Ken Hays: Gathering Vibes Since 1996

For the inside story on the “Gathering Of The Vibes” festival, Pollstar went straight to the top and spoke with the event’s founder, Ken Hays.

Founded in memory of Jerry Garcia, the annual “Gathering Of The Vibes” music festival has grown in lineup, scope and size while remaining true to its eclectic roots. Representing a wide range of musical genres, the list of acts having played past Gatherings includes Crosby, Stills & Nash, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Buddy Guy, Harlem Gospel Choir, Martin Sexton, Les Claypool, James Brown and all surviving members of The Grateful Dead.

The lineup for this year’s festival, set for July 21-24 in Bridgeport, Conn., at Seaside Park, includes plenty of Dead alumni with Furthur featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir and The Rhythm Devils’Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Other acts making the trek to the festival by the sea include Jane’s Addiction, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, John Butler Trio, moe., Levon Helm Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Dr. John and Toots & The Maytals.

To get an appreciation for all the hard work that goes into the “Gathering Of The Vibes”, Pollstar spoke with the festival’s founder, Ken Hays. What we discovered is the man behind the festival is as passionate about the music as are his returning customers. Or, for that matter, the bands that keep coming back for more “Vibes.”

Leading a Vibes staff meeting of 1,200 prior to opening gates in 2010.

What brings people back to the “Gathering Of The Vibes” year after year?

I think, primarily, what brings people back is the music and the environment of friends and families joining together. It’s really an annual family retreat.

Was the intention always to make the festival a family event?

I hadn’t really given that a whole lot of thought. All I really processed was an opportunity for our friends to get together and see live music. Especially those we used to see when The Grateful Dead were touring.  Before Jerry’s passing, we knew that we’d meet up with my friends in Chicago that I’d see twice a year when the band was doing their spring and summer tours, but it was clear we weren’t going to have that opportunity. Myself and a couple of friends got together and produced “Deadhead Heaven: Gathering Of The Tribe” back in 1996. From there it truly evolved organically. There was no mission statement or business plan of any sort. It was very much organic and it’s grown as such.

Where was the first Vibes held in 1996?

SUNY Purchase College. 3,500 people attended and the next year it doubled in size.

When did you first use the current “Gathering Of The Vibes” title?

In 1997.

Photo: Mike Thut / Gathering of the Vibes
Gathering of the Vibes Music and Arts Festival, Seaside Park, Bridgeport, Conn.

What were you doing for a living at the time?

I started a company called Terrapin Tapes. The Grateful Dead allowed their fans to come in and record live shows. So Deadheads, or “tapers,” would bring in recording equipment and record. The Grateful Dead cordoned a section next to the soundboard where everyone put up their microphones, recorded the shows and then traded the shows on Maxell cassette tapes through the mail. Those days are gone now. People are transferring files over the Internet. Terrapin Tapes was a wholesale distributor for Maxell, Sony, Panasonic, ProAudio. We also supplied blank media and high-end audio gear to the tapers.

Is the Gathering your 365-day job, now?

It is. Along with a bunch of charity work we do throughout the year.

When do you start working on the next year’s Gathering?

It’s pretty much 365 days a year that I’m thinking about what the next step is. What can we creatively do differently to make sure we don’t become stagnant or stale in any sense, and that we’re pushing the envelope and giving our attendees the best possible show. It’s like a website. You’re never done with a website. It’s an ever-evolving process.

What’s new or pushing the envelope this year?

Musically or other?

Let’s start with the music.

Musically, we’re very pleased that Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction will be headlining Saturday night at the Vibes. Prior to Jane’s Addiction is Elvis Costello. I’ve been a big fan of both for years and to have Elvis and Perry at the Vibes is a coup.

“It’s a stunning location about an hour from New York City.”

Many of the acts booked for “Gathering Of The Vibes” throughout the year seem to fit in with your description of the festival being “in the spirit of Jerry Garcia.” That is, jambands, acoustic, some jazz, some electric and plenty of improv. But then you’ll have a band on the lineup that seems to go in the opposite direction, like Jane’s Addiction. How were you able to diversify the lineup without losing the festival’s original identity?

I think it’s consistent with last year’s Damian Marley & Nas. We have to keep reinventing ourselves while, at the same time, keeping our core base engaged and pleased with the lineup we’ve put together. This year I felt that Jane’s Addiction was a great extension from Primus last year, for example. Just trying to expand upon, or stretch the envelope. Branch out and turn some of these kids onto a band they might have heard of for years, but have never seen live.

I got the same feeling back in 2003 when James Brown performed at “Gathering Of The Vibes” – occasional pieces that make sense musically. This year actually celebrates the 20th anniversary of Jane’s Addiction’s release of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.”

I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Perry, not only musically but what he’s done with his career, Lollapalooza and his engagement and love for live music and for outdoor concerts and festivals.

Photo: Max Flatow / Gathering Of The Vibes
Gathering of The Vibes, Seaside Park Bridgeport, Conn.

Sounds like the “Gathering Of The Vibes” is created for and by people who love music.

Absolutely. It’s evolved from a Deadhead festival 16 years ago to a weekend retreat of the most diverse and eclectic artists and attendees that have assembled. 2,000 kids under the age of 12 came with their parents last year. I’ve been to a lot of festivals and I don’t know any that have those kinds of numbers. We’re hoping 2,500-3,000 kids will bring their parents. We’re accommodating them with “Kids’ Corner” activities and “Teen Scene” activities. It’s an amazing opportunity for parents to bond with their kids.

