When I tell you that Mad Tea Party Jam is a music festival built on a foundation of love, that isn't just a corny line. Roughly 2 hours from DC & Baltimore, 2-1/2 from Pittsburgh, and 3-1/2 from Philadelphia in a town called Artemas, PA, industry staples, Taco and Elise Olmstead (co-founders of music magazine, The Jamwich) celebrate their wedding anniversary with some incredible bands and a few thousand of their closest friends (pretty savy way of ensuring your never forget your anniversary, if you ask me). Elise was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss what makes Mad Tea Party Jam one of the best small music festivals (or large wedding anniversary parties) in the Mid-Atlantic.
TLS: This year’s Mad Tea Party Jam is coming up on June 15th-18th in Artemas, PA. Can you talk a little about the size of the festival? Any rough idea how many people you’re expecting this year? Has the festival grown over the years or has attendance remained fairly consistent?
Elise: The Mad Tea Party is a small festival! We max out at about 3000 people and we like it that way. We've thrown around the idea of growing it upwards of 10,000 but we're still on the fence. We like that small festivals have an intimate, family vibe. It's easy to become friends and get close with everyone at the festival. The attendance has grown a little bit every year but we remain pretty consistent.
TLS: This year will be #6 for you guys. In a market that’s pretty saturated with music festivals, what do you see as the one or two keys to Mad Tea Party's success and longevity? What would you say you do better than other festivals?
Elise: One of the things that is most integral to our success is relationships. Taco is the best at this. He has a genuine interest and love for people, he can find something in common with a paper bag, I swear. Having our magazine The Jamwich, and being so immersed in festivals, shows, venues...we meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends. These bonds we create, we only work to strengthen as years go by. Our festival being our wedding anniversary also makes it a special and personal event. There are many festivals where the organizers are unknown or unseen, and we are the opposite. We are purposefully very present. I don't know if it's something we do better, but it's something we do differently that really makes an impact. Whether or not an attendee ever gets to meet us face-to-face, the intention of love that the event is built on ripples throughout every little heart in the place.
TLS: Looking back on when Mad Tea Party Jam was just getting started, what were some of the biggest lessons you learned in the first year or two? Any details you overlooked or things that you made sure to improve over the years?
Elise: We had no idea what we were doing when we did Mad Tea Party Jam 2, the first year it was an actual festival. The list of things that we overlooked is too immense to even tell you. We probably overlooked like 50% of the things we needed to plan properly. We didn't know what a production bible was, we didn't know how to properly run will call. We didn't have any barricades, enough people staffed so that anyone could sleep. So many of our staff members in the first couple of years just literally didn't sleep. My assistant and best friend Stevie would work the front gate until her voice was gone and she sounded like Minnie Mouse. So over the years we learned to staff more people, order more supplies, and try to plan earlier. There's always still things that are overlooked and kinks in the chain, but that's a festival.
TLS: I have not had the opportunity to attend Mad Tea Party Jam myself yet, but I have spoken to a few of my friends who have been, and everyone talks about how great the vibe is…intimate atmosphere, friendly, loving staff and attendees…how do you balance keeping a festival small and intimate with the business side of things…scaling in size, so the festival can be more financially successful.
Elise: Taco and I are both admittedly terrible at keeping the books and the budget straight. We're very vision-oriented people. Our partners at Four Quarters Farm stepped in to help us with a lot of this and kind of reel us in and keep us in line. What we've learned, which comes with a couple of years experience, is to figure out how many people are definitely going to come out, and then build your budget around that number. This system doesn't allow for a lot of growth, though, so risks have to be taken anyway. There's no guarantees, and throwing a festival is a really volatile career move. If you're thinking about throwing a festival, don't do it ha ha! It's incredibly rewarding, but we are still trying to pay back debts accrued over the years. We definitely don't do it for the money.
TLS: Are there any first time bands playing the festival this year that you’re especially excited about showcasing?
Elise: Yes! We always bring in a couple of new bands. This year we are incredibly excited about After Funk -- with the word "funk" being thrown around so much, the word is losing its luster, but these guys really revitalize the word! Chalk Dinosaur is an amazing producer, basically a one-man jam band, Earphorik is incredible, Erothyme has such a cool sound and vibe, Goose has a different folk-y flavor...there are so many new bands to discover this year.