Industry Profile: Charlie Cran
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat: Charlie Cran, co-owner of the Strawberry Music Festival.
The 2010 season marks the 29th year of the Strawberry Music Festival held twice a year at Camp Mather next door to Yosemite National Park in central California on the Memorial and Labor Day weekends.
Charlie Cran, one of the co-founders of the four-day music and camping festivals, oversees them with his Strawberry Music Inc. partner, Theresa Gluzinski.
Strawberry Music Festival Spring takes place May 27-31; and Strawberry Music Festival Fall, Sept. 2-6.
Each event will have over 20 performances on the main stage along with performers being involved in workshops and/or children's and gospel programs.
With a crowd between 6,000 to 7,000 people, and its 350 acre spectacular natural setting, the Strawberry Music Festival attracts three generations of festival families--which are the foundation of Strawberry.
As well, Strawberry has, over the years, attracted such leading roots-styled acts as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, Rhonda Vincent, Sam Bush, Laurie Lewis, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Natalie MacMaster, and Great Big Sea to name a few.
Nestled amid the forested mountains near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Camp Mather is a rustic family camp, created nearly 90 years ago, with full recreation amenities including a swimming pool (fall festival only) a lake, and nearly 100 cabins. There are also tennis courts, and a volleyball pit.
A week during the summer months at Camp Mather, which is operated by the San Francisco Recreation & Park Department for the city of San Francisco, is so coveted that a yearly lottery is held for cabins. San Francisco residents get first priority
Besides the main Strawberry stage in Music Meadow, there is a secondary Birch Lake area where music, storytelling and other children's activities, including arts and crafts, take place. During the Sunday Morning Revival many main stage artists play short sets.
Among the acts booked for Spring 2010 are: Patty Loveless, Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson, Desert Rose Band Crooked Still, Quebe Sisters Band, Marley's Ghost, and Dala.
Those slated to appear fall 2010 include: Eliza Gilkyson with Nina Gerber, Po' Girl, Cadillac Sky, and Tommy Emmanuel.
Why have the festival in such a rural spot?
When we started in 1982, there was a bit of a tradition of camping festivals in this state (California). I guess, maybe, it was started by Woodstock. The southern (California) bluegrass festivals, a lot of them, had camping associated with them. So thatís why. We figured we could do a festival up in a beautiful area. Who wants to do a music festival in Modesto? Nobody. It can be 110 degrees there (in the summer). And there was already a bluegrass festival in Grass Valley, run by the California Bluegrass Association, which is a pretty good sized festival.
Have you been at the Camp Mather site through all of the years?
No. Our first year we were at a site on Sonora Pass, which is north of where we are now. It was too small plus the owners of the property were difficult. So we found this spot. It was carved out of Yosemite. It is really beautiful. We have been here for 27 years.
With only 6,000-7,000 people attending each festival, and having no sponsors, it has to be a financial tight rope putting the event on.
It is. We have to work on pretty tight margins because of that. We have had sell outs for years in a row until the economy went south. During those years, there were another 1,000 or so tickets we could have sold which would have all been profit. But we recognized that we have a good event that people think is special, and we want to keep it that way. The biggest problem is keeping pace with the cost of the entertainment, especially in the upper echelons. It is really tough.
Did you start out with the two events each year?
No. We only had the one event for the first three or four years. We added the second one because doing one event a year was a long time between cash flow. We added a second event so it was more reasonable. You know how cash flow works. Its cash flow that takes care of things as you go along and you hope eventually to get into the black.
If you lose money in the spring, you can pick it up in the fall?
There is some truth to that. Some of that played out last year when this economic (downturn) really hit.
Has bad were you hit last year?
Our spring event last year was early in the year. It was one of the first summer events out there. So we got hammered a bit, and so did everybody in that time frame. But, as the summer went along, our fall festival was fine. As people got more comfortable with what they thought the (economic) situation was.
Sometimes it is just the talk about a pending economic crisis that scares people.
Well, it did me. Anybody who had any kind of an investment, a 401 (k) (retirement savings plan) or anything like that, got educated really quickly. So far I donít think people are cutting music out of their lives but I think they are not doing as much music as they were. And here we are doing two events. Weíve had a huge, huge amount of those folks that always came to both (events). Maybe, some of them have said, ďUntil we see where we stand in this economy we are only going to do one (festival) for a couple of years.Ē Whatever the reason, there are not as many ticket buyers (today) as they were a couple of years ago. You have to fight harder to get your share of people.