Would you say it is becoming a multigenerational event?

Yes, indeed. I got an e-mail from a longtime Vibe Tribe member who had three generations. He had his kid, wife and mother at the Vibes. So it’s a family affair on a beautiful 370-acre parcel of land on Long Island Sound. It’s a stunning location about an hour from New York City.

You talked about pushing the envelope musically, but how do you crank it up a notch non-musically?

Honestly, there isn’t a whole bunch of new, first-time non-musical activities, but instead we’re expanding on what those people love. At 7:30 in the morning, every morning, there are yoga instructors and 200 people on the beach doing yoga together. I think we have a good model. We did a survey, got about 3,500 responses and people went into great depth of what they liked and what we can improve upon. Every year it’s a matter of taking that feedback and incorporating it into next year’s event. Again, it’s very much a process of evolving and refining to the best of our ability, perfecting the attendees’ experience. That’s always first and foremost – to allow the attendees to have the best possible experience.

How do you determine ticket prices?

We look at our overall budget, which, in Bridgeport, is rather extraordinary. It’s a whole lot more expensive to throw a 20,000-person party on two-and-one-half miles of waterfront than on a farm inland. A lot more security with police boats and Coast Guard. So we look at our expenses.

We tier out our pricing as well. We sold 3,000 tickets before announcing one band. People have come to expect excellence from us and our goal is to meet and exceed their expectations.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for parents to bond with their kids.”

How many people does it take to put on the “Gathering Of The Vibes?”

Right now there’s six full-time and then another 40 or so that work outside the office. During the event itself there’s 1,200 staff and volunteers, most of which have been with us years and years. It’s our 90-member hospitality staff and our 20-member artist-relations staff and our parking staff of 60, a couple of hundred in security. For every item there’s an amazing team to support it. And there are thousands of volunteer applications that we can’t possibly fill. We do have a discounted ticket for Bridgeport residents, a token of our appreciation for them to allow us to take up residency in their park for a weekend.

Have any traditions come about for you and your crew, such as a traditional dinner before each year’s Gathering or a party after the festival?

There are a couple. The first is a Wednesday night pep rally in the VIP tent with the staff. Going through and making sure we’re all on the same page and that we’re all in this together. It rallies the team, pulls us all together because when all is said and done, we throw this festival for the attendees. Although the staff can have a whole lotta fun doing so, first and foremost, all 1,200 of us need to become concierges for our guests.

Another tradition we’ve had over the years is a Sunday morning World Peace Sanctuary, may peace prevail on Earth ceremony where close to 700-800 kids with their parents parade from the Kids’ Corner, where they’ve been working on costumes, to a Mardi Gras parade on the concert field. The World Peace Sanctuary based in New York brings a flag for every country in the world. At a time when our world is very much in turmoil between Japan, internationally, Middle East issues and closer-to-home municipalities laying off teachers, it gives us all an opportunity to pause and reflect on what’s truly important.

The “Gathering Of The Vibes” is also known for its charity work. What are a few examples?

I think to give people a better understanding of who attends and the real essence of the festival is that a week before last year’s “Gathering Of The Vibes”, two Bridgeport firefighters passed away in the line of duty. The Bridgeport Fire Department called and asked if it would be okay to do a “boot drive.” The festival attendees donated $25,000 towards the families of fallen Bridgeport firefighters. It’s just an indication that the attendees are incredibly tuned in and they want to do whatever they can to make the world a better place. Our job is to give them an opportunity, whether it’s through education or donations. There’s a common bond that draws us all together.

What’s your dream lineup? Who would you like to book, but it hasn’t happened yet?

Neil Young. But it’s never routed, so I’m going to keep trying. I have a huge amount of respect for Neil, musically and how he’s evolved through all the years. It’s inspiring for me as a producer and I think he’s inspiring to other musicians and his fan base. Always evolving, changing, being dynamic and creating new and exciting musical experiences.

One more question. What’s the toughest part of your job?

The most difficult part of my job is to disseminate accurate information to all 1,200 staffers. What we’ve done is set up a hotline on site in an office trailer. Both staff and attendees know that hotline number, it’s posted throughout the venue. If anyone, a staffer or attendee, has any questions, problems or concerns throughout the weekend, they can call this hotline number and we can dispatch the appropriate party. For me, what’s most difficult is providing open lines of communications from our office and department heads to the 1,200 working staff and to the 20,000 attendees.

The last month, while we’re solidifying the final lineup on all the stages is the most intense of my 12-month year. So I’m thrilled with how everything fell together. Ticket sales are doing extremely well. Our Facebook numbers are climbing at 700-1,000 people a day. The word of “Gathering Of The Vibes” is spreading virally. If you’re in the tri-state area it’s a no brainer.  Even if you’re in California, this is a good reason to come east. We have a very unique and beautiful event happening here.

“People have come to expect excellence from us and our goal is to meet and exceed their expectations.”

Ticket options for “Gathering Of The Vibes” 2011 scheduled for July 21-24 at Seaside Park include everything from daily passes to weekend tickets and VIP packages. In addition to its weekend VIP passes, this year is the first time the Gathering is offering single-day VIP ducats. All single-day and weekend VIP packages are available for adults and kids. For more information, click here for the “Gathering Of The Vibes” website, here for the festival’s Facebook page and here for its Twitter feed.