Interview: Ryan Murphy, Co-Founder of the Harvest of Hope Festival

The respective worlds of festivals and non-profits have more in common than you probably thought. Sleepless nights, endless phone calls, and that look from your wealthier friends and family that you’re wasting your time. In the end however, when it all works out, the reward always seems to be well worth the sweat, tears, and blood that the whole shebang brings. Even more so, when they combine forces, something surprising happens. They morph into a tour-de-force of part fundraiser and part three day party; in this case, with a punked out Lollapalooza of a lineup. That was the Harvest of Hope Festival‘s first year last March in St. Augustine, Florida, and the organizers have no intention of slowing things down.

Ever more important than the bands and the party though is the cause. The need to raise funds to help the migrant workers in Florida survive, and to fight for their rights. The Harvest of Hope Foundation is also there to raise awareness of how we get our food, and help put a human face back on what we take for granted in the grocery stores. That’s the job that the Foundation took on 15 years ago.

The festival has taken on another hefty task though, to ask thousands of sweaty college kids to take a second and learn something, and surprisingly they do. That’s the beauty of it. That a festival can come from a cause, run off the local businesses, and pull together the kind of talent that could put them on top, and all in their first year — and you thought your job was tough!

Now ready for round two, the people behind the festival are as excited as ever. I had the chance to talk to one of the festival’s founders, Ryan Murphy, about his festival, the foundation, and discovering Florida’s exploding music scene.

So how did the idea to do a music festival as a foundation event come up?

I actually found out about the foundation through the masters program I was involved in. I do bilingual education and literacy research and I deal with farm worker children on the outskirts of Gainesville (FL) and this country. Harvest of Hope foundation helped do an after school literacy program that I was involved with. Phil Kellerman who created the foundation, I was totally blow away by what he did, and I wanted to support the foundation, not just with doing volunteer work, but help with raising funds because that’s a big part of it, and they’re in dyer need of funds.

I had worked the last 10, 11 years at No Idea Records here in Gainesville. And just you know, from playing in bands, and traveling in bands, and knowing bands, well I thought I could bring those two worlds together and start having benefit shows. That seemed like the most immediate and easy thing to do. So I started doing small benefit shows with local bands, and tried to guilt whatever friends I had in bands, the big one was Against Me! They were the first ones to really pick up on it and really appreciate what the foundation did. They played five or six benefit shows over the course of a couple months and made over 18,000 dollars for the foundation. It was absolutely amazing.

Around that time, about a year and half ago, I was like “We should really do a benefit show in St. Augustine with Against Me!” So I asked those guys, and they were into it. I know this guy Ryan Dettra who books for the Amphitheater in St. Augustine, he’s a big part of Harvest of Hope and co-organizes with me. He was doing shows at the Amphitheater as well as Café 11. I asked him about doing a benefit show there. He at that time had just taken over as general manager of the fairgrounds out there, and he was like “Hey, why don’t we just have a three day music festival?” I kinda laughed and was like “That’s really not what I was asking. I was asking to put on a benefit show… one night.” He was like, “Well you know a lot of bands, we can get this together. My crew who works here at the fairgrounds are all about your foundation and we’ll work as hard as we can to make this happen” Plus, we found out that as a non-profit putting on an event such as this we could get a grant through the county. Sure enough we had applied and they awarded us the most they had awarded anybody, which is crazy because we’re in the next county over, but they gave us 50,000 dollars to do the event. Once things started rolling we couldn’t really stop. We all put our heads together, and we scrambled and put a festival together.

So how has it been to run a charity festival in this economic climate? Has it gotten any easier since last year? Harder?

It’s kind of both, it’s interesting. Last year was really hard, especially when you’re trying to book bands. Bands needs to get paid, and they have to pay the people they work for, and that makes sense because we [the organizers] come from that world so we understand it. You know, when you say you want to throw this large charity event, it falls on deaf ears a lot of the time depending on who you’re talking to. But then you do get people who are interested, and kind of go out of their way.

Last year I was shocked at how many people came out of no where and said, “Hey, I want to be part of this, I want to volunteer my time.” Huge bands! It was really amazing and I felt really lucky. On the flip side of it, there was a lot of stuff that we needed — like more sponsorship. We really wanted to do less corporate sponsorship and have more socially aware companies coming in and helping us out. But none of those companies can afford it, or take a chance. We were getting a lot of, “Hey listen, we never heard of your festival and this is your first time doing it, so…”

Langerado was supposed to be the same weekend as us and they went under, and there was just a weird climate out there. We just had to do it. It was great, and it ran perfectly, and everyone just had an amazing time. We weren’t able to raise the money that we wanted for the foundation, but we somehow managed to pull through it and we’re doing it again. It’s easy now in some ways because people know we exist and know we can pull it off on one side. On the other side, there are those same people who assume that we were a big success if you’re trying to do this again, which is not the case. We’re doing it again because we enjoy doing it, and we do want to raise funds for the foundation, that’s the whole point.

Going into the second year, did you have to pull any more teeth to get people to sign on?

It’s weird, it’s both. There’s that first wave of people who didn’t get to be part of it last year. The bands who are just like, wow, we really need to be part of this. That filled up pretty easy and now we hit another crossroads and now we’re trying to go after some others and trying to pull it all together. It’s hard because a lot of these bands that we would like to get, they aren’t traveling because it’s hard out there right now to be traveling and touring. Times are tough with the recession, and we understand that. And then you understand that they need to get their bands money so we’re at that weird crossroad. Everyone understands, but it’s like, where do we go from here?

