Q’s With Jay Sweet On Newport Folk Festival’s 60th Anniversary

Jay Sweet
(Photo Courtesy of NewPport Folk Festival)

Jay Sweet. executive producer, Newport Folk Festival, Newport Jazz Festival.

Sweet, the 48-year-old one-time Paste writer who succeeded legendary 93-year-old George Wein as executive producer of both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals as well as its nonprofit Newport Festivals Foundation, is in last-minute Hail Mary mode after Chicago rapper and poet Noname has pulled out of this year’s fest. 
“I’m fishing for a miracle,” he says, with the festival a little over a week away from its July 26-28 dates at its longstanding location, Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I. Both festivals have a reputation for surprises that stretch back to at least Bob Dylan’s iconoclastic 1965 move to electric, which infuriated folk purists, including the festival’s founder Pete Seeger who, legend has it, tried to cut power to the stage.
This year marks the venerable Folk Fest’s 60th anniversary since its 1959 debut (it was preceded by five years by the companion 1954 launch of Newport Jazz) with a lengthy 14-year hiatus between 1970 and 1984 before resuming in 1985. 
This milestone is concurrent with the centennial celebration of what would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday following his January 2014 death at age 94. 
“I’m just trying to keep his torch burning,” says Sweet, with the likes of early festival performers like Judy Collins and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott slated to make “surprise” appearances to salute the man along with some performing on the aptly named For Pete’s Sake stage. 
Seeger started the festival with Wein to feature artists who couldn’t get played on mainstream radio or TV – including his own blacklisting by Senator Joe McCarthy during the Second Red Scare – like Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf. (“He actually went electric years before Dylan did,” says Sweet.) In those early years, Wein booked rock acts like Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band for the Jazz Festival, blurring the genres way before that became fashionable.
The prototype for the modern music festival, Newport Folk preceded Woodstock by a decade and has won four Pollstar Awards for Best Music Festival over the last seven years. With three-day passes retailing for $210 plus fees, Newport Folk Festival, which admits 10,000 per day, is something of a bargain in today’s market and typically sells out before the lineup is announced. 
Sweet, who first came to the festival in 2007 as a consultant for the company that acquired it from Wein, took over the event’s reins when Wein returned in 2009, and has been there ever since, adding control over both the nonprofit foundation, which contributes 100 cents on the dollar to 70 different music education organizations in 38 states. “We don’t compete with festivals like Coachella,” says Sweet, noting the $750,000 or more those festivals can pay headliners represents something like Newport Folk’s entire three-day budget. 
“Artists play Newport Folk Festival because they want to or other artists told them about their experience,” Sweet says. “I don’t think today’s music festivals represent what Pete Seeger intended. We’re not even a festival anymore, but a nonprofit organization focusing on music education, which celebrates that mission with two of the most famous music events in the world.” 

Jay Sweet
Douglas Mason / Getty Images
– Jay Sweet
They Say It’s Your Birthday: This year, the Newport Folk Festival celebrates its 60th year and the 100th birthday of late co-founder Pete Seeger. Here, Sweet (center) and Seeger (right) sing happy birthday to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (left) at the 2011 Newport Folk Festival.
Pollstar: The Newport Folk Festival sells out before the artist lineup is even announced.
Jay Sweet: And we don’t do any press releases or marketing. We just post on social media that tickets will go on sale the following week, then they sell out in under 10 minutes. We start announcing one or two artists a week all the way to Memorial Day. We also don’t do a poster, so we don’t have to worry about font sizes. Why not just have the audience surprised when they get here?

