Onion Music Fest: Transforming backyard performances into a premier D.I.Y. festival

Three years ago, in the halls of Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, then 19-year-old music student and Onion The Man lead singer and keyboardist Ian Harris hatched an idea that would take advantage of his parents going out of town in the coming weeks.  “Dude, we can totally do …

Three years ago, in the halls of Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, then 19-year-old music student and Onion The Man lead singer and keyboardist Ian Harris hatched an idea that would take advantage of his parents going out of town in the coming weeks. 

Ian Harris is the keyboardist/singer for Onion the Man and is the founder of Onion Music Fest. The Onion Music Festival brings colorful tunes to five acres in Washougal, Wash. July 28-29, 2018. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

“Dude, we can totally do some live music in my parents’ backyard and call it Onion Fest,” Harris remembers telling fellow Onion The Man band member Logan Adam. Weeks later, the band hosted its first Onion Music Fest in Harris’ parents’ backyard, what he called “a huge outdoor house show.”

Around 150 people attended to watch the six bands. “The intention of the festival was kinda created naturally that day because everyone was so happy,” Harris remembers. This “super blissful” weekend marked the first iteration of a festival founded on love and community.

Onion The Man, a fusion groove band that incorporates jazz, rock and soul, consisting of Harris, Adam, Keenan Hansen and Miles Spurgeon, are coming off their third annual Onion Music Fest,  which took place July 28-29. This year was their biggest yet, with a turnout of a few hundred.

The 2018 lineup produced mostly alt-rock variants: The band Wave Action performed poppy surf-rock that would enliven the crowds; The band Kulululu gave a theatrical performance, leaving the stage and acting out the “journey” of their performance; and a motif of live brass instruments persisted through most of the festival’s lineup. The closer of the first night, Roselit Bone, performed an array of music from subdued, moody songs to mariachi-style sounds.

Over the last few years, Onion Music Fest has grown into something that the band takes pride in. They’re happy to have expanded the festival every year and want to continue the trend, but not so much as to compromise its community aspect.

In between sets, one can find groups of people, including the performing bands, jamming out at campsites and sharing stories and laughs among each other. “It all pays off when we get to share the event with so many people,” Harris says. “I like to call it a big family reunion.”

Fueled by passion and a relentless work ethic, Onion The Man has managed to grow Onion Music Fest into one of the most rapidly growing D.I.Y. festivals in the Pacific Northwest. As the festival grows in size, now being held at Sunnyside Outdoor Events, a 5-acre venue in Washougal, Washington to accommodate the growing crowds, Onion Music Fest maintains the same values that filled the air in Harris’ backyard three years prior.

In addition to the 18 bands that took the venue’s amphitheater stage during the weekend, this year’s Onion Music Fest had yoga and meditation workshops to promote mindfulness. The festival also featured an art gallery containing pieces that Onion The Man curated themselves, a creative space complete with an “outrageous” amount of canvas for patrons to create their own art, an herbal elixir bar where festival-goers can explore a variety of herbal concoctions and a side-stage that will be used for acoustic performances and open-mic sessions.

Onion Music Fest is entirely coordinated by the band and Harris’ organizing partner Sunbeam, who he met at the first Onion Music Fest, making it a team of five. Even though it’s a small organizing crew, the festival manages to offer an array of activities that near stack-up against bigger music festivals.

Despite loving the work, over the last six months Onion The Man’s respective lives have been “completely dictated” by putting on this year’s Onion Music Fest, according to Harris.

“[Organizing Onion Music Fest] changed my life for sure, and it’s changed how I view work ethic and community and communicating,” Harris says, having sent out around 2,000 emails over the last few months trying to put the event together.

Between finding, reserving and insuring the venue, hashing out the logistics with the performing bands, renting all the necessary commodities, finding vendors and building a team of volunteers, Harris found himself in a role other than keyboard/vocalist: He’s now an entrepreneur.

And dealing with the logistics of it all forces Harris and the band to maintain their keenest economical eye.

“[The cost of putting on the event] adds up pretty quickly,” Harris says. In order to ensure the funds were met, Onion The Man embarked on a few fundraising endeavors. They played at John’s Marketplace in SW Portland, which donated a few kegs whose proceeds went directly toward funding the festival. At a fundraiser held at Mississippi Pizza, all door sales and a percentage of the bar sales were donated to Onion Music Fest. The band also had a few garage sales, further implementing the D.I.Y. ethos.

Onion Music Fest carries a D.I.Y. quality that reflects its transition from a backyard party to a mini music festival. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

While the logistics of securing bands, vendors and volunteers teeter, throughout it all, Onion The Man must consider legal matters as they continue to grow, which is why they enlisted the help of Rational Unicorn Legal Services based in NW Portland, one of their biggest sponsors.

Michael Jonas, attorney and owner of Rational Unicorn, helps community-minded clients navigate the at-times challenging legal matters when chasing their dreams. Jonas cites the uncompromising inclusivity of Onion The Man as one of the main reasons he feels inclined to participate in the band’s pursuits.

“The common thread is they’re about peace and love,” Jonas says of the band. While all the logistical matters remain in the hands of Onion The Man, Jonas helps ensure that the band stays protected in the eyes of the law.

Beyond the many contracts Jonas drew up for the band — liability waivers, band performance contracts, vending contracts, etc. — Jonas helped Onion Music Fest obtain an LLC. The LLC business model allows for the festival to be its own entity, protecting the band’s individual assets in case, for example, the band gets sued for an injury that occurred over the weekend.

Although the work done at Rational Unicorn allows for Onion The Man to rest easy regarding legal considerations, a worry about progressing the band starts to rise.

“Honestly, because there was so much to organize this year… Onion Fest kind of took a priority a little bit over songwriting,” Harris says.

In order to combat this, Onion The Man is looking toward having a dedicated organizing team that can handle facilitating the event in future years. There’s no hard feelings, though, as Harris shows much appreciation for his band’s annual event and the community it builds.

“Music brings people together through community no matter what,” Harris says. “The world needs more community and more love.”

Onion Music Fest is the product of the core concepts integral to Onion The Man: love, inclusivity and community. But Harris recognizes that the band isn’t unique in being able to make their dreams a reality when passion meets hard work.

“To me, [Onion Music Fest] is a testament to what happens when you follow your dreams and follow your passions. Like, if you have an idea, just go for it, because dreams really do come true.”


MORE: Photos: Onion Music Fest connects PNW style and sound

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