Fields Fest organizers talk about adding artists, fostering an immersive experience, and more

When I first walk into Red Emma's to meet with the organizers of Fields Festival, the multi-day arts festival and camp-out that brings the best and weirdest parts of Baltimore's DIY arts scene to the middle of the woods, they are in a conversation with someone at a nearby table who has an idea to more effectively pick-up trash. As someone who signed up to be a volunteer, he should be getting an email very soon, they assure him.

A little more than a week out from the festival, that's just one thing on their seemingly endless list. Wristbands just had to be expedited, another phone call to the insurance guy has to be placed, and much, much more. But it's all worth it to Amanda Schmidt and Stewart Mostofsky, who both look back on their inaugural effort in 2014 and talk about how transformational and positive it was.

In many ways, this year's Fields Festival is bigger and better than the first, with even more Baltimore bands, national headliners, more artistic disciplines, and a full-fledged wellness center. This year's lineup includes Sun Ra Arkestra, Future Islands, Dan Deacon, Lower Dens, Deakin, Wolf Eyes, TT the Artist, and Abdu Ali, just to name a few.

I talked with Schmidt and Mostofsky about their efforts to expand the festival, why you can still only buy a weekend pass, and more.

City Paper: You had the first one in 2014, and then there was the year off, so why decide to do it again? What was the story behind bringing it back?

Amanda Schmidt: Taking the year off was much needed for me. It's hard. It takes up so much of our time. It takes up most of the year. Something we've been saying is that this is a totally DIY event. It's not corporate sponsored. We're funded by ticket sales and that means that there's not a ton of money to go around. It was difficult for me to invest that much of my year last year. That was part of it. But coming back to it, I thought I could give it a second shot at least. It was owed that much.

Stewart Mostofsky: I mean it was artistically and creatively and personally and emotionally an enormous success last time. Both of us experienced this: people coming up to us and saying how transformational it was, how incredible it was. So it left everybody with this enormous positive feeling about community and artistic and creative potential, and I think also just the sort of general potential of people to come together to create positive things.

And so that was then, as Amanda said, balanced with the fact that it was a lot of work and enormously taxing in that way. In the end it seemed best to take the pause. It wasn't as if there was a definite plan to then come back this year, but we kept thinking about it and talking about it and then—I don't know sometime around the turn of the year, December, January, maybe it was a little earlier.

AS: We actually met last October.

SM: Was that when it was?

AS: Yeah.

SM: When we met in Druid Hill Park? Was that October?

AS: Yeah, it was. But then we met here after that. It was like October or November. But it didn't really get started until probably February or March again. But yeah, it was so overwhelming and exhausting, and so if we are going to come back to this, how do we try to make it feel more sustainable, at least from a management standpoint. So one part was getting more people on board, delegating more. We went from 15 managers the first time to 30 managers this time. Which of course doesn't always reduce the headaches, now it's just more people to manage. But yeah, it's coming together. It's happening this time. I don't feel as crazy and stressed, right now, one week out, as I did two years ago. So, that says something too.

CP: It seems like there are more national acts this year. Was that a concerted effort?

SM: Really the main effort was having more diversity of people as well as more diversity of artistic representation. Some of that meant reaching out in other ways within Baltimore but some of that then meant reaching out nationally as well. That was really the main impetus. There definitely are more sort of nationally represented acts, but I think a lot of it came more from that notion.

AS: They all really had a tie. It's not like they are randomly nationally represented acts, you know? Everybody who's coming has some tie to Baltimore or at least the D.C., New York, Philly area. The people who are coming from the West Coast have at some point lived here. I think that's true.

SM: Right, so like, Natalie [Mering of] Weyes Blood, Mild High Club, they're coming from California but some of them have lived in Baltimore at some point or have strong connections to Baltimore. Natalie lived in Baltimore for a couple years.

AS: Right, I mean Deakin, of course, nationally represented, but he's often not associated with the Baltimore scene because he's not really active here.

But I think that we did want this to remain a celebration of Baltimore culture, and particularly DIY culture—you know Sun Ra, of course, being DIY legends. We did extend the net a little bit further, but I still see it primarily of a celebration of all things Baltimore.

SM: Right, you know other headliners like Eartheater or Pictureplane or Princess Nokia, these are people who have performed and have strong connections to people within the Baltimore DIY scene, so it definitely feels still like an extended community, extended family. And I think we're looking to maintain that kind of spirit, that intimacy, at the festival and we expect that's what will be present again this year.

CP: Yeah.

SM: So, it'll be larger. There are more headliners, so to speak, and there are more people generally, more artists performing, not only within music. In some ways, our largest expansions are outside of music.

AS: Yeah. The other departments. Because there's a limit on how many stages and how much music we can put on. We put one more stage on, but you know there's only so many hours in the day for music. But yeah, we've extended across other departments.

SM: Right. So performance art, theater, comedy.

AS: Yeah. Recreation and wellness are new ones here.

