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Hinterland’s Organizer Sam Summers on 11 Steps to Starting a Music Festival

Sam Summers planned Hinterland Music Festival in noisy coffee shops, at kitchen tables with his wife, over phone lines with his brother, and in the hallways of offices. Not Hinterland’s — but Summers’ offices for his other music endeavors: the popular Des Moines live music venue Wooly’s, Up-Down, a bar and an arcade, and First Fleet Concerts, which brings shows to Des Moines and other Midwestern cities. Summers owns those organizations.

But for Summers, it still wasn’t enough. Over the past year, he’s pushed to launch Hinterland, yet another testament to Des Moines’s booming music scene. And the festival’s first year looks like it won’t disappoint. He’s locked in bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, TV on the Radio, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones for the show. He booked his location: The festival will run this year from July 31–Aug. 1 at Water Works Park, Des Moines’s version of Central Park. And Summers has his stage — that’s stage, singular — so that festival goers won’t miss a single note of the 12 bands scheduled to play.

But he also wants festival goers to do more than listen to music. He wants them to camp. To knock bottlenecks with friends. To taunt the opposing disc golf team. And sometimes, he wants them to leave. Re-entry is not only allowed, but encouraged, and Summers is renting 20 bikes from the Des Moines Bicycle Collective, an organization that promotes biking in Central Iowa, so performers can explore Des Moines with their fans.

On the first day tickets went on sale, VIP sold out in 10 seconds. And by day’s end, Summers had takers from 25 states — including Alaska — and even from Great Britain and Canada.

For a first-time festival to go international in a day, it took some strategic planning. These are the 11 steps that Summers took to get Hinterland off the ground.

STEP 1: When brainstorming your festival, don’t copy.

I’ve been trying not to do that thing where you go and copy other festivals. I’ve been trying to brainstorm independently — sometimes it’s tough to not rely so much on what’s been done before. But it’s what makes your festival different.

With some of the camping stuff, I’ll go around and see what the best practices are at different festivals, because I don’t know much about camping. But when we’re talking about ideas and activities, I’m trying to meet with people who have creative minds in Des Moines and say, “Hey, there are no boundaries — come up with some ideas.” For example, I’m working with Ramona Muse from the Des Moines Art Center. I gave her full reign of programing the Kid Zone, which will be an activity area with a creative arts element.

But there are some things that are tried and true about festivals that are probably going to be the same as everybody’s. But I think it’s important to brainstorm before you look at what everyone else is doing.

STEP 2: Immerse yourself in various music scenes.

I do all the shows down at the Simon Estes Amphitheater [an outdoor stage on the Des Moines River]. We do a lot of Americana and jam band type stuff down there in the summer. I have all these bands coming through every year, and I thought, “Hey, why don’t we put some of these bands together all in one place? Or, are the bands too big to play at the amphitheater?”

STEP 3: Think Smart About the Venue.

I always wanted to do a festival at Water Works Park. The only thing holding me back was the fact that it’s flood-prone. If it is late enough in the season, the rivers have receded for the most part, and things are a little bit dryer. It’s a beautiful park and underutilized — a lot of people are not aware of it.

STEP 4:Pick your vibe.

I started out going for a more folky, bluegrass vibe. Then I had these other opportunities to put more of an indie-folk element into it. Just knowing my personal music taste, I know I can get into Americana and bluegrass — more reggae stuff like that. But I also listen to a lot of indie stuff — specifically indie folk. So I thought, these bands kinda make sense together. Especially Edward Sharpe. He’s the glue that holds it all together. He has a folky sense and also describes that whole indie scene. With that, I expanded it to put bands like TV on the Radio and Future Islands on [the lineup]

STEP 5: Become your vibe.

This festival is a niche thing. What I was going for was my taste and creating a festival around that. Because, then, it’s an honest festival. I know what I like, so if I build a festival around what I like, I have a pretty large common denominator taste when it comes to underground music. No one is doing this blend of indie, folk, Americana, and bluegrass.

I think there are two kinds of festivals. One is the travel festival, where there are a bunch of bands in a particular niche — which is what I think Hinterland is. A lot of our bands fall in the same world. It makes it worth the trip. And then there’s the festivals that are community based, where they are a cross section of all the tastes in the market and they provide a little something for everyone — which is what I think an 80/35 is or a Lollapalooza. I did the niche festival because I wanted to differentiate myself from the others.

STEP 6: Populate your stage. Stage, singular.

It’s my first year of the festival, so it was hard to get agents to take me seriously. I went to the agents with what I wanted, where normally what you’d do is ask, “What kind of submissions do you have for my festival?” I knew what type of brand I wanted to create, so I was very particular about the bands I wanted. I didn’t bother emailing anyone else.

Carlile plays with twin brothers, Tim and Phil Hanseroth.
Carlile plays with twin brothers,
Tim and Phil Hanseroth.

There will be one big main stage with 12 changeovers. One reason I don’t go to festivals is because I feel like you’re running around, missing sets — you don’t get to see all the bands you want. High stress. So I’m going for all bands that I think are quality and people will like, and keep it to one stage. The people coming to our festival want to talk with their friends, chill, have a beer, grab something to eat, and get ready for the next set. Also, with 1,500 acres of park, if you don’t want to see a band’s set, you can hop on your bike and ride around the park or play Frisbee golf at the camp areas. That’s where we’re at in our brainstorming right now. We went with a different model: quality over quantity.

STEP 7: Do your research and watch your picks perform live.

These bands put on great shows. If you’re going to a festival you’re not necessarily going to know all the bands that are playing, but you’re going to appreciate the bands a lot more that have a great live show. Everyone, even if they didn’t know the band, would have a really great time. That’s one of my criteria.

STEP 8: Make sure the bands have fun, too.

I just got off the phone with an agent — he said to make sure the bands have the best time ever. Because bands talk to other bands, and that’s how you build your festival — with people having a really great time playing. And take care of them backstage. Overdo it. If they give you a list of what they want, you make sure you have everything on there. They’re used to showing up at places where they don’t get everything they want. Have someone taking care of them at all times. We’re providing the bands with bicycles from the Bike Collective that they can check out and ride around Des Moines. Everything in excess. Bands play a lot of festivals. This stuff really sticks out.

STEP 9: Capitalize on social media.

Make creative [promos] the bands can post on social media. Certain bands had some really good organic reach. A lot of that is unpaid. Just from me doing shows regionally, we had a couple venues — like The Majestic in Wisconsin and the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis — post on all their social media sites. We also sold four tickets to Great Britain. And I found those people — they’re real people. They posted on Twitter like, “Hey, I’m coming 4,000 miles for this.”

Brandi Carlile is an alternative country and folk-rock singer-songwriter performing at Hinterland.
Brandi Carlile is an alternative country and folk-rock singer-songwriter performing at Hinterland.

STEP 10: Stay organized.

I run off of sticky notes. I have sticky notes of ideas and whatnot all around my computer.

STEP 11: Have a mission.

I spent so much time going to other states for shows. This is bringing a lot of people here. For me, this is a chance to show them what is cool about Iowa.

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