fm took offense to the removal of the Homegrown Stage, which had served as the festival’s venue for local music acts.
“We were a little grumpy about the lineup that they had to represent local music,” says Sam George, one of the founders of Secret Stages and currently the festival’s creative director. “It just didn’t have bands that we thought showed how great Birmingham is. Whoever was programming it really wasn’t paying attention.”
Using the venue that typically hosted bham.fm-sponsored shows (the appropriately conspiratorially named Speakeasy 1920 bar, now defunct), George and fellow bham.fm editors Whitney Mitchell and Chris Mitchell decided to put on their own music festival, which would run concurrently with — and inside — City Stages.
“The venue was within the footprint [festival grounds] of City Stages,” George says. “So you had to pay to get into City Stages to see it, even though we weren’t part of them at all. We called the show Secret Stages.”
That early incarnation of Secret Stages — a 21+ show with an admission price of $7 — featured seven local artists, including Duquette Johnston and the Rebel Kings, The Dirty Lungs and The Secret Dangers — the last of which would evolve into successful soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
“We had some great bands at that show,” George says. “It was a big success.”
The weekend proved to be much less successful for City Stages, which filed for bankruptcy the following month. George, meanwhile, went on to work for the Birmingham Weekly, where he and fellow staff members Jon Poor and Chuck Leishman began to develop an idea for a music festival to take City Stages’ place.
“We just thought, there are so many different kinds of music festivals that Birmingham could host that would be more representative of the kind of music we make here and the spirit of the city and its people,” says George. “We didn’t really think that City Stages had been doing that. It had become bloated and the line-ups were sort of — you know, like ‘REO Speedwagon with none of the original members.’ It felt wrong.”
Instead, the three of them landed on the idea of a music discovery festival showcasing artists on the threshold of greater success. George was inspired by his memory of seeing Ben Folds Five in an intimate live setting before the band’s single “Brick” vaulted them to stardom.
“I will remember that night for the rest of my life,” George says. “It was such a magical experience.
“Especially in the modern age when everyone has access to all music always, the experience of getting to see bands you love in a live setting before they break is one of the last great things in music that can provide that feeling. So we thought, look, let’s make a music festival that’s based around giving people that feeling.”
By then, the Internet had “leveled the playing field, allowing so many bands to do their own distribution and production,” adds Poor, now Secret States festival director. “So, we figured, let’s create an avenue for them.”
To build the line-up for the new festival George and Poor brought on Travis Morgan, founder of local music label Skybucket Records. Morgan’s years of experience and contacts in the music industry made him an obvious choice to cultivate the festival — a fact which became apparent immediately, George says.
“When Travis first met with us, he brought this list of all the bands he had been paying attention to that he thought might be interesting,” George recalls, laughing. “It was like, 15 pages, single-space, triple-columned. Travis lives in the ocean of indie music. Having a guy like that book the festival makes it possible for us to do what we do and on the scale that we do it.”
Morgan books the majority of the festival’s musicians (Lobotomix founder Rashid Kamal Qandil curates Secret Stages’ hip-hop acts), which he says is a yearlong process. “It starts with building a database of potential bands that I want to book,” he says. “That takes months and months of research. I pay attention to club line-ups and the music festival circuit, big and small. I look at a lot of small labels and booking agents’ rosters. I have a lot of industry contacts I’ve made through the years of doing Skybucket Records, and I reach out every year and ask people who they’re paying attention to and who I should know about. By the end of all that research and me watching a lot of YouTube videos and going to a lot of concerts and festivals, I’ve come up with a list of hundreds and hundreds of bands and then whittled that down to 50 or 60 bands.”
For an artist to be considered, Morgan says, their music “just has to make an impression on me. The band has to have a collection of songs that just has that quality that drives interest — or, at least, that interests me.”
“When we say, ‘If you come to this festival and do your research ahead of time, you’re going to see something you love,’ we mean it,” says George. “Travis is able to find these gems of just incredible bands that people have never heard of. This is year five, and we’ve delivered on that promise. Every year, there’s been a band that, within a few years, has gone on to be a band that people are really excited about. Now, people are beginning to feel trust, at least a little bit. There’s still work to be done.”
Stages of Growth
As the death of City Stages showed, making it as a music festival in Birmingham isn’t easy. For a music festival with a shoestring budget — “[The cost of] one band at SlossFest would probably be our entire operating budget,” George laughs — and especially for one that specializes in presenting unknown acts, survival is even more of a challenge.
“We still struggle against people not wanting to come out to see things that they haven’t heard of,” George says. “People just aren’t used to it. They’re used to paying to see things they already know they like. That’s just an uphill battle.”
There’s also the concern of exposure, George says; a limited advertising budget means that the festival has to rely on guerrilla marketing and word-of-mouth, which can have limited effectiveness in attracting new audiences.
In fact, Secret Stages’ five-year life has been marked less by growth than by careful downsizing. Though the festival’s attendance has stayed relatively steady (around 2,500 people attend the festival a year, Morgan says), the festival’s 2013 incarnation saw significant cutbacks. The line-up shrunk from 80 bands to 60, and the number of participating venues dropped from 11 to seven. The festival’s stand-up comedy arm was eliminated entirely.
