600 applicants. 140 spots.
600 applicants. 140 spots.
Comfest music organizers do not have math on their side. With each passing year, more and more bands apply to the three-day bohemian "Party with a Purpose," which leaves more bruised egos in its wake every summer. For 30 years, criteria for the selection process have been shrouded in mystery, forcing hundreds of local artists to fill in their own conspiracy theories as to why their band didn't get picked.
Whiny rockers around Columbus say they've been blacklisted because they didn't know somebody on the inside. Or because their politics didn't line up. Or because they pissed off somebody important. Or, strangely, because they didn't pick up enough trash.
They all might be on to something.
There is no guide-written or otherwise-that outlines how to land your band a spot in the coveted Comfest. But those seeking answers may want to start at the feet of the festival's Entertainment Committee.
Members of this somewhat anonymous 15-ish member all-volunteer board are like the Supreme Court justices of the annual music festival. Seemingly lifelong tenures begin with a recommendation from a standing committee member, EC members said this week. (And by the way-they're currently not seeking new blood.)
The group comprises a mix of artists with different areas of expertise ranging in age from twentysomethings to those already anticipating their Golden Buckeye Cards. They devote their lives-or at least a good chunk of their spring/summer evenings-to tirelessly roaming the streets of Columbus six or seven nights a week, taking in hundreds of live shows-sans cover charge, of course-to determine which acts will make the cut.
Oh, and don't look too hard for a published list of EC members-most prefer to remain under the radar so they're not lobbied personally.
Their long-digested performance schedule is penned during a series of about a dozen meetings, and bands are chosen by consensus-not an up-or-down vote, said EC member Doug Goudy. If one or two members are stoked about your performance, you'll probably make the roster. On the other hand, if you piss somebody off, you won't play.
"It's a private party that we invite people to come to for free," Goudy said of Comfest. "It used to be that we didn't even take applications. We just picked people. If we didn't know you, you didn't play."
Longtime organizer and EC member Mark Fisher isn't embarrassed to acknowledge some inconsistencies in the process. Even today, admission can hinge on who you know. Nothing is set in stone, Fisher said, but artists can catch the eye of the committee by shouldering some of the collective burden-volunteering to pick up some trash, for instance. After all, it takes a lot of grunt work to pull off a 36-year-old festival that draws in countless thousands to Goodale Park each year.
As for those who haven't figured out the unwritten formula, EC members have little sympathy. "It's not a perfect system," Fisher said. "It's a privilege and an honor to play at Comfest. As far as I'm concerned, we're doing bands a favor. And Comfest is a collective community effort."
Slosh through the 20-some soul-sucking pages of a local online message board, and the vibe is anything but groovy. Contrary to the hand-holding, pollution-free image Comfest organizers want to project, donewaiting.com has emerged as the online headquarters for local musicians and Comfest enthusiasts who yearly flood the place with less-than-peaceful rants about the list of bands tapped-or not-to play the festival.
"Bitching about Comfest is as much of a Columbus pastime as the event itself," said donewaiting.com proprietor Robert Duffy, who said he sees more internet traffic in June than any other time of the year.
"There is so much passion, and so many musicians on the board, that it sort of spins out of control."
Among the throng of posters is Hayseed band member Christopher Wyant, who moved to Columbus from Nashville two weeks before the 2007 Comfest.
"I remember bouncing from stage to stage, hearing a little bit of everything. It was a nice sample of the local music scene. I wanted to be a part of that," Wyant said. But it wasn't meant to be.
In an email titled, "Ask not what the Community Festival can do for you. Ask what you can do for the Community Festival," Wyant and other applicants were invited to a happy hour where they could learn more about volunteering.
"By the way," the email read, "if you haven't been confirmed to perform at Comfest 2008, that means we weren't able to schedule your act."
Bands were encouraged to volunteer-and to mention their efforts in their applications next year.
Wyant, whose folksy Americana band was touted "on the same level as Bob Dylan and Neil Young," by none other than Lucinda Williams, was floored.
"It really burned me as an artist," Wyant said, "to suggest my art was secondary to how much equipment I schlepped or wristbands I checked."
To "dangle the carrot," that he might have a better chance of getting in next year if his band volunteered, and to being told in an email, was what peeved him, he said.
"I'd prefer to be picked because they liked the music."
