LAUNCH Music Conference & Festival is Ready for Take-Off: Interview with Conference Founder Jeremy Weiss


Jeremy Weiss lets the numbers speak for themselves when he describes his music conference, LAUNCH. “It’s 200 bands, on 17 stages, at 14 venues, within an 8 block radius. You park your car, and you don’t have to go back to it for 3 days.” LAUNCH, created six years ago in Lancaster, PA, has quickly grown into the premier music conference in the Northeast and will host industry names and acts like Kevin Lyman, Panic! At The Disco and Chiodos. But more than anything, Weiss hopes that music fans, not just bands and industry professionals, are in attendance, going so far as to revamp the attendance system and lowering the price of admission to make it accessible to nearly everyone, no matter what their level of involvement in the music industry. Substream caught up with Weiss during crunch time in the final weeks of preparation for LAUNCH to talk about the conference and his latest additions to the spring fest.


Substream Magazine: What inspired you to create this music conference/festival six years ago?

Jeremy Weiss:  After going to a bunch of smaller music conferences and having a record label since 1987 called CI Records, I’ve been in music for over twenty-five years and never had another job, so I’m accessible to bands in the Lancaster area. There were a lot of questions and they seemed to be the same questions, and I thought if I can bring my peers into town, they can hear it from them so they’re hearing the same thing and knowing that perhaps my take on things was reasonable.

But more so, these are the folks whose council I seek when I have a question. I thought that would really be an ideal opportunity for people in this region to have access to all of these folks that you might never have the chance to get an appointment with, so conferences are great for that. So we did this to satisfy the curiosity of smaller bands that had questions and needed advice. And then we figured, well, they’re all here, they might as well play, and that’s when the festival portion was born.


SM: Why Lancaster, PA?

JW: I’ve lived in this town my whole life and loved it, and couldn’t help but think it’s the ideal spot for a conference, it’s like a mini Austin. I know a lot of people try to equate their conference to SXSW, and I would never be so presumptuous, it’s the crown jewel of music conferences, but it all starts somewhere. Lancaster is a city that has two chains, it’s a drug store and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Everything else is negotiable. There are over 100 independent art galleries, there are five live performance venues, and frankly, the population numbers don’t lend themselves to those types of statistics.

It’s just a fiercely independent and vibrant city, and it reminded me of Austin. Everything is within walking distance and the public has been accustomed to national acts coming through here for decades because of our positioning between major markets. We would get a lot of groups that wouldn’t really come through populations centers of this size. What we’ve developed is this very learned, dedicated music fan base in our area over the last few decades from all genres of music, so because of that Lancaster seemed like the place to do a music conference.


SM: What are some cool things you recommend people check out while they’re in Lancaster, other than the music conference?

JW: Everyone in America automatically pictures an Amish person when they hear Lancaster County. That’s something we’re all very proud of and it’s part of our heritage, but Amish country is about seven to ten miles off the beaten path. But within the city, what most folks don’t realize is that there’s very cool, alternative city. There are over thirty-five independently owned restaurants, so virtually every kind of cuisine is found in Lancaster. When you walk the streets of Lancaster, it’s not so large that you’ll get lost, but everything is there. There’s a terrific burrito place across from our office called Roburrito that I eat at pretty regularly. I also like the Lancaster Dispensing Company, which is actually a LAUNCH host venue. It’s the best food for the most reasonable price that I’ve ever encountered, and they always have a smile for you.

One really special element of downtown is the Lancaster Central market, which is about 100 feet from the convention center. It’s the oldest continuing central farmer’s market in the US. It’s open Friday and Saturday during LAUNCH and there are innumerable food stands in there across all varieties. They specialize in homegrown produce and delicacies from Lancaster County and is a place I think everyone who visits Lancaster should make time to go to.


SM: In total, about how many people do you think will be in attendance of the conference and festival this year?

