In January, Mile 0 Fest in Key West celebrated its biggest year to date. Headlined by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and a hard sell out, the festival stepped into the elite class of “boutique” festivals that Fyre dreamed of and couldn’t execute. It wasn’t without pitfalls. On Saturday, just moments after Randy Rogers had taken the stage, torrential rains forced the amphitheater to be evacuated and literally dampened most of the weekend’s remaining schedule.
But Mile 0’s fans—some of the most loyal anywhere—were undeterred.
Now the festival faces a new challenge; one that every spectator event in America shares and one that none are certain how to tackle. They’ll take precautions, beginning with lowering capacity by 25%. The festival capacity is always the amphitheater’s capacity, which is 4,000. But this year, founder Kyle Carter says, only 3,000 tickets will be sold.
”We have asked our fans from the start what they want, and they have always said, ‘Don’t invite more people, raise the ticket prices.’” And that has always worked. Carter is certain the support will remain amidst a pandemic.
He talked more about returning to festivals after a year of uncertainty. He also talked about the things that make Mile 0 one of the most unique festivals in America.
You had the Saturday monsoon this year, and now this. How do you guys continue to navigate the hurdles that you are presented?
Two things come to my mind off the top of my head.
We have an incredible fanbase. You’ve been to, and I’ve been to festivals where there was a disjointed type of feeling; “This is interesting. This is a very eclectic mix of folks.” Mile 0 and the Red Dirt and the whole Americana scene, to me, it’s a bunch of like-minded people – even though that might have different backgrounds or educations. There’s an overwhelming family vibe to it. That kind of takes the pressure off from a promoter’s stand point, and it takes a little bit of pressure off of the staff, where it’s like, “Okay, we’re all going to figure this out together.”
And we have the best people in the business at every level – from the sound, light, production and stage management, all of our point of contacts, down the list. We have some really, highly qualified people that have been in the business a long time. They can take things with a grain of salt, figure out a solution and move on.
You’re one of the first festivals of your size to move forward with plans for 2021. I know that other announcements are coming, but you’re near the front of the pack. Was there a point that you didn’t think this would happen, or were you always confident that you’d figure it out?
For sure, there was a point when we didn’t know how the world was going to work, and to some degree, none of know yet. One point of the conversations we have each day – thinking about coming into our fourth year after our third last year, we were full of optimism and confidence. Bravado. We knew everything! We had conquered the world three years in a row. We were confident that year four would be the fastest sellout ever; and it still may be. When Covid came around – certainly after a few months – when the world figured out that it wasn’t going anywhere – we don’t make decisions flippantly. They get overthought, re-thought, redrawn, looked at from every angle. “How does this affect the consumer? How does this affect the city? How does this put the festival at risk?” Over and over and over now. We’re as confident as we can be, but certainly, this has changed the world. It has changed us as people, and it’s changed the way that we think about a whole bunch of things.
But with that said, everything has an end. Everything eventually has an end point, and we’re confident that this will, too. We needed extra time to plan the festival. Not just getting things set up; not just hiring the artists and figuring out transportation, but all the way to setting up the hotels, getting the city on board, the venues, etc.
It became pretty clear by, May or June that we weren’t going to be able to do it in the traditional spot that we would, which was January. Not long after that, we decided to go ahead and announce that we would be pushing it, and it would be in April. I certainly don’t believe that we know anything more than anyone else knows about a pandemic that no one has ever lived through. I can say again, the people that we do have on our staff have been through a lot of stuff, and that type of education and experience goes a long way.
We also are the managing parter for the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon in Key West, so we’ve been living this nightmare a bit. We’ve become accustomed to preparing gatherings of people in a safe way, and I think we’re doing a fine job of it.
Do you believe this to be one of the first music gatherings of its size, and do you get the notion that other festivals might be looking at you for guidance on how things are going to work?
I know there have been other festivals bigger than us; in Arkansas, out West. I won’t name any names, but I do believe there’s a handful of festivals that have happened that are bigger than us. Not necessarily music festivals; maybe they’re a bike rally. There’s been gatherings of 10,000-30,000 people.
But to be specific to music festivals, do I think that we have a significant festival that is taking what could be called an aggressive approach? A very hopeful gamble? Yeah. For sure. We’re taking a hopeful gamble. We believe that the world will be ready with the restrictions that we’re talking about putting into place. I hope that our positivity can prove to be a sound decision, and I hope that others look at it and see it the way that we see it.
We’re fortunate to also get to work with some of the big boys that do some of the big shows that are 20,000-25,000 people, and that’s where we’ve learned a lot of the things that we know. They’re not as quick to move back, and I understand that. At the Smokin’ Tuna, we have safely distanced a couple hundred people. Now, we get into a couple thousand; we can expand that out and make it work. But if you’re talking about ten times that? That becomes a much larger logistical challenge – to try to get that many people to stay on message. But I believe that by the fall of next year, they’ll be getting back on track, too.
Mile 0 Fest is still seven months away; we’ve been in this pandemic for seven months. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep that in perspective. But what we’re committed to is to follow the rules whatever those might be and to protect the city and everyone that is at the show. We’re not thumbing our nose at the virus, I can assure you of that.
Aside from capacity, what are the other protocols that will be in place?
We don’t know what those will be seven months from now. Currently, we are operating business in Key West under the protocols; people have to wear a mask, social distancing of six feet, no groups larger than 10. The shortest way that I know how to say it as we move through the winter and into the spring, we’ll be more in the know. We’ll understand more about what’s needed. I think we will know at least 30 days prior to the festival what those rules will be. But as of today, it’s just too far away. We’ve got a long way to go here.
