If you ask a friend to name the music capitals of the world, Birmingham, Alabama, will likely not make the list. Being from Kansas, I know well the uphill battle against geographic significance in the art world. In some ways, it makes local music feel special, like a best-kept secret that is destined to live and die in your favorite dive bar; on the other hand, well, it’s not LA or New York. Despite being landlocked, Birmingham has slowly gained traction as a cultural hub for art and music in the south, and on the first week of every August, the city hosts its crown jewel for new music discovery — Secret Stages. The event jams an impressive 55-band lineup into just two days and a few square blocks of Birmingham’s downtown Loft District. Around every corner one is destined to stumble upon a performance and wonder, “how is this band not huge yet?”
The festival has secured a reputation for breaking lesser-known acts since 2011. Some of these artists, including Birmingham’s own St. Paul and the Broken Bones, have cited Secret Stages as a launchpad in the early stages of their careers. Two members of the 2017 lineup, Snail Mail and EARTHGANG, signed notable record deals just a few short months after this year’s festival.
So — how are the artists chosen? Festival coordinator, Travis Morgan has worked arduously over the years to ensure quality over quantity for Secret Stages. He spends much of his free time forming a “database” of potential acts, consisting of both personal favorites and trusted recommendations from a growing network of folks in the music industry: “I literally listen to hundreds of bands (last I checked it was 1,200-ish bands this year) when I scout for Secret Stages each year. If you do the math, 1,200 bands divided by 55 is a half of a percent. That’s the likelihood that said band will get booked. That’s how involved the screening process is.” At the end of the day, intuition is key in Travis’ selection process: “Ultimately, I have to fall in love with the music I hear. The music that moves me, that excites me, that wows me — those are the bands that get booked.”
This year’s lineup was packed with stunning performances. Highlights included the smooth Americana of Nashville’s Molly Parden, whose songs harkened Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac and readily hushed a bustling, weekend-ready room. Baltimore trio Snail Mail won over the same crowd just a few hours later, gripping listeners with a refreshingly raw and emotional sound.
These were just two of many impressionable performances over the weekend, most of which I had not yet heard. The close proximity of venues made the festival easy to navigate and explore, and staff members were always at arm’s length to help with direction. This earnestness has not gone unnoticed by Travis or his colleagues: “We simply couldn’t do it without our volunteers. We have so much amazing support from our crew and the event simply would fall off the tracks without them. They’re invaluable. We love ’em.”
Secret Stages shows no signs of slowing down, with lofty plans from Travis and crew to make 2018 the biggest event yet. “I already have some incredible acts in mind. If everything goes well, we’ll get enough sponsorship dollars early enough to properly promote the event so we have our biggest crowd ever,” Travis explains.
Make no mistake, sponsorship dollars will only serve to enhance the experience, not sacrifice the festival’s mission to dig up hidden treasures: “I think it’s important to note that while the bands that perform at Secret Stages are often no-names, they are amazing. They’re truly diamonds in the rough. We, along with many other organizations across the country/world, are trying to rewrite the rulebook on how the musical game is played. It’s not about who shouts the loudest or who has the most Facebook followers. It’s who is creating the most amazing and moving sounds and writing the best music.