Alyson Greenfield

How the creator of a feminist music fest finally started putting her own career first

Alyson Greenfield is a lot of things. She’s a musician, she’s a feminist, and she’s also the creator of all-female musician festival Tinderbox Music Festival, which basically picked up where Lilith Fair left off. She spent most of her career fostering other female artists and giving countless female musicians platforms for their work before eventually realizing she wasn’t doing anything for her own career. I sat down with her to talk about the moment when she finally realized she needed to start helping herself as much as she was helping everyone else.

You started the Tinderbox Music Festival, an all-female musician festival that was hugely successful. What made you want to start a music festival just for women, other than, you know, the fact that they’re severely underrepresented and you’re a female musician yourself? 

I wanted to start it for multiple reasons. One was definitely that I felt like female musicians and female-fronted bands were underrepresented at many big festivals– especially when I founded the fest in 2010. 2010 was also the year Lilith Fair returned, which obviously provided a platform for female artists. Since I had recently moved to Brooklyn and started my music career, and since I had done a lot of work as a feminist particularly with the Chicago National Organization for Women where I founded the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, I thought being part of the Lilith Fair revival could be outstanding on multiple levels, so I decided to create my own pitching platform, creating a dedicated blog called “Dear Lilith Fair 2010.” I wrote short letters directly to Lilith Fair, telling them about myself as a musician, songwriter, and feminist. The blog didn’t land me a spot on Lilith Fair 2010, but I did start getting a lot of feedback, particularly in the NYC music community. Many other female artists would talk to me about the blog and express their same interest to play Lilith Fair, while at the same time expressing their dismay that they believed they were “too small” for a festival whose headliners where Sarah McLachlan, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow and other household names. Late one night I had the idea that I could start my own music festival for women artists, particularly focusing on indie acts in NYC. I felt like all of these women I was seeing deserved to be heard and promoted through a larger platform. I wanted that for myself as well, so I dove into creating the festival out of sheer passion and lots of blindness.

Did you have any previous experience putting together something of this magnitude?

Definitely nothing this large. I was the Editor-in-Chief of my undergrad literary magazine at the University Of Wisconsin, so I had dealt with things like submissions and working with a team of people, but I was still supported by a larger institution. Something that made me think I could even pull off a festival was that I co-curated and booked two music showcases during SXSW 2010, one which was headlined by Sandra Bernhard and another that featured popular indie artists like Wakey!Wakey! and Pearl and The Beard. While putting those showcases together I realized I had a knack for booking, organizing, and getting sponsors interested in music events.

What were your biggest hopes for the festival? 

My biggest hopes for the festival were that we would get large headlining acts that would draw well and expose all of the smaller independent artists to a wider audience, that the festival would help give me a platform as a musician, and that the festival would become a bonafide job for me– that I could make my living while providing a platform for other artists and also giving back to NYC nonprofits that empowered young women through the arts. The model of the festival was that it gave net profits to NYC nonprofits that empowered young women through the arts including Girls Write Now and Willie Mae Rock Camp. I felt that it was a “smart” decision to try and start a business in the music industry that could provide for me while not putting the pressure directly on my music.

Were you also working on your own projects while doing the festival?

I was working on my own music during the festival and the festival did give me a great platform for trying new things out with specific deadlines. What I found really difficult was really giving the time and space to my music to develop it. I would fit it in in spurts between everything I was doing for the festival–e-mails, late night meetings, graphic design approvals, listening to music submissions, press interviews, e-mails and calls with booking agents, managers, sponsors, venues, lawyers–you name it.

When did you realize you had to stop putting everyone else’s career first?

I realized I had to stop putting everyone else’s career and the festival first when I ran myself into the ground emotionally, energetically, and financially. I was working so hard to make this event happen and give female musicians this platform that also helped to financially support non-profit organizations, but I was not making sure that I could financially support myself. I was providing for others before providing for myself, and adrenaline can get you through the first few years, but after a while you become so depleted to the point that the old saying you’ve heard for ever–“provide for yourself before you can sufficiently provide for others” is true. The third year  of the festival was the biggest year with 3 stages at Webster Hall, 37 artists from all over the world, and headliners like CocoRosie and Jean Grae. That was also the year we lost money, and by that point I was just so depleted. I looked at my life and finally thought “What am I doing? What have I gotten myself into?” I felt like a failure because I had worked SO incredibly hard to build this festival and for what I felt were good reasons and yet, I ran myself into the ground emotionally and financially. I thought “This is ridiculous.” After about a month I decided that I absolutely needed to put my well-being first. I’ve always tried to be a role model for young women I’ve worked with and I realized that the best role model I could be was one who could take care of herself. There was something in me that believed that I needed to put on this huge event to get validation that I was actually doing something that meant “something” in the world. I didn’t believe that just being me was enough. I think this is the story of so many people and so we work so hard to try and PROVE our worth instead of believing that by just existing we have worth and uniqueness to us.

What are some ways you were able to keep the focus on yourself and your career?

Luckily in 2013 the universe made it very clear that I had to start focusing on my own career. In the first week of 2013 after changing my focus from Tinderbox to getting paying work (as an adjunct English Professor, working the front desk at an Arts Club, babysitting) WNYC/NPR contacted me to let me know they wanted to feature me on their Soundcheck program. WNYC ran the segment a few times and a film director heard my music while driving in his car and contacted me to score his feature film! During that year I also had some song placements on TV, started a side project with Joe McGinty (Polyvox) and we were commissioned by Electroharmonix to demo their new 8-Step pedal, started performing as a regular at the Loser’s Lounge series at Joe’s Pub, and all the sudden was getting guarantees for performing! It was like literally the moment I decided I just need to work (really doing anything) the world responded to me with me actually get paid to do creative work, but it didn’t come until I realized I deserved to be able to make a living in general.

Do you think being (the good kind of) selfish has ultimately helped you help others?

I think the fact that I wanted to get my music out there definitely helped me see the festival through, which ultimately gave a wider platform for 100+ female musicians and female-fronted bands across the world. I think it helped independent women musicians get to know each other more, appreciate each other, and be part of a very encouraging and supportive environment. The festival is currently on hiatus but the brand and organization has morphed into a working business that helps sustain me while still supporting artists and giving indies larger platforms.  Tinderbox currently does consulting for independent artists and music events. We also curate showcases at events such as the CMJ Music Marathon. I never thought I would be doing music industry consulting, but then again I never thought I would run a music festival or score a feature film. I’m grateful to be able to take so much that I’ve learned from running the festival to actually work with organizations in new ways. Currently I am an Advisor for MUSEfest in Paris, France which showcases female artists and honors female musical troubadours such as Annie Lennox. As well, in a full-circle turn of events I am working closely on events with the amazing nonprofit Girls Write Now. Tinderbox donated proceeds to Girls Write Now during the entire festival run in order to encourage the future of female writers and artists who might one day want to perform on a stage like the one at Tinderbox. It is amazing to be able to take the skills I developed through running the festival to directly work with a Tinderbox beneficiary. What I have found is that I  never know exactly what will lead me to what, but if I am open I am able to experience new opportunities in ways I never imagined.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Lane Moore is a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and musician living in New York City. Lane can be found doing funny/awesome things on Twitter, Instagram, and Vine.

Lane Moore is a stand-up comedian, writer, and musician based in NYC.

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