A Love Letter To The Newport Folk Festival
CelebrityAccess publisher Marc Gentilella leads a chorus of much-deserved praise for the iconic Newport Folk Festival.
by Marc Gentilella of CelebrityAccess
After the last Newport Folk Festival (NFF) in 2019, CelebrityAccess planned to give extensive coverage to one of America’s most iconic music festivals. You’ll notice I didn’t say iconic folk festival because I believe it is one of the most important “music festivals” in the world!
This article was originally intended to be published following the conclusion of the Newport Folk Festival in 2019, but we decided to wait till the dead of winter in hopes to bringing back the warmth and thoughts of a beautiful Newport summer day.
Unfortunately, the dead of last winter also birthed a global pandemic which brought the live touring industry to a halt, but now, with the Newport Folk Festival returning as in-person events this week, the timing seemed right.
Prior to starting CelebrityAccess, I was a concert promoter for 25 years. Despite working in the live events industry, I had never attended the NFF, until my wife recently dragged me to it four years ago and ever since, I’ve wondered, “what the hell – why had I never attended!?”
But here I am, getting ready to attend this weekend’s festival – and I say this to all in our industry – If you pass up a chance to perform for Jay Sweet at the Newport Folk Festival, you may be hurting your career, or the careers of the artists you represent – period!!!
I’d go so far as to say if you have to play for free – it could be the best investment you’ve ever made in your career or the careers of your clients.
In the worlds of Folk, Roots, and Americana music – Jay Sweet is a king/queen-maker.
Whether you love him, or hate him, (either because of his role as a gatekeeper for the Newport brand, or his tough negotiating stances), Jay Sweet has one responsibility – to keep this historic American festival thriving with a limited budget.
In all honesty, what I’ve witnessed firsthand with Jay and from those I’ve spoken to about his style over the years, is he’s not really disliked for being a tough negotiator because he really doesn’t have anything to negotiate with. He’s just effing “persistent” – like the proverb “If you don’t think something small can make a difference – you’ve never tried to sleep with a mosquito in the room, or in Jay’s case, and I say this with love, a bloodthirsty one.
Or as someone close to the organization told me, “We aren’t cheap because we wanna be and we NEVER skimp on helping when help is needed.”
In doing so he keeps ticket prices low, particularly in light of the quality of talent one gets to see over the three days of this jewel of a festival.
Those in the know realize Jay Sweet’s limited budget is roughly $700,000, a surprisingly small amount which might be enough to book a single headliner for a major festival in today’s market. Despite that the Newport Folk Festival consistently punches well above its weight class, bringing in an impressive array of artists that range from aspiring journeymen on track to being the next big thing, to established artists who have already become that next big thing.
At 2019’s NFF, Dolly Parton thought it was a good idea to perform (sans fee), where Brandi Carlile led The First All-Female Headlining ‘Collaboration’ at the last Newport Folk Festival.
Considering the depth, amount and quality of the performers that attend, most are probably playing for close to free (at least in relationship to what their normal performance fees consist of). There is a very good reason for that. The Fans – The Fans – The Fans!! There is nothing like them at any other festival I’ve ever attended. They could be the greatest street team – social media magnifiers and pure fan publicist influencers on the planet. If the fans of the NFF fall in love with you, you’ll be on a quick trajectory to blowing up your following.
When you combine this rabid fan base with someone like Jay Sweet, you have a combination that is – simply put – UNBEATABLE! When it comes to breaking an artist, reviving an artist career, or just reveling in the prowess of an artist at the pinnacle of their career, there is no better place you’d want to be performing at. It is a no-lose situation when it comes to performing at this incredible festival.
When I started writing this article, I came away so jazzed about what I experienced that I actually took a break before publishing this piece, because I wanted to see if my feelings would have changed and I can say – THEY HAVE NOT.
Jay Sweet is one of those rarified promoters, on a very short list in our industry, that shoots straight. There is no BS with Jay. What you see and hear from him is what you get.
Somewhere throughout his career, he’s learned to tell it exactly like it is.
In talking to many in our industry and that includes managers, agents, and most importantly the artists – the common theme weaved throughout all the conversations is TRUST. They trust Jay and they trust the fans at the Newport Folk Festival.
After attending the 60th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival in 2019 and interviewing and speaking with dozens of artists, every one of them says this is one of their favorites or most favorite places to perform, as well as partake in the camaraderie with their fellow peers and/or collaborate with them musically.
