Somerset's SoundTown music fest sinks

The new Apple River amphitheater owner's flagship event faced too much competition and too few ticket sales..

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SoundTown in Somerset Wis., August 2011.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Bigger bands and a new business partner were not enough to help the second annual SoundTown music festival get off the ground in Somerset, Wis.

Two weeks out from its July 27-28 run, organizers pulled the plug on the vastly upgraded fest featuring big-name rockers Jane's Addiction, Weezer and Florence + the Machine, rappers Common and Doomtree and two dozen other bands at the Somerset Amphitheater about one hour from the Twin Cities. Too much competition and too few ticket sales were blamed for the cancellation.

"We just didn't hit the threshold that we needed to," said the amphitheater's owner Matt Mithun, who launched SoundTown last year as the flagship event at his newly refurbished and expanded concert and camping site.

Mithun, 35, bought the former Float-Rite amphitheater and adjoining acreage in 2010 and invested more than $1 million in a new stage and camping facilities comparable to the We Fest grounds in Detroit Lakes, Minn. -- property also owned by his family (of Campbell Mithun advertising wealth) and site of a hugely successful country-and-camping fest for 30 years. Last year's inaugural SoundTown, however, drew only around 5,000 people on its busiest day featuring the Flaming Lips.

To beef up the lineup this year, Mithun brought in Chicago-based Jam Productions, which books many arena and theater concerts in the Twin Cities. In the interim, though, concert giant Live Nation launched its grander River's Edge Music Festival in St. Paul in June with Tool and Dave Matthews Band, and other mainstay outdoor Twin Cities music bashes -- including Rock the Garden, the Basilica Block Party and Soundset -- did record business this season.

"That was probably the biggest thing: all the other good shows out there this year," Mithun admitted. He said it was "too soon" to know if SoundTown might return next year.

First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz, whose club had a hand in the promotion of the festival, said the cancellation is something of a sign of the times. "There are just so many festivals out there, and some of them have similar names and similar lineups," he said. "It gets to be confusing and kind of a blur for fans."

Kranz and the First Ave staff were in something of red-alert mode Wednesday sorting through offers from agents representing SoundTown bands looking for replacement gigs in the Twin Cities. Best Coast and two others got booked into the Cedar Cultural Center on July 28. The 400 Bar also picked up White Denim for the same night. More show announcements are expected.

Other events still on

Launching festivals is a risky business that requires deep pockets. Live Nation's estimated losses for the inaugural River's Edge fest were at least $2 million, which the company sees as an investment in future years. River's Edge took over Harriet Island from Taste of Minnesota, whose new owners went under in 2010 after trying to remake the event.

Gabriel Douglas, singer/guitarist of the local rock quartet the 4onthefloor, applauded SoundTown for its adventurous lineup and format, which he believes "was well modeled after Bonnaroo and a lot of the best fests."

"I hope this doesn't scare people away from trying more events like this around here," said Douglas, whose band was to play SoundTown as well as several other fests this summer. "I'm tired of driving to Washington or California or wherever to play a cool fest like this."

News of the cancellation was greeted with disappointment from Casey Goessl, president of Somerset's chamber of commerce. Thanks to this summer's hot weather and prime tubing conditions on the Apple River, though, he said the tourist hamlet -- 30 miles northeast of St. Paul -- is holding its own for business.

"Somerset is still rocking, with or without concerts, so we encourage everyone to come out anyway," Goessl said.

The amphitheater will still play host to other music events next month, all brought in by outside promoters, including: a triple-bill with My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses and Trampled by Turtles (Aug. 11); the all-metal Knotfest led by Iowan favorites Slipknot (Aug. 18), and the mish-mash dance fest Summer Set with Pretty Lights, Nas and Umphrey's McGee (Aug. 24-26). It also hosts the Border Battle Beer Fest this Friday and Saturday.

Said Mithun: "We're very happy with our overall lineup of events this year, and I think there is plenty of reason to still be excited about this venue."

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

  • SOUNDTOWN CASTOFFS

    Best Coast: Now performing July 28 at Cedar Cultural Center with fellow fest exes Jeff the Brotherhood and Those Darlins ($17).

    White Denim: July 28 at the 400 Bar ($14).

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