Ft. Wayne, IN (July 19, 2016)—While the number of new music festivals seems to rise every year, launching one remains as challenging as ever—perhaps even more so given that there are so many options out there for music fans. According to a 2015 Nielsen report, 32 million people go to at least one U.S. festival a year, travelling 903 miles on average to be there. Facing the possibility of stiff competition from events hundreds of miles away, new festivals find themselves tasked with not only fielding a compelling lineup, but zeroing in on what makes their event unique while also gaining the support of the local community.
The team behind Middle Waves, a new regional music festival in Fort Wayne, IN, has been addressing those challenges as it gears up for the new event, set for September 16-17, 2016. Aiming for 10,000 fans in attendance, Middle Waves will present 20-plus national and regional acts on three stages at Headwaters Park in downtown Fort Wayne, IN.
Bringing the festival to life, however, has been a journey. “There had been people daydreaming over a beer before,” recalled Matt Kelley, co-chair for Middle Waves’ steering committee, “but March 2015 was the first real meeting where it was specifically, ‘If we’re going to do this, how are we going to do it?’ A year and a half seems like a long time, but also feels like it’s flown by, for sure.”
Owning both a local ad agency and listening room-style venue, Kelley is tied into both the region’s music scene and the realities of the local economy. “There’s a real resurgence going on here,” he explained. “Fort Wayne has three rivers that were ignored for decades and there’s a lot of development along those rivers now, [but] I think there’s been an epiphany in recent years that its great to build stuff—they built a new minor league baseball stadium downtown, there’s brew pubs and condos—but softer, quality-of-life stuff has a value, too. Lots of studies show that they create a greater sense of attachment, especially for Millennials—that they want things that are unique to their community, that they have some pride and ownership of—and music becomes a big part of that.
“If you go to Chicago for Riot Fest or Pitchfork, or to Louisville for Forecastle, or even Coachella and others, the vibe is always so unique to the community you’re in. What would it be like in Fort Wayne, and is Fort Wayne maybe finally ready for that?”
That’s not to say Fort Wayne doesn’t have festivals already—the region already has a well-established country fest and two EDM-style events as well, which have inadvertently helped Middle Waves define its niche. “We have huge festivals that are very silo-ed,” said Kelley, “so when we announced with The Flaming Lips, Best Coast and Doomtree headlining, we triangulated. It’s not quite ‘anything goes’ because we’re probably not going to book pop country or EDM since they’re taken care of elsewhere, but…ours is purposefully going to be more diverse than that. That’s how people consume music now, and I think our community has trailed that a little bit and that’s what we’re excited to bring to it.”
Relationships with booking agencies were already in place through Kelley and committee member Cory Rader, who owns regional rock club The Brass Rail, and many of the organizational and business aspects have been taken on by Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne, a regional arts non-profit. Sponsors, too, such as regional heath system Parkview Health and pro audio/MI retailer Sweetwater, have stepped up to the plate, providing a considerable budget to draw from for a first-time event.
Learning how to apply that budget has been another challenge—and it’s one that the Middle Waves team has been learning as quickly as possible: “We’ve had folks on various committees who’ve been going to festivals all summer,” said Kelley, “and we’re all coming back with notebooks full of what vendors are there that make it unique, what are they doing vibe-wise to make it reflect their community and what’s our version of that story?”
To wit, the 80/35 Festival in Des Moines, IA hosted 10 committee members from Middle Waves at its ninth edition this year, headlined by The Decemberists and Nas. “Des Moines is a community about the same size as Fort Wayne, and they took us under their wing,” said Kelley. “We had all-access passes to learn how and why they were doing what they were doing, and that fast-tracked our festival knowledge; we certainly couldn't be doing it this year without mentorship. 80/35 helped us with the scale and scope of what we might need”
That included light, sound and staging elements, though taking on the rider demands of acts like The Flaming Lips inevitably brings production to a certain level. “If the Lips can do their show, then no other band has any question about whether the stage or power is ok for them,” said Kelley. “We work local everywhere we can. And Sweetwater being based here and Chuck [Surack, founder] being involved has allowed us to have a legitimacy as we’ve approached folks—they know we’re going to make it happen and that it’s going to be quality, world-class event on all fronts.”
Interestingly, Kelley noted, Sweetwater’s involvement isn’t necessarily a decision based solely on promotion. “They have 1,100 employees who are the exact kind of folks that we want to have at the festival. Many of them moved here from other communities and [Surack] basically wants them to love where they live, so a festival like this helps make that happen.
“And funny enough, apparently The Flaming Lips purchased all the gear for their first home studio from Sweetwater 25, 30 years ago when he founded it. They were amongst his earliest customers, so it’s neat to see it come full circle.”