Secret Stages stops in Alabama after 10 years of music: “It’s time to move on”

Farewell, secret steps.

Alabama‘s rambling ‘Music Discovery Festival’ comes to a halt, after bringing a slew of bands and solo artists to Birmingham, 2011-2021.

“I’m really grateful to everyone who supported this,” organizer Jon Poor told AL.com. “It’s a really positive thing that happened for 10 years in the city. It didn’t break down; it just sort of ran its course.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll Secret stepspredictably, as viewers quarantined at home and bands stayed off the road in 2020 and much of 2021. Secret Stages was canceled in 2020 during COVID, and the festival made a comeback last year in a stripped-down form.

Poor, who has been a major driving force behind Secret Stages since its inception, also pointed to other factors.

The festival, run by a group of committed and enthusiastic volunteers, has never made a lot of money in its ten years of existence, Poor said. Secret Stages, with an annual budget of $80,000 to $110,000, would typically break even or make a small profit which would be shared by the organizers and/or donated to local charities.

“It was a passion project, with little to no financial reward,” Poor said. “Life kind of overwhelmed our ability to make the event something that made up for the people putting it on.”

Over the years, Poor said, it has become harder for organizers to devote time and attention to the festival as they have full-time jobs, growing families and other responsibilities. Handing over to a new team also proved to be a challenge.

And when Poor moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in November to be closer to his family, it became clear that supervising Secret Stages from out of state would be problematic.

“I love this event. I could tear up just thinking about it,” Poor said. “It means the world to me. I love Birmingham. There was just a moment when I said, “It’s time to move on.”

Secret Stages organizer Jon Poor has paid tribute to nearly a dozen people who have been crucial to the festival during its tenure in Birmingham, including its three co-founders: Travis Morgan, Chuck Leishman and Sam George . Poor people also name-checked Denise Koch, Rashid Qandil, Lucy Bonds, Nicole Chapman, Lauren Polley, Chris McCauley, Lisa Petruff and Joseph Baker, praising their energy and expertise.(Mary Colurso | [email protected])

Secret Stages was not a powerhouse on the Birmingham music scene compared to the old City Stages festival, but the multi-day event attracted a dedicated following and attracted open-minded people who were adventurous in their ways listening.

From the start, Secret Stages aimed to introduce music lovers to acts that may not have had celebrity status, but were chosen for their quality, interest and edgy appeal. Festival programmers cast their nets wide looking for interesting prospects, sometimes spending an entire year in search.

One of the most influential programmers was co-founder Travis Morgan, who left Secret Stages in 2018 after an eight-year tenure.

“I am someone who is passionate not only about sharing music, but also about the city of Birmingham, so being able to help showcase diverse ranges of musical artists from across the country, while showing the city that I love was truly a dream come true,” Morgan said as she left the festival. “Having the opportunity to research and explore the variety of undiscovered music across the country was a colossal undertaking every year. I listened to 50 bands to find one that I was ecstatic about, but I did it, year after year, band after band.

Secret Stages lineups included a pre-fame Saint Paul and the Broken Bones, as well as Shovels & Rope, G-Side, Robert Ellis, Jacuzzi Boys, Banditos, Fly Golden Eagle, Lambchop, Hiss Golden Messenger, Lowland Hum, Futurebirds, Belle Adair, Courtney Marie Andrews, Delta Ray, Barton Carroll, Pujol, Love Moor, Shonna Tucker and more. (You can see photos of nearly 50 Secret Stage groups in the gallery at the top of this article.)

“(Secret Stages) was a launch pad for us, in so many ways,” St. Paul & the Broken Bones lead singer Paul Janeway said in a 2015 promotional video for the festival. “So it’s a very good memory for me.”

Local bands were a priority for Secret Stages, which featured The Green Seed, WRAY, GT, the Blips, Fathom, 729, Captain Kudzu, Dommel Mosel, Erthling, Bunko Squad, Future Elevators, Iron Giant Percussion, the Lost Contols, In Snow, Me and My Knife, Phantom Limb, Vulture Whale and many more.

“Our idea was: let’s shine the light on the premises. We have incredible talent here,” Poor said. “Let’s skip the A-list headliner and focus on all this great music that’s being made. There was a ton of music we wanted to bring to the table. We wanted to push Birmingham forward – to positively reflect what a great music city it is – and represent it well.

Secret Stages has embraced a multitude of musical genres – hip-hop, psych rock, electro, post-punk, americana, neo-soul, jazz, dream pop, folk, rap, shoegaze, etc. – and one of its goals was to treat artists well.

“Year after year, we really wanted to treat everyone like a star and give them great Southern hospitality,” Poor said. “These artists work hard all summer long on the road. We wanted to give them good sound and a good experience.

Secret Stages spent most of its tenure downtown, taking over venues such as Rogue Tavern, Pale Eddie’s Pour House, Das House, and Matthew’s Bar & Grill. In 2018, the festival moved to Avondale, featuring shows at Saturn, Avondale Brewing Co., 41st St. Pub & Aircraft Sales and more.

Despite its name, Secret Stages didn’t stay secret for very long. A Wall Street Journal reporter visited the festival and offered well done in 2017for example, and Uproxx followed suit. Poor says one of his favorite comments comes from The Nashville Bridgewho compared Secret Stages 2013 to “a pub crawl in heaven”.

Saying goodbye to Secret Stages is a bittersweet experience, Poor said, in part because he hoped to build a festival that would grow, thrive and be sustainable over the long term.

“I wonder, as people around the world do, what might have happened to our efforts if there hadn’t been a pandemic,” Poor said. “I think we were all excited to take Secret Stages to another level. Then the bottom fell.

Although he may feel a pain or two at the start of August, the usual festival time, Poor said he is focusing on the positive right now and celebrating the achievements of Secret Stages.

“For Secret Stages, just reaching year 10 was a huge deal,” Poor said. “We put on a really good festival and we stayed true to our ethos and ethos. We did it. We put 10 years into it, and those 10 years are something we should be proud of.

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