Best known for its underground-facing lineup and beautiful art installations and performances, Gem and Jam is gearing up for its 18th year at the Pima County Fairgrounds. Coinciding with the Tuscon Gem and Mineral Show (the largest in the world), this festival is for all the earth-loving jamtronic fans. Taking place February 2-4, you do not want to miss this year’s desert festivities. We sat down with Toby White, Gem and Jam’s creator, to talk about what this year has in store.
Nix [Electric Hawk]: Hi Toby, how’s it going?
Toby White: Good! I’m just obviously getting ready for the next big festival. We just finished up Cascade Equinox, and I think, for our first year, it went pretty smoothly. So, now transitioning from that into full-time Gem and Jam mode.
N: You’ve said that Gem and Jam starts from an underground space and builds towards the mainstream. I’m curious, what underground aesthetics do you pull into the core Gem and Jam experience, and lineup that mainstream festivals are lacking?
Toby: I think, in general, our lineup steers away from the mainstream. Some headliners can verge into that world of other, bigger festivals. But we have more of an underground feel. A lot of the different genres are not necessarily pop, and they’re not what the general population really listens to. It’s very niche in that way, where we have different genres, but different people adapt to each one. Part of that is curating a lineup based upon a crossover with acts that are up-and-coming or well-established. Maybe we had them when they were on their way up, so it’s a way to pay tribute to them again. So, that’s been our MO for the past 18 years. We’ve watched a lot of different acts when they were small, playing Gem and Jam. Then, over time, they became pretty significant in the industry.
N: Who do you think are some of the rising up-and-comers you’ve booked for this year?
Toby: Well, Of The Trees is obviously a headliner for us, but in a very short time, we’ve seen him really elevate to the next level. I remember years ago, we had Billy Strings play, and this was before he won a Grammy. The next thing we know, he’s selling out arenas. Yeah, I think the Sam Grisman Project is a cool one that’s coming up. Booka Shade is kind of old school. They’ve been around forever, but I think that people are really going to vibe with that. Half the artists or so are on their way up, and you’ll see them around in festivals similar to ours. Daily Bread is definitely all over the place and has stepped up pretty significantly. LP GIOBBI as well. So, yeah, we’ve seen all these different acts really take off in the past several years.
N: How would you describe the audience that Gem and Jam and Cascade Equinox are geared for? Would you say that the audience is similar for both?
Toby: It’s interesting you asked that question because initially, with Cascade, we weren’t necessarily trying to have that be the demographic; it sort of landed there. But I don’t think that’s the overall vision for the future of it. With Gem and Jam, it is a real niche at this point. We fall into, like you said, jamtronica. It’s just a fun crowd that everyone is there to party and be kind. We don’t have any issues with our crowd. People are helping out, volunteering, and doing whatever they can to keep the vibes high. That’s a really special thing about our crowd; everyone’s in it for the love, and that’s it. So, that’s cool.
And back to the Cascade thing, I’m not saying I’m trying to steer from that. We’re trying to expand the audience to a larger demographic of people who wouldn’t necessarily come to a festival like this but will have their minds blown when they do.
N: How do you feel the performers, vendors, and artists work together to create a unique Gem and Jam experience?
Toby: The majority of the vendors have been with us for a long time. Obviously, we fill in fresh stuff, but we definitely curate what we’re bringing in. Not everybody gets chosen for it. The type of food or the thing someone’s selling really has to adapt to our clientele. We want everybody to do well, but we also want our patrons to be excited about what’s in store for them. We’ve been doing this for many years now, so we are constantly tightening everything up. If something didn’t work the previous year, we try something new and try to make it better.
We’ve had the same leads overseeing [art and performances], and for a lot of them, that’s what they do; they’re part of that community. They know the right fit for what we’re looking for and how to properly integrate that into whether the performers or workshops or whatever it is. Each is highly curated by our lead to bring the right atmosphere for what we’re trying to provide. At this point, it’s almost second nature. Everybody just knows where to go with it and what to bring in. It’s constantly evolving and changing.
N: What have you learned since the first Gem and Jam that has been significant in your learning and business process?
Toby: The first Gem and Jam was about 19 years ago when I started in ’05. I had no idea what I was doing back then at all. I knew that I wanted to be doing this, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Every facet of the industry for me has shifted over the years. I tried to be a one-man show in the beginning, and that was an impossible mission, even on the small scale that I was trying to do at the time.
What I’ve learned is to bring in the right people. The people who work well together that you can rely on to own their thing and go with it, so you don’t have to think about that. Creating a team is the number one thing that has made success over the years, including a lot of challenges. We’ve been to the seventh or eighth venue that it’s been at. That’s mostly due to growth. We’ve outgrown a lot of venues, so [Pima County] Fairgrounds is a place we can call home. It’s got room for expansion, all the infrastructure, it’s got everything. That’s what I’ve learned and why we ended up doing fairgrounds with Cascade Equinox. They’re very easy to come in and set up, and it’s not an off-grid scenario. The power is there, the water is there, there are commercial kitchens, it’s got it all.
N: Do you have any advice for first-time Gem and Jammers?
Toby: I don’t know if it’s obvious, but it coincides with the Tuscon Gem and Mineral Show, the biggest in the world, and it’s kind of how it got started. I would definitely recommend taking a few hours or a day to check out the show. I think it’s well worth it. It gets cold at night, so everyone should plan on dressing warm. Being the desert in the wintertime, it’s nice during the day. Then, it drops down at night, so make sure that everybody brings their warm clothes. We have fire pits and indoor stages that go late, so you can really get out of it. But when it’s time to lay your head down, it’s chilly.
It’s a good time. It’s loose, it’s fun. Everything’s close. You’re literally walking five minutes to your camp spot from any stage, and everything’s accessible; there are a lot of options, musically or for shopping or food or art, whatever. There really is something for everybody. Yeah, I think any new person will enjoy it.
N: Is there anything else you want to add about the lineup or the curation of the festival?
Toby: Every year, it’s exciting to figure out the lineup and put all the pieces together. And I think this year, it’s funny because I feel like every year we announce our lineup, and people are like, “best lineup yet.” This year, it touches all the bases. And I’m excited to see a lot more one and two-tier acts that we typically wouldn’t have that are really going to be a good scene. It’ll offer something for everybody there.
There’s still time! Be sure to snag your festival & camping passes for Gem and Jam 2024 HERE!
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