Bumblefest founder talks keeping music fest affordable while expanding

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If there’s a South Florida music festival that embodies the independent ethos, it has to be Bumblefest. Curator and organizer Steve Rullman goes deep into the indie music scene, both national and local, to bring together some below-the-radar acts that are no less talented. We reached out to him to discuss the latest installment of the annual West Palm Beach music event, now in its fourth year, which he created to celebrate the anniversary of his monthly print ‘zine PureHoney. Though this year’s festival marks the fourth edition of the event, this is actually the eighth anniversary party for PureHoney.

“This year we have expanded to two nights in order to accommodate more touring headliners,” Rullman notes of the festival’s evolution.

Earlier festivals included San Francisco-based krautrock-inspired quartet Lumerians, Mexican garage-rock/psychedelic-surf act Santoros, Seattle’s self-described “glitter-folk balladeer” Scott Yoder, New York artist Lydia Gammill’s sly outsider indie rock project Gustaf, Austin psych-rock quintet Holy Wave and noisy dreampoppers Stargazer Lilies, from Pennsylvania. The festivals have also featured many hard-working indie rock bands from across Florida. This year’s event will feature more acts than ever from other cities.

There’s the sophisticated post-punk of Big Bliss, from New York City, and San Francisco’s The Blank Tapes, who, according to Rolling Stone somehow evoke Belle and Sebastian, Pavement and The Black Keys at once. Then there’s the decidedly new wave-inspired and synth-driven The Fantastic Plastics. Brazil’s Samira Winter will bring her eponymously named quartet to West Palm to perform her samba-rooted indie rock. Finally, there’s Santa Monica’s garage rock  project Worn-Tin.

Bumblefest starts with a real sense of curation before practicality takes over. Rullman works to coordinate the festival around tours by bands he would like to see play his festival. “It’s definitely an art form and many factors come into play,” he explains. “Which bands capture my attention? Which might be doing something I haven’t quite heard before? Which are turning heads around the state? Which ones care and actually put in the promo work? Who is available?”

He says the festival has to feature like-minded artists and individuals to create a vibe that’s not about egos. “I absolutely prefer to work with acts that aren’t single minded and thinking only of themselves,” he continues. “I want to book bands that are eager to see, hear and meet others that they are not yet familiar with. I want bands whose fans are also interested in discovering new sounds and don’t just watch their friend’s band, then dip. This fest is for people who truly care about music.”

Rullman says there’s a journey to attending Bumblefest. He offers a sampler of music via Soundcloud on the festival’s website, so attendees can begin exploring the music early. “Everyone should probably first look and listen to this year’s headliners over at Bumblefest.com,” he says. “They are flying in from all over the country and each act is great in their own way. There is a Soundcloud playlist on the page with most of the bands that are performing (locals included). Just hit play while you’re at work or while you are driving and see which songs/bands capture your imagination and make you look at the song title.”

Despite the growth into a two-day event, Rullman admits it’s not easy or even profitable to put these festivals on with tickets costing only $20 (for now). But he does it to allow for accessibility for both the audience and the musicians who play Bumblefest. “I’ve always set out with a goal to break even. It has always been more important for me to make sure as many people as possible can afford to attend,” he says. “I want to expose the bands to as many new eyes and ears as possible.”

This is often a contrary philosophy to some of the more expensive and higher profile music festivals. “Generally speaking, those fests are booking very, very expensive, more mainstream acts and are structured to maximize revenue,” he says in response as to why tickets cost so much more at so many other music festivals.

Rullman says he really has no other secret to keeping prices low besides booking lower profile acts, but he would love to find other means to generate revenue without going too commercial. “I really ought to look into hiring a grant writer or consider utilizing some other fundraising apparatus if the party is going to continue,” he notes.

The motivation for Rullman remains something beyond making money, though. “Every year I’ve heard the same thing from many people after it’s over: ‘Solid party, great energy,’” he says. “I really enjoy putting together a package of complementary yet diverse acts for attendees to ‘sample.’ I love going to micro-fests where I don’t know most of the bands. With an open mind, you can always discover something you like and have never seen or heard before. The magical, serendipitous nature of these settings can be pure magic.”

Hans Morgenstern

Bumblefest takes place on the 500 Block of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach on Friday, Sept. 13, and Saturday, Sept. 14 across six venues. The party starts at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $20 for both nights now until Sunday, at 8 p.m.. They will then go up to $25. On the day of the festival, tickets will be $20 at the door each night. For more details and tickets, visit this link.

(Copyright 2019 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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