California Roots Festival | Provided photo
By Marcos Cabrera
It all started with a T-shirt. Even then, it almost didn’t start at all. Talking with Jeff Monser, founder and co-owner of the California Roots Festival, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of his event sparks memories of humble beginnings. California Roots Festival celebrates its 10th birthday this weekend at Monterey County Fairgrounds. (Most general admission ticket packages are sold out. See Cali Roots for details.)
Which leads to the aforementioned T-shirt. The original California Roots logo depicted the Golden State with roots extending from the bottom, where the Mexican border would normally be seen. The California grizzly bear is seen on the state’s right-hand side, walking along the straight path where the Nevada border rests.
Monser would sell shirts with the logo at reggae-rock concerts throughout the state. One of his favorite bands, Rebelution, an upstart reggae outfit whose members attended UC Santa Barbara, was making a buzz. Monser would follow the band and others on the road, setting up booths where he could.
“They were supporting us, helping us grow our business,” Monser said. “We decided that we wanted to throw this big old party. Hopefully be able to break even and have some fans come and enjoy the day. That’s what it started as, your backyard barbecue kind of party.”
Monser’s vision for the ultimate bro’d-out backyard boogie has turned into a three-day production with daily attendance near the 10,000-person mark. It’s attracted festival circuit mainstays like Atmosphere, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Slightly Stoopid and Stick Figure.
Then there’s Rebelution, which has grown into the biggest selling reggae act in the country. Their 2018 album, “Free Rein,” topped the Billboard reggae charts. The band’s drummer, Wes Finley, is a Prunedale native who graduated from North Monterey County High School.
So it was fortuitous that Monser had aligned with a surging music scene in the early stages of development. Monser was also fortunate to have gained the trust of these bands enough to book them for that first festival with zero previous talent booking experience.
As he started the process of putting that first festival together, he quickly realized the business side was no song and dance.
One of his longtime associates reminded him recently of how close it came to falling apart.
“He said, ‘There was a point probably about three weeks before the festival where you came up to me and were like ‘Yeah man, I don’t know if we’re going to pass the finish line,” Monser said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pay all the bills. Should we pull the plug?”
The pair weighed their options, pondered worst-case scenarios. They also thought about the benefits and rewards, including building their clothing brand name.
“If we pull it off and it’s a good show, it’s going to make us look good, regardless of how much it cost,” he said. “At that point, three weeks out, we knew we were putting on a festival now. We knew it wasn’t a backyard party.”
They also knew that they needed more help. Enter Dan Sheehan, talent booker and sage, who helped guide the festival beginning in year three.
Sheehan worked with Monser on the first festival as one of the band managers negotiating a contract. Monser credits Sheehan with offering support and advice on how to manage the event.
From year one to year two, Monser said the event attendance doubled from 1,400 to 2,800. Year three was a pivotal moment.
“When Dan came on board, the marketing went through the roof,” said Monser.
The audience now identified the California Roots brand with the festival. Sheehan built around that to boost festival attendance.
They also noticed that bands like Rebelution were starting to make waves. The band’s 2012 release, “Peace of Mind,” debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 charts and was the No. 4 iTunes album overall for the week of its release.
“Seeing the numbers we did, we were like ‘Wow, there’s something here,” said Sheehan. “And the buzz and the chatter and how everybody was feeling at the show. And all the bands and the camaraderie with the bands. I knew there was much more to this particular brand.”
The festival kept expanding, moving from the small built-in stage on the festival grounds to the main stage, the legendary spot where you-know-who lit his guitar on fire. The fans kept coming for more.
And the brand got stronger.
“Now it’s Dan from California Roots,” Sheehan said of the way he’s identified in the music industry. “People have a sense of trust when I’m doing something because they know we produce one of the better festivals of our size out there.”
California Roots is a partner in several venues throughout the state, including music halls in Fremont, Petaluma, San Luis Obispo and Santa Rosa. They put on a ton of shows at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz.
While those venues keep the brand visible year-round, they also serve a strategic artist development purpose: Sheehan is always looking for the next headliner. With California Roots’built-in touring circuit, he can help mold up-and-coming bands to play bigger rooms.
“Artist development is something that gets lost in the hustle and bustle of selling tickets. And it’s something we’ve really kind of worked on as we’ve gone along,” Sheehan said. “How do we keep developing an artist to play in the small room, and they build in that market and then they play in a bigger room and then so forth. Artist development is extremely important.”
It’s also a sign that California Roots Festival can mature for the next decade. Plans are well underway for years 11 and 12, Sheehan said. As bands like Rebelution continue their career trajectories, the festival will keep bringing them back while also keeping an eye on other performers who can one day join them as headliners.
As those bands enjoy major success, Sheehan and Monser can sit back and ponder on everything that got them here.
“I was having a conversation with my wife about how all these bands have grown up and now they’re rolling up with semi-trucks,” said Sheehan. “What happened to the days of just having a U-Haul trailer? That’s where we’re at. That’s where this music is at right now.”
For Monser, the 10th anniversary offers a chance to appreciate the risk he took, and the lives he helped change with it.
“That one, year one, if we did pull the plug on year one, three weeks before the fest, where would we be now?” he said. “Would this event or events like this event be around now? I don’t know. That’s a huge high five for me. I’m super stoked we pulled through it.”
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