As the number of music festivals vying for attention grows ever higher, Hassle Fest, whose ninth iteration will be held at Somerville’s ONCE Ballroom Friday and Saturday, stands out for several reasons.
Chief among them is the all-ages festival’s eclectic lineup. Even the biggest names on the 34-act bill (Dan Deacon, Pere Ubu, Xiu Xiu) have essentially no foothold in the mainstream despite their status as underground icons. From its inception in 2009, back when it was called Homegrown Fest and booking future indie stars like Kurt Vile and Ty Segall, Hassle Fest has showcased the experimental, boundary-pushing artists that most festivals ignore.
“The important thing is just that there’s no formula,” says Sam Potrykus, who as co-director of the local arts nonprofit Boston Hassle is one of the festival’s chief architects. “We want to make it exciting and interesting for people.”
That’s the other special thing about Hassle Fest; in true punk-rock fashion, the festival is run entirely by Boston Hassle volunteers, with all proceeds going directly to the nonprofit.
“I think it’s cool that there’s this DIY festival that’s been going on for so long,” says Deacon, an electronic musician who as Friday’s headliner plans to treat audiences to his notoriously frenetic, participatory live show. “It’s not an easy thing to maintain, and I’m just really happy to finally be a part of it.”
The main project Potrykus and fellow Hassle co-director Dan Shea currently hope to get off the ground is an all-ages music venue, which would provide a much-needed alternative to the bars and clubs that currently dominate the Boston music scene. It’s a cause that both are passionate about.
“I think it’s fundamentally wrong to have age restrictions on cultural events,” says Potrykus. “There’s no official, sanctioned, safe all-ages space that’s dedicated to the arts or music the way the clubs are, and even the clubs don’t really respect the artists. It’s just their cash cow for selling alcohol.”
“Especially in a city like Boston that’s so full of college-age students, the idea of there not being anywhere to go if you’re 16 to 20 is crazy,” says Deacon. “Art spaces and music spaces are vital community centers for people in that age group.”
Shea, who’s been booking shows in the Boston area since 2001, first met Potrykus when he was underage; it’s all-ages shows that made their partnership possible.
“It’s coming out of a DIY perspective,” says Shea. “We think those values are important, and I believe that they’re becoming ever more important if the arts are going to survive.”
For younger bands like Lady Pills, a group of Berklee students who are playing Saturday, having to play venues that are 18- or 21-plus makes building an audience difficult.
“It’s always really frustrating,” says singer-guitarist Ella Boissonnault. “The double standard of, ‘You can play the show if you’re underage, but you can’t attend,’ that’s just alienating to so many people.”
“That’s a whole group of people that could be supporting your music, enjoying music, and being able to support the scene,” adds bassist Alison Dooley.
So far, Boston Hassle has raised about $25,000 toward its goal. Most of that comes from the Black Market flea markets the Hassle hosts every two months, but an annual 24-hour telethon featuring local artists has also helped. In addition to the new venue fund, these events pay for the Hassle’s free monthly newspaper, Boston Compass, and the roughly 150 shows they put on every year.
“The Black Market has single-handedly made the organization a lot more sustainable,” says Shea. “It will hopefully continue to give artisans, makers, and [others] who might be creative in that tangible way a place to sell their stuff.”
One event that hasn’t been a money-maker in recent years is Hassle Fest. To cut costs, the festival has scaled back in both length (from three days to two) and venue size (from Brighton Music Hall to ONCE Ballroom).
“[Brighton Music Hall] were great to work with and everything, it’s just not within our budget,” says Potrykus. “We’re all volunteers, and the Fest is a $20,000 operation, you know? When we lose money on that, it comes out of the nonprofit money.”
As Boston-area rents continue their upward climb, finding an affordable home for the all-ages venue has proven to be a near-impossible task. Potrykus and Shea have already had potential locations in Jamaica Plain, Somerville, Allston, and Cambridge fall through for financial reasons.
“This is an incredibly difficult city, between the liquor laws and the disgusting real estate boom that basically permeates every corner of the city,” says Shea. “Any place that isn’t going to be a boon for investors, and which doesn’t have a pile of private money behind it, is going to have a massive struggle opening up in this area.”
In addition to their day jobs (and in Shea’s case, a wife and two children), Potrykus and Shea commit 20-40 hours a week to running Boston Hassle. So what keeps them going when the odds seem stacked against them?
“We’ve had a lot of conversations over the years like, ‘Maybe we should quit doing this.’ Then another volunteer comes along and excites us again,” says Potrykus. “But ultimately, we’re just lifers. Getting our own space is obviously the goal, but whether that goal comes in two years or 10 years or 15 years, we are steadfast in our commitment to the cause.”
“If I was able to quit, I would have already quit,” says Shea.
Hassle Fest 9
Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. (sold out) and Nov. 11 at 3 p.m. At ONCE Ballroom, Somerville. Tickets $25, 617-285-0167, www.oncesomerville.com
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