Secret Stages was born in the spring of 2010 when the internet and the rapid evolution of technology were already major factors in a music industry sea-change. Music creation, distribution and consumption had changed forever, creating a landscape that was both exciting and forbidding.
In Birmingham, weather and low ticket sales had stripped us of the beloved City Stages and left behind a giant void in the summer event calendar. As is the case once again, the future for music festivals in Birmingham was unclear at best.
What was clear was how much truly incredible music was made right here in our home town and region, not to mention the entire country. The tech that had created such a chaotic environment for music had also revealed the vast ocean of it being generated all around us.
It was at this inflection point that the founders of Secret Stages saw an opportunity to bring something different to the Magic City, not only in form and style but in function and philosophy.
First, using our tech-given ability to discover music anywhere, we would find skilled and talented artists delivering exciting and fresh live performances. Find them regardless of genre, popularity, race, gender or sexual orientation. Find them locally and give them a platform. Find them regionally and connect them with our city. Find them nationally and showcase them right alongside our homegrown talent.
In other words, we would abandon the sex appeal (and financial burden) of mainstream headliners, delve into the incredible art being made just under that surface and deliver it to the Birmingham community.
Since then, we’ve booked amazing artists to play the stages of this town and made it possible for people to see them in intimate venues with a small crowd, when they would later go on to sell out arenas. We’ve brought national attention and glowing local, regional and national press to our fair city, launched local artists on stratospheric careers, and throughout we’ve delivered a fantastic festival atmosphere, with enthusiastic crowds and one of the best VIP experiences you can find.
And that brings us to today. For the last nine years the hard-working folks who organize Secret Stages have ducked, dodged, scrapped and diligently brought a top-tier music event to Birmingham. In a field that has seen festivals both large and small fail to gain traction despite resources that eclipse ours, Secret Stages has stood the test of time, improving year after year.
Now, in what was to be our milestone tenth year, we welcome you to join us in celebrating a decade of music discovery in Birmingham. Here are some of our favorite moments from Secret Stages past:
Secret Stages Gains A Name
October 26, 2010
After months of brain-storming, our initial cabal of would-be festival planners were ready to settle on a name. There were a number of strong contenders, but “Secret Stages” won out. Inspired by the name of a locals-only stage set up surreptitiously within the boundaries of the final City Stages by music blog BHAM.FM, it embodied the under-the-radar aspect of the music we were attempting to highlight as well as the pub-crawl structure we were going for.
Other names we almost chose:
- Future Sounds
- TINYfest (TINY was an acronym for This Is Next Year)
- Discovery Music Fest (This one got incorporated as our tagline, “Music Discovery Festival”)
Enter Spy Guy
His 2011 version is different from what we used for festivals from 2012 onward, but the Spy Guy has been with us from the very beginning. Now he is synonymous with Secret Stages, and has been an integral part of the festival every year.
The Very First Secret Stages
May 13-14, 2011
Our inaugural year was certainly a seat-of-the-pants operation, but it set the (secret) stage for our future success, and when it was all said and done with the dust settled, we couldn’t wait to do it again. For band info and gallery, click the button.
Standout Band — William Tyler
May 13, 2011 – 9:00pm
William Tyler went on to sign to Merge Records (Spoon, Superchunk). Tyler has toured with Daniel Rossen (Grizzly Bear) Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, Rhys Chatham, and Steve Gunn.
Standout Band — Dawes
May 14, 2011 – 2:00pm
Shortly after Secret Stages, Dawes worked with Jackson Browne on the legendary artist’s album Standing in the Breach. Their extensive touring has included some of the biggest festivals in the world. They were signed to ATO Records (label of Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket).
We Made A Video!
This was our first ever promo video. Up until this, we relied almost entirely on grass-roots marketing efforts and social media posts to get the word out. Now we had moving images on our side!
It’s Sampler Time
2012 was also the first year we released a sampler, and the only year we produced it as a physical CD. If you still have one of these, it is definitely a collectors item. We don’t have an image of it, but it had a wonderful paper sleeve with a red graffiti splotch on it.
Secret Stages Year Two — Big Britches Edition
May 11-12, 2012
Bouyed by the success of our first year, we decided to pull out all the stops for our follow-up festival. We added more bands, more venues, more outdoor stages, more everything! For band info, gallery, music player and Spotify playlist, click the button.
