Who is Michael Jones and why is he putting on another music festival in Ventura?
Local musician and promoter is risking it all for a dream
By Chris Jay 06/02/2011
There’s something strange in the air. More so the open air of an outdoor music festival. Over the next few months, the city of Ventura will play host to a mind-boggling number of outdoor music events.
It starts this month at the Ventura County Fairgrounds with the third year of the Johnny Cash Music Festival, which is boasting a stellar bill that features a legitimate friend of the Man in Black, Kris Kristofferson, as well as So Cal staple, X. A little more than a week later, the traveling punk rock circus, The Warped Tour, which has made a Ventura stop every year for more than a decade, will cater to a younger and more aggressive demographic at the ocean-side venue.
Then in August, the fine folks at Zoey’s will be holding their inaugural outdoor event, the Ventura Folk Festival at Mission Park with a host of top-notch singer-songwriters to be named; and Spencer Mackenzie’s End of Summer Blast is back with a who’s who of local bands as well as surf-rock guitar king Dick Dale.
Early September brings the Beer Festival and Aloha Festival, which both feature live music to a smaller degree; and lastly, the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy will hold its annual concert in Arroyo Verde Park, which, over the years, has seen some tremendous bills, like last year’s Emmylou Harris performance. Let’s not forget about the multiple nights of live entertainment at the Ventura County Fair, which may be for many Ventura County residents the only live music they take in all year.
Though no one is upset about all the activity, especially not downtown merchants and restaurants, who are seemingly set for a sweet summer whether they know it or not; and everyone agrees that locale and weatherwise, people are finally realizing Ventura is the perfect city to hold such events; many are left wondering whether it’s just too much.
So with the overcrowded event climate, no one in his or her right mind would add to all this festival madness, right?
Even if there was someone crazy enough to put together another major outdoor event in the city, it certainly wouldn’t be focused on booking relatively obscure cult acts and mixing them with local bands at the fairgrounds just a week before one of the other events. Right? Wrong. One man will be kicking off Ventura’s season of sound with the riskiest of all of these festivals, but by far the most interesting, the Indie West Fest, which, as it turns out, is the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Though born in the Bay Area, Michael Jones grew up in the musically rich landscape of the Inland Empire in the 1980s.
Being a music fan and musician himself, promoting shows came naturally to Jones, who spent his teens booking soon-to-be-famous indie bands in and around Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
Moving to Ventura in 1990, where the majority of his then-wife’s family lived, he continued promoting shows for friends and his own projects but didn’t find the climate to be as easy as his former stomping grounds. Arriving at the tail end of the legendary Charlie’s period that is still referred to with reverence by misty-eyed old-schoolers, Jones found the music scene in a transition period, with cover bands seizing the momentum.
Still booking shows for friends as well as forming the Jumpin’ Jimes, a popular area swing band, Jones also found time to develop the website Jones Town Tunes that catered to indie artists and had a ground-breaking music player, much in the style of iTunes. Though the site became instantly popular and looked to perhaps be a lucrative opportunity for Jones to finally make music his full-time job, several of the major corporate sites such as Myspace and iTunes launched or perhaps even mimicked some of Jones’ features, and the visionary website became lost in the blitz of ever-changing download sites.
Through it all, there was always one musical dream he harbored, and that was to hold his own major music festival here in Ventura that would cater to a more diverse audience than many of the genre-specific events that currently take place. Many don’t know, but he came incredibly close to doing so in 2007; but Jones’ easygoing independent spirit and hard work were taken advantage of, allegedly, by a Santa Barbara radio station.
According to Jones, he had holds on several big-name acts for a first-time event at the fairgrounds and went to KJEE to discuss a potential sponsorship. Oddly, at the same time, KJEE was not able to secure its usual venue — the Santa Barbara Bowl — for its annual spring concert, and the two parties discussed partnering up. After meetings and emails, suddenly KJEE announced its event as happening in Ventura at the fairgrounds with a near-identical lineup to one Jones was working with at the same venue and on the same date. Only catch was, Jones wasn’t involved or even invited. With no agreement on paper, Jones watched helplessly as the event he had planned in his hometown was taken over by a radio station from a different city.
Despite the disappointment, almost in secrecy, Jones has been plotting and planning his dream festival for the past few years; and with the timing of Ventura’s current vibrant and diverse music scene, he’s finally decided to take the plunge. Booking acts and securing the venue early this year — slightly late in the game for an early summer festival — it was kept on the downlow to the point that when fliers starting popping up in March, many thought it was a joke or, at least, an event that an out-of-town promoter, with little knowledge of the often-complex local music scene, was trying to pull off.
But Jones’ brain child and baby, the Indie West Fest, is clearly no joke; nor is the amount of time, work and money that Jones, and Jones alone, is putting into the all-day, five-stage, nearly 40-band festival that has become referred to in a lovable way as “a poor man’s Coachella.”
Featuring a truly diverse roster of artists who undeniably fit under the ever-expansive indie banner, Jones has managed to grab cult legends like the ground breaking Camper Van Beethoven, ’90s alternative-radio favorite Cracker and the influential Red Kross to headline the event.
The bill is also heavy with several L.A. hipster bands such as The 88, He’s My Brother She’s My Sister, The Tender Box, Taylor Locke and, perhaps best of all, a ton of bona fide local acts.
It’s the sheer number of local bands performing, however, that is a testament to Jones’ commitment to the local scene. While most promoters wouldn’t even think to give so many locals stage time, he was adamant that the bill have artists from the city where it was being held and where Jones himself is a member of two bands, La Vonettes and Jackass. Even with, perhaps, too many local artists since they tend to do little promotion on big events, figuring the larger acts will bring the crowds, Jones says one of his only regrets is not being able to book more local bands — 15 of the 36 bands playing Indie West Fest are from the area. He estimates that he’s been approached about booking by more than 175 bands, many local but some from as far away as Australia.
