Portraits from Total Bummer Fest, part one: contextualizing the coolest summer camp ever

In the corner of an enormous warehouse in the Winter Park neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, 40 or so kids are sitting on the floor in a semi-circle, legs crossed. Noah Klein, a Brooklyn-based solo experimental artist who performs these days under the moniker Cuddle Formation, is also sitting, with an acoustic guitar, in front of a tent.

Two Fridays ago, this tent, and a handful of people present here in FL, were in my Lower Allston living room watching this same set. But now we’re all over 1,000 miles away from Boston, for Florida’s annual Total Bummer Fest -- a small but growing DIY music festival, now in its third year.

>> READ MORE >> Out: Posi vibes down in Florida with Mutual Benefit, Little Spoon and dozens of others

“Everyone here fucking rules,” he says in between tracks of ambient electronica and folksy confessionals. After one song, Klein passes around the microphone and asks everyone to say their name.

Total Bummer is a decidedly non-commercial event, largely emphasizing community and ethics versus aesthetic, buzz, and money-making. The fest is valuable for those entrenched in Orlando’s burgeoning music scene, as well as the national grassroots underground community that it attracts.

At first, this warehouse -- Say It Loud Gallery -- felt overwhelming, sort of swanky and intimidating, with tall ceilings, pristine white walls, and full of strangers. But by this Sunday afternoon set (on the last day of the fest) it feels smaller, more like a home base, where I recognize most faces. There’s the FMLY crew (Klein, Brooklyn-via-Orlando artist Emily Reo, Jordan Lee of Mutual Benefit, my roommate Cameron who plays as Little Spoon), and then there’s the group of kids from the blog Zen Tapes who traveled here from Michigan, the dudes from Tiny Waves and Spirit Cat who helped put the fest on, and my friend/Phoenix contributor Diana Burmistrovich is here too. I spot our new friend from Arkansas, JD, who plays as Messy Sparkles, and is sleeping on the same floor as Diana and I for the weekend. I also spot dozens of people who I recognize just from watching their sets the night before. I just met some high school kids who run one of the most successful experimental labels in town, Relief in Abstract.

It feels like the coolest summer camp ever.

Vir, an electronic artist from Orlando, playing at Say It Loud on Saturday night.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is universally important about fests like Total Bummer, but my immediate reaction is that it’s exciting to see kids in a place like Orlando focusing on building their creative community rather than just moving to places like Brooklyn and LA. (Like most people in Boston do after four or five years.)

Because to move towards an underground culture that is more sustainable and less commercial in general, it’s important to build up authentic micro-scenes in geographically diverse locations.

That sentiment -- of it being really important to foster scenes outside of big cities -- is a sentiment that has been consistently resonating with me since around January, when I first read a book called In Every Town: An All-ages Music Manuelfesto. (Appropriately, it was recommended to me by Noah Klein.)

The book showcases examples of places around the country where kids in random micro-scenes have fostered communities, venues, festivals, etc. to make independent music accessible and sustainable for all. The book was produced in 2010 by the All Ages Movement Project, a not-for-profit organization based in Seattle. In the weeks leading up to Total Bummer Festival, I knew that Kevin Erickson of the All Ages Movement Project (who everyone should follow on Twitter if you don't already) would have some light to shed on the value of fests like Total Bummer, from a music advocacy perspective. So I called him up.

“For people like you and me that see the DIY cultural work as a form of political or proto-political organizing, maximum geographic reach is a crucial step towards maximum impact,” he said. “It’s just so crucially important, politically, that people have access to these ideas and sounds, not just in the cool cities, the blue states, the college towns.”

This was the crowd during Florida band Oh Fortuna's set on Saturday night.

Kevin related Total Bummer to What The Heck Fest, a festival he was involved in organizing when he living in Anacortes, Washington.

“It sounds similar to what you’re talking about in that it was really small scale and community oriented, primarily around celebrating that community rather than around corporate sponsorship and that kind of thing," said Erickson. "And that’s a place with like seven pristine lakes on an island and everyone was going swimming between bands and it totally had that summer camp vibe.”

According to Erickson, the value of small micro-fests like What The Heck and Total Bummer speak more broadly to the larger conversation of localism: “The whole idea of the International Pop Underground that was big in the 90s was to have this big network of local, geographically disparate scenes all producing their own insights and then networking to share those insights with the rest of the country. And doing that on a humane scale, a scale that is not mediated by any kind of gatekeepers, but through more organic means and relationships and zines and touring.”

But as independent culture has gotten bigger, some of those insights have been lost.

“Now you can have a really great festival that has a bunch of high profile independent artists," said Erickson. "But it doesn’t accomplish a whole lot for the whole world if every 17 year old in every small town across the country is listening to the same 30 bands they found out about on Pitchfork or Stereogum or something. It’s important that the local infrastructure exist.”

So it provides an important example to look to these folks in Florida who are making local infrastructure happen. How and why are they doing it? Why not just move to a place with a bigger music scene? Is it the economy making it necessary to stay in a less expensive place? Or technology making it easier to stay there and connect with far-away artists and feel a sense of national reach, even from Winter Park, FL? And what about this fest makes kids from all over the country want to travel here? I asked these questions (and others) to a handful of people who I encountered during my three days in Florida. Stay tuned for those conversations. And rad new music.
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