A Day at No Earbuds Fest

Getting back to basics at a new grassroots music festival.

Music Features Scene Report
A Day at No Earbuds Fest

Music festival culture is in a weird (bad) place. The biggest music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo—the ones that come to mind when most people hear “music festival”—were once opportunities for fans to get an eclectic array of rising stars, hidden gems and old favorites across genres and career phases at a relatively worthwhile bang for their buck. Now, these festivals tend to feature a couple A-List pop stars and big-draw legacy acts as headliners while padding the rest of the lineup with buzzy artists riding on momentary virality and half-empty next-big-thing promises—artists who have often yet to cut their teeth at mid-sized venues before playing to festival-sized crowds. And often, especially in 2024, these festivals have been recycling headlining acts (Post Malone alone has played Gov Ball, Bonnaroo, Stagecoach and Rolling Loud this year).

The emphasis is mostly on solo artists, while bands are tokenized to make sure that the festivals can posture themselves as tastemakers and hold onto what little indie cred they have left. Bands are still incentivized to chase after the coveted festival bump to legitimize them and open them up to a wider audience. In the rare case that a larger festival lineup is more “band-heavy,” it’s usually in service of shameless, cash-grabbing nostalgia bait, featuring middle-aged ex-Warped Tour mainstays and whoever’s currently ripping them off. At almost every level, the curation of these festivals feels impersonal. Even a decade or two ago, looking at a music festival lineup announcement felt almost like reading the tracklist for a mixtape; now it feels like accidentally hitting Smart Shuffle on a Spotify playlist and getting the same four songs added to every queue, regardless of your (or anyone else’s) taste.

And that’s not even mentioning the ways in which the corporations running these festivals have cut corners when it comes to the safety of their attendees: shirking covid precautions, not preparing adequately for harsh weather conditions, offering little to no options for harm reduction in a space where drug and alcohol use are tacitly encouraged, and failing to prevent crowd crushes that have—in the worst case scenarios—been fatal. With all of these factors—plus skyrocketing ticket prices and the emphasis of these events shifting from the music itself to branding and the “see-and-be-seen” influencer ecosystem—most larger music festivals have become conventions for internet celebrities that happen to feature live music in the background.

Despite being billed as necessary for artists’ careers, the compensation for festival performances is often disproportionate. Travel and lodging costs quickly eat into an artist’s income, to the point that the choice to play these festivals often ends up requiring a band to pay for exposure—as was the case for artists like Wednesday and Jeff Rosenstock when they played South By Southwest. This year, nearly a hundred artists—including The Armed, Lambrini Girls, Squirrel Flower and Eliza McLamb—withdrew from all official South By Southwest events due to the festival’s sponsorships with the U.S. Army and multiple weapon manufacturing companies.

We’re also seeing the disappearance of what I’ll call the “music festival middle class,” with funding for mid-sized festivals and concert series becoming more and more scarce, and the festivals that were once artfully curated and reasonably priced are faced with the choice to go big or go broke. The silver lining (if you can even call it that) to music festivals becoming increasingly stratified and precarious could be happening in the world of DIY. On a small scale, we’ve seen newer, smaller-budget festivals popping up—like West Philly Porchfest, Fauxchella and Pug Fest—that focus on fostering community and helping artists find their niche. These lineups feel intentionally curated with more than just the lowest common denominator in mind. These festivals aren’t a replacement for their larger-scale counterparts—they aren’t trying to be, and they couldn’t be even if they wanted to—but they’re a breath of fresh air, an alternative that reminds us that we’re here first and foremost for the music.

Pomona, California might seem like a less-than-obvious choice for a music festival destination. It makes more sense for bands to stop in Los Angeles on tour than to play a mid-sized city an hour outside of it. But Pomona is where publicist, manager and consultant Jamie Coletta has lived for the past fourteen years and operated their PR firm No Earbuds for the last five. Since founding No Earbuds, Coletta has made a name for themselves in punk and DIY, representing established artists like Oso Oso, PUP and the Wonder Years, and helping their musical descendants like Pinkshift, Equipment and Origami Angel break through. Their approach is hands-on and personalized, tailored to the needs and tastes of the artists and their fans, both new and old.