While all the above is certainly exciting, it does leave room for serious concern. Cult artists, like many of the festival’s headliners, tend to have loyal but small audiences, especially in these parts. Where the bulk of tickets have been purchased so far seems to confirm that fact. It’s a depressing and staggering statistic, but a little more than a week out and only 30 of the advance tickets that have been sold have gone to Ventura County residents. Thankfully, hundreds of other tickets have been sold and not only in larger more indie-music-friendly cities like San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but in other countries including France, Mexico, England, Spain, Canada and Brazil. Perhaps the balance of ticket sales to elsewhere compared to locally is the quintessential example of Ventura not appreciating the talent and events we have in our own backyard. Clearly, over in Brazil, someone’s excited about what’s happening here, but as of right now, there’ll be more local artists performing at the event then local residents attending.
So with few local ticket sales but lots of local support in volunteers, promotions and press, an onslaught of other events this summer, a relatively hefty ticket price in a still-rough economy — $25 in advance and $35 this week — no mainstream headliner to appeal to less-seasoned music fans and a relatively short amount of time to promote and find sponsorships, the Indie West Fest is definitely fighting an uphill battle.
Despite it all, Jones remains unfazed. Whether too busy or too excited to care about the potential massive personal debt he’ll be in if the festival fails, he is nothing but positive. Staying up late into the night, Jones (who is still holding down his day job drafting for a civil engineering company) is constantly working out stage times, securing backline gear, playing travel agent to out-of-town acts and attendees and bravely doing battle with Sonicbids.
SB (Sonicbids), or BS as it’s affectionately called by former users, is a website that offers bands to bid for performing slots at events, but for a price and with no guaranteed booking. Unhappy with the site’s questionable policies, Jones has even refunded the money to acts that applied to Sonicbids, agreeing the model wasn’t exactly an artist-friendly practice. It’s a move that clearly has Jones putting his principals before his pocketbook and gaining the respect of many in the music community.
Taking a break from computers and a seemingly always-buzzing cell phone in his festival headquarters, which is actually an office space in his small midtown Ventura house, only days before the event, an excited Jones, can’t even focus on a much-needed lunch as he lays out his site plan like Gen. Patton and starts pointing out the logistics of Porta Potty locations, beer gardens and vendor tents.
Though the event is yet to take place, and a strong wake-up is needed and expected by Jones to make the event a success (breaking even would be considered a success), he’s already been fielding questions about another Indie West Fest next year; and there’s been interest in taking the festival to multiple cities. Jones doesn’t play it safe with the answer, either. He’s straightforward about wanting to make Indie West Fest a yearly happening and beyond.
“I’d love it to become a yearly event,” explains Jones. “To have it become my fulltime job would be great. It’s definitely my passion. It’s been an absolute blast. Even with all the work, it’s been an unbelievable time. I’ve received so much support from so many people. It’s so exciting to watch it all come together. It may sound cheesy but these past few months have been the best time of my life.”
The Indie West Festival takes place on Saturday, June 4 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For the lineup and schedule, and to purchase tickets, visit www.indiewestfest.com.
Indie West Fest highlights
by Chris O’Neal
If growing up in the ’90s sounds like a mild description of what shaped you, then Cracker should be familiar. Its hit Low can still be heard when listening to that archaic form of music delivery, the radio. But don’t think that Cracker gave up after that – having been on tour with Camper Van Beethoven (which will also be appearing at the festival) to promote its recent album, Cracker has proven that it can still turn out the hits as it shapes and reshapes its existence.
Talented, energetic and raw, it’s not to be missed.
Of all the lethal combinations for a producer to take one glimpse at and think that it could never work, surfer rock meets surely goth rests somewhere near the top. Far be it from The Growlers to listen to reason, with a sound that hops in a DeLorean and appears somewhere mid-sixties and manages to remain uniquely their own. With dark lyrics, dreamy guitar work and a peppy attitude that floats off the stage and into the hearts of their many fans, who seem to be growing by the hour, The Growlers make for a perfect fit to the seaside venue. Just remember to wear plenty of sunscreen to protect that lily white complexion.
He’s My Brother She’s My Sister
Imagine a world in which the great westward expansion never stopped where there were hidden lands to explore and rich, fertile soil to be tilled. What would the music of that world sound like? Probably something like He’s My Brother She’s My Sister, a six-piece band complete with a tap-dancing percussionist and vintage get-up. Sure, a lot of bands these days try to gloss over talent by distracting audiences with gaudy stage shows, but not HMBSMS. This music is straight from the heart of the dust bowl, a mixture of glam and folk that will leave you nostalgic for an era that may never have existed.
Not everything out of Nashville is country. The Ettes, fronted by Lindsay “Coco” Hames, is that garage band that sounds like it’s ditched the garage for warehouses, elevating the genre into wide open spaces of unforgettable sounds.
Coco’s breathy voice plays accompaniment to the savage rhythmic guitar and drums of Maria “Poni” Silver and Jeremy “Jem” Cohen. Suitable for dancing or nodding your head in silent agreement, The Ettes are sure to light the stage on fire (possibly literally).
You do know The 88, right? How could you not? Well, you may not know their name, but you more than likely know the music. Community uses one of their songs as their theme, and the 88 even performed on How I Met Your Mother.
But they’re not to be confused with a “stage band.” The upbeat indie rock is catchy and memorable. Don’t miss out.