Iowa City – Bartender here is my $50 – hook me up with a festival pass and a pint of Fat Tire. That statement is one organizers of the Mission Creek Music Festival anticipate hearing often over the next two months. Marking its fourth year, this multi-day, multi-venue event runs April 1 – 5.
Modeled after the successful Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco, Mission Creek: Midwest has blown through its original design and struck out on its own to make a reputation in Iowa City.
One of the Midwest’s producers, Andre Perry, previously lived in San Francisco and worked on the original Mission Creek festival with its founder Jeff Ray. After moving here to enroll in the University of Iowa’s creative nonfiction writing program, Perry and fellow founder, Tanner Illingworth, came up with the idea to put together this Midwest version of Mission Creek.
“We had heard about Iowa City,” said Perry. “Gabe’s was one of those venues that I knew about before moving here, and the writing community is renowned across the country, so we just figured that something like Mission Creek could happen here.”
The basic philosophy remains the same behind these two events. Organizers seek to pair smaller independent bands with a handful of notable headliners in order to showcase a variety of music.
“The idea is to expose local and regional talent to a larger audience and to match them up with national acts that might share some of the same interests,” said Illingworth.
The difference between these two being that San Francisco has many more established acts to choose from locally, making it easier to draw crowds. There are far fewer bands and performers here, so to pull off a similar festival in Iowa City requires booking a greater mix of acts to try and pique public interest.
This is no small feat. The festival’s producers, Craig Eley, 27, Illingworth, 24, Todd Olmstead, 25, and Perry, 31, aimed to have everyone booked by October, but it’s hard to nail everything down. Considerations had to be given to the relationships between acts and venues and who play against each another.
Some shows can be booked in a couple weeks, but others, like The Mountain Goats, are four years in the making.
Dividends are already appearing by Mission Creek bringing in acts to Iowa City that would not come here normally. There is no medium-sized club in town where national touring acts can play on a regular basis. The Iowa Memorial Union can put on shows of this level, but they are alcohol free, and that just won’t do. Mission Creek offers the chance to see a sweet band in a tiny venue.
“A band like Beach House or The Mountain Goats, at this point in their careers, are going to bypass the state of Iowa,” said Olmstead. “We use what we have here to get someone to play a smaller venue than they might otherwise.”
This is made possible through a little arm twisting on the part of Mission Creek’s organizers and doing a good job of selling the Iowa City community.
“Bookers recognize this is a special event and if their client is going to ever appear in Iowa this is the chance to do it,” said Perry. “We’re not Cochella and we can’t pay them Cochella dollars but this is still a cool and artistically worthy place for them to play,” added Olmstead.
Organizers are also consciously attempting to break down stereotypes associated with the live music venues in this college town. Over at the Picador there’s an alternative and metal crowd, while the Yacht Club is known for its get-high jam band scene, and the Mill is heavily folk-influenced.
Often it proves difficult for one venue to attract crowds from another, even if the entertainment is comparable. Mission Creek wants to turn this on its head and unify the different scenes as much as possible, so no matter where a person stops to take in some of the festival there will be something of interest.
One thing we’ve done successfully is take a lot of bands out of their atmosphere and put them into a different venue, in front of a different crowd,” said Pittsburgh native Craig Eley. “We’ll throw a big, crazy indie-rock show at the Yacht Club because it just doesn’t happen very often.”
While music is the driving force behind Mission Creek, a strong second is Iowa City itself. Organizers point out that in addition to the literary and indie-rock scenes here, there are a variety of subsets beyond the obvious, such as the underground music and noise scenes or spoken word. Mission Creek’s objective is to shine a spotlight on all these different happenings in town so people can identify them and get involved.
“That’s the other thing about the festival, its really about Iowa City,” said Eley. “It’s in downtown venues, it supports the downtown economy, but more than that, we all live here and love this place and if we can get one or two national news stories because of this festival it promotes Iowa City as well.”
Something the Mission Creek folks are noticing this year is the attention they are getting from people in the community. Organizers went out of their way in reaching out to the city and local businesses and they have been rewarded for their efforts.
For the first time the city council and City of Iowa City are backing the festival. Mission Creek is also partnering with Summer of the Arts on the festival’s literary component, and an agreement was reached with the university to host some events on campus.
“I support innovative ideas for the arts and the Mission Creek guys are innovative,” said City Councilwoman and Mission Creek contributor Connie Champion.
The festival is always on the edge financially, but it continues to run in the black, if barely. Mission Creek is set up as a non-profit organization, something local attorney Paul Burns, from the law firm of Bradley & Riley, assists organizers with pro bono.
