IN THIS INTERVIEW:
Quillan George - Talent Buyer, Music Production and Marketing Director
Zach Allott - Event Production, Year Round Operations, and Creative Direction
Colby Sears - Event Production Management
Casey Joseph - Social Media, Public Relations, and Event M.C.
OTHER MEMBERS OF OTIS:
Austin Garrett - Facilities Coordinator
Leanne Galletly - Secretary; Archivist; Administrative Coordinator
Patrick Dodge - Merchandise Manager
Colin Frost - Volunteer Coordinator
Tom Lyga - Street Team Manager
Brian Somers - Sustainability Coordinator
Joe Fortugno - Chief Financial Officer & Music Production Manager
Ryan Forde - Graphic Designer; DJ Four-D
Evan Litsios - Copywriter; Marketing & PR Staff
George Watts - Videographer; Media Director
Interview by: Matt McGinnis
THE OTIS MOUNTAIN GET DOWN
is a decidedly different kind of music festival. Positioned in stark contrast to modern day music festivals that strive to feature the biggest acts and draw the largest audiences, the crew behind the Otis Mountain Get Down have shirked the notion that bigger is always better. In other words, they’re adamant believers in quality over quantity and have turned this ideology into a highly curated music festival that invites a selection of indie music acts who are on the verge of breaking through to perform in a remote Adirondack setting. What’s even more interesting though, is the story of how fourteen college friends took a simple idea and have turned it into a full blown event that welcomes thousands of people on an annual basis. With the fourth Otis Mountain Get Down set to take place in just a couple of weeks, it seemed like the perfect time to get to know the people and the story behind the event.
So let’s start with who everyone is, and what your individual roles are:
Quillan: I’m Quillan, my role is the Talent buyer as well as the Music Production and Marketing Director. So booking the music as well as scheduling the music and working with sound and light teams to make that happen and then overseeing the marketing world.
Colby: I work on event production management so mainly working with vendors, helping develop contracts, working with the facilities guys and establishing medical plans and things of that nature.
Zach: So I do a lot of things, but I help Colby a lot with the event production side of things and also general oversight of the event and year round operations as well. [Casey: And also design work] Yeah, and also design and creative direction for the event.
Casey: I coordinate our social media and public relations efforts, and I’m also the MC on the day of the festival.
Solid, sounds like you guys all play crucial roles. So, this is the fourth year of the Otis Mountain Get Down right?
Alright, so for anyone who’s just hearing about this festival for the first time, how would you describe the event?
Quillan: Oh man.
Casey: 2,000 friends hanging out.
Quillan: Yeah, 2,000 friendly faces enjoying a beautiful place together, listening to a lot of music that they probably have never even heard. Just really getting out and experiencing something that is a little bit out of the norm in terms of the usual festival culture.
The Otis Mountain Get Down isn’t the first music festival to be hosted at Otis. Zach, can you talk a bit about your history with the mountain and the events there over the years?
Zach: Yeah, so it was a bluegrass festival for six or seven years in the early to mid 2000’s. It was just a small scale roots and bluegrass festival and it was a lot of regional with some national acts. It was something that my dad ran for those years before he got caught up with other things and decided to stop doing it. But he pretty much built up all of the infrastructure and stages that are there which has helped us to be able to do this. He’s been a massive help to us in making this happen.
How did the Otis Mountain Get Down come to be? What was the original dream or goal of the event?
Casey: Well, it really started at The Range. I had an open bedroom, Quillan needed a place to sublet for the summertime and there was an empty place at my spot, so he moved in. Zach lived there as well and Quillan happened to be connected to a lot of bands within Burlington so we ended up hosting a lot of shows in our basement. One day Zach and Quillan went over to Otis and Quillan saw all of the stages and said, “Oh, we should have a party out here and get 2-3 bands.” That snowballed into getting like 30 bands within a month and the first Otis Mountain Get Down just kind of happened.
