Porchfest Outdoor Music

Two years ago I moved to Ithaca, New York, and witnessed my first Porchfest. I immediately fell in love with the concept. So, I made it my mission to perform at one, which I did last year. Porchfest is an annual outdoor music festival in which bands and musicians perform on neighborhood porches. It can be your own porch, if you happen to live in the neighborhood, or you can borrow a friend’s. Since its inception five years ago, Porchfest, the idea, has spread nationwide and Porchfest events now happen in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio; Somerville, Massachusetts; Belleville, Ontario (Canada); Napa, California; and elsewhere.

Aside from the porch I performed on being one of the best sounding stages I’ve ever encountered (lots of low end and natural compression), Porchfest is unique for other reasons. For one, people come to the event solely for the music. Porchfest isn’t a money-driven event, so nobody profits from your participation. As a matter of fact, it’s 100% free. With such promising values and a heartfelt message at its core, Making Music decided to chat with a few of the organizers and musicians to find out what it takes to get a Porchfest happening in your neighborhood.

The seed for Ithaca Porchfest was planted when Gretchen Hildreth and her family were strolling through their neighborhood one evening and happened to pass by Lesley Greene’s house. Greene and her husband Robert were playing ukuleles outside on the front steps. “Robert and Lesley were just winging it,” recalls Hildreth. “I love hearing musicians practice on their porch—just the free flowing nature of playing without a set list.” Both women are married to musicians and both live in Fall Creek, an area of Ithaca where there are a lot of homes with front porches.

Greene continues, “After that night, when we would see each other, we’d always say, ‘What about that Porchfest idea, we really should do that.’” And so they did. In addition to having a lot of homes with porches, Fall Creek boasts a high concentration of musicians. “We have it easy living here—the festival kind of creates itself,” admits Hildreth. “If you throw a rock from just about anywhere in the neighborhood, chances are it will land on a musician’s house.”

It’s no secret that Ithaca Porchfest was probably the first, and that it has inspired the ensuing festivals that continue to crop up around the country. For Nancy Goodman of Somerville, Massachusetts, the idea for Porchfest came when she was looking at a friend’s Facebook page. “He lives in Ithaca and had ‘liked’ Porchfest,” she says. “He’s a real music fan so I checked it out and loved the idea. I contacted Lesley Greene, who organizes the Ithaca Porchfests, and got some info from her and she encouraged us to do it—so Ithaca was our inspiration.”

Hildreth and Greene started Porchfest for the love of music and community, so there also aren’t any trademarks or issues like that to contend with. If you want to start a Porchfest in your neighborhood you are free to do so. Like Ithaca, Somerville has a lot of musicians and homes with porches. “It just seemed like a good fit,” says Goodman. After getting a go-ahead from Greene, Goodman e-mailed Greg Jenkins from the Somerville Arts Council (SAC) with the idea and he was immediately supportive. “Having the Arts Council’s support was critical, as they did the outreach,” she admits.

Hildreth says that Ithaca’s first Porchfest just sort of happened, with about 20 participants. Since then, they’ve had to acquire a special events permit from the City of Ithaca. As for advertising, it’s about as grassroots as can be. “There’s no money involved,” reaffirms Greene. “We only do a press release to the local papers, promote via Facebook, and a local radio station will usually feature it, but it’s grown mostly from word of mouth.” She figures the festival has added about 20 bands/homes per year for the last five years.

Chris Mancini, a Somerville musician, was immediately hooked on the idea upon receiving a link to Ithaca’s Porchfest from Goodman. “I am strongly supportive of the idea of people making music for themselves and neighbors, rather than relying on the 1%—to co-opt a term—to provide it for us on the radio.” With very little oversight, the actual workings of the event are left completely up to the many music makers around the community. In Somerville, for example, maps, registration, and a press release were the only things provided by the SAC. “This was a case of a chaotic, community brain, working at full efficiency with near-perfect results,” he says.

In Ithaca, Hildreth and Greene don’t assign any bands to houses. “We just say, ‘find a house,’” says Greene. Once artists submit their location, Hildreth and Greene sit down at the latter’s kitchen table with Google maps and Excel spread sheets and plug the bands into one-and-a-half-hour time slots, making sure that neighboring performances don’t overlap. “It’s always just been the two of us,” says Greene.

This modus operandi, which seems to be employed by most organizers, is one of the greatest aspects of Porchfest. Mancini believes the do-it-yourself ethos sets Porchfest even further apart from the mainstream. “It’s completely inclusive this way,” he says, “unlike most festivals, which necessarily require some kind of quality screening process. It fosters neighborliness and community among musicians and listeners alike.”

Speaking from my own experience as a performer, booking the band was as simple as asking a friend who lives in Fall Creek if we could use their porch, and then letting Greene know that we’d acquired a location. After that, we supplied a blurb about the band. A few weeks later we were notified of our time slot.

Porchfests tend to be predominantly homegrown, with both the musicians and listeners being local. That does not mean, however, that there isn’t tons of musical diversity. Unlike other music festivals, which are often genre-specific, Porchfest is pretty much a free-for-all. “One of the great things about Porchfest is the range of music showcased,” says Goodman. “Last year we had everything from Balkan to bluegrass to Gnawa (from Morocco) to jazz, blues, jug, classical—it was amazing how many different types of music you found just from Somerville musicians.”

Lucinda Pritchard, who organizes Porchfest in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, concurs. “We have some diversity and that is evolving,” she says. “This past year, we had some young people from a music school, a jazz trio, Celtic groups, etc. We also have a great blues society in the area, so we always get some great blues musicians.”

When it comes to offering advice for other towns and communities that want to organize a Porchfest, Pritchard says that it’s tempting to make it bigger, or add other elements, but she’s realized that the reason it’s been so successful for so many communities is because it is kept simple. “We are committed to maintaining Porchfest Belleville as a grassroots, free, community event,” she says. “It seems to me that this is also the spirit of the Ithaca event.”

Freddy Villano enjoyed his first Porchfest performance. in the true spirit of the event, the appreciative and supportive folks who hosted his band on their porch have invited him back next year.

This article is from our March-April 2012 issue. Click to order!

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