How is this yearís spring festival shaping up?
Itís shaping up good. We havenít been able to announce our big headliner because we arenít sure we are going to get them yet. But, if we do and we announce (the headliners) then that will pick (ticket sales) up. But it is different than it was a couple of years ago. Our spring show would have been sold out by now. Weíre not close to that. We know that how people are approaching buying tickets has changed. Where we could rely on people buying our festivals out four and five months in advance, well that dynamic has gone.
Do you traditionally have a walk in business?
No. We havenít had any for the past six or seven years--prior to last year. We would sell our spring festivals out in March and, by the time we got back from the late May festival, the fall festival would have been sold out. We had that going on for 7 or 8 years with (sell-outs) getting earlier and earlier. That is the advantage of having only a limited amount of tickets. That dynamic has changed. We are still trying to figure out what it is.
You work full-time on the two annual festival events?
Oh yeah. There are six of us who work full time. We have always sold our tickets in-house. We have a humongous mailing list.
Do you utilize the Internet for attracting people?
No. We do one regular mail piece a year. We do ticket sales online, and thatís a big part of our sales.
You donít utilize Twitter or Facebook?
No. I donít really know what any of that stuff is myself.
Strawberry has run 28 years with only a few years of bad weather.
Oh no. Weíve had more years of bad weather.
In 2008, 10 inches of snow closed down Yosemite National Park during your Memorial Day weekend festival. Strawberry went on but Cadillac Sky had to be moved from Saturday to Sunday night.
Thatís right. Cadillac Sky was trying to drive over the Sierras from the east to the west. They were trying to go over Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park. They ended up being stopped. They had to use an all-weather pass that was hours and hours around.
Isnít the end of May a touchy time to present a festival?
It is the touchiest of our two times. Occasionally, we get a lot of rain and a lot of snow. But we usually have a glorious springtime festival with Yosemite in its full glory. Eight out of 10 times, we are going to get fantastic weather. It is a little chancier than September. In September, we have to worry about fires. Itís hot and dry there.
Have you had trouble with the fires in the fall?
Yeah. Over our 28 years, we have been cancelled twice because of fires. It just about sent us out of business both times. In 1987, we canceled three days before the event. That was 5 years after we started. I had just called up to the site to tell them that we were going to be in the black. We ended up canceling and having to make the festival up on Columbus Day weekend in October. The other year we had to cancel was in 1996. Both times, we suffered a drastic change in attendance.
The festivalís lineup had to be changed?
Yeah. All of the acts we had booked, we either had to try to get them back or to replace them if they had other engagements.
Have you ever canceled the spring festival?
No. One year in the late Ď80s, we had 30 straight hours of rain or snow. That was the year Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple Inc.) came to the festival. He hasnít been since. There was rain and snow and people just hung in there with it.
Along with the location, the weather is part of the festivalís character.
It is. Of course, people like it when it warm. But, yes, they go there expecting some of that (bad weather). Thatís some of the old wives' tales that go on year after year. Like ďI Survived Winter BerryĒ or ďI Survived Snowberry.Ē
Where is the festivalís audience drawn from?
The majority of our audience is California-based. We have a large contingent that comes out of southern California. But areas where we started, and where we have always been strong that are strong musically, are Santa Cruz, and the San Francisco Bay Area. We also get a lot of people out of northern California. There are good music scenes in Chico, and further in the north end of the state into southern Oregon. We get people from all over the world. We have had Japanese blue grassers here.
You limit attendance to 6,000 or 7,000 people?
Yeah. We have always had restricted attendance, mostly self-imposed. It is what the facility will handle. Its 350 acres. This is a summer camp for the city of San Francisco for the rest of the time. It has bath houses all around, and thereís a big dining hall. With all of the facilities, we know what we can accommodate without lines and all that. We sell 4,000 adult camping tickets because all the people are camping there for three or four days. So we have 4,000 adult campers, and we have zillions of kids. It takes a staff of 850 people to put this on because itís out in the middle of nowhere.
How much are tickets?
A 4-day ticket is $190.00 in advance, and $200 at the gate. Itís a good deal. They get a lot for that. A ticket includes almost everything. We have a nice dining hall that we turn into a nightclub late at night, and people pay extra to come to that. That supports our radio station, Hog Ranch Radio.
A radio station?