SM: And some of these things were present the first time: visual installations, sound installations, dance, poetry. All of these things have certainly been expanded, and as Amanda mentioned, there's also an actual recreation area that includes a wide variety of activities and then the wellness zone. That was Amanda's dream and something I was very much on board with. And that's a big part of the presence in the festival this year. That wasn't nearly as present. We had some yoga and qigong that went on last time.

AS: [This year there's] massage, acupuncture, energy healing, plant walks, tarot, sound immersion therapy. There's going to be like sound atmosphere, soundscapes. It's really important to me, that's been a big part of my life, being involved in various wellness communities, healing modalities. I am excited about the idea of seeing more integration there between the DIY arts community and healing wellness people who are active in Baltimore. A lot these kind of practices, when we engage with them, and creativity and meditation—I think there's a similar intentionality, there's something that is parallel or one is chaos and one is grounding and they kind of inform and balance each other.

We are going to like walk the perimeter of the space on Thursday and do an opening ceremony on Friday to really set an energetic intentional space. To hold the perimeter, hold the psychic space, to really ground what's about to happen on the campgrounds. I have a really new age-y philosophy about it, but I think that this festival is so much more than just getting fucked up at a campground for a weekend. I really see it as something that can be healing and transformational. Something that really resets where people are in life and can actually be really life changing, maybe.

SM: This is a weekend-long event. And we were talking about this yesterday, there's obviously this joyous celebratory aspect to it. As Amanda said, there's a getting fucked up aspect to it that's part of that joyousness and celebratory aspect, but there's also an importance in the balance and, like Amanda, I'm increasingly engaged particularly in mindfulness practice, to have that sort of opportunity to create space within this campground. To have both this ecstatic, celebratory atmosphere as well as this grounded, thoughtful atmosphere is really crucial to us.

AS: Which I think is also something we've been talking about when we talk about the spirit of the Baltimore arts community. There's something that's kind of ecstatic and absurd and ridiculous, and then there's still something that's still very serious and intentional about it. I think that's always kind of characterized where Baltimore art comes from and how it is different from New York or some other places.

CP: I didn't go the first time and the main reason was The Clean was playing that Saturday here in town, and you could only get a weekend pass. The decision to only have weekend passes is something you guys stayed with. Was there any thought of changing it?

SM: Not at all. Not even a little hesitation.

AS: The day pass thing really promotes a lot of the coming for one act and leaving. I think a really important part of what we want to get people engaged with and experiencing at this event is really settling into a new space for the weekend. There's this new level of shared community that everybody engages with when they've made a new home, a new space for the weekend.

And maybe it's that it also plays into more of the capitalist venture and it's not at the forefront of what we're doing.

SM: The parallel I'll give is this other festival that I'm involved with, High Zero, that I've been involved with for nearly 20 years now. The way that festival's set up is that there's a community created because the artists are all playing with each other throughout, and so it's not you're invited to play in this experimental festival and you are playing with your band at this one time so come and go as you please. It creates a community. That's what we are looking to do here. It's the creation of a community, which is exactly what happened the first time. And what we're looking to have happen again this time.

There are some exceptions, but nearly all the performers are planning on being there the entire weekend, even though they are doing one performance. As far as the audience goes, that's what we're looking to create: this community that transcends what typically happens at festivals where people are splintered based on when they're performing or when they want to see particular artists perform.

AS: We do have a schedule we posted, we'll have a printed schedule that's getting handed out. But we want it to feel more exploratory and more immersive and we want people kind of wandering around and stumbling upon stuff that they had no idea they were going to experience. I think that's a really exciting part of how we put this lineup together. I can't think of a single person who actually knows every act that we've booked. We do, we might be the only people. So that's exciting. I don't want there to be as much of a goal-oriented attitude of, I'm going to go see this and then I'll go see this. I think having the day pass kind of articulates that.

SM: And people will do that, but I think I'll draw the parallel again. Every year at High Zero, I find time and time again that the true magic for me was not the artists that I particularly knew in advance, it was the discovery of what I didn't know about. And that's what happened for a lot for people for the first year of Fields and it's going to happen again this year. All these people are going to show up and maybe they are showing up because they want to see Future Islands or Dan Deacon or Sun Ra Arkestra or Horse Lords or whoever it may be, but there's just the nature of the situation and the space and the people—it's conducive [to exploration].

It's called Fields because it's fields and physically it's conducive to wandering around and discovering unknown things, and the idea that we didn't like put a label on Fields is that it's an open tablet. It's a clean slate, so to speak. You are going to be coming, and yes, you might have particular ideas about what you are going to see and you are probably end up seeing those particular things, but there's going to be an enormous amount that you as an audience member end up being exposed to that you had no idea about, and doors will open that will create new paths for people who attend the festival.

AS: And I do also want to say, it's not that people can't leave and come back, too. Somebody did email us about that. They were like, "I'm upset that I can't leave the festival," but you can.

CP: You mentioned before not wanting to think of this as a capitalistic venture, but at some point that has to creep into your mind, right? You guys are both personally invested and I would imagine financially so as well. Is that a concern?

AS: [laughs] Somewhere on the list it is.

