Electric City Music Conference – 10 questions for 10 years in Scranton with founder Joe Caviston
In just 24 hours, the Electric City Music Conference is set to begin with the Steamtown Music Awards ceremony and featured performances, followed by a weekend packed with more live music from about 100 acts in seven venues across Scranton and nearby Dickson City.
Many other organizers would be sweating to get every detail and moving part to fall into place as last-minute adjustments are made, but Joe Caviston seems more excited than nervous – confident, in fact. That likely comes from 10 years of leading this annual event and even more booking shows all over Pennsylvania, leaving just enough time for a little reflection on this milestone that even he once doubted the ECMC would reach.
Before leaving his current home in Camp Hill to return to Northeastern Pennsylvania, NEPA Scene chatted with the 37-year-old Carbondale native about this decade of showcasing local talent, the band that saved the conference, hosting emo nights for “sad kids” like him, and leaving a legacy.
NEPA SCENE: How does it feel to see the ECMC turn 10 years old?
JOE CAVISTON: It’s kind of wild to think that the event has been around for a decade. I’ve basically spent almost one third of my life working on it. I remember thinking it would be a miracle if we made it five years. Here we are… 10 years later. I try not to be a prideful person, but I’d say I feel a sense of accomplishment. It really is work based on passion. I hope we can stick around for another 10 years!
NS: Did you expect this event to last this long from the beginning? Was that always the goal?
JC: To be honest, after the first year, I didn’t know if we’d even make an attempt at a second year. It was honestly a tough first few years. I think around 2017, things really started clicking. That’s when I started to believe that there was a possibility for it to grow and become something sustainable. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think about ending it during COVID, but I’m glad we decided to push forward and keep it alive.
NS: What are some important things that you’ve learned along the way?
JC: I can’t do it all on my own, but also finding the right team for an event like this is challenging. I think we’ve got a strong team in place right now and I’m very happy with the strides we’re making. I’ve learned not to take anything personally, even personal attacks. [laughs] People are super passionate about their art, and that’s what I love about musicians and artists. There’s people who absolutely hated the event and hated me because they didn’t get the time slot or venue they wanted or didn’t win an award in the early years. Now, they’ve matured and are some of the event’s biggest supporters. It’s cool to see that. The lessons that I’ve learned putting on this event have honestly helped me learn and grow as a person and taught me how to navigate every other business I’ve undertaken.
NS: What do you think are the biggest accomplishments of the ECMC?
JC: Connection and education. I will die on the hill that the panels are the most important part of the panel. Your performance is wonderful and you should give it your absolute best effort, but from a career perspective, you’ll get 100 percent more out of attending a panel or networking with everyone in town that weekend. There are at least 20 bands that have made major connections at the conference and signed record deals, management contracts, booking agents, etc. That’s what I’m most proud of – being a successful footnote in the story of amazing musicians.
NS: As a booker, how do you decide what acts are playing where and at what times throughout the ECMC weekend?
JC: We try to make sure that rooms make sense and have a logical flow. You can’t put a death metal band in a college bar. You can’t have an acoustic act playing to a rowdy party crowd at midnight when people want to party. We try to keep all of the bands happy, but at the end of the day, the event has to make sense for the venues that are hosting it as well. None of the venues need to have this event; they all do a great business on their own. If anything, we’re kind of a pain in the ass. The owners participate because they love music and the music scene.
NS: You often go from venue to venue throughout ECMC weekend to check on things, put out fires, etc. What have been some of the best moments/performances you’ve been able to witness over the years?
JC: There’s too many to recount them all. Seeing Esta Coda live for the first time – they literally stopped me in my tracks. I remember it was a really stressful night and it was one of those times that I was like, “That’s it. This is the last year I’m doing this.” [Co-vocalist/guitarist] Jay [Preston] gave me their EP and I listened to it the entire ride back to Harrisburg and had chills the entire ride. I was passing Frackville and I called my wife and said, “As long as there’s music like this coming out of NEPA, I’m going to keep putting on this event.” I think I told Jay and [co-vocalist/guitarist] Dan [Rosler] that story last year for the first time. They’re literally the reason the ECMC still exists. There’s also been a ton of bands that have played the event on their way up. It’s always cool to say, “I booked them when…” That’s a fun feather in any promoter’s cap.
NS: When you’re dealing with awards or contests of any kind, you’re going to receive both praise and negativity. How do you deal with some of those harsher critics? Have you developed a thicker skin because of people like that?
JC: I honestly try not to let it get to me anymore. I’m human, though, so there’s always a little zing when someone takes a shot. I used to literally lose sleep over it. Now, I make every attempt to just let it roll off my back. I rarely respond. Like I said, people are passionate about their art and truly appreciate that, especially the younger acts. I try to remind myself that when I was in my early 20s, I thought that I knew everything and was full of piss and vinegar too. As long as they don’t cross any lines or just completely make up crazy stories – which happens more than you’d think – I just let it go. You’d be amazed at all of the trust funds, mansions, and millions of dollars that other people know that I have that no one told me about.
JC: It’s sort of crazy. We did it half as a joke, to give the musicians of the area a party at the ECMC, and it grew into what it is today. We’ve turned our Emo Night into a legitimate business and I’m thankful for all of the support we’ve seen. I think it’s successful because people love nostalgia. We also allow people to live out their “rock star dreams” if they want to get on stage. But, most of all, we’ve created a real community around it. We truly care about the people that come to our shows and attempt to create a fun and safe space for them to be themselves. I can’t explain how appreciative I am to everything that Emo Night has brought into my life, even that miserable fuck, Hersh. I love him.
NS: What do you think is the best way for music fans to experience this weekend across all these different venues?
JC: Grab a hopper pass… or just pay at the separate venues that have bands you want to see. Try to see as many bands as you can. It’s going to be an amazing weekend full of great music. There is literally something for everyone!
NS: How long do you see the ECMC continuing into the future? What do you hope its legacy will be?
JC: I’ve talked about this with a friend recently. The ECMC isn’t meant to be a million-dollar idea. I don’t even think it’s supposed to make a profit – it doesn’t, really. But I love what it does for Scranton and the music scene one weekend a year. I’m here for that as long as people continue to participate and support it.
I have a lyric by The Wonder Years tattooed on me that says, “I just want to sell out my funeral.” I think a lot about legacy now that I’m a dad and not a spring chicken anymore. What do all the money or accomplishments in the world mean if no one cares about it once you’re gone?
I hope that people look back at the conference as a tradition that they enjoyed every fall in Scranton. I hope they have the most positive experience possible and find benefit in what we do. Hopefully at my funeral – a long, long time from now – some old grizzled musicians can tell my kid some positive stories about the times we had together.
Photo by Keith Perks/1120 Studios