It’s good though, I have a good feeling about it. What I learned last year is everything is always last minute, but luckily we have a professional, awesome, huge hearted crew and we all kind of burn the midnight oil and lose a tone of sleep over it, but actually pull it off.

When you do get the bands to sign, how do they respond to the idea of this kind of event?

What really shocked me, it shouldn’t have, but it was nice that it did. When Phil [Kellerman] goes to speak, he goes to rotary clubs and he speaks to different groups of people, and he gets a lot of backlash when people want to talk about immigration and they want to talk about migrant workers. There’s a lot of misinformation out there that he has to go out and squash. Ever since we’ve been doing this festival, and getting fans, and everybody involved. Everybody wants to get behind it and believe in the cause which like I said, it shouldn’t be shocking to me, but it’s nice not to get some knuckle head remarks as you’re trying to get people involved in this, people being like, “I don’t wanna play a show for migrant workers.” Actually people were a lot more knowledgeable than I gave them credit.

Doing you think that the fans agree as well? How do you keep a foundations cause front and center during a big festival like this?

That’s a huge challenge. This year we’re hoping to do it a little better. Last year with all of us being overwhelmed with just the production of it, I think a lot of the message kind of got lost here and there. Not for the most part, I think everyone in the end walked away with something. What did shock me was that a ton of people would show up and would be like, “I had no idea what this was about, and I didn’t even really care. I came because I can camp and party and watch bands, but I actually learned a lot.” We did get a lot of that, which makes me feel better. We were trying to do something and we achieved it. This year we are going to make sure that the Harvest of Hope Foundation has a pretty prominent spot and is highlighted as much as possible. But I think it’s the second year, and there’s been at least enough press and enough stuff, so people kind of get the idea if they don’t get it fully.

How’s the festival been with the locals? How’ve they reacted to it?

Oh they’re great. St. Augustine loves it because, like I said, they gave us a 50,000-dollar grant, and the reason they took a chance on that is because they knew it was going to bring in a ton of people. 97% of the concertgoers were from outside the county. When we’re able to get statistics like that back to the county, oh they freak out. We bring in a lot of local businesses and a lot of local vendors and hire a lot of locals to work the event. It’s really interesting as far as where the fairgrounds are located too, geographically. It’s not even in St. Augustine, it’s in Elkton. But it’s surrounded by farm land, and a lot of those farms have migrant camps in the area so we defiantly met with a lot of the farmers in the area, and told them what we were all about. Some of the farmers really came out and wanted to support us because they wanted to show, that they hire migrant farm workers and they treat them well, with adequate housing, and fair pay. So there was a lot of cool reactions like that, a lot of people coming out and saying, “Hey listen, we want to show everybody that we’re an example of the right things to do with this labor source.”

Did any of the farmers want to go to the show?

There were a few there; there were a lot of workers too. We had ticket giveaways too. We were able to comp a bunch of the workers in the area, and do a bunch of stuff like that. It’s always hard though, you want to make it as all encompassing as possible, but you’re also like, “Well our main demographic is going to be young college students who want to go to a music festival.” We have to try and find a fine balance on how far we spread ourselves thin. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on around the festival. People in the community, a lot of the farmers and local businesses actually have a pre-fest dinner at one of the local restaurants not even a half mile away and we’ll raise like 5,000 dollars at that pre-fest dinner alone from local support.

You guys have also done a lot for the state as well, with a good chunk of your line up being from Florida. How has that music scene taken to the festival?

Um, it’s definitely interesting. I try to make sure we come from it in different angles, each person that’s working the festival. I know for me it’s easy just to fill it full of stuff that I’m immediately surrounded by. Working at No Idea Records, choices for me are going to be the ones in my face, or the bands I deal with, or all the local bands I see every day or are friends with, stuff like that. What was cool about last year was, I actually got exposed to a ton of bands I had never even had a chance to see or hear going into Tampa and South Florida. We’re kind of getting into that this year, and there’s been a ton of bands applying as well that we’ve had a chance to sort through and check out. It’s really cool to see. I guess once you get stuck in your bubble of what you do, you don’t realize how much else is out there. It’s kind of nice for me on personal level to get exposed to a ton of stuff I’ve never even heard of.

How much of that festival is local bands versus the amount of national acts you get.

That’s a good question. I would say…wow, I don’t know (laughs). I’ll have to look for that. It’s probably 64th. Maybe like six states, because even some of the ones that would come down and play for free, or were just supporting it, they were coming from California, New York, kind of all over the place. Those are still the extended friends and family so I kind of consider them part of that. Yeah, there are bands that on their own flew down like Strike Anywhere. Bands that were a great draw but were very supportive just trumped in on their own.

So, will there be any big changes for this year’s festival?

We were really happy. People seemed to really like 97% of what went down last year, so we’re keeping it the same. I know we’re tweaking the camping stuff, like we’re going to offer VIP camping because last year’s camping was kind of a Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome-kind of world. Some people are looking for a quieter spin, so we’re accommodating for that. We’re going to have four stages. Two of the bigger ones we have headlining we’ll have for the bigger acts. With the two small stages, last year one was covered with huge tent with Christmas lights and stuff, and that was probably everyone’s favorite. Once you got in there it had that intimate feel like a small club show, or like a basement show, kids just freaking out and singing a long. So we decided this year we’re going to have the two small stages covered in different degrees so you’ll be able to get out of the sun, you also have that cool intimate feel so even if there’s a few hundred kids stuffed under that tent, it feels like you’re at a small show.


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