That’s the approach Jamie took to curating the first-ever No Earbuds Fest, a one-day music festival featuring No Earbuds artists from all over the map in both genre and geography. The lineup was bookended by two Seattle bands—prog-emo headliners glass beach, and the very first act, La Fonda, whose tag-team vocals and sunny jazz-rock stylings kicked off the festival. No Earbuds Fest also drew in acts from the East Coast and the midwest—North Carolina punks Dollar Signs stopped by on their way up the Pacific Coast; the Paramore-cosigned four-piece Pool Kids came out from Chicago to play the festival as a one-off. And of course, the California contingent was strong, with bands like We Are The Union (who recently relocated to the sunshine state) and local-ish favorites like Grave Secrets and Cheridomingo (who hail from Los Angeles and Ventura County, respectively).

Jamie described the latter two groups as “buddies,” having come out of a similar scene and gained their followings mostly via word-of-mouth. Inspired by artists like Deftones and PUP, both bands are part of what Jamie describes as an up-and-coming post-Burger Records wave of young, mostly-Latine, California born-and-raised musicians making surf rock and skate punk on their own terms. Watching both groups, it’s clear that they’re hometown heroes. Cheridomingo managed to inspire multiple circle pits during their 2pm set, and just hours later, that same audience was screaming along to Grave Secrets’ songs word-for-word. Both managed to pack The Haven, the 125-cap venue that housed the first half of No Earbuds Fest. The stage was decked out in gold star garlands and a paper mache sun—all designed and set up by singer-songwriter Celeste “talker” Tauchar, who would go on to play an intimate midday set ahead of the release of her new album, I’m Telling You the Truth, today (June 21).

The audience skewed fairly young—lots of teens and tweens accompanied by well-meaning parents who maybe didn’t totally “get” their kids’ interests but wanted to be supportive nonetheless. The other significantly represented group was the mid-30s crowd, folks who probably own a physical copy of at least one Summer Vacation split and would love to tell you about the time they saw Bomb The Music Industry! play in their friend’s backyard. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of the No Earbuds Fest Street Style Report: hair ribbons, combat boots and overalls are in. Dyed hair is trending more cool than warm (lots of blues, greens, and purples). The most represented artist on the shirts of festival-goers was glass beach, followed by Jeff Rosenstock. Whether it’s La Fonda’s two co-frontwomen in glittery miniskirts, fishnets and platforms, or Perennial’s striped-shirt uniform, matching with your bandmates is SO in.

The first half of the festival—the Haven half—was a diverse sampling of bands playing to an enthusiastic, all-ages crowd. talker’s Celeste bantered with the crowd in between sugary, uptempo pop rock songs; Dollar Signs took audience requests and incited a momentary existential crisis with the reminder that their album Yikes would be turning 10 next year; Perennial’s guitarist and vocalist Chad Jewett broke into an impromptu acapella rendition of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” accompanied by the audience snapping their fingers.

The Haven shut down around 7 PM, and the festival moved down the street to the Glass House, an 800-cap warehouse-style concert hall. For a couple hours in the early evening, the two venues had a few simultaneous sets, which meant that No Earbuds Fest attendees had to kill some darlings, or at least run back-and-forth between performances, “two dates to the prom sitcom plot”-style. (And it’s not just the attendees; as a member of Dollar Signs told the crowd: “Thanks for being here. If you’re not here because you’re down the street watching Jhariah’s set, fuck you. If I have to miss Jhariah, everybody else should too.”)

Thankfully, the overlap between sets was minimal, and by 8 PM, everyone was gathered in the Glass House to watch Philly dream punks Queen of Jeans, a band who have perfected what I like to call “the bangers to ballads ratio,” connecting with their audience through both plush slow-dance tunes and upbeat, headbang-worthy jams. The hype for Queen of Jeans’ forthcoming album All Again (out June 28) was palpable, with fans singing along to new singles like “All My Friends,” “Horny Hangover” and “Bitter Pill” with the type of loyal fervor usually reserved for longtime crowd-pleasers.

