Behind the Festival: RADfest

This weekend, RADfest is coming back to the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC for a second year. The festival was created by co-founders Andrew Vasco and Emma Hutchens after serving as media volunteers for a community radio station at regional festivals. They have once again created a diverse lineup that also places a spotlight on local artists. They are determined to create and foster safe spaces in their community and have even pledged a portion of proceeds to a local non-profit, Our Voice.

Tickets can be found on the RADfest website and are just $30 for a weekend pass.

In the first of what I hope will become a continuing series of conversations with festival organizers, I got to ask Andrew and Emma a few questions about the fest and the importance of diversity and safe spaces:


This year, more than half of the acts scheduled to play feature a woman or non-binary musician. How is diversity important for you as an organization?

Emma: When we started RADfest, we wanted to create something that felt unique in the Asheville music scene.  For us, that meant showcasing genres that we loved and felt didn't get as much "air time" in WNC as well as highlighting femme, non-binary, LGBTQ and POC musicians. It is very important to us that RADfest is platform for musicians to reach new audiences and get the love they deserve. 

Andrew: It’s one of our main missions! We want to make sure that RADfest is a representation of the crowd we want at the festival. If someone in the crowd sees an artist on stage who looks just like them, it can be so inspiring. And lyrically, having different voices brings light to different points of view, which could really relate to one attendee, while opening the mind of another.  50% women and non-binary acts should be the bare minimum all music festivals curate. With so many incredible, and diverse acts it really isn’t that hard. That is also why we aren’t 100% women, POC, or LGBTQIA led acts. Not there is anything against festivals that book that way, those festivals are very important as well. But we want to make the statement that this kind of diversity in a lineup should be what all festivals, including major ones, accomplish. 

Is diversity something you consciously think about while building the lineup?

Andrew: Yes and no. We don’t have a quota system saying we need to hit at least x, y, and z. For me, I just have a pretty diverse taste in music and I reach out to acts I want to see. It can feel risky, but I think fans of the artist make the trip out, and if you truly believe in the music, new fans are created. We always put music first, and there is so much fantastic music out there created by so many different individuals. 

Emma: It definitely plays a role among many other things that we're weighing as we book the event.  Andrew did all of the booking this year and he did an amazing job curating a lineup that is multi-genre and that features a mix of bands that are regional, national and local. We also seek out bands that share the same values as the event. 

This year, you are donating a portion of proceeds to Our VOICE, a North Carolina nonprofit that serves individuals affected by sexual assault and abuse. How did that idea come about?

Andrew: Last year the BBC released an article about the level of sexual assaults at music festivals. I honestly was sad not to feel completely shocked by this, as I have been attending various music festivals for over 10 years now, and know what the culture can be like. A lot of festivals are trying to figure out ways on how to actively end this behavior (I use end because it’s not about curbing it, it is about how to end it). I recognize that for the larger scale festivals this is such a monumental task. Crowds can be big and it’s almost impossible to see what is going on. Our festival is much smaller scale, so we wanted to work on ending it in that level to not only find the best practices, but also to set a precedent that that type of behavior is absolutely unacceptable at our event. We reached out to Our VOICE because we wanted to learn the right ways this can be accomplished, and to partner up with them so they can be at the event to provide support and training to our volunteers. They are also such a crucial organization and we wanted to help them provide their support and services to the area. 

Emma: Andrew speaks to this above, but sexual assault is a huge issue at music festivals and the music industry in general.  We wanted the event to feel like a safe and welcoming space for everyone and we also wanted it to benefit an important cause. Our Voice is the perfect partner to help us meet our goals around functioning as a safer space.  The organization helps educate our coordinating team and volunteers in deescalation tactics and shape the event in ways that make people feel supported. We believe deeply in their mission and the work they do in the community. 

This is now RADfest’s second year. Is it easier to put on an event like this the second time around? What have you learned that will help make this year's event even better?

