Halloween has no organizing committee, corporate sponsor or formal sign up for participation. Even without any central guiding authority, households choose the level they participate in the event by turning out their lights, or dolling out candy, or even creating a haunted house.
Now imagine neighbors experience live music and not candy, and you’ll see the vision of Oakhurst Porchfest founder Scott Doyon.
The grassroots music festival celebrates its fourth year in October and is making great strides toward Doyon’s ultimate goal of a completely community-driven event, just like Halloween.
The Beginnings of Porchfest
While Oakhurst, Decatur is an early adopter in 2015, Porchfest originally dates back to an idea developed in Ithaca New York by Lesley Greene and Gretchen Hildreth in 2007. Their concept was porches becoming stages for bands to play as neighbors gathered to listen and connect. As of 2018, there are 117 neighborhoods holding a Porchfest in North America.
Doyon heard about the event from a friend in Ithaca several years earlier, but it wasn’t until the Decatur Arts Alliance requested ideas from the community in 2015 that he took action. That year, the Oakhurst Arts and Music Festival was canceled due to construction in Harmony Park.
The need stirred Doyon from thought to action. “I thought Oakhurst had the same kind of funky sort of vibe [as Ithaca] with lots of musicians,” he said.
While he had always thought it would be a “slam dunk” in Oakhurst, even Doyon was surprised at the reaction the community had. They had been reading about Ithaca’s first year and thought a “super ambitious” goal would be 30 bands.
Doyon reports 130 bands had signed up by the beginning of that first festival in 2015. “There was pent up demand. Ithaca doesn’t have the benefit of a huge, metro area. Once word got out, we got bands from all over metro Atlanta. We didn’t see it coming.”
“The event’s guiding principal is radical generosity. There is no meaningful profit incentive for anyone, it’s just neighborly.
That’s what we’re about,” said Doyon. That sentiment is shared by the performers as well. Paul Melancon’s band, Paul Melancon and the New Insecurities, has been playing Porchfest since its inception.
“What most surprised me was how big a crowd showed up the first year and yet all of the individual shows still felt intimate and personalized. It came across as a completely spontaneous kind of happening, even though I knew that, behind the scenes, a lot of work went on to bring it about,” Melancon remembers.
No Boss, No Problem
The festival breaks the conventional model of festivals where a central organizing entity works to put on an event for the benefit of the attendees. The end goal for Doyon is for Porchfest to become an event done not for the neighborhood and audience, but by the neighborhood.
When asked how the event is progressing toward that end, Doyon says, “We chip away at it every year. We’re getting people to embrace what’s counterintuitive.”
For 2018, the festival took another step in that direction with the institution of block captains, a minimal role that will provide on-the-scene accountability in facilitating the bands and keeping streets accessible. The event secured volunteer participation from more than 80 percent of the 32 zones it created within Oakhurst.
That level of involvement by the community took Doyon from feeling “pretty good to really good” about this year’s development.
Melancon looks forward to the experience again this year. “I know the crowds grow every year and somehow they still manage to create that friendly, intimate atmosphere. I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into pulling that off and making it seem effortless. There’s something really magical happening here,” he said.
The antidote to disconnected neighbors
Doyon sees Oakhurst, like other neighborhoods experiencing change in Atlanta, separating into two different vantage points – newcomer and long-time resident. He considers Porchfest one of many events that keeps this dichotomy a positive. The antidote to the separation this can sometimes bring, according to Doyon, is “getting people out on the streets. The bonds of neighborhood bridges the divide.”
One of Doyon’s favored stories comes from a woman who told him she ran into her childhood friend at Porchfest. As they reconnected, she said it became apparent that they lived on opposite ends of the same block and never knew it until the event.