Featured Faces: Ben Cohen
Interview by Gina Myers

In May of 2008, with a group of friends, Midland native Ben Cohen put on the first FreeMusic Festival, and from there Phoenix Productions was born. The festival, now in its third year, will take place on Saturday, June 12. Cohen recently sat down over a few beers at Diamond Jim's to discuss FreeMusic Fest, community-building, doing what you love, and much more. As it turns out for Cohen, good ideas are often hatched when beer is involved.

For more information on Phoenix Productions, to see the line-up and schedule of events for FreeMusic Fest, and for more information about The Traveling Tie-Dye Party, visit  http://thosephoenixproductions.com.

Gina Myers: Where did the idea for Phoenix Productions come from?

Ben Cohen: It started with FreeMusic Fest. I was sitting around drinking beer with some friends one day, and someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to put on a show and have all our friends' bands come out and jam? It would be a good time for everybody.’ And so we did it, and it was cool. But after that we started doing some benefits. We did a Shelterhouse benefit, and a breast cancer benefit. We thought of it as music and art in a way to benefit the community. That’s really what we were shooting for. The breast cancer benefit was huge—to this day, still the biggest show we have ever done. We had a great turnout, raised a lot of money that day. I miss doing stuff like that. We got off track for a bit, started acoustic night and did shows at the Hancock Theatre. We just started booking bands and became more like a booking agency for a bit. Then I realized that was really off track with our mission. I wanted to take bands that you wouldn’t normally hear and find them a wider audience.

GM: So do you think you are returning now to that original mission now?

BC: Absolutely. This year’s FreeMusic Fest is such a community event. We have kids stuff going on. We brought the Freeland community in to help support us and grow it into something big. I think we have come back around to doing what we’re supposed to do.

There are a lot of people who are booking bands and putting on shows, so they don’t really need us to do that. But I don’t think there are a lot of people who are doing things to give back to the community.

GM: So FreeMusic Fest began as this drunken brainstorm?

BC: [Laughs] Yes, it really was. Just a couple of people sitting around saying 'let’s do this,' and then we did it.

GM: But it’s now going into its third year. How did you learn from the first year? I know you said there is more family-oriented stuff now, but has it changed in other ways since that first year?

BC: The format has changed a lot. The first year it was poorly promoted, or not promoted at all, and the kind of bands we had were just our friends. It was really clique-oriented. There was really just a small group of people who would have appreciated what we were doing. And we had maybe 100 to 200 people showing up, which was great because we hadn’t really promoted at all, but the individual bands had really talked it up. So it has evolved a lot. The second year we really worked to market it. We got involved with the D Street Entertainment Foundation, and they are the best. They do Parkapalooza in Sanford, which is a free community event that draws like 6,000 people into the park, and I got to help some with that. I worked the stage, and I got to see what events are supposed to be like. Anyone can get some bands together, but I don’t want to just put on shows, I want to put on events, something that people can talk about.

GM: Can you tell me more about D Street? I know you are also on their board now.

BC: D Street is a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the community through arts and music. They are always booking bands. They have a scholarship program that they do. The thing that I like the most is the Band Wagon, where people donate old instruments, they fix them up and then give them away to people who can’t afford to buy them themselves. I actually first talked to them about coming in as a sponsor of the FreeMusic Fest last year, and they invited me to a board meeting, and I sat down and talked to them, and things went from there.

Parkapalooza is their big event. They also did a big event in Bay City at the Prime Event Center called Rock this Country, which brought together rock bands and country bands. And these guys, they are all experienced, they are older, so they've been around the music scene for a long time. And they put this thing together in two months, and it was huge, just huge. It was fantastic.

GM: So you get to witness first hand how they do things, and sort of learn from that?

BC: I’ve learned a lot from being involved with them.

GM: When you did the first FreeMusic Fest, did you have anything to prepare you for it, or was it more like, 'Hey, let’s just do this thing?'

