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History of Modern Drummer Magazine and The Making of Modern Drummer Festival


I can't believe it has been sixteen years since the first Modern Drummer Festival, which makes it the longest running Drum Festival in the world. And it all sprang from the dream of Ron Spagnardi, the Founder and Publisher of Modern Drummer Magazine. When I began writing articles for MD in the late '70s, I never realized how successful the magazine would become. After all, when I first met Ron and Isabel (his wife and business partner), they were just starting their publishing venture in the basement of their home! Yet this year marks the 27th anniversary of Modern Drummer Magazine, which has long been recognized as the world's most widely read drum magazine. Backstage at this year's MD Fest, Ron himself confessed to me that he never dreamed his magazine would become as successful as it has, not to mention blossom into the likes of the MD Fest.

Modern Drummer Magazine has long since outgrown it's humble beginnings in the basement of Ron's home and, over the years, has also outgrown two office buildings. Since 1994 it has been located in its fourth and (Ron hopes) final home in Cedar Grove, NJ. The building was designed from the ground up by Isabel Spagnardi herself. (Who had, I've been told, spent many a day on the building site wearing a hard hat to verify that her plans were being following correctly!)

Prior to this year's MD Fest I had the opportunity to visit MD in its latest location. It was the first time I visited the magazine since Ron's basement, so I was looking forward to the changes. There have been a few!

Current location of MD Magazine in Cedar Grove, NJ

The Latest Digs
Ron and his staff have been in the current building since 1994 but it was all new to me. Although Isabel Spagnardi, Ron's wife, is technically the Chief Financial Officer of the magazine, she could just have easily have been an architect. She did a terrific job of designing the MD office building, from its rectangular hallway where all main offices are located on the exterior (windowed) side of the building, to the inner sanctum that houses a spacious conference room, Art Department, and various storage rooms. (According to Isabel, Ron also helped with the initial interior layout.)

What It Takes To Coordinate the MD Festival
Prior to visiting the MD offices I knew that Rick Van Horn, the MD Fest's Production Coordinator, put in a lot of work to pull off the Festival each year, but I never realized exactly how much work was involved! During my tour of the offices, Rick filled me in on what it takes to put on a successful festival. The photo (below) of the room containing all of the info that has to be packaged into the "goody bags" given to each of the Festival goers is just a small part of the work involved.

Tiger Bill
Tiger Bill with MD Senior Editor and Festival
Production Coordinator Rick Van Horn

MD's Art Department consists of Senior Art Director Scott Bienstock
and Assistant Art Directors Michelle Newhouse and Joe King 

 Rick Van Horn at his desk preparing for the MD Fest

Rick's work actually starts months before the date of the Festival. The first step is to decide what artists to invite. Once a decision is made, Rick then gets it in touch with them to verify availability. At the same time, Rick must find out what gear and what band members (if any) each artist will be bringing with them. Now Rick's "fun" really begins. He produces a booklet detailing exactly where each piece of equipment will go onstage and how his stage crew will need to coordinate the moving of gear (and personnel) on and off the stage during the two days of the event. This booklet is copied and handed out to each member of the stage crew.

Although this daunting task might be enough to make the biggest festival enthusiast think twice about going through with an event of this proportion, Rick attributes his university training in theatrical set and lighting design for giving him the necessary know-how to easily pull this off. In addition, Rick's wife Crystal has training in professional stage management. So Rick designs and coordinates each Festival and Crystal is the stage manager and has been since the event's inception, sixteen years ago. Rick's son, Colin, who is entering his senior year at Rutgers University (and who is also studying technical theater), has been the assistant stage manager of the Festival for the past three years. This is what accounts for the Festival running so smoothly from year to year, despite the unexpected events (like equipment failures) that happen occasionally during any live performance.

But don't think Rick's job for the Festival ends once the stage plans are down on paper. It is just the beginning! He is also responsible for making arrangements to get the artists into town and confirming that they have a place to stay, etc. There are many things Rick needs to do before the Festival becomes a reality.

Festival Day (Finally) Arrives
The first day of the Festival is when all of Rick's prior planning pays off. Before the doors open to let the paying customers in, Rick and his stage crew are hard at work helping each artist perform their sound check. Throughout the Festival Rick is constantly hustling around backstage making sure his crew is following his preset plans, all the while coordinating both lighting and sound with his staff over a set of headphones he wears constantly. Rick gets no break at all until the conclusion of the Festival on Sunday evening. The same goes for everyone on Ron's staff, which is why Ron always closes the MD Offices the Monday following the Festival - To give his staff a well-deserved day off to recuperate!

 From left to right: Tiger Bill with MD's Editorial Director
 William F. Miller and Rick Van Horn

Modern Drummer Magazine Founder and Publisher Ron Spagnardi

The above is only a synopsis of what it takes to put together the MD Festival but I'm sure you get the picture. It's not an easy task. Now let's check out what happens in line prior to the doors being opened on Festival morning.

Where Do DrumHeads Gather in the Month of May?
The Memorial Auditorium in Montclair State College in Montclair, NJ, of course! And each year, prior to the opening of the doors, I walk the line of DrumHeads waiting to get in. I suppose "camaraderie" is the best way to describe the feeling in the air as I talk to the drummers who come from all over the world. Some are first-timers but many are repeat Festival goers who made friends while waiting in line and look forward to hanging with their long distance friends at the MD Fest each year.

Although the doors don't officially open until 12:30 PM, many DrumHeads arrive early so they can be among the first in line. This year, all previous records were smashed by a father and son duo from Portland Maine, who actually arrived at 11:30 PM Friday (the night BEFORE) and camped out at the door so they could be first in line. (They are the first pair on the left in the photos below.) I also met many of my Web site members in line. Those of you who were at the Fest this year will want to check out the photos below and see if you can find your picture. If you do, drop me an email and let me know!

DrumHeads waiting for the doors to open...

Modern Drummer Festival Weekend
DrumHeads wait for the doors to open at Modern Drummer Festival Weekend
Tiger Bill with drummer and site member Garry H.
DrumHeads wait for the doors to open at Modern Drummer Festival Weekend

When the Festival doors open, the fun really begins.

Click the following link for MD Fest 2003: Saturday Performances!

Click the following link for MD Fest 2003: Sunday Performances!


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Links Related
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Related Links on Site

Modern Drummer Festival 2003: Saturday Performances
Modern Drummer Festival 2003: Sunday Performances
Modern Drummer Festival 2001
Modern Drummer Festival 2002
Reflections on the passing of MD Magazine founder Ron Spagnardi
Interview with MD Magazine founder Ron Spagnardi