“Dead” Moines: Where We’re Going

Des Moines has always struggled to attract a wide array of artists. For big-name acts that had outgrown bar gigs but couldn’t sell out stadiums, Iowa just wasn’t on their touring radar. But a development in the mid-2000s started to change that: festivals!

Guests: Tom Zmolek, Tobi Parks, Jeff Inman

Lead Reporter + Producer:  Allaire Nuss

Assistant Editor: Katy Hull

Graphic Designer: Rachel James

Transcription

[PHONE RINGS]

TOM ZMOLEK, GUEST: Hello, this is Tom.

ALLAIRE NUSS, HOST: Hi Tom, this is Allaire. How are you doing?

TOM: Pretty good, how are you?

ALLAIRE: I’m great, thank you. I’m so glad that I could flag you down. I’m so sorry to…

ALLAIRE AS NARRATION: This is Tom Zmolek. He’s had a hand in, well, lots of things in the Des Moines sphere. He manages twelve different festivals in the Midwest, runs the Water Works amphitheater, and is the President of the Court District downtown. But when the pandemic hit, Tom couldn’t bear to watch all those projects collapse. He had to get away…

ALLAIRE: Yeah, what are you busy with nowadays?

TOM: Oh, I’m actually—I’ve been out in Colorado working at Keystone Ski Resort for the winter. Since all my festivals and events got canceled last year, I decided I couldn’t just sit downtown and stare at my four walls in my loft anymore. So, I was like okay, if I can’t provide live music to the people of Des Moines, I gotta get the hell out of there for a little bit and maintain my sanity somehow. You know, I was hoping that we would be back in business for 2021, and I have been spending every one of my days off out here for the last two to three weeks working on planning and stuff for Iowa stuff so—.

[MUSIC STARTS]

NARRATION: From Urban Plains at Drake University, this…is “Dead” Moines: an audible case study of live music in Iowa’s capital. I’m your host, Allaire Nuss.

NARRATION: We’ll get back to Tom in a moment. But first, a recap: 

NARRATION: On the first episode of Dead Moines, we looked back on our start as a viable city for live music in the Midwest. We also learned that many of the issues that stood in our way thirty years ago still linger today, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t gotten better…

NARRATION: Des Moines struggled to attract a wide array of artists. For big-name acts that had outgrown bar gigs but couldn’t sell out stadiums, Iowa just…wasn’t on their touring radar. But a development in the mid-2000s helped to change that: festivals!

[MUSIC]

TOM: [LAUGHS] It’s kind of a “we’ve always been the red-headed step-child” kind of thing. You know, we’ve never been that super cool, hip city.

NARRATION: This is Tom again, the guy who, among other things, runs twelve festivals in the midwest every year. There’s foodie events like Baconfest or Whiskeyfest, but more importantly for our podcast, he manages music festivals. He’s the logistics dude, the manager on the ground, making sure it’s all running as it should. 

TOM: You know, we’ve got three very long-running, very successful music festivals in town, being 80/35, 515 Alive, and Hinterland. You know, those three festivals are very well-respected in the industry and starting to get well-respected on a national basis. I think younger people are like “Hey friend from Omaha or friend from Chicago, come visit me for the weekend because we have this really cool festival that I want to take you to.” And that didn’t used to be a thing. 

NARRATION: But what are these music festivals? And what role does each play in propelling Des Moines forward? Let’s look first at 80/35.

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: 80/35, a two-day festival held downtown every summer since 2008. It was born out of a troubling observation: Des Moines, a city on the crosshairs of Interstates 80 and 35, wasn’t attracting national touring acts. But 80/35 was the grand solution by The Des Moines Music Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to expanding and diversifying our live music scene. To put it generously, it’s like a scaled-down version of SummerFest in Milwaukee, but instead of the Miller Lite Oasis, over 45 acts take on the Hyvee and Kum & Go stages in front of 30,000 people.

JEFF INMAN, GUEST: You know, you had the Flaming Lips with the first time they really played Des Moines—if I’m remembering correct—was 80/35. 

NARRATION: This is Jeff Inman again, the Des Moines-based music journalist we spoke with in the last episode. His career had moved on by the 2000s, but he was still here to witness the rise of local festivals. 