Andrew: We learned a lot from last year. What we needed, what we didn’t. We also built many relationships with the community. Also, our little team has grown a bit, and with the awesome help of Emma Ensley, Stephanie Rogers, Brittany Jackson, we feel more organized and prepared, with various tasks being handled by trusted people so we can put more focus into others. We learned how to budget better, which in the end is good for everyone. We cut out things we didn’t need or use, and we gathered things from last year that we can use again this year. Creating safer spaces can seem like a hard, daunting task. But every year we try and get better and better. There are things we can’t afford or mess up, and I think all event producers need to know, that mistakes and unforeseen things happen, and making an effort, and learning, and doing better every year is how you can accomplish great things. That message is one of my favorite takeaways from Shawna Potter’s guide “Making Spacers Safer,” a must read for anyone putting on a festival, owning a venue, playing a band, or attending live music. That book, and the work of Sadie Dupuis, is why I carry Narcan with me. 

Emma: It was certainly easier logistically this year, but also harder because we had a lot of new things going on in our lives.  I can't even begin to explain how much we learned from last year. Overall, I feel like everything has fit together more seamlessly this year and last year provided us with a roadmap for future events.  I think that we actually simplified some of our plans and layout to get to the core of what we want to do and who we need to do it with. 

Are there other festivals that you look to for inspiration?

Emma: Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh was the original inspiration for RADfest.  The diversity of acts and genres at that event was really inspiring to us and we thought, "Why don't we make something like this for Asheville?"  The next year RADfest was born. HEX, a benefit dance party in Asheville was the first event that I ever attended that had explicit, posted norms and values and that had a lasting effect for me.  I think that it's very powerful to make a clear statement about what the space is about and what is and isn't okay.

Andrew: Tons. We are not the first festival to curate this way, nor will we ever be the last. Hopscotch in Raleigh was the inspiration point that Asheville needed a diverse music festival. They curate so many different acts, and we loved the idea that more than 50% of them are regional. Treefort in Boise does a great job, same with Noise Pop in San Francisco. Abroad, Primavera Sound is constantly producing one of the best lineups around, and I am so excited to see what they have in-store for LA 2020. Even in Asheville, Pansyfest has been highlighting and curating so many incredible artists, that I feel they are one of the best festivals in town.

Do you have a favorite music festival (besides RADfest!)?

Emma: Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh and Big Ears Festival in Knoxville are my two favorite local festivals. A few years ago, I had a chance to visit Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona and it was life changing. 

Andrew: I might have more favorite festival moments or experiences than festivals themselves. Festivals can be great one year, and terrible the next. They are ever evolving, in layout, location, curation. So there are years when I love something, and years when I grow out of it (like Warped Tour and Coachella). Being upfront for Frank Ocean is probably one of my favorite festival experiences. Watching Cults come out to the Twin Peaks theme gave me chills. Blood Orange bringing out Carly Rae Jepson, Sky Ferreira, and Nelly Furtado. Dancing and crying to Anohni’s performance. Being in a tiny bar to see Mountain Man’s secret pre-reunion show. I mean, the list goes on. 

What are you most looking forward to at this year's festival?

Andrew: All the artists playing and seeing the crowd react. Last year so many people came up to us saying they had a wonderful time, and thanking us for putting on this event. I even walked by a table of people who were trying to figure out which act of artist they didn’t know was their favorite so far, and had no clear answer. And honestly, for me, being in a space in Asheville that feels diverse on and off stage. As a person of color, that can be hard to find in a small and primarily white city. So having a range of people out there enjoying each others company and looking out for each other, builds a stronger sense of community. And at the end of the day, it’s all for the community. 

Emma: I'm always so excited to actually see and hear some of the music and meet the bands.  One fun thing about throwing a festival is that I really like all of the music! I'm especially looking forward to Seeing Ivy Sole. I've been listening to her album, Overgrown since it came out last year. I also love watching everything come together the day of - the decorations going up, the bands and the people starting to arrive.  It's amazing to watch something become a reality after so many months of planning.

Thank you to Andrew and Emma! RADfest is September 14th-15th in Asheville, NC!

Abbey Carbonneau