I came to my first Musikfest as a rising Moravian College sophomore in 2007. Since then, this time of year in the Lehigh Valley has always held a certain, magical allure. Knowing that ‘Fest is approaching, and then coming to Bethlehem to celebrate with friends, has proven to be a highlight of every single summer.
It wasn’t until 2014, however, that I would come to see Musikfest in a whole new light – as an event that can bring meaningful change to the lives it touches.
In July of 2014, life was entirely different. I was living in my hometown of Long Valley, New Jersey, where I had been since graduating from Moravian in 2010. At the beginning of the year, I found myself freshly unemployed after my contract gig with IBM in New York had expired. Instead of immediately looking for full-time work, I spent the first half of the year instead trying to blaze my own trail – for better or worse – with The Quinn Spinn as the driving force. However, I had limited success – as I would find out, marketing a “worldwide” podcast from scratch as a stand-alone business venture was quite a challenge. Furthermore, limited income from mowing lawns and delivering pizzas, as well as the unwelcome specter of seemingly constant student loan payments, had me in a cash-flow-negative state. I was getting to a point where I needed to do something to right the ship, and soon.
Perhaps what I shouldn’t have been doing, then, was planning to head out to Bethlehem to take in the sights, sounds, food, and drink of Musikfest in a few weeks. However, I’ve never been one to let being broke stand in the way of yearly tradition. There I was one afternoon on Musikfest.org, trying to get a sense of what was happening at that year’s event.
As I hovered over the website’s top menu bar, something caught the corner of my eye. It wasn’t a headline act, or even one on a free stage. It was a drop-down menu that contained two words.
I clicked the link, wondering where it would take me. Surely, I was willing to take some time off from my blossoming career at Domino’s Pizza if it meant I got to work at my favorite event of the year. As they are every year, ArtsQuest was looking to add to their Event Services team in time for Musikfest. Through The Quinn Spinn, I had gained some experience with events, and I already considered myself a Musikfest expert. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for me, so I applied.
Apparently, the powers that be at ArtsQuest agreed. I secured a phone interview, which went successfully enough for me to score one in-person. From there, I was brought onto the Event Services team. For sure, I’d be returning to Musikfest that year – but in a whole new way, and for all ten days!
Applying to and accepting this role at Musikfest was not simply a frivolous move to get me out of the Domino’s kitchen for a week and a half. Ever since leaving Moravian – and in particular, since my girlfriend graduated in 2012 – I had craved an opportunity to break back into the Lehigh Valley. The six years I had spent as a student or part-time visitor of Bethlehem has shaped my identity so profoundly that, as we packed her car for the final time on that beautiful May day, I felt like I was leaving my home behind. Even as I traveled to New York throughout 2013, Bethlehem was always on my mind. (I even wrote some lyrics one early morning, that I hope to one day put to music, that expressed the feeling of being on that train heading east, when all I wanted to do was head back west to simpler times.)
These weren’t simpler times, though. I was fully immersed in what, to that point, had been a totally unforgiving “real world.” If I was going to stick in the Valley, I had to prove my worth on an entirely different level than I did at Moravian. So, I saw my ten days of Musikfest as an opportunity to become reacquainted, make connections, and pass the “audition” in hopes of a larger role going forward. This was step one toward returning “home” for good, and it was up to me to get to step two.
As I pulled up to SteelStacks for Musikfest training, I acknowledged to myself that it felt good to be back in town for a reason that differed from the occasional nostalgia trip. That feeling carried over to my first day, when I drove from Long Valley to Bethlehem’s Martin Tower to catch the shuttle to SteelStacks to receive my assignment.
I arrived, not knowing what to expect. Fortunately, there were plenty of other folks in orange shirts who surely felt the same way. I waited patiently until I was called into the trailer…
“Last name?” asked my supervisor.
“Longo,” I replied.
“OK… you’re going to 2nd & Founders.”
I received a radio, and walked out to the intersection of 2nd St. and Founders Way, where I would direct traffic for the next six hours (and much of the festival, as it would turn out). While some may have been disappointed by receiving this role instead of working the main stage, I didn’t care. I was here to prove my worth, and if directing traffic and occasionally stopping renegade cars was what I had to do, I was going to do it for the sake of the big picture.
I did get to mix it up the following night, however, when I traveled with a few folks to the north side (the side with the tents). There, I was to manage Festplatz, where The Amish Outlaws expected to pack the house on the festival’s first Saturday night.
“Packed house” was an understatement, because you can only pack so many people into a festival tent until they’re forced to watch from outside. The party atmosphere on that Saturday night was palpable, and highlighted by an old man – I’d estimate his age at around 85 – dancing on a table. I also had my first-ever “missing child” situation that night, when a group pointed out a boy who was lost in the Festplatz throng of humanity. On just my second day on the job, I kept the boy near me as I thought of a solution.
Fortunately, I saw the Outlaws’ lead singer working his way through the crowd toward us. I got his attention, pointing and screaming at the top of my lungs…
Although he still couldn’t hear me, the singer read my lips and didn’t hesitate, bringing the child onstage and re-uniting him with his parents. It seemed as though some of my co-workers were impressed with my resourcefulness the following day, as I received a few compliments on my work at Festplatz.
