The year he launched the Snowta dance music festival in Minnesota — in December — Zack Chazin had something of a eureka moment when he noticed someone bought a ticket all the way across (and down) the globe.
"I figured if someone was willing to leave Australia in summer to come to our event in Minnesota in winter, we were on to something," Chazin said.
Just two years later, the Snowta festival is not only attracting fans from overseas and nearly all 50 states, it's also drawing two of the biggest names in electronic dance music. And somehow, its wintry setting might be part of its appeal.
After a last-minute move to the newly rocking Armory from the odd-fitting Minneapolis Convention Center, Snowta 2018 will welcome bucket-headed (and Top 40-legged) DJ/producer Marshmello as a headliner Sunday, followed by dubstep pioneer and should-be Addams Family member Skrillex for New Year's Eve on Monday.
Skrillex is an especially big get for Snowta. It's his first performance in town in five years, and it'll be a legit NYE countdown set. He's due on at 11:59 p.m. just as the clock starts ticking down to 2019.
"We don't just have the biggest act in dance music at our festival, we have him on the biggest party night of the year," bragged Alex Heiligman, Chazin's partner in Snowta.
Only in their early 30s, Heiligman and Chazin are both surprisingly seasoned as music promoters. Chazin has been busy the past few years as the talent buyer for the Twin Cities' Zombie Pub Crawl and Des Moines' sizable summer dance fest, 515 Alive. When we met for coffee in Minneapolis, he was regaled by our barista about how much fun she had at 515 in August, when Bassnectar and Future headlined.
Heiligman, meanwhile, has been booking electronic dance shows at the Skyway Theatre, the Loft and assorted other venues for close to a decade with his company, TC Presents. He even promoted Skrillex's first two gigs in Minneapolis — one reason he believes Snowta was able to snag the EDM (electronic dance music) megastar for its lineup this year.
The DIY-minded Skrillex also likely appreciated that Heiligman and Chazin are not financially tied to any of the large entertainment corporations that have been buying up a lot of other festivals around the country, such as Live Nation and SFX. In fact, Snowta's big financial backer early on was none other than Tom Collins, the former skater who founded the Champions on Ice tours — another of the festival's odd and uniquely Minnesotan traits.
"We're totally independent and locally owned, and there aren't many festivals like ours that can say that anymore," Heiligman noted.
Added Chazin, "We didn't get the two most popular names in dance music over New Year's Eve just by giving them a lot of money, because there are festivals with a lot more money than we have. We got them, I think, because word is out that we're doing something cool and unique."
Wrapping in rappers
What's so cool and unique about Snowta, besides the climate challenges?
The festival also offers a State Fair-like array of indoor sideshow activities alongside the music. Prior years at the roomier convention center saw amusement park rides and even a tall snowboarding ramp. This year will feature a skateboarding park, laser-tag, human bowling and video arcade — all housed alongside a couple of B-stages in the Armory's basement, normally used for parking but also repurposed during the Super Bowl as extra party space.
Another distinguishing Snowta trait: the hip-hop artists heavily sprinkled into the lineup, a hybrid booking approach also taken by the now-sidelined Summer Set festival in Somerset, Wis. Last year, Snowta hosted one of the biggest breakout rappers of the year, Post Malone, snagging him before — right before — his hit song broke big.
"Literally the day after I booked him, 'Rock Star' dropped," Chazin recalled.
Rappers on this year's lineup include Chief Keef, MadeinTYO, Spark Master Tape, Rich the Kid and (gulp!) Yung Gravy, all acts that made their mark with viral videos and/or SoundCloud and Spotify streams. One of the few repeat Snowta performers this year, DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip from Minneapolis, praised the bookings.
"The organizers set out to kind of meld the EDM world with the hip-hop world, and brought a really new and exciting event to Minnesota," said Tiiiiiiiiiip, aka Taylor Madrigal. He, too, also marveled at Chazin's and Heiligman's ability to pull it off here in December.
"I know for a fact it's a struggle trying to throw an event of this magnitude in winter, because some acts will either hike up their prices, or just straight up refuse to come here. Yeah, it's snowy here, but people still want to go out and party inside even if it's terrible outside."
Heiligman was confident that local fans would want to flock to Snowta based on his prior experience booking New Year's Eve shows for the Skyway Theatre: "We would consistently sell out even without this level of big-name talent," he said. "We just had to get the talent."
And then they had to get what they believe is the right venue for Snowta. Still under construction this time last year, the Armory was in the market for hosting a big NYE party this year. Its team didn't have to look far to find what it sees as a perfect fit.
"Bringing top-tier talent to the table has really set [Snowta] apart, and showed they were planning on sticking around for years to come, as are we," said Beecher Vaillancourt,the Armory's vice president of entertainment and a dance promoter before that with V2 Nightlife and Epic nightclub.
"For them to basically take a borderline circus that was designed for the convention center and retrofit it into the Armory just made sense. Our entire team welcomed this with open arms, and we're excited for the challenges presented with the move."
Chazin and Heiligman had considered the Armory a possible location for Snowta all along, but waited to see how the acoustics and layout turned out after reopening. By nearly all accounts, the place is now a stellar music venue. While Snowta's team appreciated the uniqueness of the convention center's high-domed hall, the acoustics there "were never that great, no matter what we tried," Heiligman said.
"Doing it at the Armory allows us to provide the high level of production this event deserves," he added.
In the case of either venue, though, Snowta's organizers can only think so big. The one ice-crystal-clear limit they face vs. all the summery outdoor festivals is they can't simply move back the fence to sell more tickets. They will always be at the mercy of indoor capacity limits — 8,000 people in the case of the Armory, when last year they drew almost 7,000 fans without such big names.
"Maybe we can do a giant inflatable tent outside U.S. Bank Stadium one year, or something like that," Chazin joked. Or who knows? Perhaps he wasn't kidding.
Get to know Snowta
Snowta's co-founders offered this rundown of five of the most intriguing artists on this year's lineup, starting with a couple of the lesser-known acts.
Peekaboo: Heiligman said of the 21-year-old Michigan-bred DJ/producer, "He's in one of the lower tiers on our [poster] but has one of the biggest tracks of the year. He kind of came out of nowhere. One of his tracks ['Babatunde'] is getting played by everyone. Even though he'll be there, I bet some other [DJs] will play that track at Snowta."
Spark Master Tape: Even after five cult-hit mixtapes, this anonymous New York rapper has yet to perform live. "He's kind of like an MF Doom where his identity is secret," Chazin explained. "He was supposed to go on tour with Run the Jewels, but there were some visa issues. So people really have never seen him perform before Snowta."
Ganja White Night: Heiligman said of the dubstep-leaning Belgian production duo, "They're probably the third-biggest EDM act on the lineup, at least in terms of regional popularity. They did two sold-out nights at the Skyway last year, with 5,600 tickets."
Yung Gravy: Originally from the Rochester area, the jokey, womanizing, atonal rapper is blowing up back in Minnesota despite a dust-up at his last local gig that got him banned from playing First Avenue again, per Chazin. "We just announced another show at the Varsity [tellingly on April 20], and we're already very close to being sold out."
Skrillex: "He's made a big impact on music on the whole, bringing dubstep and all his sounds into the mainstream like no one else," Heiligman raved of the 30-year-old Los Angeles megastar, not seen in Minnesota since his vastly undersized First Ave gig in 2013.
Marshmello: "He's like how big Skrillex was when Skrillex first crossed over, and really a master at marketing," Heiligman said. "He has his own chocolate bars and even his own 'Cooking With Marshmello' series on YouTube, and it's huge. I mean, come on."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658