Jortsfest Hopes To Make Atlanta Music Scene More Accessible

An audience member crowdsurfs at a previous Jortsfest at Under The Couch.
An audience member crowdsurfs at a previous Jortsfest at Under The Couch.
Credit Robert Mahony

Music festivals in Atlanta are dominated by the big, established names — Music Midtown, Shaky Knees — and rely on corporate sponsorships and ticket sales to sustain themselves. But one smaller independent festival is celebrating its fourth year and has managed to stick to its guiding principles: Always Free, Always All-Ages, Always Accessible. We’re talking about Jortsfest.

Yes, jorts, as in jean shorts. Generally, the kind you make yourself with a pair of scissors. What does this have to do with music festivals? For that, we have to go back to a beautiful summer day in 2013, as friends and Georgia Tech students Maria Sotnikova and Michael Leon were enjoying the weather.

“I was like ‘Man, it’s like jorts weather out there,'” Sotnikova recalls, “‘We should have a music festival to celebrate.’” 

She says she was mostly joking, but Leon took her seriously.

At the time, Sotnikova was program director at Tech’s student radio station, WREK, and Leon was manager of the on-campus music venue Under the Couch. So using their influence in Atlanta’s indie music scene, they were able to make their little in-joke into a reality, putting together a lineup of bands including Gold Bears and Small Reactions. Within a matter of weeks, the first Jortsfest took place at Under the Couch that August.

But just because something is a joke doesn’t mean that it’s not serious. Four years in, Jortsfest has extended its Always Accessible principle into real action. Sotnikova had seen other musicians raise funds to buy a community PA system for bands to share.

If people can fundraise for a PA,” she reasons, “maybe we could fundraise for a portable ramp that would be available to the community.”

A portable ramp that could help make once hard-to-get-into spaces a little easier to navigate. It’s an issue very close to Sotnikova, as she is in a wheelchair.

“Through my just attendance and involvement in the music scenes,” she says, “I’ve noticed various degrees of accessibility as far as physical access as a person with a disability.”

If you think about it — if, like Sotnikova, you have to think about it — there are plenty of venues around town that are problematic, if not impossible to get into if you’re in a wheelchair. If your favorite band comes through town and they’re playing a place like that, you’re kind of out of luck. But to Sotnikova, “accessibility” goes further than just whether someone in a wheelchair can get through the door. There’s proximity to transit, there’s parking, and there are economic concerns in whether something is cost-prohibitive to certain populations.

“Which is why,” Sotnikova explains, “Jortsfest has been advertised as a free festival.”

And not to forget “Always All-Ages.” Sotnikova recalls “tragic moments” in her teenage years when she couldn’t see her favorite bands because they were playing a venue that was restricted to a 21-and-over crowd. And while this may not seem like the biggest deal in the lives of people living with physical disabilities, Sotnikova explains that the simple ability to do something as ordinary as go to a concert contributes to a feeling of being welcome in a space, in a community.

“The way you do that,” she says, “is by removing as many barriers to that space as possible. Because the thing about physical spaces is that in order to exist in them, you have to get to them, and you have to feel it’s worth your effort to get to them.”

So to make it worth their audience’s effort to get to Jortsfest this year, they’ve moved from Under the Couch to a larger venue, The Mammal Gallery in south downtown, just a block from the Five Points MARTA station. And Sotnikova and current Jortsfest co-director Carter Sutherland raised enough money through crowdfunding to keep the festival free and to purchase a portable ramp, which, like a community PA, will be available for anyone who needs it to make their house show or gallery opening or any other event accessible to more people.

“Our hope is that by letting people know that it is available,” Sotnikova says, “it will begin a conversation on general accessibility issues within the Atlanta music scene, and give promoters the push to start talking about it.”

And if people are not just talking about accessibility, thanks to Jortsfest, they have the resource of a free ramp to help them out, then maybe a few more funny ideas that people think up with their friends on a warm summer day have a chance to actually happen.

Jortsfest takes place at the Mammal Gallery on South Broad Street at 4 p.m. Saturday. 

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