But, perhaps not surprisingly, Comfest band selection isn't wholly reliant upon artistic talent, Fisher said. Yes, much to the chagrin of local musicians, EC members confirmed this week that a certain percentage of bands can earn their way into the hearts of the committee by lugging gear, checking wristbands, manning a booth or picking up trash.
It's mostly philosophical.
"We want artists who are willing to give back moreso that those who are in it for personal gain," Fisher said. It also helps to apply early at comfest.com, and to make sure that committee members are able to catch one of your live shows. About one-third of the acts chosen are new to the festival, while a certain percentage of the slate always will be devoted to Comfest staples.
And yet, while many will roll up their sleeves with the hope of gracing the Comfest stage, few shall enter. There's physically just not enough room for everyone who wants to play, Fisher said.
"Do we miss people who have been volunteering for the past six years? You bet we do," Fisher said. And, yes, some bands are chosen who don't officially apply, and yes, some acts have made the cut without volunteering at all.
Such whimsical decisions aren't appreciated by rejects. Progressive Comfest-goers "wouldn't tolerate such a mysterious and arbitrary process in government," said Wyant. It remains the organizer's prerogative-"they could pick bands based on how much free pot they were given if they wanted," he said-but shouldn't Comfest abandon inconsistency, make internal guidelines transparent and "embody those things the festival represents?"
In a word, no, said Goudy.
"It's a private thing," he said. "We just happen to let everyone come in for free."
Band members who applied online were told in a confirmation email that acts were chosen based on "the Comfest Statement of Principles and our own internal criteria promoting things like community involvement, musical and cultural diversity, Comfest volunteer involvement, and talent."
Local acts seem to be taking that "internal criteria" bit to heart. When contacted by The Other Paper, many bands that were turned down for this year's festival refused to talk on the record.
"If selection is really about who you know and who you like," then it wouldn't be a good idea for self-preservation, said one performer, who refused to be named for fear of "sounding whiny."
"For all I know, we've already pissed someone off."
Bob Ray Starker, who will hit the stage as a member of the band Whoa Nellie! had some advice for those hoping to sort out the entry process:
Starker's Whoa Nellie! seemingly trumped the basic rules of Comfest by performing their first live gig-ever-at Comfest 2004.
"In short, here is the secret phrase that will get your band a slot at Comfest," Starker told The Other Paper. "Baa-ram-ewe, baa-ram-ewe.
To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true. Sheep be true. Baa-ram-ewe."
Band members also said this week privately that they worried their involvement with right-wing political groups might kill their chances to play at Comfest.
"Simply being a Republican, no, that wouldn't keep you out of the show," said Ro-z Mendleson, another long-time organizer and Comfest EC member. But the local version of country music's Toby Keith probably shouldn't rush to apply. Mendleson said political involvement affects the decision "to a degree. I mean, we want people up there who believe in the same sort of things we believe in."
Whether spewing Comfest fact or fiction, speaking out against the popular Columbus festival-like dissing the beloved Buckeyes, perhaps-can be an invitation for skewering.
"I can't tell you how many times I was told to quit bitching and shut the fuck up," Wyant said.
Local restaurateur and self-proclaimed Comfest-lover Liz Lessner received some 20-30 email messages from the peace-loving crowd within moments of criticizing the festival on donewaiting.com.
After 30 years, "it might be time for some fresh minds to take the lead and put something else out there," she said in her post, maintaining later that she was simply tired of the scorned musicians' bickering.
Lessner, who remembers cleaning up trash and puke as a volunteer, didn't feel comfortable detailing the responses she received from the community, but she encouraged artists with concerns to attend Comfest planning meetings, which are all open to the public, or to throw their own rock concert.
"Columbus is a festival-loving town, and there's plenty of room," for more than one show, she said.
The resulting brouhaha from the selection process is a symptom of larger, more worrisome growing pains for the burgeoning festival-which continues to draw a larger crowd every year, and is constantly pushing Goodale park and the volunteer ComFest staff to capacity.
In an ironic twist of fate, some are asking privately if the festival is on its way to becoming part of the establishment. But no one wants to be blacklisted for speaking out, Wyant said.
It's a fair question, said Lessner.
"I'm worried that the fundamental message Comfest promotes"-the spirit of community and volunteerism-"might get lost to some of the next generation," Lessner said this week.
Is the old message still resonating?
"I think so. I hope so," said Mendleson. "At the end of the day, if everyone is out there having a good time, that's how we judge whether we're doing a good job."