Musikfest Brings The Music (Most Of It Free!) To Bethlehem, Pa.

Craig Roberts
– Musikfest

Musikfest – which is billed as the “nation’s largest free-admission music festival” – is back in Bethlehem, Pa., for its 35th anniversary, with more than 500 free music and art shows by nearly 400 performers at 18 venues. Pollstar checked in with Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest, the nonprofit that presents the event, to ask a few questions as she was prepping for the special preview night Aug. 2 featuring Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown Tour. 

The Aug. 3-12 festival takes place throughout Bethlehem’s Historic District as well as the SteelStacks arts and culture campus located on the site of the city’s former Bethlehem Steel plant. 

The ticketed lineup at the Sands Steel Stage boasts STYX and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Daughtry, Jim Gaffigan, Dierks Bentley, Kesha, Gary Clark Jr., Grouplove, Brantley Gilbert, All Time Low and Dashboard Confessional, and Jason Mraz.

Attendees are treated to free music on 16 stages, along with more than 40 food vendors, 45 artisans, street performers and art attractions. The free lineup features sets from The Original Wailers, Marc Broussard, Marshall Crenshaw, Colony House, Squirrel Nut Zippers, We Are Scientists, and many more. 
Is anything special planned for Musikfest’s 35th anniversary? 
Yes, we’ve made several exciting additions to the event for our 35th year including adding a preview night headlined by Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown Tour on Aug. 2 and expanding our hours on the festival’s SouthSide at SteelStacks by opening at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. This adds about 25 additional artists to the lineup this year, providing even more music – most of it free – for guests to enjoy. We continue to add to our visual arts and family programming as well – for example, we’re bringing in the 25th anniversary edition of Architects of Air, the massive inflatable art installation that has wowed guests in more than 40 countries, and we expect that to be a huge draw.
Each year we have about 1,500 volunteers who donate an amazing 21,000 hours at the festival, and this year we’ll be honoring 13 individuals who have volunteered all 35 years of the event. It’s incredible to think that anyone would volunteer for one organization for nearly two generations. These individuals helped get this festival off the ground 34 years ago and without their support, as well as the nearly 400 other volunteers that first year, Musikfest as we know it might not be here.  
How many people attended Musikfest in 2017 and how many people are expected this year? 
Over the years, festival attendance has grown steadily, with approximately one million people attending the event each year. Last year we actually had a record attendance of close to 1.2 million people, with visitors coming from 40-plus states and 10 countries. With the diverse lineup, some of the new attractions this year and the special preview night Aug. 2, we feel attendance will definitely be similar to recent years. 
The number of free festivals continues to shrink, but Musikfest continues to grow. What are the keys to the event’s success?
This festival has been run by the community since 1984 and that is no exaggeration. Community is a broad word and it encompasses a lot of people from all different walks to life. Today, Musikfest will have 1,500 volunteers, 150-plus corporate sponsors and more than 3,000 members who work side by side with more than 60 full-time staff and 150 part-time staff to make sure our guests from more than 40 states and six countries see unbelievable acts. 
But just as important is the stellar free stage programming that you would have to buy a ticket to anywhere else. Think Marc Broussard, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Marshall Crenshaw, the Original Wailers. On top of that you have the up and comers with GGOOLLDD, Ruen Brothers, Colony House. These are acts you see at SXSW and other high-priced festivals that you get to see here, for free. We have more than 2,000 submissions for 400 slots at the festival so the demand is high and growing to play at this festival. 
We also have incredible relationships with the City of Bethlehem from the Mayor to the Chief of Police to health inspectors and everyone in-between at City Hall who buys into what we are doing and why we are doing it. Last year, this festival realized $73 million in economic impact for the City of Bethlehem. 
It may not be sexy to say but this is a festival for the community that has always been run by the community. I think of this festival as a recipe for the greatest meal you have ever had – every ingredient is important and must be added at the right time and in the right quantity to achieve the perfect balance. Speaking of food, did I mention we have 40 food vendors from all over the place at 60 locations across 57 acres?
How are ticket sales for the ticketed events?  
The Sands Steel Stage is our only ticketed venue, capacity 6,500. Overall ticket sales are on par with the past several years. In fact, July set a record for us for ticket sales. We’ve seen an increase in ticket purchases over the past few weeks, so people are definitely excited about the lineup.
Which acts are you especially looking forward to seeing perform?
The acts I am looking forward to: Trombone Shorty and the Voodoo Threauxdown Tour. This is their first night of the tour and Trombone Shorty played on the free stages here twice before taking over the ticketed main stage, the Sands Steel Stage. His performances on the free stages are still some of the best shows I have seen in the last decade. 
Kesha is another one I am looking forward to as her new album is just killer. 
On the free stages I am looking forward to the Ruen Brothers, Funky Dawgs Brass Band, Blair Crimmins and the Hookers, GGOOLLDD, We are Scientists, Marshall Crenshaw, Wild Adriatic, Colony House, Soulsha and the New Respects.