How to build a music fest

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 5:26 PM

After too many misfires this summer, we offer some advice on how to make a festival click.

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Rapper Evidence performed at Soundset at Canterbury Park in Shakopee in May. In its five years, the hip-hop festival has found a winning formula: a good location with appealing acts at a reasonable price.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Special To The Star Tribune

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First Avenue pulled the plug on its inaugural rock festival before booking any bands. The second annual SoundTown festival was canceled two weeks before opening day. The first River's Edge Music Festival lost more than $2 million.

It's not easy to launch a music festival in the Twin Cities.

After watching the ups and downs of this festival-glutted summer, the Star Tribune -- with an assist from First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz -- has come up with suggestions for promoters trying to stage a new festival.

• Choose the right location. "The right spot is the most important thing," urges Kranz, who spent a couple of years finding that spot -- the Parade Athletic Fields near Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis -- for his club's yet-to-be-presented fest.

Harriet Island on the Mississippi River in St. Paul was a good spot for River's Edge, thanks to a little spiffing up from promoters Live Nation of this grassy riverside park, which has a sweet view of the sunset and the St. Paul skyline.

Promoters of the successful Soundset fest, which drew about 19,000 fans for its fifth year this May, have figured out how to convert a parking lot at Shakopee's Canterbury Park into a hip-hop paradise for a day.

SoundTown, although located in an idyllic spot in Somerset, Wis., just east of the Twin Cities, drew thin crowds for its debut last year, then tried to up the ante this summer with an ambitious slate of acts. Which raises the question: Do rock and hip-hop fans want to drive to and from Somerset, knowing that police officers on either side of the St. Croix River are prone to pull over concertgoers?

• Come up with a distinctive name. Soundset is an established name, so why would the Somerset Amphitheater risk confusion by choosing sound-alike titles for SoundTown and its upcoming Summer Set fest, scheduled Aug. 24-26? And why would Live Nation pick River's Edge when there's another local attraction of the same name -- in Somerset, oddly enough -- that has offered music from time to time? Brand your festival with a name that defines, not muddles.

Advises Kranz: "I'd stay away from 'sound,' 'summer' and 'set' at this point."

• Start booking bands early, and build around a headliner. What's essential is one must-see star per day and an undercard of established, appealing acts as well as several rising performers. Don't repeat headliners who have performed recently in the area.

Both Live Nation and First Avenue got late starts on their festivals because they were still dealing with city permits. Hence, their booking process didn't start until late last fall. That proved too late for First Ave, and Live Nation admits it missed out on many of its top prospects.

"Secure the headliners first," Kranz said, "and then work from the top down."

• Find a musical definition that has mass appeal. Don't be too hip for the festival grounds or too eclectic for your own good.

"Some sense of cohesiveness in the [lineup] makes sense so the festival stands out to fans," Kranz says. "Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits are huge so they can be all over the place [artistically]. I love eclectic. But for a festival for 10,000 or so [fans], you need cohesiveness. You might see indie-rock bands and classic indie names and one rap artist. Do you need the rap artist?"

• Tie in with key radio stations that will promote the fest like they own it. Cities 97 talks incessantly about the Basilica Block Party, which it has long sponsored, and the Current (89.3 FM) harps nonstop about Rock the Garden, which it co-promotes with Walker Art Center. No surprise, then, that both have big momentum.

"The Internet is great, but radio is invaluable," Kranz said. "You have to have radio take ownership. This year, Rock the Garden sold out in advance with virtually an all-local lineup; that's a huge testament to the Current."

• Market your festival aggressively. It's not just radio, website and social media but it's billboards, buses, print and TV ads, fliers, bar promotions, sponsors -- you name it. The Twin Cities area is overrun with new music festivals, and promoters need to differentiate their event.

• If camping is a component, stick to music that appeals to the camping crowd. Fans of country, hard rock and jam bands are the most likely to camp. But SoundTown, which promoted itself as a camping destination, focused on indie-rock acts.

"With indie rock, it helps to be in an urban area," said Kranz, who was involved with SoundTown. "With Somerset, some fans go: 'I'm only a half-hour from my house, why do I want to camp?'"

• Have reasonably priced tickets -- and free tap water. You'll make your money on beer and other concessions.

"It has to feel like a good value to fans," Kranz said. "If you go to a festival and you're seeing bands that get $15 to $20 at clubs and the promoter is asking people to pay $50 to $75 for a festival, you have to make sure they're getting their money's orth."

• Make an indelible first impression by offering a first-class show. Don't skimp on production values. Have an appropriately sized stage with HD video screens, a top-notch sound system, plenty of portable toilets, good signage, free tap water and other amenities. River's Edge offered free sun lotion and bug spray as well as a mammoth stage with great sound and Jumbotron screens that festgoers won't soon forget.

612-673-1719 • Twitter: @jonbream

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