Interview With LouFest Producer Mike Van Hee + Giveaway
It’s hard to believe that LouFest, St. Louis’ annual two-day music festival in the 1,371-acre Forest Park, has only been around since 2010. Beginning with acts like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Broken Social Scene and She & Him, the festival has since expanded over the years to include the likes of the Killers, Chris Stapleton, the Arctic Monkeys, Outkast, the Avett Brothers and more. 2017 headliners include Weezer, Snoop Dogg, Cage the Elephant and Run the Jewels, as well as burgeoning phenoms with St. Louis ties, including Mvstermind, Chris Bandi and Beth Bombara.
Mike Van Hee—managing partner of the production company that produces LouFest, Listen Live Entertainment—tends to run on fumes around this time every year. Everything must go off without a hitch, and there’s much more at stake than just a music festival. The city he loves—his hometown—will be on display for the world to see.
Keep reading for our conversation with Van Hee about LouFest, working with artists and bringing the city together for the festival every year.
Tell me about the beginnings of LouFest.
We started back in 2010, and it was a much smaller event. We had roughly 5,000 folks per day. We looked at other cities that had great festivals, and that also encompassed a lot of their local authenticity—not just with music, but food, art and culture as well. We were pretty surprised that something like this hadn’t already happened in St. Louis. We have a great music scene, and there’s tremendous musical history in this town.
We were scratching our heads and saying, ‘This needs to happen, and it needs to demonstrate, as a city, what we’re about: great music, food, art, makers. We wanted to try to build something that has the overarching ownership of everyone in the city. Something that says, ‘This is ours. This is something that makes us proud.’”
What is it like to work with some of the biggest artists in the world?
You don’t work with the artists as much as their agents and managers. It’s always an adventure. But you learn more and more each year, and you can better understand what their priorities are. As long as you have that understanding of what they’re about and what they’re not about, then you can create something that accomplishes what they want alongside the authentic message we want to communicate. You can usually find a way to make sure everyone’s happy at the end of the day. Some teams are easy to work with, and some are not—but that’s life.
Most of the artists have also never been in Forest Park, or performed in it. They may have come through the city and performed at the Scottrade Center or Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, but this is really different. It’s been fun to see people’s perceptions change about who we are. We’ve had band’s agents tell us, “Whatever you guys did, it was fantastic. They loved it. They walked around the park and took their whole family to the Zoo,” things like that. That’s what we like to hear. We really let them experience it organically, without forcing it. It’s been fun to see that change. The feedback has been really positive.
How do you go about building that?
First and foremost, it starts with the music—that’s the passion point. And it spreads from there. The festival is so much more than one weekend, and the weekend is so much more than just music. It’s a 360-degree experience. Now in the eighth year, the festival has grown from 5,000 guests per day to 50,000 total guests over the course of the weekend. Many of those are coming from our feeder markets like Chicago, Nashville and Kansas City.
Some of that is strategic in how we book. The price of our ticket is also really reasonable. For some of the larger festivals in the region, ticket prices can be upwards of $300. Also, believe it or not, we’re already planning the next LouFest now. We’re having conversations with larger bands who are trying to route their year out.
What is most important when building a successful lineup?
It’s always a challenge, because we’re limited with the amount of slots we have and the number of stages. We want to make sure that what we put together appeals to a wide range of people, because as a city, we are very diverse. There are all sorts of musical preferences—there isn’t any one style that dominates. It’s not all rock or country, hip-hop or EDM. We try to represent as many genres as we can that appeal to the region—the core here in the city—and that also have the ability to draw in regional traffic so you have that 33 percent coming in from out of town.
We also make it a point to make sure we feature as many local bands as we can to showcase the great local talent we have. It’s important for us to make sure there’s a focus on creating and protecting those opportunities for our local acts. This year, in particular, we have the highest number of local artists represented on the bill than ever before.
What do you look for when selecting local talent for the lineup?
With the limited slots we have, it’s really the same approach as the headliners. We curate a group of local acts that’s diverse and that speaks to a wide variety of genres. We really try to diversify where their fan bases are, so we’re not just pulling from bands who have a following in one part of the city.