California-by-way-of-Michigan ska titans We Are The Union followed, their setlist heavy on the standouts from 2021’s Morbid Obsessions, leading the audience through defiantly joyous renditions of “Boys Will Be Girls” and “Ordinary Life.” While introducing what might be ska’s greatest diss track, “Fresh Fruit For Rotting Punk Rock Stars,” frontwoman Reade Wolcott shared two fun facts about the reception to the song: “When we released this song, two things happened: The Dead Kennedys’ manager contacted us and told us to take it down, and Fat Mike had me to his house for lunch.” The circle skank pit was in seemingly constant rotation through WATU’s set, though a lot of the skanking looked more like skipping (my own skanking skills are subpar, so I can’t judge too harshly, and plus, a skipping circle pit goes kinda hard.)

The festival hit its fever pitch during Pool Kids’ set. Christine Goodwyne is one of the most engaging, dynamic frontpeople in rock today, which makes it all the more mindblowing to see the rest of the band match her energy. It’s rare to see a band be so locked-in, both collectively and individually, and Pool Kids are the kind of group that rewards fans who pay close attention to the details of their performances—Andrew Anaya’s fingers on the frets, twisting out the spiraling “That’s Physics, Baby” riff; Caden Clinton’s spiderlike, percussive maneuvers crashing along with the audience screaming back “I think we should all try to grow the fuck up!” on “$5 Subtweet”; Nicolette Alvarez holding down the rumbling bassline on “I Hope You’re Right” and laughing out the uncannily maniacal backing vocals at the pre-chorus; Christine tearing into the crowd while belting out the venomous hook of “Talk Too Much.” For a few moments during “Conscious Uncoupling” the four members stood almost perfectly equidistant in a diamond shape, I swore they were about to start glowing and levitating like a team of superheroes activating their powers.

Some pesky technical difficulties pushed the start time of glass beach’s set back by about 20 minutes, but once they were up onstage, they were ready to go and the attendees were ready for them, jumping around to tracks from both glass beach albums, as well as some unreleased material. The “thinking about you” drop during “Rare Animal” set the crowd into an explosive frenzy, making the silence that fell over them during J McClendon’s stunning rendition of the pre-chorus just moments earlier all the more captivating. Towards the end of their set, debut album classics like “bedroom community” had audience members singing along, not just to the lyrics, but vocalizing along with the jazzy instrumental breakdowns (and of course, screaming “FUCK” at the top of their lungs at the very end of “cold weather”).

Unfortunately, due to technical delay and venue’s non-negotiable curfew, glass beach had to cut their set short. As they broke this news, the audience was disappointed but not discouraged, starting chants of “CLASSIC J! CLASSIC J!” before the glass beach band members, accompanied by Jhariah, sang the first couple verses of the opener from the first glass beach album. Even after the performers left the stage, audience members kept singing as they danced towards the venue’s exits, capping off the inaugural No Earbuds Fest with a testament to the power of a festival that knows how to ignite real connection between musicians and fans. From beginning to end, the whole day felt thoroughly personal, intentional and DIY in spirit and execution.

Walking back to the car, I recall arriving at the festival 12 hours earlier, waiting in line before the doors opened and distracting myself from the oppressive SoCal heat by eavesdropping on two kids in front of me—I’d estimate about 14 years old, accompanied by one of their dads—as they went back and forth excitedly about two topics: which acts they were most looking forward to seeing, and their plans to start a band. Listening to them felt like the perfect distillation of what a music festival can be—the point where artists and audiences come together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.

Grace Robins-Somerville is a writer from Brooklyn, New York, currently based in Wilmington, North Carolina. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Her work has appeared in The Alternative, Merry-Go-Round Magazine, Post-Trash, Swim Into The Sound and her “mostly about music” newsletter, Our Band Could Be Your Wife.

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