Park City Song Summit Founder Ben Anderson On Creating A Mental Health-Friendly Event For Artists And Audiences (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Blake Peterson

In September 2022, Park City, Utah will host the inaugural Park City Song Summit, an event whose founder and CEO, Ben Anderson of the jam band Aiko, is joined by Julia Rametta as Director of Business Operations and Julia Stout as Director of Event Operations. There is very little ambiguity about the goals and ideas behind this Summit, which strives to create an environment friendly to both artists and audiences that is about as far as possible from the downsides we might experience at a draining, health-challenging big music festival. Overtly, the event seeks to be mental-health friendly and also to support those who embrace sobriety in the music community. Artists like Adam Weiner, Jason Isbell, Darryl McDaniels, Katie Pruitt, Mavis Staples, and many more have flocked to take part this year. 

Behind the artist-friendly ethos there is a very big push to give them an alternative to tour life that is more meditative, and also to offer them the opportunity to do some public speaking where they might share from their lives and interests, thereby give audiences more of a sense of connection to the world of music. Behind the audience-friendly approach is the design of smaller venues, freedom of movement between “Lab” talks, and accessible evening performances in the natural beauty of Park City’s mountain location. I spoke with Ben Anderson about some of these goals, the practicalities behind them, and the human side of why many artists and audiences might find this new kind of event attractive and compelling. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m a big participant in live events, but Park City Song Summit is a very different one for several reasons. I’ve been to events that are more talk-based, and many that are more music-based, but this encompasses both, not to mention the focus on mental health support and a sober-friendly environment for musicians and fans. Obviously, addiction and dependency has a devastating effect on the music industry. 

Ben Anderson: That’s a perfect lead-in to what the vision was for the event from the beginning, which was to create something that doesn’t currently exist in this way in the music industry. We felt it was needed to create a place that’s just a hang. It’s in the mountains of Park City and it’s a place for artists to come, breathe, relax, and be with their colleagues. It’s a place for them to do something other than the rigors of touring. When artists are touring, they have a phone, a van, a hotel room, a stage, and an audience, and then it’s rinse and repeat. Somewhere in there they eat and try to sleep. 

It’s a daunting mental challenge to constantly be “on” and perform while having personal lives and family lives. They love it and it’s their profession, but we can’t discount the fact that it’s a profession that can be super tough on mental health. If you overlay that with any form of trauma or addiction, whether it be for band members, management, or crew, that’s very hard to address while being on the road. And then they get home and don’t feel they are really at home because they are so used to being on the road. We wanted this to be a stop every year where artists could come, stop, relax, maybe even invite friends and families. We have morning yoga, morning meditation, and over 400 miles of trails here in the Park City mountains. This could be a vacation for mind, body, and soul for them, and hopefully for audiences, too.

For audiences, at festivals, it’s usually limited to seeing an artist for 60 or 75 minutes, then it’s another artist, then it’s another one, and maybe they talk a little bit but it’s hard to hear them. This gives the audience a chance, through our Labs, to get a master class meets TED talk kind of vibe, and learn who artists are and what makes them tick. And what it is about song that continues to draw them to a pretty challenging lifestyle as a touring musician or songwriter. We really wanted to do something unique for the audience and the artists. It’s also giving artists a chance to talk about things that are impactful for themselves, and we can learn from one another. 

HMS: By using the word “song” in the event title and looking at songwriting, do you want to dignify the role of the songwriter or the performer? Sometimes the respect we give to musicians can be a little superficial, for instance, particularly if we don’t know much about them.

BA: Yes, that happens as we begin to see them as just entertainment for us, rather than stewards of the most powerful thing on the planet, music. A song can affect us the rest of our lives, and can affect the artist for the rest of their lives. When you hear about someone who has been a one-hit wonder, or by contrast, someone who has been incredibly prolific and won several Grammy awards, those are honors we give and things that the radio has decided are important, but the real importance is the fact that people are still bringing music forward for the world. 

Tens of millions of songs have been written and maybe only a handful have been cited by a magazine or radio station as important. But I would argue that they are all important. Music that food for the soul so we do want to dignify those who bring music to this world. To elevate music and the songwriter is a way of better understanding ourselves. That may sound like a lofty goal, but I don’t want to do common things.

