Imagine Music Festival has rapidly risen across the last four years from a small music festival in the heart of Atlanta to a major EDM event hosting thousands of people from across the world. As an independent festival, Imagine is carried on the shoulders of Glenn and Madeleine Goodhand, who are also responsible for the Iris Presents brand and the weekly parties they throw at Rush Lounge in Atlanta. We attended Imagine Festival last year, and had a very enjoyable time, but couldn’t help but see that the rapid growth and change in location had presented some obstacles for the organizers, and there were some lapses in the experience for many who attended. Bullet Music talked over the phone with the IMF founders, who are also married. We learned a bit more about them as people, and got to take a look at some of the ways they plan to make Imagine Festival 2017 a redeeming and surprising experience for everyone who attends.
To start, I think it’s important for people outside of Atlanta who read this interview to understand who’s behind this festival. Y’all are regular weekly club promoters who are well-known to the Atlanta scene, but can you introduce yourselves and give a little back-story for national or international visitors to the festival?
Glenn: I personally have always been into music. I was a b-boy when I was growing up, and I loved the New York nightlife. I grew up in New York and went to those clubs at night and got into the music scene and the dance scene there. I appreciated the fact that everybody would come together and forget a lot of their worries. They’d come underneath one roof and enjoy the music for a moment. So, that gave me the drive to want to do something in that industry at some point in my life. I went to Penn State and during that time, on holidays I would go into New York City with my friends. That was about in the early '90s when the rave or dance culture started to build up. So we started going to bigger raves in New York and after graduation in ‘94, I moved down to Atlanta, and I felt like Atlanta was missing part of that culture. There was a very small scene, but I felt like it was missing some of the flavor that New York had.
I wanted to bring a little bit of that, at least my interpretation of it, to Atlanta. That’s where “The Iris” spawned from. I originally started working with another group in Atlanta, just doing after-parties, and then that eventually segued into doing a weekly event here in Atlanta called “ESP101: Learn To Believe.” From about 1997 to about 2005-ish was when we did that at a place called Celebration Hall. It was a basically just a reception hall in a church that we affectionately rebranded from Celebration Hall to “the church.” It became somewhat legendary here in the Southeast and especially in Atlanta as one of the most successful weekly electronic music events ever, at that point. What we really focused on was the experience, so I wanted to make sure it had really big sound and lighting and lasers.
Around 2005, there was a little bit of a lull in the electronic music, here in America. So, I was trying to figure out what the next step was, so I ended up going to law school, thinking I either wanted to be an agent or work for a record label. I couldn’t do both law school and promote at the same time, so I stopped promoting and finished law school. I ended up meeting my wife Madeleine, and on one of our first dates, she asked me what kind of music I liked and what I did for a living. So, she’s from Finland and she grew up on electronic music too, so she suggested that we do another event again. So, we did a small reunion show in the back of the church and ended up doing the weekly again. We always felt hindered in doing the things we wanted to do because we didn’t own the venue, so at that point, we knew we had two options. We could buy our own club or we could start a small festival. So, that’s where Imagine originally spawned from. It was the ability to start with a blank canvas and really give people exactly what we envisioned.
A lot of people in Atlanta still think that “The Iris” is the name of the building you throw your weekly parties in.
Glenn: Right, and that was done purposefully so that the brand can move, and that event can move, which… a little leak here, it is definitely possible in the near future.
Promoting an annual festival and a weekly event must be a full-time job.
Glenn: Yeah, absolutely. The festival stuff now, it definitely is a year-round event, in fact, we’re already planning for 2018. Something that makes us unique is that we are independent still. After the first year, we lost some money, and we were trying to figure out what to do, and it was the inspiration that we got from people, and the compliments of the festival that kept us going and made us dig in our heels and figure out a way to continue moving forward. So, each year, we’ve grown by about 100%. We grew out of Old Fourth Ward after the second year, and we moved to Atlanta Motor Speedway after much due diligence and trying to figure out where the best venue was. The Speedway has some incredible infrastructure that makes sense for us.