JEFF: Most recently, Liz Phair had never played—as far as I can remember—Des Moines until 80/35. Wilco played on there, but then you also had The Roots, which again, we don’t get a lot of hip hop, and 80/35 has provided some hip hop to Des Moines. 

NARRATION: That’s another issue: Des Moines was (and still is) lacking in rap and hip hop. 80/35 did bring us legends like the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, but they were anomalies on otherwise indie-rock rosters. That being said, 515 Alive, our annual EDM festival, has made room for hip hop on their lineup since 2003. And in 2019, they brought the likes of Wiz Khalifa, Playboi Carti, and Yung Gravy to Des Moines. That’s no small feat.

JEFF: So, again, it has attracted the kind of bands that we normally wouldn’t get. And then they see Des Moines and then they come back later by themselves if they can. 

NARRATION: For Tom, artists coming back is one of the main advantages of music festivals. When booking agents see our crowds turn out by the thousands, it proves that we’re a viable market for future touring.

TOM: And not even so much the artists, but the agents and management companies for the artists, realize that Des Moines is a hip, happening place, and that we really support festivals.

NARRATION: And so far…it seems to be working. Artists are returning after playing our festivals. Take Elle King for example. When the soul-pop starlette headlined 80/35 in 2019, it was her first performance in Des Moines. Now, she’s returning to Iowa this summer for another festival: Hinterland. 

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: Hinterland is the newest festival to grace Greater Des Moines. It’s also more thematic, a three-day event blending a love for nature and music, hosted in rural St. Charles just 30 minutes south of us. The artists reflect the theme as well, folk-adjacent pop that could just as easily soothe or inspire: think Hozier, Kasey Musgraves, etc. 

JEFF: Hinterland has allowed those bigger touring bands that fit into Des Moines’ niche to really find a Summer place: the Jason Isabelles, the Nathaniel Rateliffs

ALLAIRE: You alluded to this a couple of times in your explanation just then, what is Des Moines’ sweet spot? 

JEFF: Whatever Sam Summers books.

[LAUGHTER]

NARRATION: Sam Summers… some would say he is the Des Moines music scene. His company First Fleets encompasses most major venues in town: Woolys, Hoyt Sherman, the Wells Fargo Arena, and more. But that’s not all. Sam’s also elbow-deep in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, not to mention Omaha, Lincoln, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. He’s all over the place. Oh yeah, he also started Hinterland. 

JEFF: Sam has done a great job of building a repertoire of known acts that he can get to Des Moines and sell. He knows what will sell here, and he’s a businessman ultimately who loves music. 

 

NARRATION: Oh, it sells alright…. In 2019, nearly 20,000 people came to Hinterland. And they weren’t all Iowans. Hell, they weren’t even all Midwesterners. Take this story from just a month ago: Tom was helping a ski resort guest in Colorado find his missing phone, and….

TOM: So I was asking the guy what—phone description, what’s on the screen saver, and he said “Oh, it’s a concert at Red Rocks.” And I just said “Out of curiosity, who was it?” And he said “Oh, it was the Avett Brothers.” And I said “Oh, I run this festival back in Des Moines, Iowa, and we just added the Avett Brothers as one of our headliners.” And he looked at me and said “You’re not talking about Hinterland, are you?” And I was like “Yeah, why?” And he said “Well, me and all my buddies were online, got tickets the other day, and we’re all coming from Denver, like a big group of us.” So that was pretty cool. They could go to a million concerts out here at Red Rocks or at Fiddler’s Green or anywhere out here, but they’re packing up and driving their group of friends to St. Charles, Iowa in the middle of the Summer to come spend four days with us. 

[MUSIC STOPS]

NARRATION: Hold on… let that sink in. 

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: A music-lover from Denver bought tickets over a year in advance for a festival in…St. Charles, Iowa. Back in the ‘90s, some events struggled to even pull local crowds. But Hinterland doesn’t just attract a few die-hards from out West. At their last festival in 2019, people flocked to Iowa from 37 states and 5 continents. Continents. But that’s not all. When tickets to Hinterland 2021 went live this March, they sold out…in 10 minutes

[MUSIC]

TOM: We were so behind the times on everything, now we’re on Forbes’ list of the top five places for millennials to move to. The scene is improving and I honestly think the festival and music scene is a huge, huge part of that. 