We have had pirate radio at Strawberry for 25 years. Itís been great innovative radio all of these years. It was started by a great radio man Thom O'hair. He was one of the legendary producers at KSAN-FM in San Francisco. One of my original partners and I were always very interested in radio. So we created a radio station with our own transmitter, and we broadcast just to the festival. So if you are sitting in your camp (site) you can listen to (the station) on the radio. (The signal) goes about 10 miles.
The reason for Hog Ranch Radio is that we have nearly a thousand kids at (each) festival and they are forever getting lost. So the radio plays a great part in (kid) safety. If we lose a kid, we can put it up on the air. It doesnít happen as much as it used to but kids still get lost. We have never had them lost for very long. We have a great security force of about 30 people here. And, we have a safety patrol.
[One of the most dynamic characters in American radio, Thom O'hair died at 58 in 2001 of complications from a stroke. After a short stint in the Air Force, O'hair moved to California in the early 1960s. He helped create KCSE, the radio station at California State University at Chico. He was both a program director and a morning DJ at KSAN-FM in the early '70s, and at KKCY in Yuba City. He taught radio at University of California Berkeley's KALX. After suffering a stroke in 1997, O'hair moved to Eugene, Oregon. He remained active in radio, serving as GM of Fat Music Radio Network, an online radio station based in Santa Cruz.]
With the festival being in such a rural area, you must have difficulty booking some acts.
Yes, occasionally. A lot of times (acts or agents) donít say that to me but I know that sometimes thatís the reason. It just depends on how (the date) fits. Often the acts are making the journey from LA up the coast, all the way to Vancouver. Then we book them, and they have to come here. Itís not so many miles; itís the hours that it takes. If they are coming from LA, they can go up to San Francisco. They come over to see us due east, well its 200 miles. Itís a 100 miles of winding road. That can add some hours onto their trip for sure.
Each Strawberry seems to have a headlining act, a bunch of mid-level acts, and then a slew of emerging acts. Booking a headliner can be expensive.
Well, it is expensive. You sort of hit it. Some years it just depends on what is available, and what we can expect to get. Some years, we go after a big act and if that doesnít work out, we will have two or three acts that are a little less expensive. But what I enjoy, and I love the most, are the new acts. We were booking Crooked Still when they were just starting out. This year we have Dala and some other acts that people in the business know but the people buying the tickets do not.
Have you booked all the acts for fall?
I have a few spots Iím holding back. I learned that when you donít have your Saturday headliner yet, you better leave yourself a little wiggle room because you donít know what you are going to do.
Do you pay close pay attention to artist routing schedules? So you can offer acts a fill-in weekend. Thatís a great help for many acts.
Well it is. I like to do that but with many of the newer acts like Dala, and even with Crooked Still, most of the booking agencies are looking at us to be the anchor date. They are often approaching us first to see if they (the act) can come into the market. Nobody knows who Dala is around here. They can, maybe, play the Freight & Salvage in our area (Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley) but they canít get a lot of dates. Once they have played for us, that opens up other opportunities for them.
With the bigger acts, are you checking out what is on tour in your region?
What we are really doing is looking for the acts that we want but we are certainly looking to see if they are on tour. I was really after (Dublin-based) Imelda May this year. We didnít get her because she decided to do that time frame in Europe. But this is a hot mid-level act coming up, and sheís just flying. We werenít able to keep up in price.
If an act is playing on the east coast, playing Strawberry may not be an attractive booking for them.
No. They are going to ďone offĒ you every time. We do them occasionally, but often thatís what stops the idea. It is something that you can budget $20,000 for. That is as a one off (date). But they donít just want the difference in their costs for flying, and so forth for a one off; they generally like to stick it to you a little bit. To make it worth their while, I guess.
Itís understandable that their fee may be higher if they are coming in for only one day from afar.
I understand it when Iím talking to you, but not when Iím talking to them or their agent.
You have booked for Strawberry for about 20 years. Has your relationship with agents changed greatly over the years?
It has changed some. The bigger agencies, I never been able to get much done with, including Paradigm (Talent). Some with their Nashville office. Monterey was always so incredibly tough to deal with. (Monterey Peninsula Artists was purchased by Paradigm in 2005). They always had the good acts but we had a hard time getting them. Still do to a large degree.
There are a few agents out there I wonít deal with.
