Published on November 2nd, 2021

SunFest, the arts and music festival that draws 100,000 people to the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront each spring, is trying to open its arms to local musicians like never before.

Founded in 1982 as a community event, SunFest has grown into a major player on the festival circuit, with its maze of art booths winding down Flagler Drive and especially for the national acts that play the downtown waterfront stages. A sample of past performers since live music was added in 1997 attests to the festival’s drawing power: Kendrick Lamar, Carrie Underwood, Ed Sheeran, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne, Nick Jonas, Fall Out Boy, Duran Duran, Weezer, Wilco and Diplo, among others.

Local bands vying for a chance to be seen and heard have gotten a share of stage time, too, but not nearly as much as they’d like from a multi-day event that brings huge crowds to their backyard. “We’ve got great music. We have SunFest,” Danielle Casey, co-founder of a local nonprofit called 1909, told PureHoney. “Why can’t we showcase the talent that we have?’’

That challenge is being answered through a new venture that pairs SunFest with Casey’s organization — which supports South Floridians working entrepreneurially in fields such as music, art, fashion and tech — and another partner: the West Palm Beach rehearsal and recording studio Melody Ave.

Together they are launching the Fresh Local Artist (Fla) Series, a renewed effort to champion the homegrown music scene with SunFest providing a major platform. As the festival prepares to return in April following last year’s pandemic-induced cancellation, organizers are taking applications from local bands and musicians through a new online portal designed by Melody Ave founder Steven Spencer.

Each application functions as a virtual audition, with applicants required to provide links to their music videos. Clips of live performances are “strongly recommended,” the application form says. Organizers say the new portal is a more locally targeted recruiting tool than SunFest previously had when it partnered with ReverbNation, an online networking and marketing platform for independent musicians across the country. Applications are open through November 19. Volunteers from SunFest and 1909 will review the submissions and extend offers to play to at least eight to 12 bands, said Casey.

While eight to 12 is about the average number of local bands that have played SunFest each spring over the last 20 years, organizers are also considering adding a Fresh Local Artist stage for 2022, which would create even more slots. “That’s something we are working on,’’ SunFest executive director Paul Jamieson told PureHoney. “If we can do that, we will have more local bands. But to say that now would be a bit premature.’’

The new partnership grew out of a local musicians’ forum hosted by 1909 at the West Palm Beach nightclub Voltaire in 2018. That gathering prompted musicians Markis Hernandez, Kevin Ohm and Daylen Brinkley to establish a monthly meeting for them and their peers to brainstorm ways to help local musicians thrive.

They invited Jamieson to one of their first meetings in 2019 and, with him present, aired their concerns. “We had a really raw, good, transparent conversation about SunFest in general and the problems we saw with it,” said Casey, whose nonprofit also hosted that meeting, “and the problems we continue to see with organizations like that not supporting local bands in a way we thought could be so much better if they tapped into the tech talent.”

While the hour-long meeting was amicable, Jamieson said he sensed the musicians’ frustration.

“What they had to say made a lot of sense,” he said. “We did this because we listened to them. We felt it was the right thing to do, We are trying to be more responsive to them. We certainly want to be more connected to the local music scene.’’

Local musicians, including some who’ve grown used to complaining about SunFest, are now applauding Jamieson for working with them, and they are sounding confident that the Fresh Local Artist Series will be more than a rebranding. “They’re putting a spotlight on local music like they’ve never done before, which is a big deal,’’ said Ohm.

SunFest usually announces its musical performers in late January or early February, but lingering pandemic complications have prompted organizers to hold off for now on scheduling a 2022 lineup reveal. “We’re very actively working on it and very actively booking bands, spending money, doing marketing,’’ Jamieson said. “We are certainly aiming for it to come.’’

SunFest 2022 runs April 28-May 1. Applications for the Fresh Local Artist Series are open through Friday, November 19 at ~ Joe Capozzi

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