Behind the scenes:  Selecting performers for the Carrboro Music Festival

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By Gary A. Miller

The Carrboro Music Festival (CMF) has a long history in the area.  The festival premiered in June of 1998 and was originally an affiliate of the international Fȇte de la Musique, befitting Carrboro’s nickname the “Paris of the Piedmont.”  It has undergone a variety of changes since that first year, including moving to the cooler month of September, eschewing the connection to the Fȇte de la Musique, diversifying the artists, vetting venues, providing more efficiency to the schedule, and, most recently, moving to pay all who perform.

One of the people who helped with this modernization is Justin Ellis, who has served as music festival coordinator since 2022.  During the pandemic, after then-coordinator Glenn Jones stepped down, Ellis saw an opportunity to further contribute to the local music community.  He presented the town’s Parks and Recreation Department with a list of ideas and suggestions to continue the traditions of the festival, while also addressing some of the issues he perceived to be holding it back.

After the 2021 festival was canceled due to ongoing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellis was tapped to reinvigorate and rejuvenate things.  He brought to the table the perspective of a working musician and a generational shift from prior iterations of the festival.  Among the changes, the Town committed a budget of $25,000 for artist compensation.  This meant the program would be limited to 100 performers, but was hailed as the right move to illustrate the importance of respecting the hard work and artistry of the performers and showed the Town’s dedication to supporting the arts.

In 2024, the submission deadline for artist consideration is May 31, and as it has for prior years the CMF  between 260 and 300 submissions.  That means that as many as twice the number of performers as those selected to perform are unfortunately turned away.  If this review process sounds like a herculean task, Ellis is quick to note that selecting the lucky 100 is a group effort. 

A committee of seven people participates in the selection process and meets twice monthly to help bring the festival together. Ellis gives this group tremendous credit for their dedication to both the selection process and the day-of logistics of the festival.

Each committee member selects their own top 100 and the group looks for commonality among members’ selections.  Ellis notes there is often significant overlap between those lists, providing unanimous selections as a starting point. 

Simultaneously, on the other end of the spectrum, plenty of artists do not submit properly or multiple times, making it easier for them to be ruled out. “That’s the quickest way not to be included,” Ellis says, referring to artists who try to sneak in by submitting multiple times with different names or details. 

So, what are more positive ways to be noticed by the committee?

Ellis says, that while it can sometimes be perceived as “not cool to care” about how your band is perceived online or to present yourself professionally, having a well-organized and easy-to-navigate online presence goes a long way in helping the committee view acts favorably.   In addition, being kind and understanding doesn’t hurt. 

Ellis says the selection committee has the difficult task each year of striking a balance between selecting returning acts and giving new artists an opportunity, along with trying to ensure high quality and maintain local roots.  “It’s tough to balance tradition with not being repetitive,” he notes. Additionally, Ellis says, the committee strives to provide variety in the representation of different genres, while also keeping an eye on balancing diversity among the performers.

Additional factors like venue availability, size and setup can also impact the selection process, since not all acts will fit on all stages.  Ellis acknowledges that, for example, it is easier to find a spot for a solo or duo act than for a group with eight members.  But ultimately he wants to see more submissions, not less.

While acknowledging that reviewing 300 submissions is already a heavy load, Ellis says he would love to make the job even harder for himself by increasing the application count and diversifying the pool of submissions.  “I’d love 500 applicants to apply, because chances are that the 100 we select would be really, really good.  I would love to see more bands with people in their twenties apply, as well as more submissions from the BIPOC community and female applicants,” he says.

Ultimately, Ellis feels lucky and appreciative to hold a position that can continue the traditions and positive impact of the CMF on the local scene.  He notes, “The music community has given me so much, that my only goal is to make it a cool, interesting event that everyone can enjoy.  I encourage anyone to send in an application.  It’s still my favorite day of the year, and it’s only getting better.”

Artists wishing to be considered for the 2024 Carrboro Music Festival need to apply online by May 31.  The performer application asks for a variety of information, including links, contact information, band member details, stage requirements, and any additional information important for the committee to consider.

Gary A. Miller is a local musician who has lived in the area off and on since 1994. Gary is a Realtor, an avid traveler, and a still-active musician in several local bands. This reporter can be reached at

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