Standout Band — St. Paul and the Broken Bones
May 11, 2012 – 6:30pm
Secret Stages was the first show ever for the biggest band that Birmingham, AL has ever produced. They opened several dates for The Rolling Stones, one of the biggest bands in history and have gone on to great success.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones - That Glow
Standout Band — Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires
May 11, 2012 – 11:15pm
Lee Bains and the Glory Fires signed to Sub Pop Records (Nirvana, Afghan Whigs, and Iron and Wine) after playing Secret Stages. They are booked by P.G.A. (Widespread Panic, R.E.M.).
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires - Centerville
Standout Band — Shovels and Rope
May 13, 2012 – 12:30am
Shovels and Rope broke out in 2013 playing major festivals including Bonnaroo, New Orleans Jazz Fest and Newport Folk Festival. Signed to Dualtone Records (Lumineers) and High Road Touring (Aimee Mann, Pixies). Made their TV debut playing the song “Birmingham” on Late Show with David Letterman, January 30, 2013.
Shovels & Rope - Boxcar
Standout Band — Robert Ellis
May 12, 2012 – 7:45pm
Ellis is currently signed to New West (label of Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and Buddy Miller). Went on to open for Willie Nelson on tour. Ellis has also toured with Alabama Shakes, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Old 97’s.
Robert Ellis - Westbound Train
Standout Band — Hiss Golden Messenger
May 12, 2012 – 10:30pm
Went on to sign with one of the most respected indie labels in the world, Merge Records (label of Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Magnetic Fields). Played Bonnaroo in 2015, as well as Sasquatch, Newport Folk Festival, and Primavera Sound.
Hiss Golden Messenger - Balthazar's Song
Third Man Stops By
Third Man Records sent their traveling record store down for the 2012 fest, and the lines to get limited edition vinyl stretched quite a way. Such a cool truck!
We like videos with a little smirk, as many of the videos we produced after this one will prove. Here’s our first attempt at humor.
Secret Stages Year Three — The Date Move
August 2-3, 2013
One of the major issues we faced in 2012 was Birmingham’s very crowded event calendar during our weekend in May. After hours of debate it was decided that we should move to the first weekend in August, which turned out to be a very good move for us. For band info, gallery and music player, click the button.
Standout Band — Adron
In July of 2015 Wilco claimed Adron released one of their favorite records. Adron has also collaborated with Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab.
Adron Jorganian of the Midnight Sun
Graffiti Walls FTW
Secret Stages has featured graffiti walls and live graffiti demonstrations since our very first year, but 2013 was the year we really kicked it up a notch. Check out the individual year galleries for more images of the art we’ve helped produce.
Spy Guy, What Have You Done?
“Why are all these people so happy about this? Oh…it’s Secret Stages!”
Secret Stages Year Four — Keep It Rollin’
August 1-2, 2014
2014 was the year it all began to go smoothly. There were no major adjustments to our structure or vision, so we were able to focus on refining the parts of the fest that needed it. For band info, gallery and music player, click the button.
Standout Band — Pujol
August 2, 2014 – 9:15pm
Pujol went on to sign to Saddle Creek Records (label of Bright Eyes, Azure Ray) and did a 7″ record with Jack White’s Third Man Records. Opened tour dates for Jack White.
Pujol — Circles
Standout Band — Adia Victoria
August 2, 2014 – 6:15pm
Shortly after Adia Victoria was booked she signed with Billions (Bon Iver, Glen Hansard, St. Vincent) booking agency. Her first full length record was released in 2016.
Adia Victoria — Stuck in the South
Tranformer: More Than Meets the Eye
2014 was also the year of our mysterious power outage. All of our 2nd Avenue venues lost power for about two hours, right in the middle of the fest. What was initially reported as a transformer blowing ended up being caused by mylar ballons hitting the lines. Thankfully, we were able to pivot quickly and all of the affected acts ended up being able to perform. Weeeee!
People Say The Nicest Things
For 2015, we wanted to put together a video that was a deeper dive into who we are and what we do, featuring many of our past performers as well as members of the Birmingham community.
