Behind The Curtain: California Roots Festival

Behind The Curtain: California Roots Festival

Behind The Curtain: California Roots Music & Arts Festival

Cali-Roots Festival: From Concept to Creation
What are the premier festivals in the country? Let’s see, we have Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, SXSW, JazzFest, Wanderlust, Lallapalooza—the list goes on. There is another festival that may be added to this prestigious list sooner-than-later—namely, California Roots Music and Arts Festival.

The festival has quickly progressed over the last four years—starting as a one-day concert in 2010 and evolved into a three-day festival in 2013. Likewise, Cali-Roots is quickly becoming the premier festival in the scene, both for fans and bands alike. “We’re glad to participate…the scene they are tapping into is one we’ve always been a part of and maybe even helped establish. It’s a natural fit for us, and the Monterey area is a market we’ve been playing in since our beginnings,” says Rebelution drummer and Monterey-native Wesley Finley.

What is the story behind Cali-Roots? What are the factors behind pulling off a festival? What is in store for 2013? What are the future plans for the festival? These were all questions posed to the men behind the festival, including Cali-Roots mastermind Jeff Monser and veteran promoter and talent buyer Dan Sheehan.

Concept: One Big Party
The Cali-Roots story starts with Jeff Monser. A California native, artist and screen printer, Monser created the festival concept by combining his love for music, personal relationships with the bands and ability to throw a great party.

California Roots began as a clothing line and eventually Monser became a vendor at concerts across California. This enabled him to build relationships with many of the bands in the scene. “The bands, including those we book now, would come to my booth and I’d hook them up. Over time I became friends with the bands,” says Monser.

The more time he spent at festivals and concerts around the state, the more he admired the music lifestyle—which served as both inspiration and healer. “I moved all over the state as a kid. I come from a broken home and I’ve got a troubled past. The music is what helps me. The music is totally medicine for me,” reflects Monser.

As crazy as it sounds, the 2010 Cali-Roots Festival was literally Monser’s first show. He had never booked a band, let alone several, nor put on a concert or festival. The extent of Monser’s event planning experience involved throwing parties in high school. “The intention year one was to throw a big party,” laughs Monser.

As Monser would quickly learn, putting on a festival is just a bit more challenging than inviting your friends over, finding someone to buy you beer and covering your tracks. Cali-Roots had no investors, one sponsor and no start-up capital—unless you count Monser’s personal bank account. He worked at his screen printing shop and another full-time job to personally fund the festival. The biggest challenge for him was booking bands.

“I had never booked a band before. And I found out really quick that, with some bands, I had to deal with agents and managers…who educated me really quick! It wasn’t like calling up your friends,” laughs Monser. In the first year he was literally a one-man show and did everything, from event management, to booking, to promo.

Taking Slightly Stoopid and Pepper off the table because of budget constraints, Monser’s first choice for the inaugural festival was Rebelution. “I made an offer to them. I went in way too low and they laughed at me! And, they eventually passed,” says Monser.

After Rebelution passed, he pursued The Expendables because of the band’s huge local draw. After months of negotiations that ran until a month before the festival, The Expendables’ agent turned down the offer.

Now Monser was stuck. He had a festival with no headliner. But, as the old saying goes “timing is everything.” And as luck would have it, this was the same time The Dirty Heads’ single “Lay Me Down” hit the airways, causing Monser to jump at the opportunity to capitalize on the band’s huge momentum. The arraignment worked out for everyone, as “Lay Me Down” and The Dirty Heads went onto mainstream success, while adding immediate credibility to the festival—not-to-mention Monser secured a headliner.

In years two and three, Monser stepped up his game. First, he increased his team from five to twenty, and increased the number of volunteers from 50 to 75. Next, he added a second day to the festival to accommodate his “must have” bands, Rebelution, Iration, SOJA and Pepper—which increased the crowd size thirteen-fold from year one to three. Third, he cut down the physical size of the grounds to create a more “packed-in” feel for fans.

Fourth, in January 2012 Monser added veteran promoter and talent buyer Dan Sheehan to help with booking, planning and promotion. Sheehan was instrumental in laying the groundwork and building relationships with agents and management—enabling the festival to secure the top names in the scene.

Year Four: Fans Are Going to See the Progress
Capitalizing on the momentum of previous years, Monser and Sheehan look to expand the festival even further in year four. “Walking in the gates, fans are going to see the progress that we have made,” says Sheehan.

