SLC may have the Twilight Concert Series once a week over the summer, but for the rest of the state that leaves an empty void for outdoor shows. --- Granted, we've got shows like Wizardfest and Uncle Uncanny's that pick random cities or secluded outdoor areas for shows, but most Utah cities don't have a summertime series to call their own.
In an effort to change the status quo, the Provo City's Center Focus Cultural Identity Committee started up the Rooftop Concert Series. The first Friday of every month, the Provo Town Square parking terrace has its roof taken over for a free concert featuring some of the state's rising musical artists. The series has featured bands such as Fictionist, Meaghan Smith and The Abbey Road Show, which has also brought out record crowds to Provo's version of Gallery Stroll and made its downtown area a hotspot for local entertainment throughout the evening. You can catch the latest installment of the series tonight featuring The Mollies, Sayde Price and Joshua James, totally free starting at 8PM. But until then, we chat with the lead planner behind the event, Sarah Wiley, about her career and joining the committee, the series itself and her thoughts on local music. (All photos by Justin Hackworth)
Gavin: Hey, Sarah. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sarah: I grew up bi-coastal -- lived in DC until I was 14, then my family moved to LA where I went to high school and met my husband, Scott -- also from LA. We've been married for 14 years and have four kids. I work full-time from home, around my kids' schedule, as a software engineer.
Gavin: What first brought you to Utah, and what was your time like at BYU earning your degree?
Sarah: I came to Utah in 1994 to go to BYU. I graduated in 1997 with a BS in Computer Science. I spent a lot of time in the computer lab and was surprised how much I loved my comparative literature class -- that is all to say I'm a total nerd. Scott and I were dating all through college, so I spent a lot of time hanging out in the studio, going to shows and helping manage his band. We moved back to LA and lived there about five years and then moved back here to Utah "for good" in 2007.
Gavin: When did you first take an interest in the local music scene, and who were some of the bands that got you interested?
Sarah: Scott moved to Utah in 1995 after graduating from USC, and he opened a small recording studio and formed a band. That pretty much catapulted me into the local music scene. Of course, my favorite band was his, Sunfall Festival, but we were also big fans of Hudson River School, Gathering Osiris, Honeytree, Anyone for Squash, Clover, Seriously Sofina, Paul Jacobsen, Matt Harding, Quant. Oh, man, those were fun times. When we lived in LA, we really missed the camaraderie and mutual respect on top of the great talent and drive that we'd known in the Utah music scene.
Gavin: When did you first meet Mindy, Justin and Courtney, and eventually become friends with each of them?
Sarah: Scott recorded with Mindy a few years ago and was super impressed with her voice and talent and they became good friends. So I met her through him -- we have kids similar ages with similar interests and live close to each other, so we have a lot in common. I met Courtney through her sister Stephanie -- we were neighbors in Provo when we were both first married with a couple little babies. When we moved back from LA, Stephanie and Courtney (and husbands) came over for dinner one night and we all became fast friends. I met Justin when I went to his 30 strangers exhibit a few years ago and signed up for a mother/daughter photo shoot with me and my then-3-year-old daughter, June. He was such a fun photographer, funny and personable -- really puts you at ease. He shot my mom with my younger sisters, too, and has since done one of my sisters' weddings.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up the Rooftop Concert Series?
Sarah: Courtney was invited by Provo City to sit on the Cultural Identity subcommittee of the Center Focus efforts to revitalize downtown. She, in turn, invited Mindy, Justin, and me, in addition to a few others, to join them. We sat in on brainstorming meetings around a big conference table throwing out ideas, and Andy Gartz (co-owner of Slab Pizza) suggested we do something to take advantage of these new tall buildings we have downtown and suggested the idea of putting on a concert on a rooftop. I have to admit I was pretty skeptical since I have been involved in putting on plenty of concerts that haven't been well attended, so I didn't believe it would necessarily automatically work. But I was the one in the group with the most music experience (and thanks to my aforementioned nerdiness, I actually like organizing stuff and making spreadsheets) so I ended up with the job of heading up the effort. The organizing committee went through some changes as we first tried bringing in more people to help plan, but then ended up whittling it down to a more manageable size. Courtney, Mindy, Justin and I work very well together and each brings a different set of talents and qualities and ideas and connections that complement one another. We have a good time, which motivates us to keep going and be willing to put in the hard work.
