Top music promoter Sam Summers is a metro stalwart
How do you get people to show up for live music? Sam Summers knows.
It started with the very first concert he put on as a Johnston High School senior in 2002. He paired some more established Des Moines acts from a variety of genres with ties to his high school. He threw them all in the Botanical Center (now the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden) and charged $5.
His class had about 350 students in it — 310 showed up for the concert.
"There were a bunch of bands at my high school, all made up of different pockets of students," said Summers, now 31. "I figured if I could bring all these bands together, they would bring all their cliques."
Now, the shows are coming to Summers.
"He's the only promoter of significance in Des Moines, from what I can see," said Amedeo Rossi, project manager for the 80/35 Music Festival. "He's a different breed of person, with integrity. Agents are coming to Sam, trying to put shows in Des Moines."
Over the last decade, Summers' has been a rising star in the Des Moines music scene, promoting shows at multiple venues, including Wooly's, which he co-owns. He also books the Nitefall on the River concert series.
You can see Summers' high school strategy reflected in his latest (and largest) project, this weekend's Hinterland Music Festival. There are folk and alternative country acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros along with indie rock (TV on the Radio), bluegrass (Yonder Mountain String Band), pop-driven bands (Future Islands), soul and singer-songwriters (St. Paul & The Broken Bones).
It seems to have worked. Hinterland's grounds have space for 8,000 attendees per day. As of late last week the festival had sold more than 6,000 tickets for each day.
"I don't go to a ton of festivals. With my personality type, I don't love how festivals are set up. You're always running around, trying to catch bands, missing some and getting stressed out," Summers said. "That's kind of what inspired me to do this. I wanted to keep things streamlined, which is how I would like a festival to be.
"Maybe my idea is stupid, maybe I should do it like other festivals. But rather than emulate, I decided to do it how I would want to do it first, then look at outside influences."
Summers made money or broke even on his first 15 shows. Putting on concerts with his company First Fleet Concerts was mostly a hobby while he attended Iowa State University for an economics and marketing degree. He booked a pre-fame Fall Out Boy at Vaudeville Mews in 2003 and brought the band back to Val Air Ballroom in 2005.
"Promoting shows is almost pure gambling," said Rossi, who is Summers' partner in the Nitefall on the River concert series. Rossi also owns Vaudeville Mews, where Summers booked his earliest shows. "You have an idea what a band does in an outside market, but so many times you have shows where it's a band's first time in this market. It's hard to estimate what kind of money to plunk down or what kind of attendance you should expect."
Summers' first big loss came in 2005 when he booked the punk band Rufio at House of Bricks in the East Village. He lost $700 that night. Feeling defeated, he went to Prairie Meadows with a friend to play some poker. They ended up hitting the Bad Beat Jackpot, with Summers taking home $7,800 while his friend got $13,000.
"That made it all better," Summers said.
In the mid-2000s he supplemented his income playing poker online (which is illegal in Iowa, but also very popular with college students) and even made it to the World Series of Poker in 2006. He worked as a blackjack and pai gow dealer at Prairie Meadows on the 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. shift, booking shows during the day while sleeping about four hours a night.
Eventually he quit and took a job at Wells Fargo, continuing to book shows on breaks or hiding his BlackBerry below his desk. By 2008 he was ready to put his focus solely on shows again. He lined up a few shows, put in his notice and walked away from his office job.
Finding a mentor
Before there was Sam Summers, there was Steve White. From 1973 to 1989 White put on the Iowa Jam at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, bringing everyone from the Grateful Dead to Metallica to Des Moines. White said he got the sense from other promoters that they were scared of Summers, so he called the kid up and arranged a meeting. Before long they were partnering on shows. White retired in 2012, but still works with Summers on the occasional concert, like a Widespread Panic show last fall in Ames.
"Sam is a savvy businessman who is highly motivated, detail-oriented and a very capable promoter," White said. "Sam knows the concert business, he knows his market, he knows the right people, he is dependable, honest, and Sam is no pushover by any means. This guy has all of the skills it takes to be a successful concert promoter. I want to see Sam continue to succeed and I wish him all of the success in the world."
What he looks for in a band
Summers has brought a number of artists to Des Moines before they hit it big. In addition to Fallout Boy, he's brought Macklemore to town twice (including a show at Wells Fargo Arena) and multiple shows by the band fun.
In the early days Summers was booking pop punk bands he liked or his friends' bands, but these days he's booking across genres. So what makes him take a chance on a band?
"I listen to a lot of satellite radio and I know what sounds good and has the right hooks, but a lot of it is trusting the agents," Summers said. "There are certain agents, I'll book whatever they offer me. But with some agents I'll take the number they want, cut it in half, then think about it.
Sometimes an act seems like a sure thing and gets booked far in advance on the hope of a single taking off, only for radio support never to come through. Lately Summers has had a lot of success with jam bands and country acts. While a bad album might sour fans on a pop or indie act, jam fans are drawn to the live performance and the bands tend to draw larger crowds each time they return to Des Moines.
Summers is now booking shows around the Midwest. Hip-hop and indie acts that do well with college crowds tend to get routed to Iowa City. Legacy indie rock acts and radio-driven active rock do well in Omaha. Minneapolis is home to the indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers, but Summers had found that suburban hip-hop acts with a young audience, like Hoodie Allen, have allowed him to carve out his own little niche in the Twin Cities.
In Des Moines he's been having a lot of success with red dirt country artists like Cody Canada.
"We're doing a ton of country at Wooly's now. Like jam, it builds," Summers said. "Every time someone comes back, the crowd doubles. I don't know where they're coming from, people don't find it on the radio. We're surprising Nashville agents all the time; this is the furthest north a lot of their acts have been."
Summers opened his own music venue, Wooly's, in 2012 with partners Josh Ivey and Rafe Mateer. In 2013 the trio opened the Up-Down arcade bar next to Wooly's and earlier this year the partners opened an Up-Down in Kansas City.
Summers is also one of several partners in the Powered by Fries food truck, along with Des Moines Social Club founder Zack Mannheimer and Proof chef Sean Wilson.
Hearing Summers talk about food trucks conjures images of his days of booking do-it-yourself concerts.
"What I love about food trucks is it allows people who have limited resources but are very creative to open their own thing on a smaller scale," Summers said. "A brick-and-mortar restaurant buildup might be anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million, but you can get in a food truck for $15,000. It lets people channel their creativity and that is going to turn into more options for eating in Des Moines."
Summers has had a busy year putting together the first Hinterland, and he plans to start working on the second one not long after the music wraps up Saturday. For 2016, Summers hopes to expand Hinterland to 12,000 attendees per day. In addition to Midwestern promoters like White and Don Sullivan, Summers has also followed the career of legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham.
Legend has it Graham learned to do every job at the shows he put on, giving him a complete understanding of what it took to put on a big show. If something went wrong, Graham could fix it.
"This has been a stressful year, but now I know exactly what kind of people I need to hire for each piece, what type of personalities to plug in as vendors and the box office. It's a lot of work, but I love it. I'm going to be delegating more of my responsibilities with First Fleet and focusing on Hinterland.
"I want to create that thing where everyone wants to play it."
Hinterland Music Festival
- When: 4:30 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday.
- Where: The Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater, 3357 St. Charles Road, St. Charles. (The venue was changed from Water Works Park in Des Moines because of rain.)
- Cost: $45 in advance per day or $50 at the gate, $75 for both days in advance or $90 at the gate.
- Info: hinterlandiowa.com.