SM: Yeah, you know, we're 100 percent off of ticket sales. But I think Amanda's point was that we didn't get corporate sponsorship, we weren't looking for corporate sponsorship.

AS: We're not selling alcohol. We're not even taking cuts from our food vendors.

SM: Right and not selling alcohol, I mean, we can make thousands and thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, probably, selling alcohol. People can bring alcohol, it's not like it's a dry festival so to speak—in any respect.

AS: I said this yesterday in an interview, that I watched the Woodstock documentary recently and the guy who put it on was being interviewed, and the reporter was like, "So how are you doing financially?" And he's like, "Oh, this was a financial disaster." I think they might have lost like a million dollars, $500,000, but the reporter was like, "You don't seem so upset." And the guy was like, "Yeah, but look at what we've done, and how can you put a price on this?"

SM: Little did they know that they'd make plenty of money off the album and the movie. But, right, that's not going to happen for us. There isn't going to be an album. There is going to be a documentary made, but we're not going to make money off that.

AS: Clearly there is a financial risk and it is concerning and we are concerned, right? [laughs] We're concerned about being able to break even. That's a concern, but that hasn't been the top of the list.

SM: Right and we've already sold well beyond the number of tickets we sold the last time, total, and last time we sold half of our tickets in the last week. So we're not even in the last week yet. We're not terrified right now, but yeah, we're keeping an eye on things that's for sure.

CP: There were murmurs about how it fared last time. Would you care to set the record straight on that?

SM: We lost a little bit of money. It was like a small loss. It wasn't dramatic, but there was a small loss.

CP: And so the fact that you are ahead at this point...

SM: Well, yes and no. We also have more headliners.

AS: The budget is significantly [higher.]

SM: This is my experience time and time again with this kind of stuff: The first time you do something, everybody is willing to sort of jump on board and do it for a very little amount. The second time, even though the same spirit of community is there, everyone is wanting and expecting that we take more risks. And we are taking more risks.

AS: I've said this before, but I feel like if it does move forward, we have to find sources of funding that are more than ticket sales. I don't want to go with corporate sponsors.

SM: A more socialist model. Grants, arts grants.

AS: People basically all worked for free and played for free the first time around. This time we've paid every single person—at least a little—who's working, who's involved in this. It's very little. It does tend to reinforce this structure in which artists undervalue themselves and aren't compensated fairly, and that's not something I'm interested in contributing to. I'd love to find a way that we aren't just another entity that's making people feel like their work is a sacrifice and not sustainable.

SM: One of the things that we really struggled with and went back and forth with was the price point for the festival. So we increased it some from last year. Last time it was $70 in advance and $90 at the door I wanna say? And this time it's $100 in advance and $125 at the door, which still if you compare to other festivals—and I understand that these other festivals have bigger headliners so to speak. I challenge any notion that people have a better time at those festivals necessarily than ours. In fact, I would say just the opposite. And yet we are charging 1/3 to maybe even 1/4 of what those large-scale festivals charge and offering much much more in a lot of ways.

Unfortunately, there's just sort of a general notion of art being devalued in this culture, in American culture, and part of that is along with teachers and reporters and everyone else.

AS: Freelance writers.

SM: Exactly. People are not getting paid what they should be paid. If you look at how much hedge fund managers contribute to our societies versus artists, it's laughable and obviously it's totally imbalanced. Part of that is there, too. We understand, and the reason we didn't push it much higher this time around is because we understand also that our community...

AS: To want to make it affordable for people. That balance.

SM: Right. We don't want it to be like only people who can afford $200 tickets can come to this festival. So that was a big consideration as well.

AS: At the end of the day, there's 500 people, between artists and staff, getting in for free. That's $50,000, right? These people are getting free vacation for the weekend subsidized by the ticket sales. That's part of it, too.

We aren't charging anyone who's involved to be there, and they are getting paid a small amount. It's tough when that's such a large amount of people who would be paying for tickets if they weren't involved.

It's gonna happen this time and it's gonna be wonderful—I'm really excited. I think if it happens in the future, we have to really look at what that could look like.

CP: What are you going to do the Monday after it's done?

AS: Oh my God. Somebody just asked me that and I hadn't thought about it. And the first thing I said was, I am so excited to wake up and think to myself, "What am I going to do today?"[laughter]

My calendar is nauseating. It's so packed and I'm scheduling time to hang out with my friends like weeks in advance. It's ridiculous. So I'm so excited to wake up and do what I feel like.

SM: I'm taking Monday off to sleep and catch up with my kids. Last time I hardly slept and part of it was just working the festival but part of it was—especially Sunday. Sunday, I could have gone to bed at three or four in the morning. But I was like, I don't want to go to bed. I want to soak up every last ounce of this. It was already such a glorious experience. So yeah, I don't think I'm going to get much sleep, and I think it's definitely the case that I'm going to need to sleep a lot on Monday.

The next day I am going to see Brian Wilson and perform "Pet Sounds" at The Hippodrome. Have a first row mezzanine seat. All by myself. It's going to be splendid.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fields Festival runs Aug. 19-21. Tickets are on sale now.

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