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When Dave Mann first conceived Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival last year, he imagined a 35-band, two-day festival in an Eritrean restaurant on 9th Street NW. After returning from the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas—-his inspiration—-he gave himself about a month and a half to plan the event. By the time the festival rolled around in May—-after Mann tried to sell tickets, gave up and made the event free, and added five more venues—-it had swelled to include 125 acts. “If I’m going to fail,” Mann said at the time, “I want to fail big.”
Well, more like stumble big. “There definitely were some bridges that were burned,” Mann says now of his inaugural attempt at staging a massive music festival in D.C. But for its many, many idiosyncrasies—-a barely curated lineup, spit-and-duct-tape organization, a dearth of sound engineers—-Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival was a fairly fun time. A few months later, with a little bit more organization, Mann did it again, with even more bands.
This time, he’s waited a full year between festivals. Now, Washington’s scrappiest, hardest-to-explain festival of indie rock and whatever else boasts more than 300 acts. It begins today and runs through Sunday at venues all over town, including Comet Ping Pong in Chevy Chase.
When I chatted with Mann yesterday, he still had to fill in some of the TBD slots on the festival website. (He swears they’re all booked now. He just needs to update the site.) This afternoon, having taken the day off from work, he’ll pick up donated equipment from a sponsor in Alexandria and deliver T-shirts to show venues and check any other remaining boxes before the third Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival begins.
“One thing I wanted to do differently was definitely add a lot more bands,” says Mann, who expanded his network during the spring, when he hosted a large Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie showcase in Austin during South by Southwest. Not having two D.C. festivals to plan also allowed him to grow the event—-to more than a dozen venues—-while improving its execution, he says. “You have to have that much time to prepare for something like this, if you don’t want to see the backlash of comments in a Washington City Paper thread.”
Mann acknowledges that he probably planned the first Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival too hastily—-hence the small army of detractors who have complained about his competence, motives, and impact on local music every time City Paper has written about him. But STPP, he stresses, is a trial-and-error undertaking. At this point, “If I’m doing this wrong, I don’t know why any of the bands would still want to be a part of this,” he says. At least 60 acts that played at last October’s festival have signed on to play this one, he says.
Other changes: a more organized committee and a large force of volunteers and sound engineers; more in-kind sponsorships; more neighborhoods; label showcases; a few rock clubs in addition to the usual hole-in-the-wall spaces; and, hopefully, more bands getting paid.
While previous festivals were a pro bono affair for most of the acts involved, this year Mann found one sponsor willing to give the festival some cash—-Lagunitas Brewing Company—-and is selling small-business sponsorships he hopes will help with payouts. Some bands got guarantees this year—-evidence that Mann is trying to raise the overall quality of the talent even as he holds onto the festival’s democratic ethos. (He also raised money for marketing via shows at the Black Cat over the summer, and expects to bring in about $1,000 through an Eventstir campaign.) Will that result in enough money to pay 300 acts? That’s hard to imagine, and one persistent critique of Mann is that he grew his festival to an unreasonable scale well before it was ready.
While Mann realizes the festival will work better once he’s able to pay everyone, he’s feeling good about the size. “It’s not about one person enjoying 300 bands,” he says. You say quality, he says variety—-he wants a festival that mixes it up.
Mann’s hoping that managing the festival will be a bit less manic this year. “I think it’s just a matter of having my phone fully charged and answering any questions that come up,” he says. “I want to enjoy myself this year.”
Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival runs today through Sunday at various venues. See a complete schedule at Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie’s website.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery