Reclaiming Alternative: Why Don Giovanni’s festival is what the music world needs right now

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Pinkwash
Pinkwash | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Joe Steinhardt doesn’t mince words. The way he sees it, music festivals are destroying music.

“What I’ll dub the festival industrial complex is the antithesis of what music culture – of what culture – really is,” says the co-founder of the New Brunswick, NJ based punk label Don Giovanni Records.

“It’s basically a bunch of corporate sponsors and corporate bands being shuffled around through a couple booking agencies,” he says. “And that’s why you’ll see, every city, every festival has the same lineup. It’s sort of feels like what happened with radio. Clear Channel bought up all the stations and radio feels the same everywhere. ‘Look at all these local festivals!’ But it’s the same goddam bands playing every one, right?”

Steinhardt thinks there can and should be another way. This weekend, the New Alternative Music Festival kicks off at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey. A stacked lineup of DIY favorites will play the venue over the course of two days, with after-parties at Asbury Park Yacht Club and Angosta Lounge.

Appearing are indie scene heavy-hitters: Friday night’s bill is led by Screaming Females, Ought and a reunion of P.S. Eliot (the original project of sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Swearin’); on Saturday, Downtown Boys, Girlpool and Laura Stevenson cap off the event. Numerous Philly-regional acts are in the mix as well: Pinkwash, Trophy Wife, Moor Mother, Radiator Hospital.

Most notably: there are no corporate sponsorships. No stages “powered by” such-and-such energy drink. No car company logos on Snapchat filters and merch booths. Steinhardt’s goal was to create a true alternative to the corporate megafestival that has, over the past decade, come to dominate how fans experience live music — and how musicians make their living.

As the credo on the New Alternative website proclaims:

There is an alternative to music released and distributed by three multi-national corporations.
There is an alternative to music festivals as branded experience for millennial males.
There is an alternative to music steeped in sexism, racism, and homophobia.
There is an alternative to corporately managed bands.
There is an alternative to music as a commodity.
There is an alternative to corporately run music festivals.

“I’m trying to do everything as differently as possible,” Steinhardt says. “Which is really frustrating, since the festival industrial complex is so strong, people don’t really know how to operate in any other way sometimes.”

Don Giovanni was launched in Boston in 2003 by Steinhardt and Zack Gajewski, largely as a way to release music by their band Talk Hard. For the first few years, aside from their own records, they put out 7” singles from thrash bands in their circle. Steinhardt says he never really thought it would go beyond releasing his music and his friends’.

“To be totally honest, I probably would have given [the label] a more thoughtful name,” he laughs. “But what’s in a name, you know?”

As their roster expanded, bands like The Ergs! and Shellshag began to gain more scene prominence. In 2009, Don Giovanni put out Power Move, the third LP from Jersey punk power trio Screaming Females; Steinhardt had relocated to New Brunswick at that point, where the band had been making a name for itself locally, self-releasing its first two LPs and a 7”. Drummer Jarrett Dougherty remembers meeting him at shows and building a friendship. Steinhardt suggested working with the band on several occasions.

“At that point, we were very adamantly fine doing our own records, or so we thought,” remembers Dougherty. “But then, when we were on way home from a tour and had a few shows left, Joe showed up at a show in D.C. Which was unexpected. ‘Oh, wow. Joe’s here!’ He stayed over same place we were and talked a lot. And basically, he was just insistent that he could help us do stuff we didn’t have time to do for ourselves. We’ve worked with him ever since.”

Philly duo Pinkwash, who released the tremendous Collective Sigh on Don Giovanni this year, has a similar story of meeting Steinhardt, of all places, at a D.C. gig. It was 2014, one of their first performances as a band; they were opening for Priests, who was releasing its Bodies and Control and Money and Power 7” with Don Giovanni. Pinkwash had just released their tape, Your Cure Your Soil, with Priests’ label Sister Polygon. Singer-guitarist Joey Doubek remembers meeting Steinhardt at the gig and getting an excited email after the show, expressing interest in working together.

Steinhardt says that he’s never on the hunt for bands in a lurky A&R kind of way. When he’s at a show, he’s there because he wants to see the show and his friends who are performing.

“I definitely wait for [artists] to jump out at me,” he says. “Every year I always say we don’t have the capacity to work with any more artists and I have to not take on anybody new. And then I meet these people like Camae [Defstar, of Moor Mother] who I’m like, goddamn, I’ve got to work with this person.”