TOM: It’s hopefully going to be a long-term thing for the city of Des Moines because we’re injecting new, young people into the city all the time that aren’t automatically leaving when they’re done with college. You know, it used they used to call it the “Brain Drain.” It was—as soon as somebody graduated from college, nobody ever came back to Des Moines, and now you see a migration of people moving back here. When that Forbes thing came out, that spurred some other stories on it, and they were interviewing young people from Portland that were like “Hey, we’re moving to Des Moines. We’ve never been there, we’ve never—. We don’t have family there, but it looks like it’s a super cool place to live and reasonably priced, and a great place to raise a family, and all this stuff.”

ALLAIRE: Mhm

TOM: I honestly think Des Moines is a really good place to be from right now.

TOBI PARKS, GUEST: And so we were like, “Alright I guess Iowa it is” and I said absolutely 110 percent not.

NARRATION: This is Tobi Parks, possibly the coolest Des Moines transplant there is, even if she was skeptical at first. She decided to move here from New York City in 2012 for lots of practical reasons: quality of life, closer to family, and the biggest one, getting to legally marry her wife. But Tobi also left a lot behind. She was a musician in America’s culture capital, not to mention her job managing copyright at Sony Music and Columbia Records. Still, she moved to Iowa, and we’re better for it, though she did need some convincing…

TOBI: I was like, I am not going to fit in here, I’m not going to find friends. It’s so white, it’s so all of these things. Really it—one, I think I’ve always been such a community oriented person and I think that that’s the thing that’s stuck out to me most in just talking to different folks. Really it was sort of mind blowing to me because I didn’t think that kind of community existed anymore. You know? Where people work as a collective to make something better. You’d see all range of folks who were really successful in the community and in the music scene, giving advice and helping folks who were just getting started out. And it was really cool and really impactful. I ended up going to breakfast with Zac Manheimer, who was the executive director at the time of the Des Moines Social Club. And he also is a New York City transplant and he—one of the things that he mentioned to me that he said was so great about Des Moines is  it was really sort of on this cusp of shifting and younger folks were kind of coming in and trying to do a lot of really great and cool things. And that the city had gotten to a point to where they were so starved for sort of expanding art and culture in the city that he was like you really can do anything that you want to, here. You’ll find people to support you and you can basically set up whatever thing that you want, you just have to put the ask out there. And he was like, you know, what do you want to do?

NARRATION: Here’s what Tobi did: She deeply admired the work of organizations like the Des Moines Music Coalition, their dedication for strengthening the scene and propping up local creatives. And she knew the recorded industry inside and out. So in 2015, she launched Station1 Records, a non-profit artist development organization. It’s basically a record label, legal advisory, and arts educator…all wrapped in one. 

TOBI: So what I wanted to do was figure out a way where artists could spend some time actually being artists. Trying to take the weight off of them a little bit, the financial weight. So I wanted to come in and say, “Look, I’ll help supplement your costs, but you also have to make a commitment to learn the business.” Because I saw a lot in Sony too, which was really sad in a lot of ways, that there was so many artists that would come into the business and not have any idea what was going on. And I felt like that was a huge gap that was missing in the music ecosystem and I was like if I could start a non-profit where we could do artist development and really help artists learn the industry, give them some financial stability so they can kind of grow and become better, and then they could have an established platform so by the time they start looking to be more professional or to do more, they may be able to be attractive than to a larger label, a larger indie, or you know, Sony or something. But they would have this time to develop and some resources to do it. And so he was like, well if you write the business plan, I’ll help you raise money. And that’s kind of how Station1 got started.

