Here's how 515 Alive grew into one of Des Moines' largest festivals
Organizers of 515 Alive Music Festival expect this year's crowd to be the event's biggest in history. Wochit
Dan Green doesn’t want 515 Alive to be just a Des Moines festival. Or an Iowa festival. Or merely a Midwest event.
He wants it to be a music gathering that buzzes from coast to coast. And, after growing by thousands of attendees in four years, it's well on its way.
“We’ve been trying to make this a household name,” Green, director and co-owner of the annual festival, said. “It’s starting to become that way. It’s … something that people just go to because it’s 515 Alive.”
If he fulfills the goal of 22,000 paid attendees over two days on Friday and Saturday, 515 Alive would earn the spot of top pay-to-see festival in Des Moines this summer. How? Green merged a desire from fans to see internationally known electronic acts in Iowa with a need to bring in top-tier hip-hop performers.
The final cocktail for the 2017 edition at Water Works Park brings top electronic heavyweights Excision and Griz alongside hip-hop staples Gucci Mane, Tech N9ne and Hopsin.
"Some of the acts we have — in their lanes — they’re some of the biggest. There’s no question about it," Green said.
Started from the bottom …
The rise of 515 Alive under Green's watch started in a whirlwind.
The 29-year-old Des Moines native purchased 515 Alive in 2013 alongside business partner Raj Devan two months before throwing together a one-night festival in a now-extinct East Village parking lot for about 3,000 people.
“As we grew, we didn’t want to be a stagnant festival (with) just the same talent budget," Green said. "We’re trying to blow people away every single year."
In 2014, it grew in location, moving to Western Gateway Park. In 2015, it grew in talent and time, adding a second day and bringing in crossover hip-hop success Waka Flocka Flame to headline. In 2016, it grew again by pulling an estimated 8,000 people each day to downtown Des Moines under the biggest electronic names billed to date.
Now, he’s planning for 2017 with an estimated 11,000-per-day crowd. It will be the biggest year of 515 Alive yet.
That lineup, a staggering 100-plus acts that mix local, regional and international electronic and hip-hop talent, is a testament to Green’s uncanny ability to spot up-and-coming talent in a genre drenched with performers, said Sam Summers, owner of Hinterland Music Festival, a two-day Iowa music festival, and First Fleet Productions, a Des Moines-based concert promotion company.
When Green and Devan purchased the festival in 2013, Summers considered investing before ultimately walking away from the deal. Now, due to Green’s pulse on the genre, Summers believes big names in electronic music can pull big numbers in Iowa’s capital city.
“I had zero faith in electronic music in Des Moines,” Summers said. “And Dan is the key to making (it) work. When I do a concert without Dan’s support in that genre it just doesn’t work. When he’s a partner on it, it works.”
More music news:
- An Iowa musician was featured on one of this summer’s favorite TV shows
- IowaStock, a four-day, all-local music festival, now canceled
- Des Moines Jazz Festival returns to downtown next month
'Dan is a marketing genius'
A Des Moines native and Iowa State University graduate, Green first tasted a full dose of electronic dance music (EDM) while studying finance in Ames. He was at a local bar when a track called “Kyrian Bee Bop” by drum and bass producer Bassnectar filled the room.
“Music had been so standard for so long. You’re a band (or) you’re a rapper. I didn’t know much about electronic music although it'd been happening for years under the radar,” Green said. “That was when I sparked interest.”
From there, he began DJing at clubs and bars in Ames, cutting his teeth on self-promotion and social media marketing for his appearances. After graduating, he moved back to Des Moines and set his sights on throwing his own electronic shows and gaining ground in the local scene.
He threw his first show, coined “Winter Bass Melt,” at Vaudeville Mews.
“What better way to make friends with someone (then) by putting them on a show?” he said.
Green attended and performed at 515 Alive after leaving Iowa State — he proudly set the goal in 2011 of headlining one of the festival’s stages and did so the following year — but it took a bartending job at Wooly’s, an. East Village music club co-owned by Summers, to open the door for Green to begin booking national acts.