Imagine Festival, and to some extent, the Iris brand as well have done a good job of showcasing a slice of local Atlanta and regional talent. Do you think it’s important that festivals have local representation? A lot of festivals don’t.
Glenn: Yeah, I’d say that all the way from the beginning, when I decided to go to law school, it was all about trying to support the local scene and seeing what the next steps were to support what I thought were some very talented people coming out of Atlanta.
Madeleine: And giving them the opportunity to perform on a platform that they probably would never ever get a chance to on this size of stage at a festival.
I think some of the artists who have played through The Iris have used the platform they’ve had with you guys, and some have not. But, you’ve definitely offered a platform to a few names I can think of over the years who you keep pushing and keep putting on stage. I think you guys have been and are one of the stages that everybody wants to get on at some point in their Atlanta career.
Glenn: Yeah, and we pride ourselves on that, trying to get bedroom or local DJs to get more exposure. We give them the best lighting, the best sound, the best there is in the business; and then Imagine is just one more step that we can provide. If they’re doing well at Iris, then we give them an even bigger platform and more people to perform in front of at Imagine. We certainly love supporting our local scene not just with musicians, but we also support… the festival itself is independent like I said before, so we have the ability to hire whoever we want, and we hire locally for staging, and for riggers, and for everything we possibly can we really try to support the local industry. So, there’s a huge economic impact, on Atlanta and the State of Georgia from the festival, and not just from all the tourism, but from the support we give and employment we provide for everyone who works on the festival itself.
Madeleine: And we think one of the things that has contributed to our success is having that local support, because there’s definitely been a lot of festivals who have come and gone through Atlanta who didn’t really support the local scene, and we think that’s one of the things that has made a difference, and it’s why we’re still around.
Glenn: Yeah, again, it goes back to being independent and being from Atlanta. It’s an organic, home-grown festival out of Atlanta, so I believe it does get a lot of good local Southern support. It’s grown fast and of course it’s national and somewhat international now. These national corporations have come in and tried to do big festivals in Atlanta. And, they’ve been successful, don’t get me wrong. TomorrowWorld was absolutely incredible, and Counterpoint was another good one that came through, but none of them were able to survive. It was sort of a David and Goliath thing with TomorrowWorld, and we were able to survive, and we certainly don’t see any reason why we won’t be back for a very long time.
What were some of the challenges of expanding in size to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time last year, and how do you plan to address those challenges now that you’ve had one year under your belt in the new location?
Glenn: Yeah, that’s a good question. We loved our space at Old Fourth Ward [Park]. We probably would have stayed there if we could have. As you may be familiar, the area’s been redeveloped and we somewhat grew out of that space. So, the option was to stay there and sell out at a very small amount of tickets or move to another location that we could expand into and really call our home for an indefinite amount of time. We went and we searched around Atlanta, even outside of Atlanta into other states, and when we set up the T-chart on the pros and cons, there was no better venue suited to what we were doing than the Atlanta Motor Speedway was, as far as possibility for growth, the infrastructure that’s built there for any kind of inclement weather, noise ordinance issues, plumbing, electricity… but, with that said, last year was our first year there and we added an extra day, and we also added camping, which was a gigantic step for us. It was our first year there, and we definitely experienced some growing pains, that we are well aware of. Our first year of the festival at Old Fourth Ward, we had some issue, but for the most part, everybody had a great time. The second year, as we got acclimated, it was much easier. It was much more efficient, and we were able to talk around and enjoy speaking with guests. We recovered and got over some of the issues that we had the first year, and I think that’s just part of learning a new space.