Steinhardt says he was introduced to Defstar first through her writing and poetry and was just bowled over. He found her equally compelling when he met her in person, and told her he’d be willing to work with her in whatever capacity she was interested.

“Truly, I feel like I work with people more than I work with bands and artists,” says Steinhardt.

Moor Mother’s Fetish Bones LP is out on Don Giovanni this week, and it’s a stunning mix of industrial / punk sound collage and vivid spoken word lyrics reflecting societal outrage.

Doubek says a lot of the characteristics that make New Alternative an exciting festival are the characteristics Don Giovanni a great label to work with.

“Joe puts a lot of emphasis in running his label and also his festival with a lot of DIY and punk ethics,” Doubek says. “He wants to be able to provide bands with the ability to have recordings and put them out there. He loves music, and he just wants to make things happen.”

Dougherty concurs: “Joe has always said the he is willing to do whatever we want to do. I can’t imagine a better situation than that. If at any point we wanted to leave, I know Joe would come to me and say ‘what are they offering? Let’s figure out how we can do it here instead.’”

As Dougherty notes, a lot of smaller indie labels sign bands, commit to a multi-album deal and hope to sell off the contract to someone bigger if the band takes off. That’s not the case with Don Giovanni, who doesn’t ‘sign’ bands as much as it works with them on a project-by-project basis. Steinhardt says artists working with Don Giovanni can come to him with any idea: a book, a tape, a record, a digital single, a piece of artwork.

“If I like working with the person, we’ll figure out how to get that thing made.”

“He wants to do a bunch of records with every band he works with and develop a sound and community,” Dougherty says. “And we’ve yet to get to a roadblock between the three of us and Joe that we haven’t been able to get through or around or develop.”

It’s a label of the sort that we in the music writing world like to call “well-curated” – if I find out an artist is signed to Don Giovanni, even if I’ve never heard of them, I’ve got a fair idea of the vibe and a hunch that I’ll dig them. I say this to Steinhardt, and he responds that he’s flattered, but isn’t too keen on the word “curate” – he doesn’t see it as any more than working with solid people.

“We’ve done 130 records,” he says. “I can’t vouch that you’re going to like all of it, but I can totally vouch for the people making it. I can vouch for the ethics. Same thing with the festival – I can’t tell you you’re going to like all 56 bands that are playing but I can tell you that every single band playing is ethically an artist you can feel comfortable getting behind and supporting them. And that’s something that’s really important to me in the label and the festival: you’re buying into these artists that really want to create an alternative culture and not just sell records and make money and make a living and stuff like that, that you hear about being so important these days.”

Steinhardt describes the label as documenting an independent music scene where all the participants already know each other and interact with each other.

“They’re not just these islands around the country that are united by Don Giovanni,” he says. “They’ve already united, and I’m just shining a spotlight on it to make everyone aware of the existence of this island that they’ve created, not me.”

Trophy Wife
Trophy Wife | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Philadelphia’s Trophy Wife is performing at New Alternative this weekend, and though they have not formally worked with Don Giovanni, they are peers. Singer-guitarist guitarist Diane Foglizzo says her introduction to the label came when the band played a show with Screaming Females at the now-defunct New Brunswick DIY space Meat Town USA. Trophy Wife was releasing its music through smaller labels, like 307 Knox and drummer Katy Otto’s Exotic Fever Records. The D.C. native says she really got to know Steinhardt after interviewing him for punk journal Maximum Rockandroll.

“After I did that interview, he’s been somebody who, as I’ve been doing things with my label, I can go to with thoughts and to bounce ideas off of,” Otto says. “Which is nice, because I don’t think I have a lot of folks that I can do that with. I’m just doing a small label by myself in my basement.”

Some artists at New Alternative, like Trophy Wife and Moor Mother, are DIY to the core – they almost exclusively play basements and art spaces and community-organized gatherings. This event is a bigger-scale version of what they normally do. Other artists are bigger in profile, and do occasionally cross over into the megafestival world and more mainstream sorts of touring – they work with PR teams and booking agents using traditional industry means. For them, the festival is a breath of fresh air, an oasis of purity in an often difficult industry.

Steinhardt doesn’t fault bands who choose the latter path with their careers. But he’s very direct about the effect.

“What that does is build barriers between communities. So I can’t just reach out to bands and put on shows and more,” he says. “I don’t necessarily think it’s malicious, but it’s definitely what happened. You can’t communicate any other way these days.”