“That was actually really good for us,” says George. “When we had 11 venues, people felt much more scattered, so the feeling of attending a festival was lacking a little bit. If it wasn’t a popular show, you’d be in there with just a couple of other people. So it was bad for the artists and it was bad for the attendees. [Now] it’s roughly the same, but when you’re at a show, it feels much more lively.”
This year’s Secret Stages sees the loss of the festival’s outdoor stage, which was cut after the city pulled funding — for “budgetary reasons,” George says — meaning that money allocated toward that stage instead needed to be redirected toward funding EMS workers and street closings, which the city had previously provided to the festival for free.
The main stage will instead move to Rogue Tavern — a change which, characteristic of the festival’s tenacity and adaptability, George sees as an opportunity to emphasize the festival’s connection with its downtown venues.
Sharing the Spotlight
Exposing attendees to new and exciting musical acts isn’t Secret Stages’ only mission, after all. A mutualistic relationship with the surrounding city has been an integral part of the festival’s ethos since its conception.
“We all came from areas of the country that had real vibrant downtowns,” says Poor of the festival’s founding team. “I was from Portland, Chuck was from San Francisco and Sam had moved here from New York. All those things together just made us feel like we wanted to do an event that featured the downtown area.”
Like City Stages before it, Secret Stages takes place in the north side of Birmingham. This year’s locations — located between Morris Avenue and Second Avenue North — include Rogue Tavern, Pale Eddie’s Pour House, Das Haus and Matthew’s Bar and Grill.
“It’s centered around getting people into the venues downtown and showing off what downtown has to offer,” George says, “instead of hauling people off and not letting them experience the city.”
Secret Stages hopes to give back to more than just local business owners, however: the festival is also hoping to raise money and awareness for the Scrollworks Youth Music School, a program that offers free music lessons (and instruments) to children. Scrollworks offers music lessons to kids from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, though the program’s small budget means that it relies on donors to provide both funding and instruments.
It’s Secret Stages’ fourth year supporting Scrollworks. The festival donates 20 percent of its profits to the program. The festival’s V.I.P. bartenders will donate their tips to the program as well, while photographer Michael Weintrob — whose series of portraits of musicians, titled InstrumentHead, will be on display during the festival — will donate 20 percent of profits from his art sales to the program.
The festival is also supporting Girls Rock Birmingham, a weeklong camp offering music lessons and technical workshops to girls ages 9-16 as a means of fostering “self-empowerment and positive identity development.” Girls Rock’s inaugural camp is being held at local music venue Saturn in the week leading up to Secret Stages and will culminate in a Saturday afternoon performance at the festival.
“We want people to understand that, as much as we want to have a great party for two days and really help the bands that are here and give them a platform and get industry eyes on Birmingham to help this scene, we also want to be proactive in music education,” says Poor. “I think that’s how you keep something like this going.
“We have a lot of different genres [in Birmingham’s music scene], but wouldn’t it be great if we were turning out incredible classical musicians, incredible jazz musicians, people like that? Or just kids who have that sensibility and that education? I think it’s been proven that it’s great for childhood development, and it’s great for really starting a long-lasting music scene.”
The Secret Future
There’s a current of tempered optimism that runs throughout conversations about the future of Secret Stages, one perhaps informed by the festival’s proven adaptability, or maybe just confidence in the strength of its founders’ vision.
“Looking back, I’m shocked at the success it was,” Poor says. “I think what made us feel like this was a success and that we could do it again was that everybody came together and worked so hard. There just seemed to be a group of people that got what we were trying to do, right from the beginning.” Now, he says, with more and more sponsors reaching out to fund the festival that dedication is paying off.
“I feel like we’re at our strongest right now,” adds Morgan, who says he’d like to double the number of people who attend the festival over the next few years. “We understand our strong suits and understand our normal attendees and what they’re into. I’d like to see the idea continue to catch on with people in the community and resonate with them and make an impression.”
“We’re being very careful about trying to grow [Secret Stages] because we operate on a very thin margin,” says George. “It’s not like, at the end of the day, we come away with a whole bunch of money that we can put toward the next year. Every year, we pretty much just pay for the festival. But we believe in what we’re doing, and every year we have a little bit more of a following and we get a little bit more attention.”
“These kinds of things are tricky because they take so much money to put on,” says Morgan. “For us to break even is great, but to make a little bit of profit so that we can kick some back to Scrollworks, that’s how I measure success — to be able to get them a little bit of money and a little bit of publicity.”
“I would love to be able to really, significantly help [Scrollworks],” says Poor. “We do help them, and they help us, but to be able to significantly give a donation there and to see the effects of it would be awesome, from my perspective.”
Five years on, it seems, Secret Stages maintains the same dedication to Birmingham’s local music scene that inspired its first surreptitious incarnation in 2009.
“All of us would tell you that we’ve been successful,” Poor continues. “[But] I want people to know that our hearts are in the right place. The whole idea of this is really to be a peoples’ festival, as cliché as that sounds, and a Birmingham music industry festival. It’s really palpable how much Birmingham is changing and how much people are getting creative and taking chances, especially in the music industry. We want to be a partner in that.”
Secret Stages will take place July 31–Aug. 1. Weekend passes are $35; V.I.P. passes are $75. For more information on participating venues and a full artist line-up, visit secretstages.net.