Quillan: Yeah, it kind of just blew up you know? From when we started initially planning that first time on the property- just seeing it and thinking, “well, we’ve been having all of these bands playing in the basement. We have all of these connections and know a lot of good people that want to get together, so let’s try to do this.” Then as soon as we put it out on the internet it started blowing up. For our first year we started with a lower expectation- like Casey said, just a few bands and a couple hundred people. It ended up being about 30 bands and 700 people.
Casey: I remember there was a critical point when we started. We thought, “yeah, it’ll be a party kind of thing.” And then we started talking to a bunch of friends, mostly people who are involved in Otis now, and we all realized, “this is more than just a party.” That’s kind of when we decided to do it. So we did it all in like 6 weeks. It was ridiculous.
So it was kind of the four of you guys all at once just realizing, “Let’s make this happen?”
Zach: Well even more than that. It was probably like 13 people.
Casey: Yeah, there’s more than just us who help out. It ended up being really cool.
How many people are actually involved in putting on the show at an organizational level then?
Zach: So we’re organized as a co-op. Essentially we have 14 members as it is right now, and those 14 people are involved more or less year round. You know, talking about the event and helping organize it. Since it’s a co-op, it is possible for us to add members, although we try to keep it to the people who want to be involved, help out, and bring this festival together. Then I’d say beyond that, for the weekend of, I’d say we’ll have about 60 volunteers this year, and then there’s a full production team that Quillan works with as well. So there’s definitely a lot of people involved and it wouldn’t be possible without all of those people.
That’s cool, I didn’t know about the co-op structure, that’s a dope way to do it.
Zach: Yeah I mean at first when we were starting to do it, we were trying to figure out a structure so we could make it a business. Really, we were just looking at all of our friends who wanted to help make this happen and we wanted to figure out a business structure that would include everyone. It turned out that a co-op just really made the most sense for us.
So I've talked to some people who’ve been in past years, and one of the recurring highlights that people always mention is the atmosphere of the event. It’s not only a tight knit vibe, but you guys really go the extra mile with creating a memorable venue in terms of not only the hand built stages but also putting other props out in the woods. I was wondering if you guys could elaborate on how you come up with some of those ideas and what it takes to get that all done?
Colby: Yeah, I think I could speak to that a little. I think a lot of the ideas really come out in our weekly meetings. We actually have a lot of brainstorming that goes on based off of those weekly meetings. We structure it so that everyone in the co-op gets a say, then we hear those ideas out and figure out whether or not they’re doable. If the group feels like it makes sense, we run with it. It’s actually really diplomatic. It makes for a cool, organizational structure you know?
Yeah, it seems like everyone gets to be involved that way.
Quillan: Yeah, another interesting thing that’s made things happen is that we all just go out to Otis and spend time there. Just hanging out with everybody and having work days. We look at different parts of the property and think like, “Oh, we could do this here and that there.” Or you know, just starting to work on something and letting it evolve. For example, we built a little structure in the woods that’s unofficially called, “The Safety Gate.” In 2014 it was just a little thing, but then it fell down so in 2015 we made it three times as big. Or this past year we changed one of the stages to be, “The Range Stage.” Every year we just look at what we can do better and try to think of things that would make the event more unique and stay true to what we’re trying to do. A lot of it comes from just being there and letting the atmosphere spark creativity, letting us do interesting things.
What part of the process is the most enjoyable? It seems like building out the venue is pretty fun, but maybe selecting musicians could be at the top of the list as well?
Colby: I would say one of the coolest parts is just working with our team. As a group of 14 people, there are a lot of personalities and a lot of opinions. Being able to work through that structure is a great learning experience. We’ve all stayed really good friends throughout this whole process and I think that anyone who owns a business and understands a business realizes some of the hazards that that can create. The fact that everyone is so awesome and willing to talk through every scenario and look at every idea and approach it in a way that makes sense, I think that’s the coolest part for me. To see an idea come out in a meeting and then to actually see it on-site. It’s huge. We really couldn’t do it without all of these people.
"The week before hand when the team gets together and we’re all just hanging out and making shit happen all day everyday. To me, that’s one of my favorite parts."