The good feelings kept coming as Musikfest rolled along and, even though I was a bit exhausted at times from my daily drive to and from Bethlehem, I felt like something positive was happening. My traffic management skills were apparently so good that 2nd & Founders was my position nearly every night, and I was happy to have found a niche on my new team.
I did manage to get a day off during Musikfest that year. The second Saturday of the festival was the day of my traditional annual gathering. Although I found my crew a bit later in the day, there was some business to attend to in town that morning. So, I got up nice and early for my daily trek…
I had reached out Shawn Martell, an ex-Moravian football teammate and the brains behind a new hyper-local news site, the Main Street Deluge. I was interested in using my background in journalism to contribute to the Deluge, giving myself another post-Musikfest reason to be involved in the Valley’s happenings. Shawn agreed to meet with me that morning and tell me about what they were doing. At one point, our conversation turned to The Quinn Spinn.
For some time, I had it in my mind that localizing my efforts was the way to make The Quinn Spinn into the best possible resource for indie musicians. I had begun to feel as though doing so was the truest — and only — way to build a following. This conversation with Shawn is significant, as it was perhaps the first time I had ever admitted these things out loud. As our chat continued, it had become apparent to me that breaking back into the Valley – vibrant arts scene and all – would help me on my mission.
Although this may not be an exact quote (it was two years ago, after all), I remember him saying something to the effect of:
“This isn’t New York or Philly. It might not even be a quarter of that, in terms of size. But, this might be the area that needs something like this.”
Little did I know, this meeting was the first official seed planted for what would eventually grow into Lehigh Valley Underground.
After a day and night of enjoyment, I spent the night and woke up with a bit of time to spare before my shift on the final day of Musikfest. I was to report early that day – at 2 p.m., as opposed to 4:45 – because some of us had a special assignment for the Keith Urban show that night.
I arrived to find out that my assignment was to sit by a backstage entrance and make sure that nobody, at the artist’s request, went back there. It was a hot day – the hottest of the festival – and the sun was just at the right angle to shine on me for the three hours I was there. Still, I was steadfast in my assignment.
“I was chosen for this for a reason today,” I remember thinking. “Today is where I earn it.”
And boy, would I ever…
As it got closer to showtime, I was given a quick re-fueling break and re-positioned to the front of one of the VIP aisles. Among my responsibilities, I was told, would be to keep order when Keith Urban invited the audience to come closer to the stage.
“Move your chair up to the sixth row and sit there,” I was instructed. “Don’t let anyone past you.”
Sure enough, the moment came a few songs in and, before I could stand up, a rush of concertgoers had already made their way to the front. I moved my chair to the sixth row and sat there, but a good number of people had already made it past me. I chalked it up to the allure of Keith Urban’s celebrity and had a good laugh about it with a couple of the patrons in attendance (who were super cool and helped me get people back to their seats after the song).
After the guests returned to their seats, I was informed that my assignment would be changing. I went to the area behind the sound board, where there was a small stage soon to be occupied by the Australian country star. Obviously, there was a need to have staff on-hand in that location in case an overzealous fan took a jump over the barricade. However, Keith Urban wanted to maintain the party-like atmosphere, and didn’t want there to be an overbearing “security” presence. So, a few of us would be ensuring the safety of the performer, staff, and patrons… from under the stage.
My colleagues and I crouched down and crawled under the stage, just before Keith Urban made his way back for a three-song mini-set. Right as he took the mini-stage, I noticed a hyped-up fan with a poster that read, “Bucket List Goal: Hug an Aussie.” More importantly, I noticed her friend, whom I lip-read to understand saying to her hug-seeking pal, “You should jump over!”
Fortunately, nobody jumped, and Mr. Urban made it back to the main stage safely. At that point, we emerged from beneath the mini-stage, content with a job well done.
As I turned around, I took in Keith Urban’s set and saw the stage lit up. I heard the full sound of his band and, for a few brief moments, reflected on the previous ten days. I felt in that moment like I came back to the Valley and gave it my all. The only thing that remained to be seen: Would I be back for good?
Of course, I wouldn’t know the answer to that question until several months later, when I started my full-time job at PBS39 and then moved to Bethlehem. However, ArtsQuest reached out days after Musikfest to invite me on as Year-Round Event Staff. With step one now complete, it was on to step two, and I was excited to be a part of the action at ArtsQuest and continue my march back into the Valley, just about every weekend.
So… why the long story? Because, without securing and passing that 10-day audition in August 2014, and without the encounters and experiences I’ve had since, there would be no Lehigh Valley Underground. If I never took that chance, I would never have had this opportunity for a new lease on life, in a place comfortable and familiar enough for me to call home. I doubt I would be next door at PBS39, either, as a late shift at ArtsQuest was the catalyst that inspired me to apply to the position I’ve now had there for more than a year and a half. I owe much to the ArtsQuest organization and to Musikfest, and that sense of gratitude is perhaps the strongest it has ever been.
So, while you may not see much of me in my navy blue Event Staff polo at this year’s ‘Fest – somebody has to generate all of the great LVU content to come, after all – know that the folks who wear those and the yellow staff t-shirts are my team. I still work with them once or twice a week on a regular basis, and they are near and dear to the blog you are reading now. These folks sacrifice weeks of their time and energy every summer to make sure your Musikfest experience is even better than the year before. If you get the chance, thank them for their efforts…
…or at least, take it easy on them, and don’t dance on any tables at Festplatz. 🙂