How a group of scrappy music lovers created 80/35
Justin Schoen, Jill Haverkamp and Amedeo Rossi remember the uncertainty of the first years of 80/35 Rodney White/The Register
Brian Sauer remembers freezing in place.
It was the day he and a group of his friends were pitching an idea hundreds of hours in the making to a group of influential community leaders.
He and his colleagues had one, life-changing goal in mind: Convince this group that a grassroots, volunteer-run, two-day music festival — anchored by touring acts that they believed would never otherwise stop in Des Moines — was the best way to spend $100,000. A bold ask for a group of mostly 20-somethings living in a mid-size, Midwestern city dominated by country and classic rock.
“It was scary as (expletive),” Sauer said. “(It’s like), ‘I know you guys are all stewards of the community, pillars of industry ... so would you mind giving us $100,000 to put on a show? Can you give us just a (expletive) ton of money so we can have a concert downtown, please?’ This is ridiculous, looking back at it.”
So ridiculous that it actually worked. Impressed by the group’s ambition, the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines handed over a $100,000 donation toward the roughly $500,000 budget to deliver what would become 80/35 Music Festival, believing it was the perfect risk for a city on the verge of carving an artistic identity.
Celebrating its 10th year in Western Gateway Park this Friday and Saturday, 80/35 now feels almost second nature to Iowans. Always in early July; always boasting two free stages of local and regional talent; always featuring main-stage acts that tip-toe between mainstream success and do-it-yourself mentality. It’s a rite of passage for music fans in Iowa’s capital city.
And this year, in the midst of a decade milestone, 80/35 branding guru Sauer, project organizer Amedeo Rossi and a handful of others who conceived the festival reflect on how countless hours of labor and a love for what Des Moines could be drove them to create the cornerstone event.
A coalition of ideas
The roots of 80/35 are tied to the roots of a community shift. Groups of like-minded music lovers started meeting as early as 2005, sometimes in the backs of bars and occasionally at music venues before finding a home at the Robert Mickle Center.
They discussed ideas of Des Moines evolving into an acclaimed music city, boasting native acts worth remembering and attracting national ones that at the time saw Des Moines as only a hotel stop between Chicago and Denver.
The group became the Des Moines Music Coalition, the nonprofit organization charged with curating 80/35.
Coalition leaders recognized early on they wanted to produce events, and members saw success when they launched two club-sized shows: roots gig Little Big Fest and locally focused Gross Domestic Product.
Riding the wave of both events, 2006 and 2007 proved major planning years for 80/35. Rossi and other members wanted to bring a different, bigger festival. It was initially thought of as one day and anchored by a national headliner, with local acts filling out the bill.
Amid leading public forums and preaching the idea of making Des Moines a music town to local press, Rossi, 48, found himself at the public forefront of 80/35. A longtime human resources professional-turned-local venue and bar owner, he recalls the project as the meaningful outlet he had been searching for.
Little by little, building blocks came together. Des Moines Parks and Recreation threw in the first $50,000, and support from the Community Foundation followed. But they still needed thousands more to reasonably launch the event.
Enter local radio personality Tony Tarbox and central Iowa alternative rock station KCCQ 105.1. Tarbox hosted Rossi on his airwaves in 2007, where the latter urged listeners of the need to take 80/35 from concept to concert and outlined how the Coalition wanted to change the music culture.
In the center of the hype, Tarbox said he knew they'd figure it out, and 80/35 would be like nothing seen before in Des Moines.
“Everyone was so (expletive) excited about it, because nothing like it had been done in Des Moines before,” Tarbox recalled. “No one had certainly done (something) that was left of the dial.”
A representative for U.S. Cellular, someone Tarbox remembers as an avid listener, heard the conversation and convinced the company to jump in as the first corporate sponsor, throwing in another $50,000. (U.S. Cellular declined to comment for this story beyond confirming early participation in 80/35.)
And, with those minutes on the airwaves, Rossi and company had the startup funds to book 80/35.
Grabbing the Lips
A total of $200,000 in hand, the pressure turned to booking the ideal acts.
Rossi began firing off phone call and emails in January of 2008, the clock ticking to gates opening on July 4.
