INTERVIEW WITH RAVE FAMILY BLOCK FEST
The team behind the massive digital festival that’s changing the game
s Facebook memories painfully remind us of what once was- musicians, event organizers, and booking agents have been eager to stay engaged and productive during this tragic downtime. Alexander Graham Bell once quoted, "When one door closes, another one opens." While this may sound overly optimistic, in the case of D.C based Rave Family, it's spot on. With over 900 artists on the bill, Rave Family’s Block Fest is a classic example of a company turning lemons into lemonade. The virtual festival will take place on the Minecraft gaming platform, where concertgoers will be able to interact with the artists, build stages, design avatars and take part in a very new and interactive experience.
The Advance’s own DJ Jade got to sit down with Devon James Stewart and Zach Britt who manage the artist bookings for Rave Family Block Festival. These two individuals have spent a lot of time behind the scenes and on stage as bookers, tour managers, instructors, DJs, and now e-festival trailblazers.
Jade: So where are you guys based, and how have you been spending your time during quarantine?
Devon: I’d been staying in Boston for the past couple of months helping my Mom, but just got up to Maine on Thursday. My grandparents used to live here. I have the whole place to myself and have been boating and kayaking and spending time in the studio. I’m a musician myself which is actually how I initially got involved in this project so I’ve set up in a little cottage facing the lake.
Jade: What about you Zach?
Zach: I’ve been living in New York for the past 5 years, where I worked in various roles in the industry. I’m a Folk-Electronic musician myself and part of an Indie Dance duo called SuperTaste. I was also an assistant at AMOnly and then Paradigm, and eventually started throwing my own monthly events in Brooklyn called Overground. On March 15th I came down to my family’s home in Bristol Tennessee and I’ve been hiding out for what’s going on 4 months now. It’s a good time to be in the middle of nowhere I think!
Jade: That's for sure! Well thanks for joining us guys. Excited to connect with you both to learn more- I’m personally really excited to be part of the festival myself! I’m going to be part of Francesca Lombardo's Upper Hour stage, so I’m really looking forward to that!
I’ve been receiving a lot of your emails and seeing a lot of the updates. So just wanted to see how you guys are feeling and hear how everything is playing out with the Festival so far?
Devon: This process has been a really invaluable learning experience. I run a company called RVDIOVCTIVE and have an extensive background in throwing shows and producing events all around the country. We’re based in New York but we have done a lot of stuff with Miami Music Week, and events all over the country like LA, Detroit, Chicago, and San Francisco at venues like Audio, Halcyon, and DNA Lounge. But this is a totally new beast and a totally new territory. I think the biggest obstacle for me is the fact that there are lots of changes and things that you don’t think about when you throw a live show. With this project, we’ve had to pivot a couple of times. We were initially supposed to announce our lineup in the beginning of June, but with the social climate being the way it was with the George Floyd murder and the BLM protests, news started coming out as we were about to announce, so we decided to put things on pause and allow the world to check in with themselves and each other. Then came the Minecraft update which meant we had to push back once again. But it's been really nice working with this team. Whenever we hit bumps, we just kind of roll with them and never try to place blame on any one event or person. Zach and I work very closely and try not to get caught up with any one decision and just stay on course.
Zach: It’s been super intense. The biggest hurdle that we’ve had to overcome is just dealing with the sheer magnitude of what this is. We had 965 artists that were interested and we didn’t want to play gatekeeper. We wanted to put this in the hands of the artist to engage and interact with their fans as much as they want. With not playing gatekeeper, we had to communicate all of these details with not only the 900+ artists, but also the artist teams and stage curators. We’ve just been rolling with the punches and understanding that nothing has been done quite to this scale before. We're being patient to figure out how to make this work as best as possible.
Jade: Was it a team decision to book 900+ artists and create such a massive festival involving so many artists?
Zach: It started out with a much lower number. I don’t think anyone was thinking like “Hey let’s have 1000 artists play this festival” but we wanted to create an opportunity for artists to participate and engage with their fans in more of a two-way exchange. Right now, there are a ton of artists doing live streams, mostly for free or charitable causes. But we're 4 months into quarantine and no one is playing paid shows. Artists have to eat, they have to make money to pay rent. I think we’re one of the first realistic revenue streams for artists over the past couple of months, so I think a lot of artists just got really excited about this. It was less of a decision on our part and more of a snowball effect. People wanted to get involved, and we didn’t want to tell them No.
Jade: So what was the booking strategy? How did you reach out to so many artists and labels?
Devon: Jackie McGuire, the CEO of RaveFamily, reached out to Zach Britt and myself and asked us to play the festival. So I figured I would do a RVDIOVCTIVE stage. Then started talking to more people and it was like ̈Diplo wants to do a stage now, and oh, ATRAK wants to do a stage too.” I reached out to Kelly from Little Empire who I knew from my days touring managing Nicole Moudaber, and other people I knew from my network. Zach did the same within his network, from his days at Paradigm. We introduced a lot of people to the idea and to Jackie. She gets people really excited about the project and it just kind of snowballed from there. We communicated all of the requirements to those teams, and if they were on board with all of it, we just went for it.
Jade: Super cool! So were you guys familiar with Minecraft before? How did you end up choosing Minecraft as a platform?
Zach: I personally had never played Minecraft before Jackie reached out to ask if we wanted to perform. I don't think Devon had either. I spoke to some of my friends who played it back in High School, but it had been a long time. I think Devon and I played together for the first time in our meeting!
Devon: We did!
Zach: I think Minecraft was chosen because it's entry-level VR. It's very easy to learn and has a fairly low barrier to entry. You can get it on your phone for $6 or your computer for $27. It was really more an accessibility thing and it’s also fairly easy to build stuff within Minecraft. When we were getting into conversations with artists we would tell them “ Tell us the wildest dream that you have for a stage and let’s work backwards from there”.