JW: The conference has enjoyed a little over 10,000 people each of the last two years. Every year, we add another layer to the cake, so we expect to hit around twelve to fourteen thousand people this year. The original ambition of the conference was to be a conference with an educational and networking structure to it. We try to put the very best music out there, but, of course, they’re not the biggest names. Really, it’s been a matter of building public trust. Over the last few years, we’ve gone a bit further and hand selected some feature acts that would elicit more interest in the festival side. We don’t look for this to be a festival of all headliners, which will never happen at LAUNCH because it’s all about opportunity. Most of the bands that are playing are showcasing, and our panelists are encouraged to go out and see as many bands as they possibly can.


SM: What are some of the topics that will be discussed at this year’s conference?

JW: We have the pleasure of having the 90’s band Live local. They come in and have spoken on panels over the last five years. A lot of the people we have are very well-known agents and managers. Mike Mowery from Outerloop has been up a couple times and he’ll be back this year. We’re very excited to announce that Kevin Lyman from Warped is making his first LAUNCH appearance. Nick Storch from ICM in New York is a native son of Lancaster and he will be returning to speak. JB Brubaker, the guitarist from August Burns Red, he’s going to be a panelist for the first time.

We also look for folks who might be at a slightly more reasonable level, so not only can you learn from these admittedly successful people, but you can also hear from people with smaller companies and you might be able to build a working relationship from them. David Silbaugh from Summerfest comes every year and I’m proud to say that he has taken over forty artists directly from LAUNCH and placed them somewhere at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, and I think that’s an experience that all of these bands would not have been able to enjoy if they’d not participated in LAUNCH.


SM: What were some of the more popular topics and speakers in past years?

JW: We’ll certainly have a booking panel because we have a terrific group of booking agents. We also have a wider topic that deals with festivals that Kevin and David will be able to contribute to. We deal with manufacturing and what works for marketing. We also deal with “X factor” issues where bands can hear from panelists about what they look for in appearances, sounds and what “X factor” criteria makes them decide to work with artists. Our most popular and only repeating panel that we have every year is called “Can You Handle the Truth?” This is where we bring up our brightest and best and have a public assessment of your music. If you submit your demo, you will be publicly acknowledged, you’ll stand when your music is played, and our panelists will go down the line and critique it. A lot of times, it’s a total blast because we want to keep it light and fun. But it’s a great chance to be publicly heard by these panelists and the greater total conference, and it can give you some great insight.


SM: What are some new features of this year’s conference? 

JW: We’ve partnered with Millersville University and in the past several years, they’ve built two pristine music facilities and persuaded a few of the Drexel music faculty members to come over. I’m excited my area is growing into a destination for those who want to explore a career in music. We partnered with Millersville this year, and some of their faculty members are putting on a presentation about music-business programs. There used to be no degree available to enter the music business. It’s been something that’s sparked some curiosity about what a music-business or music-technology degree is and if they actually prepare young people to enter the music industry. We’ve even partnered with their concert committee. Their well-known annual spring concert has had everyone from the Ramones to Ludacris. For the first time, at LAUNCH, well be presenting Panic! At The Disco for their opening concert.


SM: Do you encourage both music fans and professionals alike to attend the conference? 

JW: The music fan was always the lost consideration at most conferences. We’re all in a bubble at a conference where we think we’re making headway, and we’re trying to crack the code on people who aren’t there. What’s always been missing are the folks who actually buy the music, attend the concerts and support the artists. We introduced the word “festival” a few years ago to remind people that fans are most certainly welcome to the event, but not until this year did we combine the entry fees. Every other year, you were a conference registrant and you could enjoy the festival, or you can just go to the festival. Music fans weren’t certain about paying extra money to go to the conference because they were just fans. But I want the music fans there and I welcome their input. Maybe we spark a desire in them to think about the music industry at large more seriously.

What we’ve done is combine the way that you get in. This year, if you’re coming to LAUNCH, you go to everything. If you have a Friday badge, you can go to the Friday conference by day and the night time programming. If you’re just interested in music playing Saturday, you’re also welcomed to enjoy that day’s conference. We welcome their curiosity, input and attendance by day. Rather than a bunch of bands and industry moguls sitting around, we want to ask the consumer and engage in the conversation. We even lowered the price to meet the music fan in the middle with the conference goers.


