Behind the Scenes at Borderland
A conversation with the organizers of one of WNY’s newest music festivals
Photos courtesy Borderland
Knox Farm State Park, 437 Buffalo Rd., East Auora
Last year’s debut of the Borderland festival was an instant hit, leaving behind a trail of glowing reviews from attendees, a Spree Best Of WNY award, and much anticipation for a follow-up. And here it is: On the weekend of September 21 and 22, Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora plays host to approximately twenty-five national and regional acts, along with area craft artists, local purveyors of food and drink, and other attractions. The 2019 roster includes appearances by living legend Mavis Staples, Gov’t Mule, the Sheepdogs, the Felice Brothers, Keller Williams, and enough bluegrass, acoustic/folk, and jam bands to fill the gorgeous grounds with music for hours.
I spoke via email with the festival’s masterminds, John Cimperman and Jenn Brazil, about what they learned last year, what’s new this time around, and what to expect in the years ahead.
John Cimperman and Jenn Brazill are the brains and hearts behind the Borderland Music and Art Festival.
Who selects the headliner/out-of-town acts, and what process do they use?
Jenn Brazill: I work with a talent buyer, a longtime friend based in Colorado who is on the pulse of emerging talent and very rooted in the Americana and jam scenes. He and I go back and forth for several months sharing band ideas with the team. We start with sketching out our wish list and “dream” line up and then start chipping away at it. We seek out band availabilities and routing and then we start to put a [roster] together.
Booking the talent is so much fun; it can take you on an emotional roller coaster ride. You may think you have a band confirmed and in the eleventh hour something changes and you lose them, and you have to start over in the booking process. It is best to not become too attached to the idea of a particular band. So far we have been able to secure incredible talent, and I hope to keep bringing all these amazing artists to Buffalo and introducing new music to the region.
And the local acts?
JB: The last two years we have sought out local talent in the roots/Americana genre. I talked to several other local promoters who referred bands our way as well as spent some time going out to live shows around the area. We look for bands and artists that fit the vibe of the festival with original music, roots-based, folky Americana, and maybe a little bit of country. I also really take into consideration how bands work around the scene, and love to give opportunity to those artists that are out there hustling every day. Having been a band manager for ten years, I recognize the hard work and dedication it takes for these younger bands and want to be able to give them a platform to rise.
What lessons did you learn from last year’s festival that will shape this year’s event?
JB: You never know what can happen when you have a new team on a new site, but I feel like all in all we delivered a high-quality event for a first-year festival. We are making some adjustments for the stages to create more space for fans, adding more bike racks as well as a few more bars around the festival. One lesson I learned is to be wary of very heavy equipment on a soft field. We are very protective of our venue at Knox Park, so any efforts I can make to leave the space better than before we came is high on my priority list. We are very lucky in that ninety percent of our team from last year will be returning, which makes it so much easier for everyone. The team knows the venue, the community, the vibe, which in turns helps everyone work faster and better.
What, if anything, is different about this year’s festival?
JB: We have many amazing new partners and additions this year. We will have new artisans and vendors on site showcasing their crafts in the Artisan Alley and throughout the [grounds]. Fisher Price will be curating the Kids area. One thing I am personally excited about is the new Eco Village. We will have a designated area for all our Eco partners to talk to fans about living a sustainable life. Music is Art, the non-profit founded by Robby Takac, is curating our art gallery this year and the proceeds of any art sold will go back to MiA. We will also have a cocktail lounge with curated cocktails from Lockhouse Distilling and Buffalo Distilling.
What’s your vision for the future of the festival? Are there things you’re not ready to implement this year but are building toward?
John Cimperman: We continue to see Borderland grow and gain national acclaim. The goal is to put the festival, and Buffalo, on the national map. In our first year, nearly thirty percent of the fans attended from outside the region. This will increase as the festival’s reputation grows.
We are showcasing the creativity and innovation of the region—what makes this place so cool. The locally crafted beer and spirits, the talented artisans displaying their crafts, and the growing music scene on our “HomeSpun” stage, all come together to reinforce why this is such a great place to live, work, and play.
As the festival grows, we envision programming added to the week leading up to Borderland. I am not saying we will become South by Southwest, but we would love to be a platform to showcase all the great assets, both business and cultural, of the Buffalo Niagara region.
Are there any specific models you have collectively used in conceiving of Borderland?
JC: Obviously, the Newport Folk Festival is a great model to follow. They have built a great brand and have a sustainable model. A more recent addition to the festival scene is the Pilgrimage Festival, just outside of Nashville. Like Borderland, Pilgrimage focuses on the regional art scene, the craft beer scene, and an unbelievable scenic venue that is similar to our own jewel, Knox Farm State Park. The music, the food, the drink, and the welcoming atmosphere were a great inspiration for us to build on.
The last ten years have brought a real explosion of music festivals all around the country. Do you have any theories about why they might be so popular—with presenters and with audiences—now?
JC: What we see is the trend for more authentic, boutique festivals. What I mean by that is that they truly represent their home region and offer fans a unique experience. While there will always be mega-festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, you are seeing more events that integrate the unique cultures and assets of their region.
This year is, as we know, the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, one of the granddaddies of the modern-day music and arts festival. Monterey Pop was another, and it just passed the half-century mark, too. Do you think of Borderland as shaped in any specific ways by those precedents? What are the biggest changes to their “formula” (for lack of a better word) that affect what you’re doing?
JB: Everything I do in the music industry has been shaped by the Grateful Dead and how they created such an incredible sense of community. My vision is to create a space where people can really connect, get inspired, be introduced to new bands, eat great food, make new friends, and leave taking that positive vibe with them. Woodstock obviously influenced the entire festival culture by opening the door to multiple bands playing on different stages and fans traveling from all over the country to be a part of that community. We hope Borderland can grow into a destination for people to gather, with the expectation of entering into a mindfully curated, high quality, positive experience.