When we moved to the Speedway, we went from about 10 or 15 acres at Old Fourth Ward Park and Masquerade Park to 900 acres and added a day and added camping. So, it was a big jump for us, and we had some issues. Not only did we take notes on all these issues, but we have proactively gone and sent out the questionnaire to everybody who attended, all the ticket holders last year, we asked them what they liked, what they didn’t like, and we went through every single one of them. We created a list of exactly what we needed to address and what we need to accomplish for this year. So, for us, we are looking forward to somewhat of a wow factor for people that come back this year, and getting them the experience that we’ve wanted to give them since the beginning. We are customer service oriented, all the way to the core, and this festival was built around what we felt the customer experience should be, all the way from the Facebook interactions to the email responses, the whole time they’re there and even after they leave, to make sure they have ample feedback and get to see the pictures and video when they leave.
There were some issues that came up, but we have hired a lot of the very, very best in the business to come and help with the issues that did come up. And some of those are CID with camping, they do all of Coachella’s camping. A brand new security director, in fact, who’s over all of the public safety, so I’m confident that security will be much better this year, although I know that all festivals have issues with security, but I think we’re going to have a great team in place this year. And, a noticeable difference, between night and day really, on how that security team does for Imagine this year. A ton of operations teams from production to side ops to ADA compliance stuff, a whole new signage team, new water team. Basically like I said, every single issue from last year that was even raised, we’ve dedicated entire teams to and those teams are the best in the business. We’ve drawn them from other festivals, and we’re really excited to get them implemented.
I still had a good time last year, and I recognized that there were some issues that were within your control, and others were last-minute and outside of your control.
Glenn: Yeah, everyone, for the most part, had a good time, and we are our own worst critic of course. We are perfectionists and we want everyone to have the best time of their life.
Madeleine: And we take it personally when people don’t. I want to stay home and cry whenever someone says they had a bad time.
Glenn: Yeah, so we’re going to make sure that everyone has the very best times of their life. We know how hard they work for that dollar just to come in the club. Whether they’re VIP or GA, we want them to have the very best time of their life with all their brand-new friends and family, and create these experiences that will last forever.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about the customer service mindset. I know this is a passion for you, but you also talk about it very much in terms of business. Your rapid growth is not unlike that of a tech startup, and some of the difficulties that come with rapid growth in that arena as well. What was the motivation to go big with it, instead of keeping it a community festival in the heart of the city? Was the vision always that you wanted a big camping festival with thousands of people?
Madeleine: Yeah, we don’t think small if we’re going to do something. If we’re going to put the time and effort into something, we’re going to go big.
Glenn: Actually, initially the vision was to have a relatively small festival that was within the city limits that we would duplicate in multiple cities and maybe even countries. That was sort of the original business plan. Once Madeleine and I had a baby and we had a family, we thought about what that would entail, which would include a lot of travel for one or both of us. So, our priorities somewhat changed from wanting to travel a lot and doing this same formula in multiple cities, and now it’s changed into just trying to do one larger event here, and then if it does well potentially follow it up with a second weekend. But, that would allow us to have at least try to have some sense of a normal family life here in Atlanta.
What can you tell us to get folks excited for Imagine Music Festival 2017?
Glenn: Just overall we’re going to have a lot more performers. We’ll have a full college marching band there, which will be super fun. Much more art installations, we’ll have games this year, and each year we’ll grow and do more and more as other festivals have in the past. We look up to Electric Forest, we think EDC Vegas is doing a good job, Coachella, Burning Man… so we feel like we’re somewhat of a melting pot of all of those and we’ve made our own lane. We have more stages this year, bigger sound, bigger lighting, more art.
Madeleine: More water!
Glenn: Yeah, more water, more signage. What we’re looking forward to the most is providing a well-organized event for everybody to have the best experience possible.
Madeleine: We’ve definitely grown into ourselves.
Glenn: Yeah, we just look forward to providing everybody a great experience.
Glenn and Madeleine, thank you both very much. That was very informative and answered a lot of the questions I had going into year two. I’m glad you have taken into account everything that you learned, and I look forward to seeing what you’ve put together.
Glenn: Yeah, thank you very much. As you said earlier, some things were in our control and some were out of it and that was very true, and we got hit hard last year. But, ultimately, we take full responsibility and we’re looking forward to showing everybody what we can do. Are you going to be there?
You know it! We’ve been there all four years!