NEEMFest* 2022 saw the return of a beloved event that began in the early 2000s via the online electronic music forum electro-music.com. Last convened in 2019, the NEEMFest and electro-music community endured two years of COVID lockdowns and postponements until finally an in-person event could be held in the Northeast region of the US. It should be noted that an ancillary group, with a lot of overlap in the Northeast, held Mountain Skies in North Carolina in May of 2022. But not everyone in the community could make it to that event.
NEEMFest 2022, held at the beautiful Center for the Arts in Homer New York, on Sept 9-11, 2022 was a welcome change to online concerts and isolated studio woodshedding, and a chance to see some folks that hadn’t been in the same room for several years.
The three-day event, running Fri through Sun was marked by some truly inspiring performances by stalwarts of the community, including electro-music.com founder Howard Moscovitz.
*NEEM = North East Electro-Music
For 2022, the organizers of NEEMFest made some changes to the format and performance requirements. In prior years, a performer could sign up for a solo slot and – if they were up for it – might end up in an improvisation collaboration before the end of the event. Such collabs usually happened organically, often as people found common ground in their influences or particular pieces of gear that they liked to use. In previous years, whether on a main stage or in a remote jam room, the collabs could be quite compelling.
For 2022, it was decided that in order to be considered for a solo slot, you also had to be willing to do a mandatory collab set… even with someone you didn’t know and had never played with. As a “veteran” attendee and volunteer within the electro-music community since 2010, and a performer for 2022, this new policy didn’t matter too much to me. I personally enjoy jamming, and I appreciate exploring and improvising on a number of instruments. I am always up for the challenge. However, not everyone reacted to this new requirement the same way. I can’t blame them.
Some artists, no matter how seasoned, may just not work well in an improv format. Some experienced players – while still confident in a structured solo set – may not want to venture into improv for any number of very valid creative or psychological reasons. Some artists are self-conscious about working with others, especially people they don’t know. In some ways, the new 2022 improv requirement was a misstep, and served only to alienate some performers. This may be one reason that there were far fewer performers, and even some no-shows (I happen to know for a fact that one anonymous performer felt this way).
Attendance in general at NEEMFest 2022 was probably less than half of 2019’s attendance, both in terms of performers and physically present listeners (not including the online reach, which at the time of writing I have no way to gauge). Usually, the event would run to at least 11 PM on all three days of the event on Fri through Sun. This year, the event wrapped up by 3pm on Sun.
Looking at past attendance from 2010-2019, there were at least 20 active performers that normally would be present, but which were not on the roster for 2022. There were a number of no-shows and cancellations. In some cases, artists had to cancel due to family emergencies. In at least one case, an artist claimed that they were on tour in Germany and had either double-booked or forgot about their time slot. Yeah, that’s just not cool.
The COVID Factor
Anyone involved in live music over the course of the COVID pandemic has seen their industry change in many ways. Events in the electro-music category are no exception.
Attendees were expected to have proof of COVID vaccination, which I thought was reasonable. However, NEEMFest 2022 suffered from what I am just going to call out as “safety theater” in that masking was required, even on stage, by all attendees. The argument offered was that there would be a lot of over-50 age attendees, possibly with health issues, or family members with issues that might make them susceptible.
Even though I’ve been onboard with vaccination and masking for the early and middle periods of the pandemic, I was dubious of the effectiveness of a mask requirement by the time September 2022 rolled around.
My wife and I actually moved from an apartment to a town home in the middle of COVID, and I asked my father to make masks for all of our helpers. I handed out masks to all of our movers on the hottest day of 2020 when we moved. Audra (who is a teacher) and I maintained mask compliance well into 2021 and beyond.
By September 2022, most of the country was maskless for some time. Even in highly populated areas, such as Philadelphia, PA where I currently reside, I’ve been to much larger events without a mask requirement. In New York State – where NEEMFest 2022 was held – there was no mask requirement for indoor gatherings, but I complied for the sake of the greater good.
Most people grudgingly complied, at least up until the pizza party on Sat afternoon, and the very end of the event. But the mask requirement added a miserable aspect to the event that I don’t ever want to repeat. In fact, back in 2020 when the pandemic was still raging, and there was talk of a NEEMFest event happening in 2020, I decided I would not bother to go simply because of the hassle of wearing a mask. That event never happened of course.
But in 2022, long after the pandemic raged, I ended up going to NEEMFest 2022 for a three day masked event and – just as I expected – it was a miserable experience.
As a performer, it was miserable because the mask (as an eyeglass wearer) impaired my vision on stage. As a participant, the mask mandate shortened my attention span for viewing other acts, and shortened my interest in remaining on site for anything else.
Workshops at NEEMFest have always been a special part of the event, and 2022 offered a number of really great, yet poorly attended, workshops.
As part of my contribution to the event, I ran two workshops, one on VCV Rack and one on Touchdesigner. In both cases, I remained masked. The experience of teaching in a masked environment such as this was less than enjoyable.