Gavin: What made you decide on the parking terrace at Provo Town Square? And what was the process like getting the city to agree to the concert?
Sarah: Justin and I went site scouting and checked out a number of different rooftops. We liked the parking garage at Wells Fargo, but it was too close to residential areas, and the balcony area at the Zions building, but it was awkward to get to having to go through the building. When we saw the space at Provo Town Square and took in the skyline view, we immediately realized it was perfect. It's a great location and the owner has been so excited and generous to donate his space and use of his facilities and utilities -- that has been so crucial and has been such a help to us. Since the whole idea for the concert series came out of meetings and committees that Provo City originally put together, they were excited from the beginning to support our efforts. Last year, they were not able to contribute financially, but this year they are sponsoring our final concert in October. They have provided support in many other ways, too, from permits to trash cans to police support. The mayor has attended every concert and always gets up on stage to help out with the giveaways. He has helped promote our concerts, and has helped smooth things over a few times when neighboring businesses have had "issues" with what we're doing or how we're doing it.
Gavin: What was it like getting things set up and planned, as well as booking the concerts and figuring out who could come play?
Sarah: It was a little rough getting things started last year -- we started having committee meetings back in early 2010 but didn't really solidify the concept until late spring. It was hard working with the larger group since there were just too many people and opinions to ever come to consensus. Once we broke it down into the smaller group of us, we were able to pull it together faster. We knew we needed to raise some money, so that stalled us for a long time, but then Courtney stepped up to say her blog CJaneRun.com would sponsor, and Mindy said she'd turn her CD release concert in August into a benefit for the series. So once we had some money, we were able to move forward with booking and planning. It was kind of hard to book bands before anyone knew how this thing was going to turn out -- especially when we were asking them to do it for pretty cheap. And we weren't really sure how we were going to promote the shows, so we figured we needed bands who had a good reputation and local draw already. We started off in September with Benton Paul and Nik Day. It was a little scary early in the day as we were setting everything up and wondering if anyone would actually show up. We were blown away when there were more than 500 people there. It was a fantastic night and helped everyone, including myself, gain a little faith that this idea might work. The next show in October was even bigger -- The Lower Lights and Libbie Linton show drew about 1,000 people. Both shows were almost magical -- such a great community feel to them. Booking the lineup is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: coordinating genres, availability, pairing opening/headlining strategically, figuring out if we should pay extra to bring in bigger touring artists or if we can maintain the high quality standards with local music. I am plugged into the local scene still through Scott, and I'm also good friends with Corey Fox (of Velour Live Music Gallery), so between us and the people we know, we have access to more talented artists than we can really accommodate. On top of that, now that it is a proven commodity, we get submissions and recommendations everyday from artists hoping to get the chance to play. Because of timing restrictions on our permits and also because of the crowd we're catering to, we've limited the lineup to one headliner, one opener, and now we've added a smaller solo or stripped-down act to play while people are arriving and settling in. We've been really excited about our solid lineup this year.
Gavin: The first one kicked off in May with Fictionist and Paul Jacobsen & The Madison Arm. What was the turnout like and how was it received by the community?
Sarah: That show in May was fantastic. We had about 1,500 people there. Fictionist was in the middle of their competition for the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine so it was really fun for the community to feel like a part of that. We were again blown away by the attendance and the music and the magical feel of the evening.
Gavin: On a side note, how did the decision come about to do it on the same night as the Provo Gallery Stroll, and how has that partnership worked out for both of you?
Sarah: We liked the idea of helping each other out with promotion, and of building on what was already going on and working downtown. We'd love to see First Fridays grow even more to include more artistic outlets/disciplines -- there could be sidewalk sales or poetry readings or knitting circles or dances or restaurant specials. First Fridays are the night for art of all kinds downtown, and there should be something for everyone. The Downtown Alliance (who puts on the Gallery Stroll) has been very supportive and helpful with the Rooftop Concert Series.
