Q+A with Ray Mills, founder of the Independent Music + Art Festival

Independent Music + Art Festival, or IMAF, is having its 18th annual event this weekend. What started as a low-key way to give support to up-and-coming Indianapolis music artists has become a staple event for the Indy art scene. With 12 live bands, food trucks, beer and mead trucks, and artist booths from the Indieana Handicraft Exchange all squeezed onto the block of 16th and Delaware, the festival is an all-day experience. The festivities extend both outdoors and indoors, the courtyard and parking lot containing stages and food vendors, and inside is open for perusing artist booths and the Harrison Center galleries. The founder of IMAF who now serves on the advisory board, Ray Mills, recalls when the festival was in its infancy back in the early 2000s.

Evelyn Allee: How did you get involved with the Indy music scene?
Ray Mills: Almost 20 years ago I wasn’t really clear on my life and was involved with a lot of different things that were musical, but I didn’t feel like I was where I should be. I was living in Carmel at the time and ended up moving downtown, just wanting to hang out with other musicians. I wanted to be with the people who were struggling with it. So I started going to these Battle of the Bands events at a place called the Paddle. I was in my thirties, so a little older than most of the other people there, so people started thinking I was scouting. Which I kind of was, I wanted to check out the bands and what they are about. I saw a band called Extra Blue Kind, who was so far above the other bands. I had been to 8 or 10 Battle of the Bands, seeing 6 or 7 groups a night, but there was something about them. One night I gave them my card and later met Brian White, who was already was working with them, and I told him I wanted to work with bands and he reconnected me to Extra Blue Kind, and later I started managing them.

EA: How did IMAF come into existence?
RM: Back before IMAF, bands like Extra Blue Kind would get gigs at bars or clubs, play a full set, and only get paid about 20 bucks. You can see why a lot of bands would just say forget it. But I thought, what if we could create a festival that for one day, those musicians would feel cared for and loved, and get paid. Being involved with the Harrison Center, Joanna Taft (executive director) gave me space to just run with it. I was so disorganized, but I ran it for four years and it grew really fast, from 400 attendees at the first IMAF to 1,000, then 2,000+ range, now it’s at least 7,000. I left pretty abruptly because Extra Blue Kind were getting bigger and bigger. To come back now and serve on the advisory board and see it run by high school students, I thank god I got to be part of starting this. Its become kind of an institution, people expect it, look forward to it.

EA: What was the very first IMAF like?
RM: We wanted to make sure that when the artists came they were fed and paid, so we set a minimum payment of $200 or $300, depending on the length of the set. I was living at the corner of 16th and Talbott, across the street from the festival, and that sort of became the green room where we had food that people had brought, I remember people hanging out more there than where the music was. We had two stages, one was an acoustic stage, and there were no tents. The fear of rain was heavy in the air. We definitely had a sense of this is cool, but we can do better.

One of the best stories from that day, there was a guy living across the street, he was doing tarot card readings with his wife for the Talbott Street Art Festival. We started sound checking with the kick drum, and he ran out yelling “Your noise is interrupting our spiritual vibes!” And Chip, the police officer who was at our event, told him, “your vibes are interrupting our sound!”

EA: How has IMAF changed since then? How has it stayed the same?
RM: It has grown! I don’t know what the numbers are, but opening up the back parking lot and having the [Indieana Handicraft Exchange] has made it much bigger. There’s more of a structure, but we have kept making sure the bands get paid and that there’s a green room. Generally the sense that I get from the musicians is they have a great time. I think it’s safe to say its an iconic part of the Indy calendar, people know about it and want to go, even when it rains, adding tents was a very good idea! We used to have to take everything off the stage until the rain stopped, then use those big brooms to push all water off the stage, then replace everything. There has been talk about moving the festival since its getting so big, but it is kind of like a homey festival, it’s comfortable, the vibe is cool and it’s free.

EA: How are you involved with the event now?
RM: There are limitations, but my role on the advisory board is where I can speak up. There’s not a good amount for me to do anymore. I always wondered if something to do with film could be involved, but I love hearing ideas come from other people.

EA: What are you up to now?
RM: As a day job, I do video, working for Christian Theological Seminary. I also have a media company Ray Mills Media. I do videos for not-for-profits and right now I am working on a documentary about a priest in Appalachia called “Father John, For the People, For the Land.” I am hoping to have a short version done by the end of the summer to submit to film festivals. My background is in film, I used to be the artistic director of the Heartland Film Festival and its what I studied.

On the music front, I used to write a lot of music for churches, but I hadn’t written much since 2008. But I just started writing again, stuff that I am proud of. I have run it by people who will tell me if its crap and I’m getting good feedback. It’s an album called “Songs for the In Between,” dealing with the last 10 years of my life, from a spiritual perspective.

You can follow Ray on Instagram and Facebook.

The 2019 Independent Music + Art Festival will take place on June 15th from noon to 8 pm. Admission is free, and it is family friendly! Learn more on their Instagram, Facebook, or the Harrison Center Website.

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