I have dealt with Jim Fleming (chairman, Fleming Artists) for years. I deal with Susie Giang in his office now. Tim Drake (president of The Roots Agency) has been great through all of the years. Another guy who has created a good agency is Paul Lohr at New Frontier Touring. He used to be with Buddy Lee Attractions, and The Agency Group (in Nashville).
Do you get many cold calls for bookings?
I get a lot of cold calls from the acts. The beginning acts, especially, which I kind of encourage.
But you donít like to be pitched by email.
Not very much because Iím not good at any of this stuff. I will email back-and-forth with agents for sure, and I will even do it with certain individuals. That makes some of the dealings easier.
How many CDs do you get?
I still get a lot. Not what I did 5 years ago though. (On my shelf) thereís 200 CDs and those have come in the last three months.
Everybody has a CD today.
You said it. I get CDs from the outback of Australia even. In the old days to produce an album, it was a big effort. Now everybody has a CD burner, and they just crank them out.
Where do acts stay at Strawberry?
For the smaller acts, we have on site cabins. Thereís nothing fancy about them but they are right in the heart of the festival. With all of the young acts I can give them the cabins for the four days of the festival. So, if they only play one show they can stay and use that housing until their next gig. It saves them money and it saves us money. It also puts all of these great players right in the middle of the festival, and really adds to the jamming scene at night.
The bigger acts are either staying in a hotel or we are not housing them. We are definitely trying to get out of the housing business. Some of these acts will say, ďWe need 12 rooms.Ē Well, weíre right near Yosemite National Park, and housing is not cheap. We usually wonít consider giving them housing unless they do a workshop or something like that for us. An extra thing. Then we will put them up.
If they stay in a motel or hotel where would that be?
Where we house people is about 10 miles away in Groveland.
Strawberry started off as a bluegrass festival?
Well, it did. We started it as the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival. Our first headliner was the David Grisman Quintet (VI) with special guest Mark OíConnor. Tony Rice had just left (the group). They came with Mike Marshall (guitar/mandola), Darol Anger (violin) and Rob Wasserman (bass). We didnít have very much bluegrass and the next year we changed our name. We always tried to have bluegrass but we are all over the (musical) map today.
Who were the co-founders of Strawberry?
There were four of us: myself, Billy Perry, Dan Dwayne, and John Melrose. All these characters left at one time or the other and became successful doing other things. A couple of them got frustrated because we were so poor for so long that they just went onto other things. We are still all good friends.
How much money did you each put up?
We didnít any money, really. We didnít have $2,000 between all four of us. I donít know if you can do that anymore. We didnít really look very far into the future when we started this. After awhile, we did. I said, ďWell, this is what I am going to do.Ē In 1990, Dan and I decided that we each wanted to do our own thing. So I bought his part out.
[Dan DeWayne went on to become co-founder and producer (with his wife, Christine Myers) of the California WorldFest in Grass Valley, California. The 14th annual California WorldFest will take place from July 15-18, 2010. As well, DeWayne is co-founder of the Chico World Music Festival and dir. of Chico Performances at California State University, Chico].
Did you and Dan have different philosophies in running Strawberry?
I did want to go more into world (music). But it was just time (to split). We had spent 10 years together. They were good years. It was just time for each of us to take what we wanted to do into different directionsÖ.we never had any fights about it or anything. I have a partner now, Theresa Gluzinski, who came to work here 17 years ago. Sheís now a full equal partner and sheís absolutely a great partner as were the others along the way.
Why did you four decide to do a festival?
Three of the four of us had known each other for many years. We hadnít been together for a long time. One of them called and said why donít we meet at this music festival. I forget which one it was. So we did. We were there and it was the classic case of (saying), ďWell, the (promoters) arenít taking care of the garbage. They arenít doing this or that. This canít be too difficult.Ē
The four of us were in positions where we didnít have families to support. Dan had just gotten out of the Peace Corp. Bill Perry was a professor at Chico State College (now California State University). We were all at that stage of our lives where we didnít have three young kids and all of that kind of stuff, and we could try something like this. So we did the one festival in the summer in 1982.
What had you been doing?
I had graduated from college and I had mostly floundered around for years working for my father who had a construction business which I didnít like. I was going to be a teacher.
What is your background?
I was born in northern Michigan. My family lived there until I was 10. I grew up in Modesto (California). I went to Chico State College. I studied PE (Physical Education).
You were a jock?
I was a baseball and basketball player when I participated. I thought that I wanted to be a coach and teach some subjects. Half way through college I realized that wasnít what I wanted to do. So I just finished college.
