Executive Profile: Ken Hays of Gathering of the Vibes

Ken-Hays-Executive-Profile-PhotoKen Hays
Owner
Gathering of the Vibes

Years with Company: 19
Web: http://gatheringofthevibes.com
Email: info@gatheringofthevibes.com
Clients: Max Creek, moe., Gov’t Mule, Ratdog, the Disco Biscuits, Particle, Strangefolk, G. Love and Special Sauce, Hot Tuna, Dark Star Orchestra, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Jane’s Addiction, Bad Rabbits, Funky Meters, the Allman Brothers Band, Primus, Nas

BACKGROUND: When Jerry Garcia died, it meant the end of the Grateful Dead but not the band’s spirit after Ken Hays’ involvement with a posthumous celebration of the guitarist’s life sprouted into the four-day festival, Gathering of the Vibes. This year’s line-up boasts Widespread Panic, Ziggy Marley, John Fogerty and the Disco Biscuits, among many others, and will take place at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT,  July 31 - Aug. 3.

Tape Head
I’m a big Dead Head. I’ve been to 350+ Grateful Dead shows and was always intrigued that the Dead allowed their fans to record their live shows. I found this out in 1983 and was intrigued. I started collecting live recordings of the Dead, along with a bunch of other bands.
I went to school in Colorado and paid ridiculously high prices for blank tapes. Then I went into Manhattan and got unbelievably cheap prices on the exact same tapes. I figured there had to be a way that everyone could buy tapes at a consistently low price. So, in 1991, I started a company called Terrapin Tapes. We were a distributor for Maxell, Sony, TDK and then branched into the pro audio gear market with DAT machines, microphones and recording devices. We supplied blank tapes to not only tapers but bands that recorded their shows live.

From Death To Rebirth
Jerry [Garcia] died in August of ‘95. With the blessings of San Francisco, the Grateful Dead had a beautiful gathering in Golden Gate Park for the Deadhead community. The Grateful Dead asked Mayor Giuliani’s office if they could do a similar gathering in New York’s Central Park and they declined.
So I and a couple friends, having a database of tapers, sent out postcards and flyers letting everyone know we were having a gathering to celebrate the life of Jerry Garcia and the music of the Grateful Dead. That took place Memorial Day weekend of 1996 at SUNY Purchase College. We had about 3,500 people there. We called it Dead Head Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe. The following year, we changed the name to Gathering of the Vibes. The event doubled in size and that’s how it began.

Children’s Corner
From the beginning, we’ve encouraged parents to bring kids. Last year, we had 2,300 kids under the age of 15. That, by itself, differentiates Gathering of the Vibes from a lot of other festivals. Building upon that next generation and having a kids’ corner with tons of activities and a School of Rock stage has been and always will be part of our annual family gathering.

Winging It
There was never any business plan. We were very much winging it from the beginning. As the crowds grew, we brought in more beer, Porta Potties, security. We expanded as needed and moved a couple times to accommodate the anticipated attendance. But there was really, truly never a business plan or a thought that Dead Head Heaven would move into something like where we are today, 19 years later.

Entering the Tribe
Typically, smaller acts will have their manager, agent or a friend of a friend contact us. We’ve got a bunch of kids interning with us who have their fingers on the pulse of some new, up-and-coming artists. They’ll forward me a link to their YouTube channel or audio downloads. I’ve got an amazing group of people around me. Putting together the lineup is a collaborative effort.

We have a contest that we’ve run through Facebook over the last three, maybe four, years. We call it Road to the Vibes. Basically, a band provides a link to their YouTube channel or a video and their bio. Then, they have all their friends on Facebook like and comment on them and the band that gets the most likes wins a spot to perform. Outside of that, I think this year we’ve received around 2,600 band submissions with only 46 or so slots available, so it’s tough. My recommendation for up-and-coming bands is to make sure they’re well represented online and have a minimum of one video that represents the band to the best of their abilities.

Safety First
It’s a cliché, but safety is our number one concern. We’ve got the Coast Guard and police boats in the water. We’ve got our own Vibes marine unit. After that, it’s getting everyone in and settled when they arrive, going through the ticketing operation, getting their wristbands and their car searched and parked. If we get them parked and they’re smiling, we’ve accomplished our goal. Everything else from there on is a lot easier.

Creating a Great Attendee Experience
Bill Graham was an extraordinary individual. I feel like I can relate to him. He was really dedicated to ensuring his ticket buyers had the best possible experience. Whether that was forcing the Grateful Dead to practice or letting his ushers know to smile and shake people’s hands, it was something Bill was passionate about—the attendee experience. We have a motto—whatever it takes. That’s the bottom line.

All Bands Equal
The headliner is treated the exact same way as the opener. It’s something my production manager from 18 years ago taught me: we’re all in this together and everyone will be treated equally. I’ll never forget that. That was Michael Potashnick, who passed away three or four years ago. He taught me a great deal.

The Vibes Hotline
If anyone has any issues or concerns, they can call our hotline number. It’s staffed by about 30 volunteers. If someone had foot surgery and needs a ride or anything, call the hotline and we’ll dispatch somebody to give you a hand. Or to tell your neighbor to quiet down at 4 in the morning, whatever the case may be. That’s something that’s proven helpful and well received by the attendees—always knowing there’s someone there who can help.

Staying the Course
I’d like to continue the road that we’re on and the progression we’ve taken. We’ve done Gathering of the Vibes with 35-40,000 people and I don’t want to do that again. You lose the intimacy. You lose that sense of community. And I think we’ve got a really good model. About 80% of the Vibes attendees return every year. Post-event, we send out surveys. It’s 40 or so questions and people spend significant time filling it out, because they’re emotionally invested in Gathering of the Vibes and its success. There’s nothing I want to change in any material or radical way. I think we’ve got a cool thing going. I’d like to have more fun while on site, but that comes with the territory.

Starting Your Own Festival
It’s a busier marketplace now. Be careful. Don’t take out another mortgage on your house. Be able to sustain a financial loss at the beginning. These are risky endeavors and there’s an extraordinary learning curve. Partner up with someone who can help you navigate all the trials you need to go through, because there are a lot. Make sure everybody is going to be safe and that you’ve got a plan in place. And make sure you manage your expectations. It’s a difficult business to get into as a grassroots startup. It’s tough to do in today’s marketplace.