NARRATION:

This readiness to help foster creative spaces is part of what made Tobi truly appreciate Des Moines. You see, the ecosystem for artists in New York is the complete inverse…

TOBI: New York City is wonderful and it’s amazing and it’s a creative mecha, but at the same time, it becomes more and more difficult for creatives to live there. And there are a handful of artists who are able to tour, but they can’t tour that much. You know, maybe they can go on tour for three weeks out of the year. The rest of the time they’re working their asses off to make rent for the closet that they live in with ten other people. It’s not affordable, and then you don’t even get the amount of time to work on the work that you want to do. But you do have access in a way that you don’t. One of the things that’s really cool about Des Moines and the Midwest in general is that you can literally have a coffee shop job and maybe even have that be a part-time coffee shop job and still be able to pay your rent and your utilities and all of those things. So you have a much better ability to possibly tour more often. You know, you’re within ten hours of a ton of different places. And even just a little bit further out from that, you can get other places and you can hit a lot of different cities and kind of branch out and make a name for yourself.

NARRATION: But of course the drawback to being an artist in Des Moines instead of New York is that the creative circles are less established. That’s where organizations like Station1 and the Music Coalition come into play. They help advance our scene by investing in local creativity. Toby also started a new music venue XBK, as in Ex-Brooklyn in 2019. Full disclosure, I bartended there until the pandemic put live music on hold.

TOBI: The other part was really trying to also change the perception of Iowa. The more artists that we can push out of here to tour and to talk about being from Iowa and that the music is really good, and they have someone to be a champion who understands the ins and outs of the industry and can help make the connections that they need to make, that’s really going to shift the perception. 

NARRATION: And Des Moines is a place that welcomes that kind of stuff. We’re culture hungry and eager to support. But sometimes, that support is lost in translation… specifically with funding.

[MUSIC]

TOBI: I felt that there was a lot of support in theory of what we wanted to do. I think that there are a lot of people that want art and culture to grow. Now Station1 has kind of hit its stride, and I think people understand that we do good work. I won’t necessarily say the funding has changed as much, but I think that people understand our mission more and are more inclined to want to listen to what we have to say. From a practical standpoint, it becomes far more complicated. The Greater Des Moines Partnership does all these thing—“it’s the greatest place for millennials to live” and “art and culture is a huge part of our community and we really want to support all of these things”—but the infrastructure and the city zoning laws and a lot of the code doesn’t support that. And it’s not necessarily intentional, but it makes it really difficult for anybody who’s not a major, well-funded developer to really do anything. You know, I’m just a person trying to do something cool for the community. I think that some really cool things could happen here, it just requires people to take the risk and the city to be able to let people to do it. 

NARRATION: We’ve clearly come a long way since the ‘90s. Our festivals pull crowds by the thousands, we’ve attracted national touring acts, and we’ve built a supportive network for local artists. But… all of that was put on hold….when the pandemic hit.  

[MUSIC]

TOBI: In terms of Des Moines specifically? I don’t know, I feel like things kind of ebb and flow. You know, right now, I’m kind of in a place of… yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really know how I feel right now. I’m hopeful, but I still have some jadedness. 

ALLAIRE: But what was it like to have a summer last year, where there was just nothing. It was decimated.

TOM: It was honestly horrible. I was crushed. I did do—so I started the drive-in concert series at Water Works and we did 16 concerts there. Which was the only thing that mentally saved me, honestly [LAUGHS]. You know, it wasn’t touring acts and it wasn’t huge, thousands and thousands of people. But, it was bringing live music back to Des Moines and hitting that niche with some people that hadn’t left their basement yet and hadn’t seen a live band in nine months. But they finally felt comfortable enough with our format to come out and see their favorite local band.

TOM: You know, I realize that it’s not going to be back to normal, but we’re going to be implementing mask wearing and different things this summer that nobody’s ever dealt with before, especially in an outdoor setting. And I think that people feel comfortable enough with that festival and being out in nature that they’re—again, I feel like that’s the first time people are going to be able to take a deep breath and go, “Oh my god, this is what music is supposed to be like,” again. We’re definitely optimistic on what’s going to happen in the future. And the 2021 festival season is going to be different, but at least it’s going to exist. Which 2020 didn’t. We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but I think we’re coming back.

NARRATION: Our city had made so much progress, but just how much did the pandemic set us back? And what does Des Moines’ music scene look like right now, mid-pandemic? We’ll answer these questions and more…. on the final episode… of Dead Moines.

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: Dead Moines is written and produced by me, Allaire Nuss. Special thanks to Anthony Arroyo, Katy Hull, and Rachel James. 

[MUSIC FADES]

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