For me, the cloud of addiction and mental health stunted all my creativity as a musician and broke all of my relationships. It wouldn’t let me be the whole person who I was trying to become. I didn’t love myself, and I didn’t love others appropriately. I certainly didn’t have an appreciation for being alive and realizing that while I’m here, I damn well better make a difference.

HMS: I initially wondered if it might be hard for you to recruit songwriters and musicians to give talks since they may not be used to doing that, but I see that a large number of Labs have already been announced and there are plenty of people who want to do this.

BA: Right, because artists and songwriters want an opportunity to talk about something other than their last album. They get asked about that all the time, or about specific songs. But if they are asked what interests them, those types of things allow them to connect with the audience. Connection creates community, and musicians love community, whether it’s with their fellow musicians, or with their audience. To get to that, they need a platform to speak. It did take a while for agents and managers to come around, because their typical job is to put people on a tour. Now some artists know they want to speak to audiences, so they start a podcast. Many who do that are going to be here at the Summit.

HMS: I noticed that you had really leaned into that growing field of artists who have their own podcasts, which was already growing, but really surged during the pandemic. You have invited them to hold their podcasts live at the Summit with an audience.

BA: Andrew Bird is a perfect example of what you’re describing. His “Live from the Great Room” video series is held live in his living room. He’s got music set up, there’s a guest, often they are barefoot, and they talk and perform. Therein lies the magic, in that intersection where talking about music and playing come together. 

That’s the intersection that we’re looking for. I think there’s something there that’s really been missing in the world. The podcasts were created by artists out of a need to connect with audiences in a different manner. I think it gives us a human way of getting to know who these artists are as more than just entertainers. I’d like to be inspired by them by learning about who they are. That’s why I, personally, consume biographies and autobiographies about artists. But I would love to hear Peter Frampton or Keith Richards talking about themselves live. I would like to be in that room with around 250 people. 

HMS: What do you have in mind in terms of venue spaces and audience numbers for these events? Is keeping them smaller for that experience important to you? 

BA: That’s one of the greatest challenges that I’ve had in the last two years. A lot of venues have changed hands, a lot of buildings have changed ownerships, and a lot of people are building and renovating. Some of our venues that we really wanted to use faced that, but we still have an amazing lineup of venues on Main Street that we are able to utilize. O.P. Rockwell is a storied music hall on Main Street with a capacity of about 500. We’re going to have a lot of acts in there. The Cabin is another cool club on Main Street with great food, with a capacity of about 250. 

We will have our songwriters in the round at what is the old Train Depot and using the plaza there. Our venues will range from 100 people, for songwriter rounds, to the 250 range for mid-level performances, then up to 450 or 500 for O.P. Rockwell. Those are the night time performances. For the daytime performances, we’ve chosen The Lodges at Deer Valley with a beautiful plaza that will have three tents that hold a total of 500 people. So it’ll be a total of 500 people for the Labs. The hard part will be choosing which tent to go into! But we have made sure that the artists do more than one Lab, so you’ll have more chances to see them. 

HMS: Is there any aspect of this which you feel is geared towards audience members who are themselves musicians, or who are learning to play music?

BA: I think during the pandemic a lot of people have been able to reprioritize. Some have been able to think about things they’ve always wanted to do. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from who have finally picked up a guitar and they are people who would be perfect for this Summit. Then there are people who may never play music, but the music means something to them, and they are changed by it. 

The audience will probably be people who don’t want the festival scene of 50,000 people. They don’t want to park a car, get in a shuttle, wait in a long line for the bathroom. The Summit is for people who love live music and love connection. It will also appeal to people who want to help destigmatize mental health issues and want to dignify the struggles that we all have.

HMS: It occurs to me that from a health perspective, festivals can often be hard going, too. For those who might be differently abled, the Summit might be a more attractive option. I know that there are going to be green room spaces for the artists, but also yoga and 12 Step Meetings. Are those for the attendees as well as the musicians? 

BA: They absolutely are. We want this to be a zen-like experience in the mountains for the artists, but also for the audience. If people want to attend our 12 Step Meetings, they’ll be able to. If people want to come to our yoga and meditation gatherings, they’ll be able to. We’re also going to have a sound bath. People love to wake up and meditate with others at a trail head nearby and there are plenty all over Park City. 

We want people to tap into the performances and the labs, but we also want them to tap into nature here, which is why Park City is a great setting for it. Also, all of our nighttime performances are up and down Main Street. It’s not that big a town, but it has a lot of history. It’s a very accessible place. 

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