While many know it as “Cali-Roots,” the official name of the festival is “California Roots Music and Arts Festival.” Fans understand the “music” side of the festival, but in 2013 the organizers plan to expand the “art” portion of Cali-Roots.

“It is important that we live up to the ‘art’ side of it. We’ve got live painters and different murals going on this year. To watch an artist start with a blank canvas and create art is pretty amazing. We think it adds a lot to the overall experience,” says Sheehan.

Also exciting is the new addition of a (almost) zero-waste program, including compost, recycle and landfill. Given the potential environmental impacts of a three-day festival and the tens-of-thousands of fans consuming food and drinks, along with the aftereffects of both, it would be irresponsible not to consider such a plan.

“We aren’t there this year, but we are really trying to be as zero waste as possible….by 2014 we hope to be 100%. This year we plan to have people stationed (around the venue) to educate where to throw away their garbage. We plan to have water bottle stations throughout the venue, as well,” says Sheehan.

For all the new additions that were shared, there are some things still under wraps. “There are a couple more things that we are working on right now that will surprise and excite people. Hopefully we can get that wrapped up and start promoting it,” explains Sheehan.

Long Term: Can’t Keep Recycling the Same Line-Ups
As is the nature of business, there comes a time when saturation occurs and growth slows. There will come a time when recycling the same line-ups at Cali-Roots will stunt the festival’s growth.

So, Monser and Sheehan are planning to eventually expand the festival’s line-up to include bands outside the reggae-rock scene. “Bruno Mars would be great. Mac Miller would be great. I’d love to book Jack Johnson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ben Harper, State Radio or Michael Franti,” says Monser.

This is simply the long-term plan, so in the near-term there are still several bands in the reggae scene Monser and Sheehan are targeting for the next couple of years, including 311, and the Marley’s. “We would love to have a ‘Day of Marleys’ and get Damian, Ziggy, Stephen and the cousins out here!” exclaims Monser.

Additionally, the organizers want to educate the younger generation of fans about influential legends, like Don Carlos and Jimmy Cliff, and that the genre’s diversity isn’t just the “Cali-reggae-rock” sound. This includes targeting bands like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Seeed, Gentleman, Trombone Shorty, The Roots and Erykah Badu for future line-ups.

The long term viability of any festival goes beyond just a great line-up. It may require additional days or other “secondary” factors that support a great fan experience, like camping. Most festival goers associate the “true” festival experience with camping. This is a huge obstacle for Cali-Roots, given the Monterey Fairgrounds is not set-up for camping.

“It’s unfortunate. We are limiting our growth nationwide by not having camping. Camping is where it’s at. We are exploring moving venues, not anytime soon—but it’s definitely something we need to explore for our five year vision of the festival,” says Sheehan.

Along with camping there is consideration to add an additional day to the Festival, eventually making Cali-Roots four days like Bonnaroo. Likewise, there is potential that Cali-Roots may hit the road as a traveling festival, making stops in other music friendly markets.

In Closing: See You May 24th -26th, 2013
The story behind Cali-Roots started with Jeff Monser’s love for music and a party for 1,400 friends. The festival has quickly grown into one of the largest gatherings of the U.S. reggae scene, as organizers expect 30,000 fans to attend the 4th Annual festival this year, over Memorial day weekend. They even included the addition of an extra hour at the end of the night to showcase the light show.

“Cali Roots is a special festival because it’s got its finger on the pulse of what’s going on in American reggae music today. Every band is a part of this movement that has evolved from a few semi-underground, torch carrying reggae bands, to something that has quickly shot to the forefront of popular music culture…Cali-Roots represents that perfectly,” says The Green, guitarist/vocalist, Zion Thompson.

In many ways, with the growing popularity of American reggae music and the mainstream crossover potential of the Cali-reggae sound, Cali-Roots represents the potential of the collective scene and reggae community, and appears to be here to stay.

As many reggae music lovers from across the globe know, the 4th Annual California Roots (or Cali-Roots) Music and Arts Festival is scheduled for May 24, 25 and 26, 2013 in Monterey, California. You can pick up tickets by clicking on their Cali Roots links below…

California Roots Music & Arts Festival Links:
Cali Roots Website
Cali Roots Facebook
Cali Roots Twitter

Article By: Kit Chalberg
Photo By: David Norris
(Last Photo is of Pepper, May 27th, 2012 at the 3rd Annual Cali-Roots Fest)

Watch: A Cali Roots montage video from the 2 day 3rd annual festival back in May 2012. The video is set to SOJA’s “Gone Today”.