All you really need for a successful outdoor music festival is a sound system, a generator, corporate sponsors, bands, staff and money. Or you can go the route of the Seattle Bicycle Music Festival and pull off a grassroots effort that’s literally off the grid.
Inspired by the San Francisco event of the same name that began in 2007, the Seattle Bicycle Music Festival aims to promote cycling culture through an entirely human-powered set of concerts in area parks. Electric power for the microphones and amplifiers is provided by audience members using a row of five bikes to power a generator and an inverter. As long as there’s steady pedal power, the show goes on, without using any gas or electricity.
As if that’s not green enough, the whole power-generating contraption folds up, Transformer-style, into a bike trailer, which is towed from park to park by a cyclist. Three other bike trailers move the sound equipment, and the audience is also encouraged to travel to the festival’s three locations via bike.
This year’s festival was coordinated by Sylvie Janecek, who volunteered for the job after the previous organizer became too busy upon returning to school. An avid cyclist currently looking for a job after being laid off as an office assistant, Sylvie reasoned that taking on the task of planning and organizing the festival would be good for her resume, allow her to meet new people, and, most importantly, to keep her from “sitting around the house being sad that I’m not working.”
The Seattle Bicycle Music Festival debuted in 2009 using the San Francisco fest as a model and borrowing their bike powered generator. For the 2010 fest, Sylvie wanted to build a power system that could remain in Seattle afterward and be used at future bike events.
While ready-made bike trainers or off-the-shelf generators like the Pedal-a-watt are available, budget constraints required a DIY approach. Sylvie organized a team of mechanically minded volunteers to build the “bike bar” that would power the music. In the last week before the festival, the team worked from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night to finish assembling the tubing, bike stands and electronics.
Attendance at the morning and afternoon locations of the Festival was sometimes sparse, leaving barely enough volunteers willing to run the generator. By the time the festival moved to Cal Anderson Park for the evening performances, there was a constant line of up to eight people waiting to hop on a bike to help power the music. Perhaps the most unusual volunteers were members of Orkestar Zirkonium, who pedaled and played simultaneously for a part of their set- even the tuba player!
Judging from the diverse crowd and the enthusiastic dancing during performances by Orkestar Zirkonium and Manigua, the Bicycle Music Festival appealed to both cyclists and music fans who weren’t acquainted with bike culture. The dancing continued even as the sun set and the stage became harder to see. Sylvie mentions wanting to build a bike-powered lighting system for next year’s festival, as well as hoping to raise enough money to pay the musicians who currently perform for free.
“I’d only heard some of the performers online, since I couldn’t get to everyone’s live shows ahead of time,” said Sylvie. “I knew they’d be good, but they exceeded my expectations by being amazing.”
Organizing the festival wasn’t all triumphs. Problems and delays from the initial insurance company might have killed the festival, until another company stepped in and finalized the policy at 7 a.m. the morning of the event. I wonder aloud what kind of insurance agent works on Saturday, and Sylvie smiles and says “This guy did!”
That above-and-beyond spirit seemed to go hand and hand with the Festival. Aside from the core volunteers who built the power system and hauled equipment, area bike businesses donated the use of bike trailers and on-site repair and maintenance of the pedal-power bikes. Retailers donated raffle prizes, and a bike-loving DJ loaned mike stands and speakers. The International Bicycle Fund provided non-profit status and help with official paperwork and the City of Seattle’s Parks Department helped keep permit costs low via a little-known program that waives fees for events in less-utilized or troubled parks.
Bolstered by her “kick-ass volunteers” and the positive feedback she’s heard from the cycling community, Sylvie isn’t planning to pass the baton to a new organizer for next year’s Bicycle Music Festival. After holding a wrap-up meeting with volunteers, she’ll be taking a grant-writing class in October to hopefully expand the event’s funding.
“Everyone wants the event to keep happening,“ Sylvie says. "We’re starting small, but growing a little bit each year.” Her optimistic outlook extends to her job hunt, which is back on full time, with updated resume reflecting her newly-honed skills ready to go. “I don’t think that organizing the Festival will directly lead to a new job….but you never know!”