“We try to pay people as much as we can, as a rule,” said Perry. “Sometimes people do favors for us because they know we’ve got some financial stress and they will take down their rates so we can pull it off.”
“Everyone gets paid except us,” said Olmstead.
The first two years the festival was only as big as its founders’ bank accounts. But there has been steady growth annually, from 1,200 attendees the first year, to 3,500 in 2008. This year organizers are looking to draw 5,000 people in order for the festival to reach its financial goals.
“The biggest marker will be the fifth year, if we can stay alive through this year,” said Perry.
The additional support coming in for 2009 has enabled Mission Creek to expand from four days to five. Also more venues are involved, like Public Space ONE (PS1), which is alcohol free and allows more all ages shows to be thrown.
“It’s not that we’re just growing by throwing bigger shows and having bigger bands, which we so have, but its also growing down into the community, said Eley.
The organizers want their festival to grow, but smartly. They’re not looking to turn this into a Lollapalooza situation. Mission Creek has size limitations because it utilizes the town’s geography to host the event.
All the festival venues are located downtown and essentially across the street from the University of Iowa, which has an enrollment of over 30,000 potential festival attendees. These elements combine to allow Mission Creek an environment where it can mature into becoming part of the community.
It’s this philosophy that drew New Belgium Brewery, the makers of Fat Tire amber ale, to sign on as a sponsor. It is a small sustainable company with local roots that appreciates what Mission Creek is trying to accomplish.
Although Mission Creek started out as a Midwest edition of its San Francisco counterpart, its producers now compare the festival’s style and experience, on a smaller level, to Noise Pop in San Francisco and SXSW in Austin, TX. These too are multi-venue events that occur in downtown locations.
Events this year are being held at the Englert Theatre, the Iowa Memorial Union, the Java House, the Mill, the Picador, Prairie Lights bookstore, PS1, and the Yacht Club.
With over 60 announced performances so far, Mission Creek drops the hammer on the first night, bringing GZA or The Genius to the Englert. Iowa isn’t exactly a hot bed for hip-hop acts, so booking a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan is a huge get for Iowa City and Mission Creek.
“The Wu-Tang Clan and GZA’s work has been a huge part of all of our lives,” said Illingworth. “Listening to the Wu for so many years, it’s just awesome to get them in here finally, especially at a place like the Englert.”
It’s unknown how this show will play out, but anticipation is high for it to be a memorable night. Tickets can be purchased separately, but are included in the price of a festival pass. An after-party is being arranged at the Yacht Club, where a tour of indie hip-hop artists will be kicking it. Admission is free for anyone who goes to the Englert show.
Beach House brings their atmospheric experimentation from Baltimore to the Picador Thursday night. Also on the bill that evening is The Fruit Bats, a side band of the Shins’ multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson. “People will be floored by how good they are,” said Perry.
The Mill hosts a homecoming of sorts Wednesday for The Bowerbirds, which feature two former Iowa City residents. Then Friday The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice step to the stage with their intriguing brand of acoustic guitar work. “He is never uninteresting,” said Eley of The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.
Of the numerous all-ages shows, notable is Tallest Man on Earth. This Swedish folksinger plays a late one Saturday night at PS1. This has great potential on the weirdness scale, but remember to get your drink on before, this is a dry affair. Also Cartright and Polite Sleeper should be engaging at the Java House.
Local favorites Dave Zollo, Pieta Brown, Dennis McMurrin and Public Property are also playing this year.
On the literary side of things, organizers intend to dispose of stuffy readings and breathe some fun into the presentations. The Mill, Prairie Lights and PS1 have events scheduled. There also is a film screening at the university.
“The literature aspect of the festival is becoming national, and is a serious part of the festival,” said Perry. “We’re really trying to lay ourselves down as one of the cutting edge things in music and literature.”
If five days of clubbing isn’t enough to scratch your live-music itch, the night before the festival begins there is a pre-festival party at the Mill’s Tuesday Night Social Club. The show is free and will include Brighton, MA and Fourth of July.
Having flown below the radar of many folks the first three years, Mission Creek’s organizers feel they have a roster of events that will cure that problem and raise its profile.
With a festival pass running a cool $50 – a bargain for six nights of entertainment – attendees can customize their viewing experience and turn downtown Iowa City into a multi-day bar crawl. And with New Belgium as a sponsor, Fat Tire will be on special throughout.
“There’s not one show that we booked that I’m not pretty psyched to see, or that I wouldn’t go to if it wasn’t part of our festival,” said Eley. “Even Yak Ballz…it’s going to be awesome.”
# # #
Published by: Little Village | Volume 8, Issue 78, p. 16 | March 2009