BC: I played in a band called Building Seven. We were terrible. We played maybe a dozen shows. We played the first FreeMusic Fest, which was one of our last shows. We were terrible, for sure, but it was a lot of fun. So I was familiar with the basic structure of how a show should go, and I have been to a lot of concerts too, but D Street really showed me how an event gets put together, how things are run backstage. They're very professional.

GM: In Building Seven you played guitar and sang. Do you still play music?

BC: Not so much anymore. I’ll play guitar a little bit here and there. I actually started playing the drums, but now that I have the baby it doesn’t really work out [laughs]. So, no, not so much anymore. I found out that I am way better at promoting other people’s music than I am at playing my own!

GM: With the FreeMusic Fest being in Freeland, and the bands moving away from that insular group that you had the first year, it seems like you are making an effort to bridge together the tri-cities. Is that fair to say?

BC: I guess. The way I look at it, the first year we booked bands that we wanted to hear, and now we are trying to book bands that everyone wants to hear. And I am definitely booking bands that I still enjoy, but I learned it’s not really about me, it’s about everyone else. And I think we did a great job this year of booking bands from all over the tri-cities, some of the best. I really can’t believe the line-up we got. It’s great.

GM: I think I have seen that with some other promoters—they create a show that they want to see more than a show that will have a great draw, bring people out.

BC: Yeah, a lot of people book the bands they like because they are trying to create a scene for whatever odd genre of music they are into. And some people do a really good job with it, like Corey from Diamonds in the Rough promotions. That guy puts on like 100 plus shows a year, and all stuff that he loves. He's bringing bands in that people don’t know and introducing them and he's able to introduce those bands to a new audience. I think that is fantastic. But I am really trying to do something community-oriented.

GM: Can you tell me about the Traveling Tie-Dye Party? Like, what it is?

BC: It’s awesome, that’s what it is [laughs]. Funny enough, that all started one day when we were sitting around drinking some beer, and Kimberly Megoran [of Kimberly & Co.] says, 'Wouldn’t it be cool if we tie-dyed some shirts for Easter instead of dying eggs?' And we’re like, yeah, let’s do it. So for Easter we all got together and tie dyed some shirts for Easter at her house, and we had a great time doing it. And once again, she says, 'You know, I bet people would pay money to do this. We should find a place and set up a tent and see what happens.' So last year at FreeMusic Fest we set up a tent, and we were one of the only vendors there, and it was huge, probably the most popular part of the whole event. And we got invited to two different festivals at FreeMusic. And it’s blown up. I mean, this weekend we’re doing the Eco Fair in Lansing, we’re doing the Morel Mushroom Fest up in Boyne City in May, and we just did Hash Bash in Ann Arbor. We’re all over the state now. It’s awesome. I mean, I can’t believe that I make money tie-dying shirts. It’s pretty goofy, you know. I didn’t know there would be a market for it. We also do kids' birthday parties, like private parties and stuff. It’s a blast. The kids love it. We’re at Tunes by the Tridge every Thursday when that starts. I don’t know, it just started out as a joke, but I make more money tie-dying shirts than I do managing a restaurant now!

GM: What sort of things would you like to see happen in the area?

BC: I see all these different promoters on Facebook advertising their separate events. I’d like to see all the promoters get together and put on one big bash somewhere. We’re all doing the exact same thing, but we’re not doing it together.

GM: Do you think there is a competitive attitude amongst promoters at all?

BC: I don’t think it is competitive, but I don’t think people support each other.

GM: With the FreeMusic Fest this year, what are you personally looking forward to most?

BC: I want to see a ton of people there having a great time. And some sunshine—got to have the sunshine. And I want people to see bands they have never seen before. I want to see a nice, smooth event, and I want to see everyone having a good time. That’s when I know I have done a good job.

GM: Does it take place rain or shine?

BC: It will. I don’t think it will be as fun in the rain, but it will still take place.

© Gina Myers, 2010