Quillan: I think another thing, especially as the years have gone on, is that it’s become like a family reunion for everyone that we’ve known in Burlington or the greater area. A lot of us have moved away and are doing other things now, but you see so many other friends who are flying in from all over the country to come back and be together. No matter where you’re walking on that site, you know people everywhere. It’s a community of people that all of us have different connections with that are all coming together. I think especially coming into this year and last year most noticeably it’s been cool seeing that aspect.
Casey: I think that’s the coolest part for me as well. I always say that the Otis Mountain Get Down is the closest I’ll ever come to having all of my friends together in one spot. That’s worth doing it by itself.
Zach: Yeah, I would say building off of that, it is super cool to see the event coming together in the days before hand. The week before hand when the team gets together and we’re all just hanging out and making shit happen all day everyday. To me, that’s one of my favorite parts. Then the 48 hours before the festival when everything just comes together and all of the sudden it’s this event. It’s pretty cool.
Yeah I hear that. The week leading up to an event is definitely exciting. It’s the most work, but most exciting as well.
So, in my experience, the more variables a project has, the more things there are that could possibly go wrong. In hosting a music festival, I can’t even imagine how many different things you guys have to juggle and make sure are on point to be able to pull this off. Have there been any particularly scary or tense moments throughout the years that have given you guys pause or made you think, “oh shit, this might not all work out?”
Zach: I would say that we’ve definitely had some learning moments or wake up calls over the years. Going into this year, I would say that I feel the most comfortable ever. We’ve run into things in the past, but after all of these years we’re starting to get it and things are starting to click. I would just say that in general we’ve learned a ton and that there’s so many things that can go wrong. It’s kind of hard to ever have a full grasp on everything, so we just try to be as prepared as we possibly can.
Colby: Yeah, I guess my only comment there is that it’s not an event if you didn’t have to move things twice. There’s definitely a lot of learning that takes place and a huge learning curve, but realistically that learning curve is what makes it fun. It always ends up being a great time, no matter if something goes the exact way we plan or if there’s a little bit of a variable. We always end up having a great time and it’s been so much fun over the past four years. Really, that’s what we’re looking for at the end of the day.
Zach: I’d say there’s certainly been- I mean, the event’s become about 2,000 people which is twice the size of Elizabethtown [which is where Otis is]. So it’s like 48 hours where you have to sustain 2,000 people. There’s definitely moments where we've had to make sure there were enough supplies. In the past there’s been times where it was hard to make sure we had enough water for example, so this year we’re planning on having a public water source. Making sure that everyone has everything they need to be sustainable, and also not leave much of a footprint on the area- that’s super hard. It’s definitely been a learning process.
I imagine that can be difficult, especially if you’re doubling the size of the town that it’s in.
Quillan: It helps that the people we’re bringing in take care of each other. That makes our lives a million times easier. There are crowds at other festivals where that’s not really the case, but our crowd makes it pretty easy for us to not have to be too worried about most things. If you let people be themselves and treat them well, then they’ll typically treat the people around them well and it makes life easy.
Sticking with the theme of having a million things to manage with an event like this, could you tell us what the toughest hurdle to overcome has been? You might’ve already touched on this, but I’m thinking along the lines of logistics of getting bands there, booking bands, maybe the permitting process. I imagine there’s been some sort of hurdle that’s been pretty tough to overcome- especially in that first year.
Zach: Yeah, I mean, there wasn’t a lot of stuff. I’d say personally for me it was getting the business structure up and running. That was super complicated and a pretty big hurdle over the past four years. Even from the first year though, there were things to learn, but as far as putting the event on there weren’t any massive hurdles.
Quillan: I think we’ve got a lot of smart people who are fast learners and that’s kind of been the key to making it not too stressful or too much of a hurdle. I definitely think one thing that took us a long time to get through was, as Zach said, getting our business structure and building an operating agreement because that’s a lot of paper and revisions. Layers of stuff. That was definitely a process to get 14 people together to read through all of that.
Casey: Especially 14 twenty somethings.
Quillan: Right. But it wasn’t something that at any point anybody didn’t think we could do. Everyone was really optimistic and it makes it so that there’s really not a limit to what we can do, within reason.