NFF is one of the few festivals you will find artists of all calibers casually walking amongst their fans without being bothered or approached in a way that is nothing but respectful. And we’re not talking C and D listers here, we are talking about almost every artist.
The festival is a non-profit. In short, not only is NFF a music-first fantasy land but that the reason for all the frugality and egalitarian spirit is because Newport’s foundation gives the money away, supporting more than 100 different music programs, chosen by the artists themselves. (Editor’s note; In the pandemic, they also gave out emergency aid grants to over 400 artists who applied.)
In an essay on the now-notorious Woodstock 50 Festival, industry pundit and longtime CelebrityAccess contributor Bob Lefsetz noted:
“‘As the Who once sang, this song is over, no one wants to sing it in the wide-open spaces, no one wants to sing it to the infinite sea. But the question is, are they searchin’ for a note, pure and easy, playing so free, like a breath rippling by?
“Actually, they are, they call it Newport Folk, off the radar but legendary, and continuous.”
A chorus of praise
But don’t take it from Bob and me, see what Sweet’s colleagues have to say:
From Judy Collins Manager:
The Newport Folk Festival has brought to light the newest and most inspiring musical gems throughout its 60 year history. In 1967, Pete Seeger gave the task to Judy Collins to curate and put together an emerging artist stage. Collins found two of the most impactful artists of our musical history – Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.
Jay Sweet has been continuing that tradition during his tenure at Newport Folk Festival with allowing artists like Brandi Carlile, Margo Price and many more an invitation to the world’s stage.
In early 2019, I started talking to Jay about how best to remind the historians of Judy Collin’s early role as curator and as a member of the Board of directors. We came up with the idea of joining the collaborative effort of the weekend and celebrating Collins illustrious career.
I couldn’t think if a more perfect tribute than to have the song that has defined a generation and was inspired by Collins be performed at Newport. Chis Funk of The Decemberist put together a unbelievable line up of artists to perform Suite: Judy Blue Eyes – Robin Pecknold,
Jason Isbell, Eric D. Johnson (the Shins; Fruit Bats) for “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at Newport Folk Festival. Additionally, Collins was given the opportunity to recreate her original interpretation and duet of Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn with Robin Pecknold.
As if this wasn’t enough, the real icing on the cake was the Saturday evening All Female showcase that Brandi Carlile curated. Not only did Judy Collins have an opportunity to perform her signature song, Both Sides Now, with the magical Brandi Carlile, Brandi personally talked about Judy’s 1967 involvement and her continued advocacy of causes. These were the incredible lengths Jay
went to help clarify Judy Collin’s role in the development Newport Folk Festival.
Katherine DePaul, Manager
From agent Jonathan Levine:
This year I had Kacey, Phil Lesh, The Milk Carton Kids, and Todd Snider. Last year I had Sturgill, Margo Price, The Lone Bellow, Colter Wall, and Tyler Childers.
We as an agency obviously had much more than that…
“Webster’s dictionary defines Indefatigable as: incapable of being tired out; not yielding to fatigue; untiring. Webster’s defines the word Passion as: a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything: ie, a passion for music.
Jay Sweet can best be described as the ultimate combination of both: Indefatigable and Passionate…”
Great seeing you again Marc,
From Mark Cunningham Manager at Red Light Management
Manager of Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen, etc…
I don’t know many people in this business who put their heart, soul and every ounce of themselves into what they do quite like Jay does. His commitment to making everything feels special to the fans and artists is unrivaled.
Newport Folk Festival is a big deal to so many artists, because of the rich history the festival has and also the collaborative space it creates for the artists whenever they are on site. The fans are there for all the right reasons and their enthusiasm for what goes into every single show at Newport makes it one of the premiere festivals every year.
Mark Cunningham | Red Light Management
Newport Folk is so much more than a music festival, it’s a keeper of roots music history. The lineup is always stacked with the best acts, young and old, but the moments that are created extend far beyond just the band performances. Unique collaborations, amazing fan energy and an unforgettable location make this one of the highlights of the festival season. We had a memorable set in front of a packed house with a special appearance by the Preservation Hall horns. I was also lucky enough to take part in the closing set, playing the banjo part for Rainbow Connection while Kermit the Frog and Jim James sang together backed by an all-star band. It was truly one of the coolest collaborations I have ever been a part of! Newport Folk Festival is such a magical event, and the Stringdusters were so very honored to be a part of it again this year.
The Infamous Stringdsusters
“Newport has always been on the right side of history” in her opening of her Saturday set at the festival in 2019.
Brandi Carlile | The Highwomen