Seven years ago when John Venezia huddled together with three longtime friends to launch the first East Aurora Music Festival, his partners were leery… but not for long. Venezia’s hope was merely to break even that first year, yet they ended up with $19,000 in profit. Thing is, none of the founders were looking to bank any money. The intention was always to fundraise for charity.
“The idea got started from a conversation I’d had with a coworker about the Hamburg Music Festival, which is a charity-based not-for-profit, just like us,” Venezia recalled over the phone earlier this week, immediately following this year’s EAMF. “When I heard about what they were doing, it occurred to me that East Aurora could be the perfect place to pull off the same thing. They gave me the groundwork, and they were very helpful.”
“Still, looking back on that first year, I was like a deer in the headlights,” he continued. “I will admit that, despite all the help we received, I really didn’t know what I was doing. But we must’ve done something right because a thousand people came. We had twenty bands spread over four venues, and overall, we did really well.”
Venezia, 60, works in telecommunications and grew up in Cheektowaga. After spending a chunk of his adult life in south-central Texas, he returned to Western New York 24 years ago. Since launching the first EAMF in 2013, the event has grown considerably: this past weekend, the festival put about 70 bands into 20 area venues for its seventh year. It’s a gigantic undertaking, but he says that the key to success, in this case, is teamwork.
“There are always obstacles in putting on events like this, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to maintain great working relationships with the police, the fire department, the village politicians and the venue owners, so that we’re all on the same page and share the same goals for the festival. That way, hopefully, we’ll all continue to want to do it. And of course, safety always comes first.”
Venezia says that this year was similar in attendance to last year — approximately 12,000 people — and he expects the ensuing donations will be about the same as well, though the bookkeeping process runs 2-4 weeks. After a marked increase in turnout last year, Venezia’s focus for 2019’s event was on making sure that available services were plentiful.
“We were better able to anticipate the crowd this time,” he said. “We beefed up security, bus services, garbage pickup… we were well prepared.”
Leading up to this year’s festival, EAMF had made an accumulated total of $275,000 in charitable donations —not too shabby. The list of recipients runs the gamut, from music-related entities (The Music Room EA and Blues Society of WNY) to organizations catering to seniors (Aurora Adult Day Services) and folks with disabilities (People and Places, Inc.). This year’s list also includes the WNY Land Conservancy, Friends of Knox Park, and WNY Veterans Memorial Fund.
“I definitely enjoy the musical aspect of this project,” Venezia said. “I love getting to know the bands, doing the booking and deciding which venues to place them in. But the best day for me, by far, is when we hand out the checks to the charities.”
Looking toward the future, Venezia is content with having grown the festival to this point and doesn’t want to overcomplicate something that’s already working well.
“I think what we do musically incorporates all genres and age groups, and I’m fine with that as it is,” he said. “95% of it is local and, naturally, we want to spread the word that there’s a lot of great music being made in WNY while also providing a platform for younger kids to play that might not get a chance to perform out very much. We like the fact that it remains a manageably sized event for the area it’s in, and we’re very proud of what we do.”
For more information about East Aurora Music Festival and its mission, visit www.eamusicfest.com.
Photos and video by Devin Chavanne