My first MACRoCk was in April 2000 during my freshman year at JMU. I’d spent the previous semester reviewing albums for the student radio station, WXJM 88.7 FM. When I found out about the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference, I volunteered to be on the event staff and was lucky enough get the position of venue coordinator at the Artful Dodger. Piebald was headlining on opening night and I didn’t know quite what to expect, but when lead singer and guitarist Travis Shettel walked in and calmly asked, “Does anybody know where I can get a skull with bat wings tattooed on my chest in this town?” I fell in love with MACRoCk. During their set later that evening, Piebald launched into “American Hearts” and the crowd sang along with Travis during the chorus: Hey! You’re part of it! Yeah! You’re part of it! Simply put, we were excited to be alive. It’s those kind of experiences that have kept me coming back to MACRoCk for fifteen years (catching acts like Sufjan Stevens, Fugazi, and The War on Drugs also had a lot to do with it).
The night after Piebald, I went to see Luck Be A Lady open for The Jazz June at the PC Ballroom on campus. Lead singer and guitarist Billy Sorrentino was just a performer that year, but would go on to direct MACRoCk in 2001. He’s now the Executive Creative Director for WIRED Magazine, but he still looks back on those early formative years fondly. “It was a bunch of wide-eyed college kids centered out of a small radio station trying to replicate CMJ,” Sorrentino recalled, “and that innocence, ignorance, and purity made it fucking matter. Everyone who was involved wore their heart on their sleeve and just really, truly cared about music.”
From its beginnings in 1996, MACRoCk has always been a multi-venue event. Coordinating dozens of bands in venues all over town for an entire weekend would be a challenge for anyone, let alone a small group of volunteers. Add thousands of attendees to the mix and you’ve got yourself a logistical nightmare. When it was Sorrentino’s turn at the helm, he took help wherever he could get it. “The guys in my band at the time were incredibly helpful throughout the entire process: hosting bands, being extra hands.”
To get more insight into the booking process, I contacted Justin Bridgewater at The Agency Group. He got his start booking at MACRoCk while working alongside Sorrentino and now represents an impressive list of bands including Dads, Killer Mike, and Murder By Death. “I first got involved my freshman year and was in charge of putting together the label expo,” Bridgewater said. “This was my first real interaction with people in the music industry, many of whom I still count as friends and business associates today.”
For the next three years, Bridgewater was part of the committee that organized the conference. “One of the biggest challenges was budgeting the festival,” Bridgewater remembered. “It was difficult to keep the cost of operations reasonable so we could afford to pay the talent.” Picking the band lineup each year presented its own problems as well, as they were “trying to keep the talent diverse to fit all musical tastes while finding artists that were emerging before they were ‘too big’ for our conference.”
Though MACRoCk started as a university-sponsored event, it eventually grew beyond JMU and became a non-profit organization of its own in 2008. Harper Holsinger, founder of Funny / Not Funny Records, was an event coordinator during this transitional phase. Growing up in Harrisonburg listening to WXJM, he first heard about MACRoCk from promotions on the station, saying, “After a few years of attending and witnessing what the event was about, I knew I needed I to volunteer.” Though they moved off campus, there was still a strong foundation to work from. As Holsinger explained, “Businesses and the local community have always played a large role in perpetuating the event, so moving into a centrally located downtown area was a no-brainer."
Now in its eighteenth year, Mary Menchel and Landon Walker are on the committee for this year’s MACRoCk. Featured acts include Elvis Depressedly, Priests, Quilt, Rozwell Kid, and the Richmond-based Dorthia Cottrell. I asked how they got to where they are in the organization and Walker answered, “It gets passed down from committee to committee. You see people who are involved and passionate about MACRoCk.” The conference has always had a DIY non-commercial focus, particularly emphasizing the volunteer aspect. “We’re giving back to the community that’s giving to us (and we get to see our favorite bands play at our favorite venues),” Menchel said. Though WXJM is no longer the official sponsor of MACRoCk, they are still heavy supporters. “They advertise for us,” said Landon. “We get most of our volunteers through WXJM.”
MACRoCk is more than just performances, it also hosts label expos and discussion panels on the music industry and related topics. For bands trying to get their foot in the door, these chances to talk face-to-face with industry professionals are an invaluable opportunity. Panels this year include one on comics and zines at Larkin Arts with Jeff Hewitt of Primal Paper Comics in Norfolk and Callie Beattie of Barely There Books. Also scheduled is a panel on women in the punk scene at Three Notch’d Brewing with guests including Fabi Reyna of She Shreds Magazine and RM Livingston, organizer of Grlz Night events in Richmond.
The spirit of MACRoCk is really an open invitation to build supportive music communities everywhere. “There will only be a good scene in your town if you make a good scene,” Landon said. “Start bands. Don’t just sit on the couch and say ‘Aw, we should start a band.’ Just actually go start a band.” Mary continued, “MACRoCk has made me understand how hard you have to work to make a DIY event happen.” Having been on both sides of the curtain, I can attest to the truth of that statement. In spite of the headaches, though, there’s something inherently worthwhile in the effort. As Landon said, “If you want it to happen and you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll see something develop.” I know I’m looking forward to celebrating what they’ve put together this year. Just look for me in the front row, dripping with sweat, screaming out anthems in a sea of friends.
MACRoCk XVIII happens April 3-4 at half a dozen venues in downtown Harrisonburg. Weekend and single-day badges are both available. For full schedule, visit macrockva.org.
Photography by Brandy Somers