Interview with Dave Frey: Co-Founder and Co-Owner of the Lockn' Festival
Dave Frey is a co-founder and co-owner of the Lockn' Festival, a four-day music festival located at Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington, Virginia. The festival primarily features jam bands, with previous acts including Phish, Ween, My Morning Jacket, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, The Allman Brothers Band, and more. For the line-up this year, Widespread Panic and the Avett Brothers are just two of this year’s announced artists. Frey has over 30 years in the music industry, from working under concert promoter legends Bill Graham and Ron Delsener to co-founding the H.O.R.D.E. festival and managing Blues Traveler.
BT (Jack Burdick): How did you come up with the idea for Lockn’?
Dave Frey: I reconnected with my old friend, Peter Shapiro, who owned Wetlands. I managed Blues Traveler and in the early ‘90s, Blues Traveler played at Wetlands every Monday night for about a year and a half, so we know each other really well from back in the day. We reconnected and determined that we should look into starting a festival. because we felt a lot of people were focused on the wrong things with festivals...I shouldn’t say the wrong things...other festivals weren’t presenting a festival we’d like to see, and that had to do with some basic things like only having one band play at a time and things like that. We looked at different concert sites around the country for over a year, and I found this place right here in Virginia about half an hour away [from Charlottesville, VA] that checked all the boxes. We decided that would be the place,. and then we started working on it. We’re basically booking a show that we would want to go to...a show we’d like to see.
BT: You mentioned that there are certain things about Lockn’ that distinguishes itself from other festivals or ways that you saw to improve the current festival scene. What distinguishes Lockn’ from other music festivals?
Dave Frey: We only have one band play at a time, and we try to have continuous music. We used to have two stages side-by-side, but we’ve flipped that to a turntable stage; it seamlessly goes from one band into the other. At a lot of festivals, there’s something for everybody, but [at Lockn’], if you don’t like the bands we’re presenting, you probably shouldn’t come: those bands are going to be featured, and you’re going to have a hard time getting away from them. Also, we try to focus on locality because locations have a unique signature: restaurants, beers, things like that. If we can bring those elements in and feature them, a lot of the people that are coming in from different parts of the country, or the world, will experience that. I think there are some festivals that do that really exceptionally well, like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Not only are you getting world class music, but you’re getting the best po’ boy or jambalaya when you go, and then there’s all the music of New Orleans...you’ve got those marching bands and all that other wonderful food, music, culture, things that only come from that locality. There are signature things here in Virginia that we focus on, like a huge craft beer scene in Nelson county that has a unique history. We always have a battle of the bands contest, where local, unsigned bands play every day. We’re trying hard and getting better at integrating that because it will give Lockn’ its own personality, character, and fingerprint.
BT: On the business side, what are your roles in the production of the music festival?
Dave Frey: Mounting a festival is a huge investment. You have to start out on a temporary basis because you don’t know what’s going to work. Everything can look great on paper, and then you find out the sheriff doesn’t like that kind of music. Things can happen that could make it not work, and you’re not going to be able to tell until you do it. Once you find out that it’s a good space, it’s a good community...there are certain features of a mass gathering to look for, whether it’s a football stadium, NASCAR, horse racing, or whatever it is. When you have a lot of people together, you have to have the arterial traffic capacity to do it. You have to be in a place that’s remote because, if you’re not, then you’re bothering a lot of neighbors, but you also have to be close to population centers so that you’re not too far away from where people live. Unless you’re Burning Man, where it takes five hours to get there each way, people won’t [travel far]. There’re a lot of factors you have to weigh in: you try it out, and if it doesn’t work, you’ve made an expensive experiment. If it does work, you have to start honing down on what you can do to make your infrastructure more permanent so that you’re not renting half a million dollars worth of generators or those types of things that can really add up quickly.
BT: What about Lockn’ are you most proud of?
Dave Frey: Well I think...how quickly we’ve been able to establish it. Like it or not, it definitely has its own personality. You look at it, you know what it is, and you know if you like it or not. If you like it, you’re going to go, and if you don’t like it, you’re not going to go; it’s distinct.
BT: Do you see any future plans for Lockn’?
Dave Frey: The first year, we did it. The second year, we bought the property next to it: we’re operating this farm now, and we’ve been putting in infrastructure on the farm: power, water, septic, internet...so that we can run it inexpensively, efficiently, and safely. When you have water, it makes it a whole lot easier for the Department of Health to go to your water tank, test the water, and say “OK, you’re good for the weekend” versus having all these locations where you have frac tanks, and they’ve got to come out and test them every time you fill it up. Now that we have this infrastructure, we’re starting to do more events. We’ve brought Festy under the property, which is a 5,000 capacity bluegrass festival in October. We’re doing Spartan Race in June, we’re starting a beer festival, we’re starting a wine festival, we’re doing a big Earth Day show with the Revivalists...there’s the Nelson County Fair we’re trying to help bring back, so we’ve got eight or nine events this year on the property. They’re not the size of Lockn’ but they all have potential to become evergreen and build going forward to larger events. I think that’s the big thing this year.
BT: What are some important personality traits for someone interested in the music industry?
Dave Frey: I would say persistence...I’d go with that Calvin Coolidge quote, “persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” I’d say this across the entertainment business in general, be it sports, movies, music, or whatever it is: you have to be able to identify talent, and once you identify talent, you have to persist until the timing and luck arrive. Most musicians spend so much time putting in their 10,000 hours, sitting in their room, going “da-da-da” (imitating scales), doing their scales on the guitar…[you say] “oh my god, it’s Eddie Van Halen” or something, but he probably doesn’t know how to make friends, probably doesn’t know how to balance a checkbook, probably doesn’t know how to tie his shoes maybe (laughing), but he can play guitar well...so there’s a void, and that’s not going to go away because they were suddenly handed a huge check, especially when they’re handed a huge check that might be the only check they get. You see it time and again with athletes, actors…it’s hard to maintain. It’s talent and persisting until the timing and luck arrive. I think it’s somewhat a fringe industry: it’s something that can really affect people deeply, but it isn’t necessarily something like food or shelter by any means...anyways, I’d say it’s talent, persistence, and persisting until the timing and luck arrive, and a lot of times, that’s all it is, being in the right place at the right time.
BT: Do you have any advice for students interested in the business side of the music industry?
Dave Frey: Yes. If it’s something someone’s looking to do...they should take whatever opportunity they can get and make the most of it. A lot of times, you work as an intern, and then they’ll let you be the assistant for the booking agent. Then, the booking agent leaves for another agency, and they decide to make you the booking agent. It’s the same as anything else in the entertainment business: you figure out what you want to do and then do whatever you can to get into that business. You know, there’s very little I haven’t done (laughing). I’ve swept floors...just because I had a job there: it needed to be done, they saw me as useful, so they let me hang around.