The second Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival, which takes place this weekend, involves the same economics as the first one—a concept local music types knew about well before Mann showed up. Often, Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants will allow bookers free use of their space, as long as the audience buys lots of drinks. Mann’s big innovation is Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Festival’s ludicrous scale.
The bands, this time, are no less obscure. “I’m hardly at the level where I can get Best Coast or whatever,” says Mann. He’s excited about the Tampa, Fl., indie-pop band Sleepy Vikings, one of the headliners. “They’ve got a lot of good buzz lately, a whole lot of good buzz.” He’s also pumped about a handful of New York-based Australian artists. He’s sending the Australian embassy a press release about the festival.
The bigger changes are behind the scenes. Mann has assembled a committee of fellow musicians, writers, and friends to help organize things. He’s also registered Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie as a limited liability company. He’s grabbed a few local sponsors, like printing company Base Camp and On Tap magazine, and found volunteer sound engineers. Pica Taco will provide each member of the bands with two tacos. Atomic Guitars is providing some gear. Mann is hoping to sell what he’s calling donorships—a spot on the festival T-shirt in exchange for cash.
Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, it seems, is going pro. But not too pro: When I asked Mann for a list of committee members, he didn’t know a couple of their last names. Likewise, the bands still aren’t getting paid. Donorships will just underwrite the T-shirts and posters. Proceeds from those sales, in turn, will pay incidental expenses. Mann says he doesn’t expect the festival to make money.
And so Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, a few days away from its second iteration, is in something of a strange spot. Mann has effectively reduced the economics of indie rock to zero, powering his festival on the goodwill of its talent. About 20 bands from the last festival are returning; many groups, it seems, won’t play the same festival for free twice.
Mann hopes to draw more recognizable indie talents to the roster in the future while keeping things free. The plan for next year is to figure out how to accrue some major sponsorship.
It’s not easy. A group that included Arlington audio engineer and band manager Jonathan Chevalley tried in May to stage an event called DC Music Fest that would have featured mostly local singer/songwriters and pop rock bands. When no major sponsor materialized, they pulled the plug. “I think we tried to do it too big to start out,” Chevalley says.
On the other hand, Brightest Young Things, the local scenester website and party-planning operation, pulled off a coup when it hosted a vitaminwater-sponsored art space for a month this summer. Their programming was strong; the swag ranneth over.
If a similar achievement seems far-fetched for Mann, it’s not just because of his track record of fizzled indie-rock ventures. It’s because even in insular D.C., indie rock isn’t an earnest game. And both the Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival and its founder are about as earnest as things come. Maybe that’s why—although it was slapdash and flimsily curated—the first iteration felt strangely endearing.
Still, Mann keeps announcing new ambitions. Next year, he says, he wants to host a Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie showcase at South by Southwest. He’s hoping to hook up with a sweet tea vendor for the event, have a pumpkin pie-eating contest, and get a Food Network sponsorship. “I’d love to throw Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie festivals like the Warped Tour,” Mann says, when I ask about his very long-term ambitions. “I would love to do that. I think that would be incredible, just to have a nationwide festival.”
He’s still hoping to parlay his connections into a booking operation, too. “Out of the hundreds of bands that I’ve worked with since 2008, there are a few of them I’ve really kept in touch with, and for whatever reason they haven’t found the right person. At this point, I could say, ‘I’d like to book your tours and whatnot, I’d like to try and find you a record label. I’d like to be that guy.”
“It seems to be a natural knack for me,” Mann says. “I don’t really have a problem talking to people.”
Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday at Expo, 1928 9th St. NW; Desperados, 1342 U St. NW; The Islander, 1201 U St. NW; Lalibela, 1415 14th St. NW; Dynasty, 2210 14th St. NW; Caribou Coffee, 1415 14th St. NW; Dukem, 1414 U St. NW. For full times and schedules, visit www.stppfest.com.