Devon: Were not the first festival inside of Minecraft, BlockxBlockwest was one, Mat Zo did something, and Disciple did something and other companies have done these sort of things, but not on our scale. Accessibility in real festivals becomes a restraint, but Minecraft is being used by 112 million people. If you include China it's something like 400 million people. It's a great mix of accessibility and interactiveness.
Jade: I’m really excited to see it. I’ve already created my avatar for the show and it’s really cute! You mentioned helping with the stage design earlier- do you guys have a technical team at Rave Family that helps with the technical build-out of these stages?
Zach: Oh yeah, we definitely do. Even if you play the game and are a pro builder, it's a huge undertaking building 60+ festival stages or “worlds”. Jackie's husband, Adam, is the head of our build team. He's been working with the artists to get their creative direction, and then execute them. The cool thing about this, is that we’re building out servers for each of these stages. Many artists are opting in to own their servers, so that they can host future events like record-release parties, or listening parties there in the future.
Jade: Will these stages vary in size based on the headliner or event happening there- like a live festival?
Zach: I would try to think of these areas as less of a stage (like a typical festival), and more like a virtual world. The (Sasha Robotti) Sloth Acid stage, for example, is more like a jungle. There are campsites and Sloth heads everywhere. It’s less like walking up to stage and standing in front of some giant thing. There is a DJ booth, but you’re interacting with other people in this world. You'll be able to communicate with other people using Discord, which is a chat room that people can log into during the festival. Each stage will have its own Discord channel and the Music will be streaming through Mixcloud.
Devon: The size of the world is based on scaling and load balancing, and will expand based on the demand that each world or stage requires. It’s infinitely scalable through cloud servers hosted in AWS. The stages can support as many people as they need to.
Jade: I heard the festival will only be available to people who play Minecraft from a mobile device or computer, and not supported by people joining from a gaming console. Is that true?
Zach: It has something to do with the gaming consoles not being able to access a private IP, so we were not able to make that happen this go-around. But ideally, we’ll be able to support those in the future.
Jade: Do you guys plan to do more of these in the future, or is this one-off?
Devon: Jackie, our CEO - her background is in tech and Virtual reality. She won TechCrunch Disrupt in 2018 for this VR/AR application. Since then, she’s worked with a developer to build a technology to create virtual characters in VR using your phone. The long-term goal is not to produce only Minecraft events. The goal is to help artists create more direct and profitable revenue opportunities, where they can engage their online following. We want to create more of these experiences, and have spoken to many different platforms to create those types of opportunities in the future.
Jade: What advice do you have for artists or agents trying to break into these types of digital festivals or virtual events moving forward? What would be the best way for someone interested to catch your eyes and ears?
Zach: I know I’ll have a lot more advice after this is all over! I can’t speak for other more curated events, of course, we’re trying to have quality music, but also don’t want to become gatekeepers as I was saying before. We’re trying not to say "no" to people.
Jade: So could basically anyone pitch you guys a stage or concept in the future?
Devon: I’d say yes! We're open to working with anyone. We're a small team, but try to listen to as much stuff as we can, and give as many people opportunities as possible. This is not just a regular show. In real life, I would book you for a show and end up doing most of the promotion. But our business model for this festival is selling tickets through the artist. We don’t sell any of the tickets directly ourselves. Because it's a revenue share, the artist will only get out what they put in. That model in real-life doesn’t really work. The artists that we've seen have the most success with fans and with ticket sales are engaging their fans to help them build-out their stages, and enlisting them in the actual experience of the event.
Zach: Fans love creating art for their favorite artists. This takes it one step further- where an artist can have fans help create their avatars, or have a part in building the stage or world the artist will perform in. It really transcends just going to a show to watch your favorite artist and it’s more like, “I’m gonna help my favorite artist build something that we can all hang out in”. Looking at how artists can engage their fans, this really changes everything.
Jade: So most of the people that will be reading this are either artists, managers, or booking agents. Aren’t you guys doing some kind of 60/40 split with the artist? It would be great to better understand how the revenue share model is structured and how we can expect these types of events to be monetized in the future.
Devon: I’m glad you asked that actually. We are working with Mixcloud and paying out for all of the music rights for the music played during the festival - something a lot of other virtual events have not been able to do. The GA ticket price is $10. About $3 goes to Mixcloud for music rights, and the remaining $7 is split between us and the artist- with 60% going to the artist. We are also donating 15% of our remaining proceeds to 3 non-profits: Bye Bye Plastic, Campaign Zero, and Bail Project Fund. There will also be additional add-ons like VIP access and group camping which will also be split 60/40 with the artist. We’ve found that a lot of people are opting to go with the full experience, and paying up to $36 for the whole package. This first event is really a learning experience for us - to learn how this whole profit-sharing thing is actually going to work, and what attendees are willing to pay for the experience.
Zach: We’re working on general estimates of what server costs will end up being. We also wanted to ensure the artist would be getting the most from this. The remainder will go to cover development, marketing and server costs. There’s a lot of variables with the add-ons, and how much time people spend on the servers etc.
Jade: I’m sure it will all work out n the end! Thanks so much for sharing with us guys. I think a lot of people had questions as to how this will work, so we appreciate you spending time to fill in the blanks. We're looking forward to the festival and wish you the best of luck. Hoping to see more of these types of events in the future!
If you’d like to attend Blockfest, please support one of our own by following this ticket link and don’t miss Jade’s set on July 12th at the Upper Hour Stage!
The Advance began with the intention of creating community and dialogue around what the future of live entertainment looks like, how we are pinpointing places for growth, streamlining processes, highlighting advancements, and shaping it as a collective. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org