What is it like as an independent competing against well-funded monoliths like Live Nation and AEG?
We survive by refusing to play the game. Which festival is better suited to take up the mantle for promoting music education in this country, where music is the first thing cut from school budgets? How about the one festival which created that paradigm? I would rather do what we do best … help the human condition, make the world a better place, and live up to the egalitarian ideals that Pete was all about. We’re never going to survive if we play the Live Nation/AEG game, so why do that?  
Newport Jazz and Folk are arguably the models for the modern music festival. 
[Coachella founder] Paul Tollett and [Superfly’s] Jonathan Mayers and Richard Goodstone would tell you the same thing. George Wein didn’t write the book on how to do music festivals, he created the printing press that produced the book. This is a nonprofit that spends 365 days a year giving away money to music education initiatives that happens to celebrate all the work it does at the end of the fiscal year with two marvelous events. And that’s a philosophical change from how we perceived ourselves in the past. 
Both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals have political roots. 
It’s a place for free speech, with no obtrusive commercialism. We will accept corporate sponsorship only if it enhances the experience, which means no signage. Like, we had Bose hand out wireless headphones when our smaller indoor venue, the Museum Stage, became overcrowded. We had a local insurance company, HiRoad, give bike lights to people after the show when it got dark.
There have been plenty of historical moments at Newport Folk Festival, including performances by the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson before they were known.
I truly believe the last 11 years of Newport could easily rival its first 11, especially in the midst of increased competition. When Newport started, nobody else was doing music festivals. Now everybody is doing it, but we’re doing it differently.  Not only aren’t people expecting you to play your hits, they actually prefer you don’t. When Roger Waters came, he wanted to play John Prine and Levon Helm covers. There are no expectations.  Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
Newport has always built its brand on those unexpected water-cooler moments.
I’ve become synonymous with something I could never dream of doing. I snuck into this festival when I was still in high school in Newport, posing as a roadie lugging an amp so I could see the Pixies do an acoustic set in 2005. I wasn’t alive when Dylan went electric, but I surely couldn’t miss the first and only time the Pixies played an acoustic set. The first thing I did when I took over was to tell my staff the five ways people were sneaking in. 
You weren’t even hired by George Wein, but the company that acquired the festivals from him. When he returned two years later, you were the only one he kept on.
He really didn’t like me. George and I have a mentor-mentee relationship that’s paternal. The genius is, we don’t think alike, and that’s a good thing. He made me argue for every point. You can’t put any bullshit past him; he’s seen and done it all. I had to work for him for 10 years to stop being the new kid. He thinks in decades, not years. 
Any desire to swoop in and save Woodstock 50 at this point?
I tried to book a major artist that was already committed to Woodstock 50 when I heard there was a radius clause in the agreement. I immediately called Michael Lang, who said, “If you have any issues with artists who want to play both, let me know and I’ll make it so.”  Anybody who thinks of Newport as an existential threat to their business model has never attended. I know for a fact some festivals stipulate the acts can’t play Newport because they’re paying them so much more than we do. My counter is, I don’t use their name to sell a ticket, so it’s not a fair comparison. I’m not pulling the artists’ fans from their market.  I even agreed to hold off announcing those particular artists until their festival was over.
What’s your wish list for acts who’ve never played Newport Folk Festival?
I call them my white whales. Neil Young was first scheduled to play Newport in 1967 with Buffalo Springfield two weeks before they broke up, when they canceled due to a “tonsillectomy.” I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to the late [Neil Young manager] Elliot Roberts offering to excuse their original deposit fee of $50 that was never refunded. Right before Elliott passed away, I got a hold of Neil through his archival website and he wrote back for me to call Elliott to set it up. That Paul Simon never played Newport before his retirement was simply a missed opportunity on a massive musical scale. Eddie Vedder is another one. Bruce Springsteen has an album called The Seeger Sessions and has never played Newport, even though I had Jackson Browne and Mavis Staples urge him to.  
What is the festival’s current relationship with Bob Dylan?
He came back to perform in 2002, and it was a little odd. He wore a wig and a fake beard. He didn’t make any eye contact, said nothing from the stage and left. I told his management and agent there is an outstanding open invitation anytime he wants to play. But I’m no longer asking every year.s