Any thoughts about turning professional in those sports?
Well, you can have thoughts of doing that. It is the professionals that have to agree. I was a really good baseball player. I played with Joe Rudi all through growing up. He played in the majors with the Oakland Athletics (as well as for the California Angels). I was an all-conference pitcher. We used to play two games a week. I would pitch one game, and play third base in the other.
[In 1972, the Modesto-born left fielder Joe Rudi helped the Athletics to win the World Series, He made a sensational catch in Game 2, with Tony Perez on first, and Oakland leading 2-0 in the 9th inning, Rudi raced to the left-field fence, and made a leaping, backhanded catch of Denis Menke's smash drive.]
Did you have a musical background?
No. But I have always liked music. I donít come from a musical family. I grew up as a rock and roller. Thatís all I thought I knew. In college, my roommate would sing all these Bob Willsí songs, and I knew the words, but I didnít know that I knew them. Growing up in Modesto, you are going to know some of that (country music).
When I was at Chico State College, I was really into soul music -- I loved Otis Redding. When I got out of college I started to notice folk music, Doc Watson and things like that. I didnít quite know what it was. I started listening to that and searching out radio stations that were playing folk. Then this opportunity to start doing festivals came up. I actually knew who a couple of the acts were.
You didnít go to San Francisco and wear flowers in your hair?
Well, everybody kind of did. But that stuff didnít fly around Modesto very well. (Film director) George Lucas was two classes ahead of me in high school. His sister was a good friend of mine in my class. My high school is where ďAmerican GraffitiĒ came from. He nailed it.
[Summers in Modesto are today marked by the revival of ďAmerican Graffiti,Ē the 1973 film written and directed by George Lucas. His film paid homage to teenage life in 1962 growing up in Modesto. However, when the city council there refused to let him film ďAmerican GraffitiĒ in Modesto, Lucas was forced to make the film elsewhere. The annual Graffiti Nights festival lasts the entire month of June, attracting thousands of visitors and car enthusiasts.]
Where do you now live?
I live in Sonora, 40 miles north (of the festival). It is located in the southern end of the gold fields.
[Known as the ďQueen of the Southern Mines,Ē Sonora holds on to its historic charm via its preserved architecture. The city was named by the miners from Sonora Mexico who settled there in 1848.]
Many festivals today are able to cover up to 70% of their costs from sponsorship income. You donít seek out sponsorships.
No. We have never had a sponsor.
We were always a bunch of independent-minded folks. When Budweiser wanted to print our poster 25 years ago, and have ďBudweiserĒ all over it, we just didnít go for that. We have never had a single sponsor. Iím not saying thatís good. Iím just saying that is the way that we have done it.
What do you do when acts come to the festival with signage for their personal sponsors?
The only time I had a bit of an argument was with Robert Earl Keenís folks about 10 years ago because he had a tobacco sponsor (Copenhagen chewing tobacco). There was no possibility that (signage) was going to happen. They wanted to put banners up, and we wouldnít let them do it. We really havenít had any problems with it over the years. The way we look at it is if you want to make an issue of it then play somewhere else.
What is The Strawberry Way?
What the entertainers have always noticed is the vibe of our festival. It is just such a friendly vibe. Over the years, people who came to the festival developed this Strawberry Way thing. It started out with encouraging everybody (to conserve water) because we used to have a limited water supply. Take a shower, but just for three minutes. Letís make sure the trash is picked up. Keep the noise down late at night. Well, that kind of stuff has always happened at our festivals, and it became known as The Strawberry Way.
The procedure for placing a chair on the Music Meadow is known as The Strawberry Stroll.
We have a big open meadow where our main stage is. Itís a lawn. Thereís a high water table there. In the later evening, the dew can be quite heavy. You can get wet out there. Sothe back of the sound board is covered with a tarp. If people want to sit in that 100 feet in front of the stage they line up at night for The Strawberry Stroll which is at 7 A.M.
People line to up put their chairs on the lawn?
People will camp in this line all night to get upfront seating for the next day. At the end of each day everything is taken off the field. Thatís so we can pull the tarp back, and let the grass underneath breathe. The rule is that you put your lawn chair out there (in the morning). You are allowed four. The lawn chairs are then there for the rest of the day. People can come and go as you please. If their chair is open, the rule is that someone can sit in it. If you go to get a soda or something and you come back, those people will move.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.