I suggest that, when following an artist’s career from basements to bigger spaces, one often wants to see them grow, to be successful and have their music to be heard by more people. These industry frustrations can be the baggage of success, of reaching that proverbial next level that artists strive for.

“But that’s actually my question. Is that success?” Steinhardt asks. “Is that real? Or is that just this artificial wall that’s been put up to get something? I know a lot of extremely successful people who I can just call up or email right now and get an answer. And I don’t just mean ones that I know, I mean ones I don’t know – they’re highly accessible. And I know people that aren’t that successful who put up all these walls and barriers.”

He pauses, reflects for a second, and adds, “That’s the goal of the festival. To highlight how we really need to rethink some of this stuff.”

Doubek has seen both sides of it. Though Pinkwash does not work with booking agents – their tours are self-booked, either by him or drummer Ashley Arnwine – it has been the support act on tours with Ought in 2014 and Waxahatchee in 2015 and 2016, tours where the headliners do work through agencies.

“I think it’s always kind of a push and pull because some of the best shows Pinkwash has ever played have been DIY shows, basement shows in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “On the flipside, some gigs that we have done support for have been very poorly attended but we still got paid well. So it’s this weird thing where we’re playing a show that’s booked by an agency that’s going to give you a certain amount of money…it helps monetarily, but it doesn’t necessarily make you feel good that you’re taking money while a club is losing money that night by hosting a show. And it’s not very fun because there aren’t many people there to see it.”

Dougherty says it’s all about learning, about demystifying various aspects of the business side of being in a band, and then knowing your limitations. For years, Screaming Females was a completely self-run operation, from the studio to the stage; to date, he says, they operate without a manager. But over time, the band has worked with booking agents, publicists and others to shoulder some of the burden of being a full-time musicians.

“Yeah, we’ve worked with producers,” Dougherty says. “We’ve worked with engineers. We’ve played sponsored shows before, but largely the way we’ve interacted with those things is different than what a lot younger bands right now experience. From a purely business end, we hire people.”

When Screaming Females self-booked its part of a tour with The Dead Weather in 2009, Dougherty remembers being on the phone yelling at folks on the other end about contracts. “I realized it was not a great use of our time at that point,” he says.

But, Dougherty continues, their decision to work with booking agencies is different from upstart bands doing the same thing when they haven’t yet gone it alone.

“I am afraid for younger bands because I see them immediately outsource all that stuff,” Dougherty adds. “They’re not going to learn how to do it, and they’re not going to know if they’re getting screwed.”

Laura Stevenson | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Laura Stevenson performing at Firefly | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Foglizzo laughs along with Otto when I ask about Trophy Wife’s experience with the more mainstream side of the industry; their band, she says, doesn’t get invited to the mainstream.

“We can let you know next time Bonnaroo comes hollering at us,” Foglizzo says.

But she totally gets the appeal in playing those bigger gigs.

“Those festivals do reach a lot of people,” Foglizzo says. “And when people are trying to survive and are making music as their full time thing, I totally understand why they would be like, ‘yes, if you can guarantee me a certain amount of money and I will perform for 10,000 people, why not?’ People can make those choices about how and where they want to present their music.”

But she digs how, for this year anyway, some of those bands have a space like New Alternative to return to, where they can play with their friends and “other bands that feel more in political and musical alignment with them. I feel lucky that we get to play a lot of things like Ladyfest that are a little more in line with this kind of event.”

One big way that New Alternative differentiates itself, in a visual sense: its poster lists the lineup in alphabetical order, all artists in the same font size. It’s the opposite of the stereotypical music festival poster, where the headliner names for each day sit up top in huge type and the bands playing the fifth stage at 2 p.m. are in teeny tiny type at the bottom. Steinhardt says this was absolutely intentional.

“All that stuff is negotiated for,” he says. “Especially the big festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, your agent is negotiating for your font size. That is, like, a thing.”

Another important visual: Steinhardt has tried to keep Don Giovanni’s own branding to a minimum. Though the label is not even remotely a multi-national on the same level as, say, Converse, it is still indeed a business – and has had to wrestle with its own role as a business organizing a festival intended to rethink the role of businesses in music. On the festival poster, its name is in modest type up top, where it is listed as the presenter; its logo is nowhere to be found.

New Alternative Music Festival poster | via dongiovannirecords.com

“To be honest, the only reason I have kept it on there, and kept everything saying ‘Don Giovanni presents,’ is because I don’t want people to get the impression that ‘Joe from Don Giovanni is starting a music festival.’ I mean, I’m doing it. I do all of Don Giovanni. I just don’t want people to think that I’m personally branching out. This is an extension of the label.”

