Newbo Evolve: The story behind Iowa's new festival
Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine brought his wife and daughter to his Walk of Fame ceremony, calling himself "the luckiest guy." (Feb. 11) AP
CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — Scott Tallman hasn’t seen many films this year.
That’s a surprising admission for a two-decade tenured film and television professional who cut his teeth on the set of “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Heathers”
Instead of salivating at the cinematography in “The Shape of Water” or tearing up to the tender-hearted “Paddington 2,” the former vice president of events at NBCUniversal is engulfed in his new work: Curating Newbo Evolve, Cedar Rapids’ cornerstone cultural event featuring headliners Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson, set to take place Aug. 3-5 in venues across Iowa’s second-largest city.
Unveiling the event — nearly two years in the making — marked a professional and personal milestone for the eastern Iowa native; a benchmark in a journey that took him from television VP in Southern California to unemployed in his mid-40s to a job in the Midwest that put him closer to his father in his final years.
Still, he and his convention and visitors bureau colleagues know, at an operating budget that could reach $4 million to $5 million, announcing Newbo Evolve is the first step of an uphill battle in making their vision for Cedar Rapids a reality.
“There’s so much anger and confusion and people feel lost and left behind ... these are all things that I've gone through myself and there is this brotherhood and sisterhood out there,” said Tallman, the director of community events at GO Cedar Rapids, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.
He continued: “So let’s just come here and take a deep breath and talk about it and have a good time and listen to some great music and see some great art.”
On paper, Iowans see an event with a three-day, $375 asking price that’s not quite a conference but not completely a music festival, either.
There’s director John Waters and HGTV star Clint Harp and digital entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian leading lectures and panel discussions during the day, but then there’s Adam Levine and his band blasting “Moves Like Jagger” from a to-be-built 15,000-person amphitheater at night.
With a potential 4,000 three-day pass-holders and 15,000 concertgoers, an easy comparison would be calling Newbo Evolve a small-scale South by Southwest, but, at its ethos, Tallman argues that still doesn’t fit. It’s an event meant to be “soul-grabbing,” he said, a collection of ideas that reflected his personal journey.
Los Angeles to Bohemia
The Bettendorf native returned to the Hawkeye state following a handful of years in freelance event planning that followed his layoff from NBCUniversial, the result of a corporate merger.
He worked with San Diego Comic-Con and SXSW and WWE during his time in Los Angeles. While he took the Cedar Rapids position to be closer to his father, who died last summer, Tallman explained he wanted to lend his experience to creating something organic.
Something he said felt unquestionably tied to Cedar Rapids culture.
“I drove in (my) first day and saw there (was) this mural welcoming you to New Bohemia,” Tallman, 54, said. “Bohemia? This is super cool, right?”
He asked himself: “You guys own something super cool, super organically. ... What are you doing with it? It kept sticking with me.”
So, around August 2016, following his return to Iowa, Tallman and Aaron McCreight, GO Cedar Rapids president and CEO, began brainstorming ways to bring bohemia to life in eastern Iowa. McCreight hired Tallman, he said, specifically to execute a benchmark event for the city.
“We had no idea what this was,” said McCreight, a Missouri native who joined GO Cedar Rapids in 2015 following a career in coaching, playing and owning a minor league baseball team. “We knew we wanted to do something. I just felt that he was the guy to guide us down that road.”
What they’ve created, in Tallman’s opinion, is a place where people can feel comfortable at 18 or 38 or 65 years old. He’s encouraging speakers like Waters or famed designer Christian Siriano to discuss stories of personal struggle.
“We’re such a youth obsessed society right now,” he said. “We want to say (that) you can be 65 years old and say, ‘I want to change careers,” and then go, “Here’s people who’ve done it. Take their inspiration and go.’”
Tallman drives Newbo Evolve with McCreight lending direction (including the occasional brake pump, he jested) from the passenger seat. Individually, each says the festival wouldn’t exist without the vision of the other. Together, they agree the vision only succeeds if people embrace it.
The festival plans to boast 40-or-so events total, with lineup additions to be announced in the coming weeks.
“(We want) that true experience of the mind body and soul,” McCreight, 43, said. “It’s corny and it’s overused, but we wanted something deeper then listening to a few hours of music. … But if that’s all you want, great. We have tickets for that. But if you want more, we have it here.”
A worthwhile investment?
At 10-plus venues, three days and an operating budget more than four times that of Des Moines’ tenured indie rock festival 80/35, it’s safe to say Newbo Evolve is … ambitious. It’s an feat Tallman, McCreight and company meet with a smile (“Oh my gosh, it’s so exciting,” Tallman remarked at the risk the team’s taking).
The $375 price tag, reserved to 4,000 passes, gained local media attention when the festival launched earlier this year. It’s more than Iowans would pay for the $259 or $195 music festival VIP pass at Hinterland or 80/35, respectively, but considerably less than the $1,625 walk-up price for a SXSW “platinum” badge.
Organizers declined to comment on the number of tickets sold, offering they’re “encouraged” with on-sale progress. Individual tickets to see Clarkson cost $54.50 to $107.50, with standalone Maroon 5 tickets running $70 to $134.50.
“To get things done and to get them right always costs money,” Tallman said. “There’s usually a sticker shock to that. …. We’re talking about a citywide event, we’re taking over 14 venues. We've building a temporary structure.”
It’s not the first time big-name music’s attempted to pump life into downtown Cedar Rapids. Terry Peters, president of Townsquare Media Cedar Rapids, booked indie rock staple Young The Giant to headline the one-time Newbo Music Festival in 2015. The festival brought in about 3,500 people, but didn’t return for an encore year.
Peters questions the price of the Newbo Evolve, but ultimately hopes it culturally advances the city.
“Selling $50 tickets in Cedar Rapids is hard enough, let alone $375,” Peters said. “I wish ‘em the best. Cedar Rapids needs to bring in big names like that, but they also need to have a successful event. “
Others in the industry argue a $4 million to $5 million investment by a city’s convention and visitors bureau shouldn’t be a head-turning gamble. $500,000 of the festival’s initial budget comes from an advance on Go Cedar Rapids’ $1 million annual allocation from the local lodging tax. Ticket sales, sponsorship and vending plan to make up the remaining budget.
It’s a reasonable way to spend funds, said urban culture sociologist Jonathan Wynn, author of “Music/City: American Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport,” and could be considered cheap when compared to investing in permanent entertainment structures, such as a sports stadium.
“When you’re talking about millions of dollars, it might be wrong to say, but it is a relatively cheap way to try and project an image of being hip and young and cultural,” Wynn said. “As compared to trying to nurture a subculture or a cultural infrastructure of venues and arts galleries and facilities like that.”
Still, ask a former colleague, Gretchen J. Berg, showrunner for CBS series “Star Trek: Discovery,” and she’ll tell you why Tallman’s the perfect person to pull off an event that could change a city’s cultural landscape for years to come.
“He’s not just an idea guy,” she said. “He’s an execution guy.”
She continued: “I've never been to Cedar Rapids, but the fact that he’s the person that’s throwing this event … he’s going to show a version of it that (shows) why you want to fall in love with this city. I trust his instinct when it comes to that.”
Now, it’ll take that instinct to turn an idea into a festival Iowans look forward to experiencing every summer onward.
“It’s this long, gooey road,” Tallman said. “And we love, emotionally, where it’s at.”