Onto the more fun stuff – when you began this festival, it almost exclusively Red Dirt. As you’ve grown it, you’ve included more “Americana” stuff. How have you made your decisions on what you include on this bill?
The majority of the bands that I have booked at this festival come from my experience around the music. In the last five years, I’ve been exposed to a larger swath of “genre.” You’re right. Year one was pretty “Red Dirt-y.” It was Texas and Oklahoma and rooted in Red Dirt.
I know what I like. The majority of the people on my team have some experience in music; whether they’ve managed bands or if they’ve been in the festival business before or if they happened to be the entertainment director at Billy Bob’s for 20 years. There’s not a single person on our staff that doesn’t have experience in the music business and that didn’t cut their teeth or come up around these bands when they were nobody. That’s including the Isbells of the world.
I think we have the best team of any festival. You know real music when you hear it. I love just about any kind of music, but if I hear a song – more specifically, the way the song is written – I can tell you what box I’d put it in. I’m not so crazy to believe that from a programming standpoint, we have to have genres. The bands that our fans follow are real music. It’s written by the people who lived those stories and who are extremely talented artists. We also have the Key West Songwriters Festival here, which is about the songwriters that write the big hits for the big entertainers. The big entertainers aren’t artists. It’s a different skill set. I’d say the biggest difference between the bands that we have – whether they are in the Red Dirt box or the Americana box or whatever you want to call it – the majority of them have worked for ten years at their craft, they’ve learned their instrument, they’ve become better writers and they’re entertainers on top of that. Full package folks. Not to say it’s good, bad or indifferent. That’s the way myself and our team drive our decisions. On talent.
You mentioned upping prices rather than changing anything about the setting. As you add more star power and try to outdo yourself each year, do you maintain that approach? Do you raise the price to match the talent? Or do you try to move to a bigger area and sell more tickets?
One of the positives about our main amphitheater is that there’s only so many people that can fit in it. For Mile 0 Fest – and as long as the numbers work out here – I don’t want it to be a festival where you can get into certain areas and you can’t get into others. That’s going to happen with the small theaters and bars, etc. But we will never sell more tickets than people that can get into the amphitheater. That’s a humungous part of the experience. That’s where the artists play. So I don’t ever see Mile 0 growing into something too much larger. That model works extremely well.
Now, let’s imagine it gets big enough to go to two weeks. Maybe you go to week one or maybe you go to week two. Some of these superfans, maybe they go to both.
I love that this festival is communal for the artists. Last year, Jamie Lin Wilson had her “80s Ladies” night with a lot of other artists. It’s not uncommon to see folks just hop on stage and play with each other. What do you credit that to? Is it simply that these artists all know each other? Is it the environment being so laid back?
It’s a great question and I attribute the majority of it to the fact that these artists came up together. To a man and woman, they love each other. They’re just natural creators anyway.
When we were forming in ’16-’17, and getting ready to announce in ’18, a big part of what we were doing in telling the world that we were a new production company – our mission was that we would put great bands in front of great fans and as a production company, we’d just stay the hell out of the way. And those artists are going to create. And every year, something just happens. And they don’t sit down and map out the magic that’s going to happen; it just ends up happening.
You brought up that monsoon. People will forever remember seeing Hays Carll at the Southernmost Mansion in what was a pretty solid squall.
These artists deserve the credit for it. It doesn’t hurt that we have some pretty scenic stages: whether we’re on a pier or a beach or some world renowned bar like the Smokin’ Tuna. The optics certainly aren’t too bad in Key West.
It’s obviously different. This is an island. But the feeling I get from you is that the city is extremely cooperative. That’s not something that happens everywhere. Maybe Bonnaroo. What do you credit your relationship with the city to and how has that helped make this successful?
It’s a great point, and I’ll say that we feel extremely blessed to be in the position that we’re in. It didn’t come for free. We were certainly get side-eyed. We weren’t the first fools that decided they were going to have a party in a city like Key West. We spent a couple of years coming and going. We also had a pretty fortuitous break where the city was taking funds to build this amphitheater.
I’ve often said that the leaders at the time deserve a lot of credit for saying they wanted to build that amphitheater. We got lucky by showing up at the right time and saying, “Hey, we want to have a party.” That was pretty fortuitous for us.
We didn’t earn the respect overnight. They were certainly looking at us like, “We’re not sure about you guys.” And we came and did what we said we would do, and that’s how you build trust. Now we have a fantastic relationship with the city. We have a fantastic relationship with the business community. They like to see people coming for a music festival. We get it all the time, “You’re fans are the best. They’re very respectful. They spend their money here. They tip well.” A lot of the respect we get comes from that. Key West is a place that’s built for parties. So they don’t get uptight about silly stuff. And that’s great for a festival – not only for the producers of the festival, but also the fans.
What are your top five spots in Key West? Bars, restaurants, whatever that might be.
I can’t give you all bars, because it’ll look like I’m an alcoholic. Maybe my mom’s going to read this, Blake.
But my favorite bar – it’s a little biased – but that’s the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. And that was before I was in the position that I’m in. It’s almost like being in a movie scene, or on a set.
My favorite food is La Trattoria, the Italian joint. You have to eat at La Trattoria.
My favorite thing to do is probably to got to Fort [Zachary Taylor] Beach. It’s right by our amphitheater. They’ve got those old school concrete picnic tables and a grill on a stick or a stand, and you can kind of get lost. It’s pretty beautiful.
I’m not much of a history buff. I won’t get on a trolley; I’m too much of a control freak. Sunset at Mallory Square. That’s one of those things where you’ve got to go experience it. It’s incredible to live in a town where people gather to toast goodbye to the day.