With more than 70 artists split between Crystal Ballroom and The Rockwell in Davis Square, the third annual all-ages NICE, a fest (kicking off Thursday, July 20) is poised to have its biggest year to date. The four-day festival features a robust outdoor vendor market and an extensive list of sponsors including Red Bull, Lamplighter Brewing Co., Topo Chico and Grillo’s Pickles. “I’m just trying to recreate the magic of NICE last year, to be honest,” says Alex Pickert, the festival’s founder and talent buyer, who coordinates the event with fellow event promoter Josh Coplon.
This year’s headliners include two storied indie rock groups, Karate and Swirlies, both formed in Boston in the early 1990s and recently reunited after various periods of inactivity. The lineup also features a slew of local — and previously local — favorites including Guerilla Toss, Frances Forever, Ovlov, Valleyheart, Bent Knee, Horse Jumper of Love, Izzy Heltai, Will Dailey and many more.
Crystal Ballroom and The Rockwell, with 500 and up to 200 capacities respectively, sit roughly 500 feet from each other on Elm Street in the heart of Davis Square. Shows at each venue are mostly staggered to allow patrons to commute between venues with enough time to see each act.
“I see some sort of renaissance happening where the corporates are taking note of local bands,” Pickert says, referencing how a major music festival like Boston Calling is doing an admirable role in including local bands in its lineups. “But it surprised me the first year of NICE how many people showed up and how starved the city was for a festival of local music.”
“What’s awesome about NICE is that it’s all locals,” he continues. “The bands have to have some ties to Boston, whether you started in Boston, or one of the members went to college there… The music has to be related to Boston in some way or another.”
Pickert, who was awarded Talent Buyer of the Year by the Boston Music Awards in both 2021 and 2022, launched the festival in 2021 as a single-day festival through ONCE at Boynton Yards. With a smattering of local vendors and only 12 bands on the lineup, the festival seems like a far cry from the four-day, city-wide happening it is today.
What started as a way to book shows for his college ska band in 2010, Pickert found an interest in the business side of the music industry while studying at Berklee College of Music. Surrounded by an intense environment of musicianship, he found that his strengths in music were more geared toward organizing and connecting with people. “I needed another outlet and another way to prove myself in that cutthroat community,” he says.
After immersing himself in the various DIY venues around Allston and performing with indie bands Animal Flag and Yeehaw! that garnered cult followings, Pickert began working as a door person at the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, which eventually led to a full-time talent buying position in 2016. “It taught me how to organize my calendar and send legit offers. It taught me everything,” he says. However, Pickert, along with a group of Middle East employees, left his position in 2018 after releasing a lengthy statement in response to sexual assault allegations against club owner Joseph Sater.
Pickert went on to do some event promotion at Great Scott following his departure from the Middle East and launched Get to the Gig Boston (formerly known as Coach & Sons Olde Time Family Booking), which now produces hundreds of shows per year in the Boston area, including NICE, a fest. In 2019, Pickert landed a talent buying position through Live Nation; he was ultimately laid off at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having amassed a substantial rolodex of local bands through 12 years of booking shows in the Boston area, the original all-local concept of NICE, a fest began developing as Pickert started talent buying at ONCE Somerville in 2021, a position that eventually led to his current role as the in-house talent buyer for Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theater.
Last year’s lineup, headlined by indie darlings Speedy Ortiz and local emo favorites Future Teens, heavily reflected Pickert’s indie rock and punk roots from within the Boston music scene. The lineup this year shows a buildout of genre, highlighting artists from varying music circles. “From last year to this year, the genre boundaries have been expanded, so you can expect more hip-hop, pop and folk… there’s a lot more diversity in the music,” he says.
A shared mindset among the Greater Boston music community is how the area often doesn’t get its fair accolades in the conversation of American music scenes. With the recent closures of staple music institutions in the city, including both venues and rehearsal spaces, industry veterans like Pickert are making a case as to why the region deserves the credit it’s fighting so hard to earn.
At the end of our interview, after rattling off an extensive list of bands and goods featured at this year’s Nice, a fest, I ask if there’s anything else we can expect.
“Oh, yeah. You can also expect a lot of picklebacks,” Pickert adds.
NICE, a fest runs July 20-23 at Crystal Ballroom and The Rockwell in Davis Square. Tickets are available for both single-day and multi-day passes.