Let’s talk about this year’s event. The whole goal of the Otis Mountain Get Down is to introduce people to new music. In the past, Zach’s described it as a “discovery event.” Are there any bands in particular that you guys are excited to share with people at this year’s event?
Quillan: [Laughs] We were just talking about that this morning. It’s funny because we were asking everyone on the team, and everyone had different answers which I think is really great. Personally, I’m really excited to have Mal Devisa this year, as well as Khruangbin and Ron Gallo. It’s really hard to narrow it down, but those are three that I think will be standouts for me. Khruangbin is cool because they’re from Texas, Mal Devisa’s just, I think, very different.
Casey: Yeah, she’s a 19 year old solo act who plays bass and is an amazing vocalist as well as a viciously talented MC.
Quillan: Yeah, she rips everything. I think one thing that’s going to be really good this year is that we just stepped up our third stage which is now “The Range Stage,” to have more music during the day. Last year was the first year we really tried doing music there and then this year there’s a lot more programming so that’s also just really exciting as a stage in general.
Casey: I’m stoked to have Kepa. He’s a professional skateboarder from Bayonne, France, he’s pro for Vans and Element, and I guess last Fall he hurt his back and was out for a bulk of his skate season so he took up music and became a professional musician. He just happened to be in the area on the same weekend, so it’ll be really cool to have him. I think he’ll be our first international act, not including Canada.
Quillan: Right, we broke into Canada last year.
After this year, you guys will have four successful festivals under your belt. At that point, some would say that the next logical step for you would be to start attracting bigger names and bigger crowds. But, it doesn’t seem like that’s necessarily the direction you want to take. Can you talk about where you see the festival going, and how close you think you are to what you imagine as putting on the ideal version of the Otis Mountain Get Down?
Zach: Well, I would say that there are limitations on how many people we can have at the venue in the first place, which we haven’t quite gotten to yet, but there are also limitations on how sustainable the festival could be. Once you get to the bigger numbers it gets so much harder to sustain or make sure that the property doesn’t get damaged. I would say as far as specific numbers go, we’re getting pretty close to where we want to be at. You’re not going to see us being a 5,000 person event. Let’s put it that way. A lot of that is about making the space more manageable and making it a better experience. I think the event’s just better when it’s more manageable.
As far as the direction of the event, I’d personally like to see it be more than just a music festival for the weekend. We’re working on having more art installations and activities in general. You know, develop the trails a lot more to include hiking or mountain biking, to make it more than just showing up for another music festival. We want to make it an all inclusive weekend.
"I don’t think the goal will ever be to get big bands... There’s enough festivals that do that and there’s plenty of places for people to go and see that. I’m more interested in booking bands that people haven’t seen or wouldn’t experience otherwise"
Quillan: Yeah, I mean speaking on capacity I think it all goes back to keeping people comfortable. We’ve been expanding our capacity a bit each year and seeing how it feels. I’m thinking this year, or maybe even next year, we’re going to really figure out just what that sweet spot is where people are comfortable and have space, yet there’s a lot of people there. In terms of the direction for the future, I think once we hit that number and we start to keep it at a reasonable and sustainable size, we’ll just try to make the event better and better each year. Then, year round, we’re starting to figure out how to do more things. We’ll probably do a few more shows this year that we’ll present at different venues. But yeah, I don’t think the goal will ever be to get big bands. At least in my mind. There’s enough festivals that do that and there’s plenty of places for people to go and see that. I’m more interested in booking bands that people haven’t seen or wouldn’t experience otherwise as oppose to trying to get headline acts. I think the goal is to sell tickets based on an entire experience instead of a big name on a bill.
Casey: Plus, people have the opportunity to see these acts throughout the year. A lot of our bands will end up playing in the area again so it’s a chance to introduce bands to fans and fans to bands. As a direction I think it could be cool to go in the direction that Waking Windows has gone and do other events during the year.
