The puppeteer pulling the strings at Doe Bay Fest

Kevin Sur is the musical mastermind behind some of the Northwest's most sought-after music festivals. How he does it all -- while building community.
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Kevin Sur performs at Tacoma's Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

Kevin Sur is the musical mastermind behind some of the Northwest's most sought-after music festivals. How he does it all -- while building community.

When I think of Kevin Sur, I think of him at a table in Café Racer, cell phone practically glued to his hand as he talks to local musicians, food and drink vendors, nationally known acts and booking agencies. He’s a man who, as he puts it, wants to make moments for audiences. He and his organization, Artist Home, put on events like Doe Bay Fest, Timber! Outdoor Music Festival and Timbrrr Winter Music Festival — smaller (compared to, say, Sasquatch! or Bumbershoot), curated events with a focus on community.

But how did all this come about? “Artist Home,” said Sur, “started as a booking agency 10 years ago with an aim of celebrating art and community. I had been booking tours for punk and hardcore bands for a number of years starting back in the 90's and decided to put a name on what I was doing and turn this work I had been doing for free, into an actual business.” Artist Home, he added, quickly morphed into a company that booked events, rather than tours. Hence the festivals.

When the first incarnation of Doe Bay rolled around, Sur was asked by his now-business partner, Chad Clibborn, to perform. “My band traveled up from California and played the festival one month before I was planning on moving to Seattle,” said Sur. “Through that one show, I got to know Joe Brotherton [the owner of Doe Bay Resort] and his family, who were kind enough to invite me to help curate the festival with them the following year. It's been an incredible experience.”

Some handful of years later, Timber! came about — “thanks to the awesome people at King County Parks,” Sur notes. “They had seen the work I had been doing with Artist Home around the NW and invited me out to Carnation to see if I might be able to put on a music festival at Tolt-Macdonald Park. After seeing the park, I showed it to my now business partners, Chad & Phil and we created Timber! Outdoor music festival in 5 short months.” And, blissfully, the following winter, Timbrrr formed in the snowy, German-style town of Leavenworth, WA.

We wanted to learn more from Kevin about how he organizes festivals, how he judges their success and his philosophies on work and community:

Describe that feeling, that moment, when you book a band or a vendor that you know is perfect for the event.

It just makes every ounce of energy you and your partners put into an event worth it. When you see a couple thousand people fall in love with an artist for the first time or rave about how awesome their experience was kayaking with REI, it makes you pinch yourself. You are reminded that we get to make people happy for a living. Nothing beats it. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to work, in general?

My philosophy is to simply take pride in what you’re doing and bust your ass, even if it seems meaningless. When it comes to putting on events, I think all of us at Artist Home embrace a common philosophy of only creating something that we ourselves would enjoy. 

What’s the oddest thing that’s happened person you met, story that happened, phone call you’ve received as a result of booking a festival?

I don't know if I'd call it odd, but the coolest phone call I received as a result of booking a festival was from Doug Martsch, and if anyone was odd, it was probably me. He's just one of those musicians that was a major influence on me and he was someone I looked up to greatly.  Shortly after I booked him to play Doe Bay Fest I got a phone call from him, which well, left me a bit star struck.  I'm pretty sure I sounded a lot like Chris Farley from "The Chris Farley Show" while talking to him. 

What are the three key elements to booking a music festival – what has to go right?

If I were to pick three I'd say: 

1.  Make sure all artists are considered and have the ability to submit their music (without having to pay money).

2.  We always try to make sure there are artists that the attendees will be familiar with, but always challenge ourselves to also present a number of artists we know they don't know but will love. 

3.  It's always right when we successfully book a festival full of musicians who are as amazing human beings as they are artists. 

When, during a show, do you stop and smile? When are you running around working feverishly?

The feverish work doesn't really stop. But each year there will be a couple moments when your radio is silent and you get to experience a moment of what you helped create. 

When you see people who aren’t active in their community but who show signs, through conversation maybe, of wanting to be – what is your advice?

It depends on what they're wanting to do. If they're interested in actively creating events or more moments that everyone can be a part of, my biggest piece of advice is to be inspired and do something that is uniquely theirs. Not only will they create moments and events that are one of a kind, but they open up a new realm of possibilities of what a community can look like. 

What is your philosophy regarding people (perhaps, specifically, community), in general?

It's only a community if it's accessible and if it, by nature, works toward inviting those from the outside in. If it's anything but that, it's not so much a community as it is a "scene".

What do you want to see more of?

I want to see more major cities in the U.S. have their own version of KEXP. They are really the foundation that the Seattle music industry is built on. Could you imagine what the music industry would be like if other major cities in the U.S. had it as well? 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti is the co-founder and Managing Editor of The Monarch Review. He plays in the band, The Great Um, and works at The Pub at Third Place.