Gavin: With each concert, the crowds have grown and you're starting to reach capacity. What are your thoughts on the growing crowds, and is there a chance you may have to relocate this year?
Sarah: We don't plan on relocating, and don't really want to grow much bigger. We are accomplishing what we set out to do -- bring people downtown, share great music with a new audience, enhance the "cultural identity" of downtown -- so I just want to keep doing it and doing it well. That being said, we are growing and nearing capacity, so our goal is to provide a positive experience for everyone, even those who can't see well from the back or who get there too late to make it on top at all. So we've talked about maybe adding some projection screens to broadcast in an overflow area in the courtyard or a taller stage so people can see better in the back or more speakers so people can hear better from the street below. I want to see it remain more focused on the music and less on crowd control.
Gavin: I understand you're always looking for volunteers to help out. How can people get involved?
Sarah: This whole thing is put together on volunteer effort. We have an organized force of volunteers who get together every month and we give out assignments to put up posters, coordinate with downtown businesses, help set up the stage or hang signs and string lights, count people as they arrive, or act as ushers. We appreciate their help so much and really would not be able to do it without them. If anyone would like to get involved, they can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Facebook and we would LOVE to put you to work.
Gavin: Aside from the music, you also have an array of other events taking place. What else do you have going on during the show that people should know about?
Sarah: Well, you already mentioned the gallery stroll happening that night in Downtown Provo. Then there is also a Marketplace setup in the Provo Town Square courtyard -- directly below the concert site -- where you can find local handmade goods or food from local restaurants and information about some local charities.
Gavin: Right now, do you know if the series will be back next year, or is that still in the air?
Sarah: We are definitely planning on doing it again next year, although haven't booked anything solid yet and still need to raise the funds.
Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on the local music scene, both good and bad?
Sarah: There is obviously a lot of great talent around here. I love to see when bands help each other out and I absolutely love it when good things happen to great bands from Provo and especially when they, in turn, help promote the scene where they came from (The Neon Trees are a great example of this, among others). I do see some not-so-good bands out there, too, so that maybe goes on the bad side, but still give them an A for effort. My least favorite thing is when people feel like they have to apologize when they tell people they're from Provo -- and I know I'm guilty of that, too. I'd like it to get to the point where we feel like we can be confident and proud of this place.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Sarah: There is a real mixture here between serious bands/musicians and just-for-fun-on-the-side college bands, and I think that's normal and fine for a college town. But for those who have higher aspirations, first of all know your instruments -- make sure your band members are all good musicians and not just your buddies. Then pay attention to your songs and songwriting.Find people to help you co-write or produce and pay attention to what goes over well with your audience likes -- not just your friends in the audience but the true fans. Then pay attention to your stage presence: Make your shows memorable and high quality, practice, pay attention to how you look and think about what you're going to do between songs. If you take it seriously and have good musicianship, songs, and stage presence to back it up, then other people will start to, too. So the more bands who do that, the better the overall scene and the more prominent it will become.
Gavin: Who are your favorite acts in the scene right now?
Sarah: I am a big Fictionist fan. I think Ryan Tanner, Paul Jacobsen, Sarah Sample, and Dustin Christensen are some of the most amazing songwriters I've ever heard. I love Devil Whale and Sayde Price and Libbie Linton and am excited to have Vibrant Sound and Imagine Dragons play for us in September. I heard Soft Science play at the Battle Of The Bands at Velour and loved that they were doing something so different and intense. There are so many great musicians out there -- too many to name.
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourself and the RCS over the rest of this year?
Sarah: More great music -- the next 3 concerts are going to be fantastic. We're hoping the marketplace continues to grow, and like I mentioned, hopefully we'll come up with a good overflow solution by the September show so we can accommodate even more people.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Sarah: These concerts are free to the public, but certainly not free to put on. We're always looking for more help sponsoring concerts, so if anyone is interested in being involved in this way, please contact us at email@example.com. We can offer a captive audience of 2,000 people, banner space, promotion from the stage, in press, and on CJaneRun.com. We really appreciate the support we've gotten so far from great companies willing to contribute to a good cause, and have heard positive things from past sponsors about it being beneficial to them as well.
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