My VCV Rack workshop had moderate attendance, but my Touchdesigner workshop had much fewer people than I anticipated, even considering the somewhat niche aspect of the material. In my case, the workshop area was not sequestered from other aspects of the event, so loud talking from other (inconsiderate) attendees got in the way of my presentations.
The entire event was streamed live on Twitch/YouTube by Radhous, a media production company out of NC. Because of the streaming element, NEEMFest 2022 also required performers to sign a release to protect the organizers of NEEMFest when it came to using footage of performances for promotional aspects of future events.
Upon close inspection of the release, it was far too broad when it came to copyrights. I would caution future attendees on this. Thankfully, I have my own audio and video recordings, from my own cameras and capture devices, from which I maintain a copyright in the content and recording.
While Radhous did an exemplary job on site, but I think what they brought to the table for this event was overkill, and an unnecessary cost and distraction. I was not very pleased with their live broadcast of my performance which I later watched on Twitch. They focused entirely too much on the knob twiddling during my set and did not showcase the custom visuals I spent so much time preparing for the performance. As a result, what the viewers in the venue saw was drastically different from what was broadcast on the stream.
During my soundcheck for my solo set, everything was great. But the sound person behind the board changed, and by the time my performance started, everything was completely out of whack. In addition, there were some extreme gain staging issues between the live sound and broadcast sound which made for a very difficult performance.
There were some extreme gain staging issues between the live sound and broadcast sound which made for a very difficult performance. Sure, during lockdown, streaming was everything… but some things simply don’t work virtually. And if you are going to insist on streaming, I don’t think the live sound should take a back seat.
In past years, some of the most interesting aspects of NEEMFest performances weren’t just from the sonic artists, but the variety of video artists. In fact, I’ve added video art to my toolkit specifically because of the inspirations that I had from electro-music and NEEMFest events.
At least from my experience with events from 2010 to 2019, I witnessed amazing work by artists such as Ken Palmer, Steve Mokris, Project Ruori, Robert Dorschel, and Tantroniq. In 2022, Dorschel was still present with his usual wit and production values, and David Berends had a great prepared video as well. But except for my own live improv visuals (which I was happy to provide) and the artistry of Jesse Hawley (who works mostly in the analog domain and has a great approach), the majority of the visuals were canned from an app with no human interaction whatsoever.
The visuals I provided for a few artists were barely shown on the live stream, making me feel like my contribution (including set-up, break down) was a complete waste of time.
One of the goals of electro-music and NEEMFest is to inspire and educate artists to explore new things. Personally, as an attendee and as a performer, that goal was met for me. I came away with a list of ideas to explore, gear to read up on, and I met a few new people while also connecting with long time friends and acquaintances.
Is NEEMFest living up to the pedigree of electro-music events of the past? Does NEEMFest offer the same inclusion that I felt in 2010 as a newcomer from the singer-songwriter realm? I’m not so sure. The box office was understaffed the entire weekend, so there was no one knowledgable to greet people and answer questions. I tried stepping in where I could, but I wasn’t a primary organizer for the event and couldn’t answer all questions. When I look back to 2010-2019, there was always someone there to make you feel welcome in the community. That was lost in 2022.
The organizers admit that many of the issues I’ve called out were due to lack of volunteers. But you can’t have volunteers without attendees. There was lots of down time between sets, making the event very low energy. What happened to the community that really should have been there supporting this?
One improvement with NEEMFest 2022 was that there was a designated non-smoking area near the load-in area, and this was – for the most part – honored by the attendees. Past years were plagued with smokers congregating near the load-in area and smoke would waft into the venue. Thankfully, that was less of an issue this time, though toward the end a few folks returned to bad habits of ignoring the signs.
The running joke for several years among the electro-music crowd at these events is that attendance is largely old, fat, bald, white men in black T-shirts. Sadly, NEEMFest 2022 didn’t push the needle on this old joke (which is not a joke of course, but rather some dark humor). I believe there were one or two female artists scheduled, but at least one of them had a family emergency and there wasn’t much representation besides. The attendee and performer demographic remains largely 40 and over. Perhaps that is somewhat understandable since NEEMFest is not an EDM or rave event. But the lack of new, under 40 blood, shows that the event isn’t sustainable as it is currently constructed.
One take away from NEEMFest 2022 is… “at least it happened”. With so many factors stacked against live musical events in a post-COVID world, NEEMFest 2022 occurred and some fun was had. For most people coming out of the COVID coma, that might be enough. But I am left thinking that NEEMFest did not come back very strong. It did not offer the inclusiveness of past events, and did not engage me in the way that 10+ years of previous events did.
In the end, NEEMFest 2022 was a good excuse to get out of the house. Was it worth the Air BnB cost, the drive time, and gas cost? From a financial standpoint, certainly not! I’m thankful that there was no charge for performers to attend because, if there was, I don’t think I would have gotten my money’s worth.