After doing this for eight years, we’ve struck up strong friendships with the local venues that helped us get going—the venues where a lot of these acts play every day. They can let us know, from a local perspective, [about] musicians who are being brought in to open for some of the touring acts, so we have a pulse on who puts on a great live show, who has a new album coming out, or who has a great fan base with a crowd that turns out every time. It starts with that. Everyone’s representing the music, art and culture scene here in St. Louis, and everyone’s on the same team.
What goes into selecting your headliners?
A lot of it is timing—if they’re available, or if they’re releasing new material and working on new projects. We’re looking for people who are really active and wanting to talk about something new. We’ve been looking at Snoop [Dogg] for years—he had new material coming out and is really top of the line this year, with everything he’s been doing. Weezer is another one that has tremendous history here. No matter when they come, everybody loves them. They also had a great new single come out in March called “Feels Like Summer.”
Last year, we wanted to bring people something a little different, with Chris Stapleton and LCD Soundsystem—acts who are household names with multi-generational appeal. LCD Soundsystem is a legendary band and had never been here before, so that was really special.
What is your longer-term goal and vision for LouFest?
I think it’s important to take a holistic look at events like these, knowing that music is a big driver for what people look at to see what cities have going on. We recently partnered with the St. Louis Regional Chamber to look at the economic impact of the festival and identify the key characteristics of a city that make it a place where people want to live. Events are an important part of that.
We looked at how long people were staying for the festival, where they were coming from, what other attractions they visited when they came—things like that. Their economic analyst came up with a report that showed the festival generates an economic impact of over $7 million on the city. I never could have imagined that back in 2010.
The relationship then spawned into what the Chamber’s mission is all about: talent retention, attracting new business and making sure these folks graduating from local universities know the opportunities that exist here right under their noses, where they can make an impact right out of school. We have a great housing market for young professionals, our startup scene speaks for itself, and I would argue that the opportunity to be successful right out of college is much higher here, as opposed to other oversaturated markets where the cost of living is through the roof.
This year, we’re really excited to further our partnership with the Chamber to introduce LouFest U, a free festival for area university students on Friday, September 8. LouFest U will be a great way to kick off LouFest weekend, and it will feature performances from local and national bands, guest speakers, and opportunities for students to engage with some of the region’s top employers.
We want to be a piece of what the city has to attract people from all over and showcase our authenticity. Music is the driver, but it’s important for us to create a really authentic St. Louis experience for them while they’re here. For example, it doesn’t matter who you are, everybody loves Forest Park—nationally. It’s an icon. We believe we have a great recipe to showcase what we have culturally for all these folks coming in, and to help the city grow.
How did you get connected to LouFest and working in music event production?
I was really more of a sports guy growing up here in St. Louis. I went to Mizzou for college and started working at the Blue Note, a music venue in Columbia, Missouri, where I really got bit by the bug. Then I was on the College Music Committee, where students control a budget to bring concerts to campus. After school, I started working on music-based campaigns with Budweiser and Bud Light, and we eventually partnered with the festival right when it began in 2010, when it was founded by documentarian and professor Brian Cohen.
How have you grown the festival from its early stages into what it is now?
Our growth didn’t come from an explosion. Our first year was small. Year two, we saw a little bit of growth—we expanded our footprint and added some more experiences. Then, year after year, it kept growing. You have to have a five-year plan, and what really has to happen before you take off is city support. The city has to be behind you 100 percent for this to work. And that has to come from local media, venues and businesses knowing that this is something good for the city, something that involves people in the music and art and business space to bring everybody together. If you capture that, then everybody has that sense of ownership—that’s how we see this thing as having some real longevity.
We also take initiative to grow responsibly. Forest Park doesn’t allow events like this to happen all the time. We wanted to make sure we showed the Park that we’re not just going to throw an event, damage everything and leave. Everyone loves the Park and is really proud of it. We’re St. Louis guys. We grew up in that park—we know the history and the importance behind it.
This year, we’re also honoring Chuck Berry, the father of rock ‘n’ roll. We’re working with his family to make sure we really honor the guy who started it all. We’re putting together a tribute set, and we will have more details soon. The goal is to educate people a little more about his history, that he was from here and that rock ‘n’ roll has strong roots here.
Enter for your chance to win two general admission two-day passes to this year’s LouFest Music Festival in St. Louis.
Two winners will be chosen on August 28 and contacted by email. Passes will be picked up the day of the festival at will call. Good luck!
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