Every April, downtown Harrisonburg is home to a DIY music festival called MacRock which supports independent artists and musicians. It began over twenty years ago as an extension of JMU’s college radio station WXJM. It’s now independently run by a small group of dedicated music lovers like Grant Penrod who’s been involved with the festival for years. The application deadline to apply to play at MacRock is January 15, 2020. Grant spoke with WMRA’s Chris Boros who asked Grant to describe what makes this festival unique.
Grant Penrod: MacRock is a two-day independent music festival that’s been occurring annually in Harrisonburg since 1997. It’s a completely volunteered run, do it yourself, non-profit, event. None of the people that put it on get paid at. It’s all done for the love of music and to support independent music. So we’re not focusing on artist that have major label contracts, these are artists that are either self-supporting or on small independent record labels and the type of artists that tend to be up and coming in the music scene. The goal of MacRock is to provide a spotlight for artists that are on their way to making it somewhere bigger.
WMRA: It’s interesting that you mention up and coming bands only because we were looking through some of the past performers and there have been some pretty significant artists. Sufjan Stevens played this. We saw Animal Collective. Was this prior to them getting bigger?
GP: Typically. MacRock grew out of college radio. It started at WXJM which is JMU’s college radio station. And that really was a pipeline for artists that were coming through the college radio scene and were starting to get regional exposure or national exposure so the goal was to try to identify those artists and out on a festival that would feature them.
WMRA: So what if some band came to you though, they’re on a major label, they’re a huge band, and they want to play MacRock. What would you say?
GP: We’d probably say no. We would think about it but part of it is that it’s not what we do. And the logistics of that would be impossible.
WMRA: So they next festival is in April?
GP: That’s right. It’s always the first weekend in April.
WMRA: And what venue?
GP: Lots of different venues. We’ll be in 6-8 venues across downtown Harrisonburg. Every year we go back to the venues and reconfirm with them whether they’re going to participate again this year. We always get really good support from all the venues.
WMRA: It is an opportunity to see a band before they get big maybe. And you can say “I remember when I saw this band in a little tiny club. And now look where they’re at.”
GP: It definitely is. There are a lot of people who have that experience, sometimes with an embarrassingly small number of people. If somebody is just starting out and hasn’t been heard yet, you can I say I saw so and so play at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in front of 25 people before anybody had heard of them and I saw how great they were from the beginning.
WMRA: If a band or a musicians wants to apply, what’s the process?
GP: So there’s an application on our website and it’s just a PDF file that you can download and fill out. We don’t except any electronic applications. They have to be mailed to us.
WMRA: Do you only look at bands that are at least on some type of label and have an actual album our or can anyone burn a CDR and say here are my three songs?
GP: Anybody at all. Our listening process when bands apply is completely anonymous. So the committee will be in a room with the box of mail that has come full of applications. One member who is not voting that evening is in charge of opening the application and discretely putting the CD into the CD player. Nobody else knows what they’re about to hear. And then we all listen to it and assign it a score based on how much we like it, based on what it sounds like. If we recognize the artist, we’re not supposed to vote – it’s to keep us from voting for our friends. We just keep a list and when we get to the end of the application process then we go back and start sorting.
WMRA: How many do you think you’ll get this year?
GP: We usually get a few hundred.GP: I expect it to be the same this year.
WMRA: That’s a lot.
GP: It is.
WMRA: Have you ever gotten something and everyone in the room goes “this is amazing?”
GP: Yeah, we have. Sometimes you get that artist and whatever it is, either they’ve got a catchy hook, or something, but everybody in the room is just really excited about. We get a couple of those bands every year.