He used his "in" at the venue to book an act called Vibesquad in 2012, which he said “snowballed” into him bringing a steady flow of EDM music to Des Moines, Iowa City and surrounding areas, eventually leading him to take over 515 Alive. He said he decided to buy this festival, as opposed to starting his own, because of the established brand it holds.
“To be able to say we’ve been around for 15 years … I think that gives people comfort,” Green said. “I knew of 515 Alive when I was in high school; I would go to it when I was 18 years old. … We were buying a strong name that was recognizable.”
While he studied finance (and admittedly doesn’t do the books for the festival), it’s Green’s marketing ability that’s caught the attention of his peers. Brad Goldman, a long-time Des Moines-based DJ who sold the festival to Green and Daven after operating it for a handful of years, described what Green’s done with marketing the festival as “mind-blowing.”
“Dan is just a marketing genius,” Goldman said. "He really looked out there at the landscape and, opposed to being like 'What kind of music can I bring?' he said, ‘What are these kids connecting with?'"
515 Alive attracts biggest numbers in ages 16-25, Green said. The last half-decade of growth happened in the midst of EDM getting repeated media attention under questions of losing steam in popularity. Publications such as Pitchfork and Forbes have asked “when is the bubble going to burst?” but fans continue to attend established electronic festivals regionally and nationally.
Mixing electronic with popular jam and indie acts, Michigan-based Electric Forest Festival expanded to two weekends in 2017, bringing an estimated 40,000 people to the event. The festival, originally called Rothbury Festival, rebranded in 2011 to shift focus from a jam-heavy lineup to electronic, leading it to become a nationally recognized event.
Adding hip-hop names such as Gucci Mane and Hopsin brings in a more mainstream audience that otherwise wouldn’t commit to an all-electronic event, Green said. He calls 2015, the year he brought crossover success Waka Flocka Flame to the event, the event's breakout year.
"I truly don't know if we (would've) been able to grow this big without [hip-hop],” he said. “Those names draw Des Moines people."
Music long reads:
- We ranked every Iowa State Fair Grandstand lineup since 1970 from worst to best
- How a group of scrappy Iowans created one of Des Moines’ biggest music events
- Here's how one Des Moines venue is having its best year in two decades
Gambling on Water Works
Having delivered acts the likes of Diplo, Zeds Dead, Machine Gun Kelly and A$AP Ferg to Des Moines, Green faced a new challenge in 2017: finding a home that fit the festival.
After three years at Western Gateway Park in downtown Des Moines, Green began looking for a venue that could fit his idea of a festival inside a city that also offers camping. Enter: Water Works Park. Taking a gamble, Green decided on the location despite two events — Hinterland (which moved to Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater in St. Charles) and Eric Church-led River Bank Bash — being canceled at the park due to flooding in 2015.
He examined weather and flood patterns, consulting Water Works staff before making the call.
“It still blows my mind that these two events were canceled there in 2015,” Green said. "It's a beautiful place to have an event.”
Fans of festivals that see little or no location changes may be taken aback by the migration south. 515 Alive fans, however, come prepared for it. The event’s been held downtown, at Brenton Skating Plaza, on the Grand Avenue bridge and in the East Village.
“People are not afraid of it changing … that’s the beautiful thing about it,” he said.
Now, with hours left to prepare, Green said he’s focused on mastering the grounds before festival-goers flood the space. New challenges for his team include creating the right traffic flow and preparing the campsite. He expects about 2,000 campers.
“It’s crazy. Every time I go out there the park gets bigger, I swear,” Green said. “To put it into perspective … we had 1,000 feet of fencing at Western Gateway Park. We are getting 16,000 feet of fencing at Water Works.”
As for next year, Green said he’s not worried at all about topping what he’s already accomplished. He won’t disclose which acts he plans to bring, but believes it, again, will be bigger than the year before.
“I already have plans for that,” Green said. “… but we have to get through this year first.”
515 Alive Music Festival
When: Aug. 18 and 19
Where: Water Works Park, 2201 George Flagg Parkway, Des Moines
Who: Excision, Griz, Gucci Mane, Tech N9ne, Hopsin, Mijia, Hopsin, Nghtmre and more
Price: $52.50 for a one-day general admission pass; $87.50 for a two-day general admission pass.