He realized the booking process would be a battle. He was starting late (some festivals book 10 months to a year in advance). He had no national track record. And, with the acts he wanted to headline, neither did Des Moines, really. He had to convince bands to play a first-time, volunteer-run festival in a not-so-major market.
His Coalition colleagues describe him — in the weeks that don't end in a music festival, anyway — as mild-tempered. That mindset probably paid off, especially considering his interaction with Oklahoma City's experimental sons, The Flaming Lips.
The group wasn't immediately warm to the idea.
“Basically, the (Lips’) agent called me and said, ‘Who the (expletive) are you?,’ ” Rossi said. “Literally said, ‘Who the (expletive) are you?’ ”
He explained the idea of 80/35 and got the group on board, but not without agreeing to terms he has yet to experience again in the nine years that follow: Pay 50 percent down and agree to bring in a professional production team to run the show.
He agreed ... and 80/35 scored one of the world's most profound art rock acts for its first-ever headliner.
Landing the Lips opened the booking flood gates for 80/35. More acts followed, including second-day headliner The Roots, confirming two days after Wayne Coyne and company were on board.
The festival, which called Western Gateway Park home after looking at Water Works Park and the steps of the Iowa State Capital, ended up with about 40 acts on the bill.
Rossi, who books 80/35 alongside a volunteer committee, still believes that booking is one of the biggest challenges 80/35 faces.
“These bands were all in the fabric of the festivals that we admired … Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza,” Rossi said. “We wanted to just target something that could incite the people who were excited about music, the fans of music.”
Learning on the go
But what about the food? And the beer? Nickelle Stevens, a local marketing professional, walked into an 80/35 volunteer meeting on a whim in 2007 and walked out with the task of roping in vendors for year one.
She started where most naive-yet-responsible vendor curators would … with researching where the Iowa State Fair gets its deep-fried delights.
“I remember going through the phone book and trying to search out vendors at the Iowa State Fair and calling them,” Stevens said. “I left three or four messages for vendors. At that time I didn’t realize a lot of these vendors travel.”
Through countless hours of trial and error, she landed about 10 vendors in total that year and has run the operation every summer since. Stevens, like most in 80/35’s behind-the-scenes operation, learned on the job. A smattering of local experience aside, this was the first major-scale music event most of the core organizers had dug into.
'Beaming from ear to ear'
Led by an estimated 200 volunteers, the fest invaded the grounds of the then yet-to-be-built Pappajohn Sculpture Park. About 30,000 people, nearly double that of the initial funding pitch, attended in total between free and paid stages. An estimated 13,000 paid to catch a slice of the main stage that year.
Ask someone about the first year of 80/35 and most everyone can recall where they were when Coyne, the Flaming Lips frontman, rolled into the crowd while immersed in his life-size gerbil ball. He prophetically proclaimed the atmosphere was the best fans could ask for, and, in hindsight, most agree.
One headline in The Des Moines Register, according to archives, described the event as "harmonious." Another deemed it a win for the city. By all accounts, it was a success enough to warrant an encore year.
“I was beaming from ear to ear,” Tarbox said. “It was a bunch of friends throwing a party that everyone was invited to.”
Behind the scenes, however, Stevens described the atmosphere as "organized chaos." Most recalled the event as running smoothly, but not completely perfect.
“The core group, we were unprepared for how big it was going to be,” Stevens said. “We survived … but holy moly did we probably need 500 more hands on deck.”
A few of those absent 500 hands could’ve gone to counting the door money, something organizers such as Justin Schoen didn’t take into consideration heading into the first year. He recalled, on opening night, taking bags full of nearly $100,000 in cash to the backroom of G&L Clothing to count well into the morning hours.
“(There were) just stacks of money,” Schoen said. “It was a scene out of a movie. And we recognized that at the time. … That day was one of the most stressful days I’ve ever had.”
Financially, after counting all those stacks of cash, 80/35 broke even. Emotionally, however, Rossi describes with one word that opening night of the festival he says liberated Des Moines: “magical.”
"People who know music ... they (were saying), 'Yeah, this is it. This has been missing. This is important,' " Rossi said. "It was a pivot of what was possible."
80/35 returns to Western Gateway Park July 7 and 8, with indie pop act MGMT and folk rock staple The Shins set to headline. Tickets cost $50-$90 and more information can be found at 2017.80-35.com.