Behind the Scenes of Craig & Sarah’s Not-So-Mini Uke Fests


[Ed. Note: On April 11 and May 2, 2020, Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel put together and hosted two marathon online uke events featuring some of the brightest lights on the contemporary uke scene.]

Sarah: Craig and I were sitting drinking our morning caffeinated beverages when Craig noticed that Lil’ Rev had made an incredible post about what it’s like to be a full-time musician during these hard times, watching your entire year of work vanish. We started reading about uke club members devastated that all their planning and work for these events were for naught. Craig looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we do an online festival? But on a smaller scale—like a mini fest. We’ll have three or four artists, and it will be free and fun for folks.’ I dutifully sent out emails to a bunch of our friends and all of them wrote back saying they were in—so instead of just picking a few folks, we decided to embrace the larger event, knowing it would bring a lot of joy.

Craig: There was definitely way more prep work for this than anything else we’ve done so far. We found that play-alongs, workshops, and interview segments were amazing live, but for performances, it made it easier to have artists pre-record those segments. It also allowed us to have a quick bite or use the restroom, or check on baby Cameron—did we mention we did all this with a three-and-a-half-month-old?

So we had the idea, we had the motivation… now what? One of the things that was happening was a tremendous number of people started doing live streams. There was a steep learning curve for those who never had to focus on this before. Audio was clipping, video was choppy; how do we help these full-time musicians with a setup most had never utilized before and showcase them in the best way possible? Luckily, we had started doing a monthly livestream last year and had a lot of mistakes and successes that we were able to share. 

We didn’t want to just be video DJs and only chat between recordings of workshops and performances. We realized we needed a strong live element. One of the big turning points was the discovery that we could embed a Skype conversation into OBS, which is the free streaming software we’ve been using this past year. That completely changed the game for us, as now we could bring in guests from all over the world and have complete control over it. 


Craig Chee holding a ukulele

Then I worked with artists (sometimes more than once) on test streams, to help them dial in things on their side. We treated these as small tech or “dress” rehearsals. We even went live for a few of these to help build anticipation and to give a behind-the-scenes look at what we were doing. We talked about framing, camera angles, staging, camera options, how to use other camera gear they had with capture devices, microphone comparisons (talking vs. performing), and how to utilize light as much as possible. 

We found that the play-alongs, workshops, and interview segments were amazing live, but for performances, it made it easier to have artists pre-record those segments. This would also allow Sarah and me to have a quick bite or use the restroom. This was especially useful since with 25 artists, we knew it would be at least five hours long. We hit seven hours on the first one, nine on the second!

Another question we had was how to connect with other parts of the community: the ukulele makers and dealers. My idea was to have sponsors create 15–30-second ads to play throughout the stream, which turned out to be incredibly fun. We reached out to our normal sponsors as well as companies that we’ve worked with or met before on the road, and everyone stepped up in spades! Not only did companies see a boost in sales, many reported up to a 35-percent increase in traffic on the festival weekends. We also had a vendor section where companies who were not paying sponsors could show their wares for free, and we provided donation links and merchandising opportunities for all the artists, many of whom reported tremendous results.

For our final setup, we invested in an ATEM Mini Switcher to handle our cameras. We had multiple cameras because it made it easier to fill the frame when one of us needed to be highlighted, and it gave us options if one of us needed to check on baby Cameron, or prep for the next segment. Sarah would text artists as we got close to their time and I would preload their call on Skype before integrating it in OBS for the stream. There were a ton of preset macros created using an Elgato Stream Deck, which helped with all of the different artist graphics, pre-recorded performances and ads, and having different ratio setups depending on the situation. We treated it like one of our other events, like our uke cruises or retreats, but on steroids, as there were so many more variables. 

Sarah: Because of the outpouring of support from our friends, it felt larger than life—like we were embarking on something that was much bigger than ourselves. It was truly a labor of love. The audience for both events was global—many from Australia woke up at 2 a.m. to join us! People shared so many sweet stories about how these events lifted their spirits and made them forget they were in quarantine. Some folks said they just kept it on all day and that the conversations made it feel like they had friends over. It was wonderful to be able to thank our community by helping them, when so many have helped us over the years.

Among the many musicians who participated in one or both are Craig & Sarah, Cynthia Lin, David Kamakahi, Herb Ohta, Jr., Jack & the Vox, Cynthia Kinnunen, James Hill & Anne Janelle, Lil’ Rev, Brittni Paiva, Steven Espaniola, Neal Chin, Kalei Gamiao & Corey Fujimoto, Andrew Molina, Joe Souza & Family, Aaron & Nicole Keim, Ukulenny, Bryan Tolentino, Marcy Marxer, Cathy Fink, Heidi Swedberg, Daniel Ward, and unannounced appearances by Jake Shimabukuro. Videos of both festivals are below and can also be found on Craig and Sarah’s website and on YouTube. So much great music!

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Ukulele.