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April 26, 2023

Boston Calling : It’s all about Care, Teamwork & Partnerships

A conversation with Mike Snow, co-founder of the Boston Calling Music Festival

By Marianne Miron

In the midst of his busiest month of the year, the final stretch before the May 26-28 Boston Calling Music Festival, the city’s signature event held annually at the Harvard Athletic Complex, founder and director of operations Mike Snow was generous enough to answer a few questions. 

With the festival being such a huge success and celebrating its tenth year with the 2023rd edition, how did it all start, I ask? 

We were doing free concerts for a radio station on the original City Hall Plaza and they were getting too expensive. Brian Appel, my partner, and I came up with the idea of fencing off the area and charging $10 and 17 cents for the event, which was the radio station’s frequency. We pitched it to the owner at the time and he said no. So we just went back to the city and said, “What if it was just Mike and Brian renting the facility?’’ The rest is history! 

And it’s been some history! From City Hall Plaza holding about 20,000 people to the Harvard Athletic Complex hosting double and exci-ting lineups year after year, what, I ask, explains the success of the Boston Calling Music Festival?

It’s an urban festival, says Mike. You can just take the train and come in at 8 to see the headliner if you want to, but of course we want you to spend the day!

With Memorial Day symbolizing the start of summer, Boston Calling has managed to become the event that kicks off the festival season. At least in and around Boston, people seem to have incorporated the festival into their yearly calendar. Where they used to plan a trip and get out of town during Memorial Day weekend, they now stay and come to the festival, says Mike.  

This, I say, is a great achievement and the true mark of something becoming part of the culture. 

With that comes a great responsibility to deliver a quality festival year after year. This, according to Mike, can only be achieved through great teamwork and good partnerships; if it’s a success, it’s a success for everyone, he says. 

What makes a good partnership? 

FLEXIBILITY, Mike says immediately. No two events are the same, no two events are easy, and you cannot approach it from a rigid point of view.

Mike explains that they’ve been working with Stageline since the beginning and there’s always been an understanding that if they don’t understand something or get a last-minute plan that doesn’t work or requires a lot of changes, the team will take the time needed to listen and get creative if necessary. He gives me this example from the 2022 edition, where a misunderstanding about a stage dimension was going to have a major impact on the production.  

The Stageline team came up with a solution that was extraordinarily partner-based! It wasn’t just here’s what you need, and here’s the cost. I mean, they really worked on the project, there were hours that Stageline spent on my problem. And that, that’s a partnership!

So, with a festival now deeply rooted in the community, with some good partnerships in place, no wonder people love working for the event. Still, I ask Mike why he thinks that is? 

I think we do things a little differently, he says. We really do a lot of hard work before the festival, so when we get there, we are really just executing the plan. People who work with us understand that you don’t really solve problems on the spot. We talk about everything in advance, plan and prepare thoroughly, so when we’re there it’s a much nicer and calmer working environment.

Being on site is the most fun 2 weeks of my whole year and that’s the way it should be for everyone else!

That’s great, I say, and far too rare in this business, the ”calm part” that is… But we all know that unexpected problems are going to happen, so what happens then, I say? 

Well, when a real problem happens, like a headliner canceling or something like that, when people are upset, getting yelled at for no reason and working in a disorganized environment, those problems become a nightmare! Instead, if the team feels supported, that you care, then everyone comes into the room and gets to work on fixing the problem.

As he continues, it’s clear to me how much Mike and his team value the people who work with them. 

We know it takes a lot of people to do this job, and there’s no one person who gets to take a victory lap. It’s a lot more fun when it’s the whole team that succeeds, it really is!

We are a festival, but in some ways, we operate like a brick-and-mortar business,” he says. Life and work balance is extremely important, a decent amount of working hours, proper training to face different situations and all that good stuff, he adds. 

You take the easy stuff out of the way and make sure everyone is well rested and well fed, and then when the hard stuff comes along, they are ready for it.

 And what about sustainability, I ask? 

We’re going to be 90% plastic free this year, he says, and we’ve got a federally protected river next to us to take care of!

We have a massive focus on sustainability, and we pass that on to our employees, suppliers, and vendors. If we don’t see the level of care that we have from them, then we probably just won’t work with them anymore.

The new post-pandemic reality in live events production

I know I’m running out of time here, but it still seems important to ask him about how the Pandemic is faring. In an industry that was so deeply affected, and as one of the lucky survivors of the crisis, what is the new ”post-pandemic” reality of the Boston Calling Music Festival? 

The biggest change in our industry is the staffing, he says. People changed their outlook on life and went back to regular jobs. The industry came back so strong after all this, but getting people back into it is really challenging and will be for a while.

On the positive side, people seem to appreciate every moment spent at the event more, not that they didn’t before, he says, but they’re just happy we’re still here! 

Of course, they are! This is a festival that promotes great values and is dedicated to doing things the right way, so we want it to be around for a very long time! Throughout my conversation with Mike, it seems obvious that these guys know what they’re doing, but they don’t take anything for granted, so I dare ask one last question. 

Where would you like to see the Boston Calling Music Festival in 10 years? 

Well, the next step would be to become a festival that people from all over the world come to see! Like I want the festival to be on that list where people are like, ” this is on my bucket list, you know!” 

Well, I think it’s well on its way!