If anything, he says, the label will have a booth on the second floor of Convention Hall with a handful of other community vendors. “I’ll probably hand out stickers too,” he says. “But I’ll probably forget because I’ll probably be too busy.”

The artists, for their part, are stoked.

“I just think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Doubek enthuses. “The focus is on seeing a ton of bands play, and then you can sit out by the beach. It’s pretty ideal in a lot of ways. It will be very busy because it is a festival, but it will feel a lot better to play that than play a SXSW showcase, which is a very hectic environment and a very hectic show.”

Dougherty says fans will see something at New Alternative that doesn’t happen in your average festival: “a really genuine community moment.”

“It’s really going to bring a lot of voices to a stage that often wouldn’t get offered to other types of events,” he says. “Largely because they don’t have managers working the inside scoop to get them slots on these things.”

But, Dougherty continues, if Screaming Females happen to play a sponsored festival, they get onstage and play the best show they can. If they’re on a basement gig, they get onstage and play the best show they can.

“We rarely look at a show sand are like ‘ugh, I can’t believe we have to be here,’” he says. Plus, Dougherty adds, it’s an awesome music festival in Jersey. “This is where we came from,” he says. “It’s like a homecoming.”

Steinhardt says that, for his part, New Alternative is a one-time thing. But at the same time, he suggests that somebody else could take up the torch.

“I don’t own it,” he says. “Someone can run a New Alternative music festival again next year, they can call it the same thing. I’d like them to keep the spirit of the festival…and not just call it that and then have it be everything that this is not.”

But, he says, it all goes back to the self-reliance aspect of punk and DIY.

“Anyone can use this same set of rules to book a music festival,” he says. “To call up bands, get them to play. And hopefully they do, because I will not. I have to get back to the other stuff I do.”

Namely, the future of Don Giovanni. Right now, Steinhardt worries about the looming spectre of streaming, and how that will affect independent music. It’s true, Don Giovanni has a catalog physical merch that people do actually buy. But as Steinhardt notes, right now he’s selling vinyl largely to dudes in their 30s. How about the music fans who are teens and twentysomethings today? Will they buy vinyl in their 30s? Probably not, he thinks.

“I think we’re trending towards a digital world, because all these people who are younger want to listen to music digitally,” Steinhardt says. ”And I think that’s great, there’s a lot of positive environmental impact there. I feel very guilty with the amount of physical stuff we make, so if there was this world where we could make digital stuff and it’d have the same impact on people’s lives, I think that’d be great.”

But he does not see that happening any time soon, and he can’t predict what exactly the future will hold. “But I can tell you the future is trending towards digital music, probably streaming music, because cause tech companies have so much control over how we listen to music, and it’s all financially dominated.”

Which, for a smaller label like Don Giovanni, is kind of terrifying. “They’re going to wield their power and they’re going to wield it against independent labels they don’t control.”

Bandcamp rarely, if ever, gets mentioned in the Apple v. Spotify v. Tidal streaming wars, and it is a place where numerous independent artists have launched their careers – including Philly’s Alex G and Radiator Hospital. Don Giovanni is an avid user of Bandcamp, and Steinhardt loves the platform personally.

“But you have to have more than Bandcamp,” he says. “You can’t just rely on the cool people to stay cool forever, and if there’s only one of them, it could be a major problem.”

“We need more Bandcamps,” he reasons. “We need the ability for everyone to make a Bandcamp. I want to be able to make my own Bandcamp.”

Looking at the landscape, Trophy Wife’s Otto says that she isn’t completely megafestival averse. As a music fan, she genuinely looks forward to hearing who’s playing Bonnaroo on any given year, even though the mechanizations of the festival offer plenty to be critical of.

But she also appreciates that with New Alternative, Don Giovanni and Steinhardt are proving that something can exist outside of that.

“For me, part of what was so valuable about growing up in the music community in D.C. was that I saw so many people around me getting the tools and information to put on their own event and not wait for permission,” she says. “Just making it happen. It’s making me think it might be really neat, after this is over, if there’s a way [for Steinhardt] to share information about how he did it, maybe a blog or something. That’s exciting to me, that he could help provide an example for how something like this can be done on its own, without those resources.”

The New Alternative Festival happens in Asbury Park, NJ on Friday, September 16 and Saturday, September 17. Tickets and more information on the festival can be found here.

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