Music Festival Organizer Kevin Sur Talks The Art of Lineup Curation

For years, Kevin Sur has been helping artists achieve their dreams.

Videos by American Songwriter

The head person at Artist Home in Seattle, Washington, Sur has helped to establish the Doe Bay Music Festival, along with Timber! Summer Music Festival and Timbrrr! Winter Music Festival, booking bands from Built to Spill to The Milk Carton Kids to Deep Sea Diver, Courtney Marie Andrews, The Head and the Heart, and many more.

Thanks to Sur, many bands have enjoyed big stages and fans have enjoyed truly meaningful moments during the summer and winter months in the Pacific Northwest. This week, Timber! announced its latest lineup for its forthcoming 2023 summer festival. The weekend will feature a showcase centered on guitarist Jimmy James, among other artists. In addition, Jeff Tweedy, Black Belt Eagle Scout, and more will be on hand.

But what goes into curating a festival? What are the minor details that make the thing a major joy? Those are the trade secrets and magic moments Sur is best at manifesting. To get to the bottom of all this, American Songwriter caught up with Sur to find out just how he’s able to pull these events off year after year.

American Songwriter: How did you get started curating music festivals?

Kevin Sur: In 2008, I was given an amazing opportunity to help organize a new music festival at Doe Bay Resort and Retreat alongside my dear friend Chad Clibborn by the resort owner Joe Brotherton. Collectively we were able to rethink what a music festival could and should be and Doe Bay Fest was born. I can honestly say that it changed how festivals were produced in the Pacific Northwest and it was an incredible run. 

AS: What do you enjoy about putting together a festival lineup?

KS: I truly enjoy listening to the 1,000-plus submissions we receive from artists and finding the gems amongst those submissions that are virtually unknown and both need and deserve an opportunity to be seen. Past artists who came our way through this process include The Head and the Heart, Travis Thompson, Deep Sea Diver, Courtney Marie Andrews, and so many more incredible and now-known names.

An additional thing I love about putting together is working on specially curated moments that have never happened on stage before. Moments like having Mark Lanegan backed by a small chamber orchestra in the woods, or having Ravenna Woods backed by a Taiko drum corp, or last year when we had Bodies on the Beach, members of the Moondoggies and Head and the Heart lead the entire audience in a Simon & Garfunkel Campfire Sing-A-Long. We truly try to make Timber! less a place where people go to be seen and more a place to be present. Witnessing something beautiful that has never happened before and likely never happen again truly makes someone stop and be fully immersed in the moment. The memories kept from those moments are priceless. 

AS: What makes for a perfect festival lineup, in your mind?

KS: So many factors but a perfect festival lineup has: a heavy dose of music discovery that leads to propelling worthy artists’ careers, pure moments of magic you can never script but are created because you let artists run wild and be in the moment. Most significantly, when the festival ends and the lines between the audience and artist disappear and everyone that was there feels like they shared in something unforgettable.

AS: How hard was it to go on break from this work due to COVID and how did the pandemic impact your general sense of festival curation?

KS: It was the hardest three years of mine and most any other’s lives and the fact is, I don’t think I worked harder in my time in the music industry as we worked tirelessly to keep artists working, raised funds for DIY venues and artists and successfully organized and advocated for our independent music venues.  

If anything, the pandemic just reinforced that putting on Timber! and living a life where we can bring people together to joyously celebrate music and each other was what I wanted to do with my life. 

AS: When you go to festivals what do you look out for, personally?

KS: Personally, I go to see bands I’ve never heard of before. Because what’s better than falling in love with a new band for the first time?

AS: Do you have any favorite festivals to go to in the PNW or abroad?

KS: Treefort for sure. Eric Gilbert and that team truly offer an opportunity for music discovery and they inspire me to keep doing what we do.

AS: How does Timber differentiate itself from other festivals—both in the lineups and general vibes?

KS: Artist Home is driven by cultivating community through music discovery. We’re the only major festival in our region that maintains a level playing field where every artist has a means to be considered and each year we carefully review anywhere between 1,000 – 1,500 submissions with the goal of putting artists on a pedestal that need to be seen rather than simply booking artists that already have. 

Just some of the past artists who were relatively unknown before being given their first festival opportunities through Artist Home include The Head and the Heart, Deep Sea Diver, Courtney Marie Andrews, Travis Thompson, Naked Giants, Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, and many more.

Through our commitment to truly promote artists and prioritize those that people need to see in lieu of taking the easier path of booking that which is already popular, we have built a loyal audience who come to Timber and all of our events with an expectation of music discovery. Their support continues to inspire us to commit even further to that mission while being intentional about the difference we can make in our industry through every act we book and each act we make.

AS: What do you love most about music festivals—and especially running your own?

KS: I  love that it’s really an act of creating a space where people can make memories together and cherish the moments we have. Life is short, life is precious and it’s pretty amazing to look at our lives and think we get to play a part in making the time people have better and hopefully helping them create memories that will last them a lifetime.

Photo by Sherri Foreman/Ballard VOX

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