Colby: I think the key in all of this is realistically that, for the past four years, the growth of Otis has been so organic. We all have a different idea of what we want, and that’s why working with a communal group we’re able to figure out the overall direction of Otis. I’d say it’s definitely a very organic process, which is what I thoroughly enjoy about it.
Yeah that definitely seems to be what gives it the personality that it has. Again, just being like a real communal kind of thing.
Casey: Yeah, and I think that’s how Otis is anyways. Aside from the festival that we have, Otis exists every day of the year. During the winter time there’s a group of us who goes over there and skis and it’s still like an everyone adds to the community type of thing. Jeff (Allott) and other members of the community are always out there building mountain bike trails, improving the property, and just having fun. So it’s not like we just do this thing and then Otis goes to sleep for the whole year. That’s sort of just the natural vibe of Otis. There’s always people there helping the community grow.
So it kind of goes beyond the festival then.
How do you guys see the Otis Mountain Get Down integrating into your lives in the future? Do you hope to turn it into full fledged careers, or would you rather keep it as a yearly passion project that allows you to share your favorite bands with new audiences, regardless of money?
Colby: I want to say that, it’s never really been about funds, for me personally. I think that for a lot of the other members of Otis, this has been a really cool project that we’ve all gotten to work on throughout the entire year. A lot of us have full time jobs and still maintain running the festival on the side. I think we probably have a lot of different opinions here, but realistically it’s always been something that’s been a fun side project that we take very seriously and the end result comes out great in the end.
Zach: Yeah, I think even since the start, I mean we started this when we were all in college- and I think for most people involved it’s been a really cool project to help get employment as well. I would say a lot of us have ended up where we’re at because of our drive to make the festival happen in the first place. It’s been really, really cool to see. I’m pretty interested to see what the next step is too- if more people start going into music or event production as well. I mean, it’s definitely possible but even just by the nature of the fact that it is a co-op, it’s never really going to get to the point where it’s anyone’s sole income. It’s a communal project that we all do, and it can be anything that we want it to be. It can help jumpstart a career, or help someone gain a skill. If someone wants to take on a different aspect of the event to learn more about it, we’re totally open to that. I think there’s a lot of room for growth for everyone to kind of figure out what they want out of it.
Casey: Yeah, I would definitely echo a lot of what Zach said. It’s been a massive resume builder, and you get to try and do whatever you’d like to in a lot of ways- taking on new projects and things like that. It’s not about making money. The reward is having the event and bringing all of our friends together for one massive weekend, along with about 30 bands and all of this other good stuff. For me, Otis is kind of like New Years. It’s how I gauge the start and end of the year.
Colby: I like that Casey, that’s good.
Yeah, so it kind of speaks to how just being generally ambitious and doing something with your life, making moves, leads to good things- whether or not your specific project is designed to make a profit.
Cool, so let’s wrap this up with some details. Where and when is the Get Down taking place, and how much do tickets cost?
Casey: It’s happening September 9th - 11th in Elizabethtown, NY. Tickets are currently $50 until September 1st, when they become $60. You can buy tickets online, or in person at the Hemetic Trading Post and Pure Pop in Burlington, VT.
That price includes multiple nights?
Casey: It includes the entire weekend, the camping, and kids 12 and under are free.
Quillan: Parking is included in that too.
What should people expect to bring to Otis to be prepared for the weekend?
Casey: Some warm clothes, camping gear, your own beverages, a reusable water bottle, and a good attitude.
Quillan: No glass!
Colby: No glass, dogs, or fireworks. Those are the only rules.
Zach: And a Hemetic Koozie as well.
[Laughs] Yeah, we’ll plug that. So basically treat it like a camping trip with live music and events. Bring food, bring a tent.
[Editors Note: It wasn’t mentioned in the interview, but open fires also aren’t allowed. If you’re going to bring food your own, there will be a designated fire pit for that.]
If people were to run out of supplies would they be able to run down to Elizabethtown to restock? Is there a store there?
Casey: Yeah, there’s a Stewarts- they have everything.
Quillan: There’s a handful of stores in Elizabethtown that you can stock up on pretty much anything you need.