This website, the Boston Compass, and Hassle shows are all run by volunteers. Even the three-day Hassle Fest next week is put on by regular folks like you and me who went to BRAIN Arts volunteer meetings and shared their skills, their labor, and their love for independent music.
“The first Hassle Fest was back in 2009. I was still booking shows on my own at that point,” says Dan Shea, BRAIN Arts Director. “It was basically trying to take it to the next level—I’d booked a million shows, I wanted to have an event to put Boston on the map, and to get people here excited about local music beyond just a regular show.”
Now in its seventh year, Hassle Fest has been a constant part of BRAIN Arts’ contribution to independent music in Boston. ”It is our attempt to put on a larger-scale festival, where we can bring in underground and independent artists from all over the country and from other countries, to intermingle with some of our local heroes and stalwarts from the New England and Boston scene,” says Shea. “We’re bringing artists together from all over, many of which have never been to Boston or rarely come to Boston, and getting them all in the room together over the course of a weekend,” says Shea. “That in and of itself is special.”
Getting a festival’s worth of bands booked is a lot of work. “The fifty or so bands we’re winding up with are coming from a lot of bands being asked. Hundreds,” says Shea. He hasn’t done it alone. When this reporter asked who to talk to about this story, Shea sent me a list of a dozen names. “I did a lot of the booking, my partner in all of this, Sam, had a hand in the booking. There was a lot of input from a lot of different people. especially from some of the folks who write about music for the Hassle website,” he says. “But Dan McMahon has been my right-hand person for the fest this year.”
“I heard about the Hassle through a friend of mine, when I moved up to Boston like three years ago,” says McMahon. “I was messing around online and I found the Hassle website, and emailed about Hassle meetings.” McMahon first got involved by selling ads for the Compass, and last year brought in some sponsors for Hassle Fest 6. “Then a few months ago, Dan asked me to email a couple of bands to get them on the lineup for Hassle Fest. So I started emailing bands.” Like many BRAIN Arts volunteer experiences, it snowballed. “Somehow, I can’t even remember how it morphed into like sponsorships and more in-depth fest planning.” I started reaching out to more bands, and then helping to find a venue.”
McMahon had some skills he brought to the Hassle. “I’m an event planner for like a paid 9-to-5, so planning events and talking to venues I have a lot of experience with.” But he has also been learning as he goes. “Talking about money and sponsorship deals and stuff, I’m making it up as I go along,” he says. “It’s definitely not like running some kind of metrics and doing some kind of market research, which would be cool to do and probably make it more efficient, but that’s not my skillset.”
Hassle Fest has bounced around between art centers, clubs, and the Elks Lodge. Finding a venue can be tricky, says Shea. “There are a very small number of right-sized venues in this town where we could do this,” he says. “It took a long time to negotiate and to figure out and to organize where this festival was going to happen.
McMahon helped find a home for Hassle Fest 7. “I emailed pretty much every place I could think of in the greater Boston area that might be a suitable venue for the fest, and ended up with Brighton Music Hall this year.”
“I met with the booker over there, a bunch of times. I drew up a contract and negotiated it with him” says McMahon. “It’s the most formal agreement we’ve had for a Hassle Fest to date I think. I think it’s a very good thing. We’ve had bumps in the road in the past that could have been easily resolved with a contract. Just different venues saying, ‘Your arrangement has changed.’ And we say ‘What do you mean, you verbally agreed to this.’ So now, it’s nice to know that both sides are covered with a contract.”
McMahon’s role plays to his strengths. “It’s weird, but I get some satisfaction out of working out the details, and working out the contract, and talking to the bands, just making sure everything’s planned out.” Being involved has made the festival that much more interesting. “I’m excited for the headliners, both because I helped book them, and because they’re awesome,” says McMahon.
Hassle Fest aims to go beyond music. “We try to make it an immersive experience,” says Shea. “This year, it’s looking to be the best we’ve ever been able to pull off in that regard by including other kinds of art—visual art, video art. We’ve stepped up our game.” These other components make sense, given the Hassle’s coverage of visual art and film.
“The visual component is not new, but it’s expanded. It’s bigger than ever,” says Shea. Part of that is because of this year’s new venue. “Brighton Music Hall is the best venue we’ve had to do this in, because it’s really a blank slate,” says Shea. “We’re trying to work with more artists who do different kinds of installations and sculptures. We’re still working on this, but we’re finding ways to work them into the fabric of the festival.”
And as with everything else in BRAIN Arts, part of that expanded visual component is possible because of volunteers. “We’ve had more help organizing the festival this year, so we’ve been able to pay more attention to this side.”
You’re probably sick of looking at the plugs for the Indiegogo, but it’s a really important piece of the fest. “The Indiegogo is a fundraiser for the fest, and a means of buying advance tickets for the fest,” says Shea. “It allows us to get some of the money we’d be getting from the fest before the fest, so we can be putting it towards the many costs of the fest. It’s a very expensive festival to put on. It’s costing us in the ballpark of $20,000 this year. And that’s with no one getting paid except the bands. Everyone at the organization is doing everything volunteer.”