Secret Stages Year Five — We Be Pirates
July 31-August 1, 2015
2015 was another strong year in our downtown location. We had our first Valentine’s Day 2-for-1 special, which has become a Secret Stages tradition and attendance continued to grow from previous years. Also, the animal pirate theme from this year is one of our favorites. For band info, gallery, music player and Spotify playlist, click the button.
Standout Band — Sweet Crude
August 1, 2015 – 11:15pm
Shortly after being booked for Secret Stages 2015, they signed with High Road Touring (booking agency of Alabama Shakes, Wilco).
Sweet Crude — Hornets' Nest
Standout Band — Seratones
August 1, 2015 – 9:00pm
Shortly after being booked by Secret Stages, they signed with Fat Possum Records (R.L. Burnside, Black Keys, and Spiritualized) AND High Road Touring (Indigo Girls, Drive-By Truckers).
Seratones — Choking On Your Spit
Here For the Yuks
Here’s another example of our fearless leader Jon Poor’s notorious funny streak when it comes to promo videos, all in service of our non-profit partner Scrollworks.
There’s No Secret
This trailer promoting the 2016 Lobotomix hip-hop line-up also speaks to larger reasons why artists love playing Secret Stages and coming to Birmingham in general.
Secret Stages Year Six — Hip-Hop For All
August 5-6, 2016
Prior to 2016, hip-hop had it’s own stage in Matthew’s Bar & Grill, because it was simpler to accommodate the differing production needs of hip-hop artists by grouping them together, and because it allowed us to better feature our hip-hop partner Lobotomix. But after 2015, we realized that this was antithetical to our mission of allowing people to discover music of all types and so spread the hip-hop artists across our many stages so that people could “stumble” on a hip-hop act and perhaps experience something they wouldn’t otherwise have made time to see. For band info, gallery, music player and Spotify playlist, click the button.
Standout Band — Will Stewart
August 5 & 7, 2016 – 7:00pm;12:45am
Will Stewart has the honor of being the artist who has played Secret Stages the most times, whether that be solo, with his collaborator Janet Simpson in the band Timber or with Willie and the Giant. In whatever form, Will is one of the best song-writers we’ve ever heard. Period.
Will Stewart - Faultline
2017 Promo (2016 Footage)
Here’s a great montage of footage from the 2016 festival, which we used to promote the 2017 festival. Dang, y’all. We miss you.
Secret Stages Year Seven — They Like Us!
August 4+5, 2017
In what turned out to be our final year downtown, the Wall Street Journal sent a reporter to review the festival and loved us (of course!), shining a national spotlight on Secret Stages and through us, Birmingham. For band info, gallery, music player and Spotify playlist, click the button.
Standout Band — Earthgang
August 4, 2017 – 9:45pm
During and immediately after their performance at Secret Stages 2017, Earthgang made some big moves, signing with J. Cole’s Dreamville Records.
EarthGang - Old Shit
Secret Stages Year Eight — Avondale or Bust
August 3-4, 2018
Due to a number of unforeseen circumstances, including the 20/59 highway construction and the sale of two of our regular venues, we decided to move Secret Stages from it’s long-time stomping grounds in downtown Birmingham to the heart of the Avondale neighborhood. In the end it worked out great, allowing us to consolidate our crowds into a more compact footprint, making it a more of a “block-party” atmosphere. For band info, music player and Spotify playlist, click the button.
Standout Band — Courtney Marie Andrews
August 4, 2018 – 9:30pm
Courtney played Secret Stages on the heels of her 2018 release May Your Kindness Remain, produced by Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits), which received national critical acclaim and was named one of the best Country and American Albums of 2018 by Rolling Stone.
Courtney Marie Andrews - May Your Kindness Remain
Secret Stages Year Nine — The Latest Chapter
August 2-3, 2019
Avondale fit us like a glove, and so we upped our game for 2019 by adding video walls behind every stage to complement the big one on the Avondale Brewing stage. Nothing says music festival like big multi-media displays! For band info, YouTube playlist and Spotify playlist, click the button.
Well that’s it for now! Thanks for taking the time to trip down memory lane with us. We’ll be back in 2021, and in the meantime, stay safe out there.
The Secret Stages Team