SM: In your opinion, why is this type of networking and idea sharing crucial to today’s artists and industry professionals?

JW: There is no greater substitute for face time with anyone. I’m an affable person, open to people and if I can find the time, will address concerns of bands via email. But we don’t really do that because it’s not practical in a day’s work. You can’t give everyone who writes you that much time or you won’t be able to accomplish the task at hand in the office that day. At a conference, it’s harder to delete that email when you can see the person that you’re actually being addressed by, so networking is paramount.

If you also have a chance to deal with a certain agent, manager, festival buyer or a record label on a routine basis, it’s nice to have some face time with them and reintroduce the humanity of the industry back into it. There are so many of us who operate 90% of our time in that virtual communication world. Seldom do we find ourselves on the phone with one another, much less sitting across the table from one another, catching up. I think all of our panelists would say that it’s great to sure up my relationships with peers and it reminds you that the people who are reaching out to you for assistance are people.


SM: Since this is the sixth year of the conference, it’s obvious you’re doing something right. What’s the key to pulling off a successful music conference and festival? 

JW: I believe the product stands for itself. I’ve really been the benefit of the feedback from those who have come to this and recommended it to others. At least 75% of our submitted artists and attendees have either attended before or have been referred by someone who has already attended. I think that speaks to the public because people can see results. We’re committed to results and that’s part of the way we set who we invite to be a panelist. You have to be very active in music at present and give everything the same way that the bands have given everything like deferred college plans, marriages and buying a home, but they are folks who have a body of work that suggest that they’ve given everything and they’re all in.

What’s more, they’re not so jaded or burned out that they’re here and it’s about them. It’s not about them, it’s about the attendees, and they want to hear their advice and have an openness to something that might blow their mind. It’s not a criterion that panelists must pick some of these bands to work with in the future, but the panelists do have openness to something they’ve never heard of before from someone they’ve never heard of and in turn usually work with some of these bands in the future.


SM: What upcoming music trends do you foresee being big deals in the coming years?

JW: We’ve all been in a bit of a scramble over the last few years, but some things just hold true. You’ll routinely hear about this fad in music or this genre that just exploded that’s already on its way out. It is difficult to say what’s going in and what’s going out. Two years ago, I would have told you that dubstep was going to take over the world, and now I’m not so sure (laughs). Two years ago, I would have also told you that metalcore was going down, yet it seems to be hanging around and people are going to see these bands. Honestly, short of industry shifts, it’s very difficult to predict these things.

I do have a curiosity as to what our panelists will believe is next. I do think music has found itself rooted in rock at present and instrumentation is back. But I think, just when you think you know what the way of the day is, something else will explode. At the end of the day, because of the wealth of the knowledge available to anyone, they can find anything new and that’s what’s so exciting because people can find something without being told what they like and therein lies the unpredictability of music.


SM: In what ways do you hope that LAUNCH develops over the years?

JW: I want it to grow, any business person wants to see their business thrive and reach for greater numbers and success. If it were to reach a point where it became wholly impersonal, I’d like to think it would be better to franchise than to try to make a single location with something that’s lost sight of its origin. If we were to quintuple in size, I might think about satellites with conferences under the same name with the same ambition and perhaps the same panelist program so that even more people could experience that same one-on-one.

Our panelists have all unilaterally agreed to do one-on-one mentoring. I’m really grateful to know some great, down-to-Earth people who really are interested in educating young musicians. I want that personal vibe going for LAUNCH as long as possible. We’re not interested in folks who hide in their hotel and only come down when it’s time to take the stage. We like people who like to get in the trenches, get to know people and are open to hearing something they could actually work with.


SM: Thanks for talking with us, Jeremy. Substream can’t wait to take part of the festivities in April.

JW: We look forward to seeing you there!



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Interview by Stephanie Roe