Music » Music Stories

LouFest Is Building Deep Roots

by and


The first LouFest was an unqualified success. How could it not be? There was the novelty of a new major music festival in St. Louis and a lineup stacked with local heroes (Jeff Tweedy, the Bottle Rockets, So Many Dynamos) and national star attractions rarely seen here (Broken Social Scene, Built to Spill, Titus Andronicus). The sophomore effort is this weekend, and things are a little different. The lineup, while still dense with great bands, does not have the sure-fire local draws last year's did. And, of course, it's no longer new.

Turns out the momentum remains: LouFest founder Brian Cohen says they're on pace to sell 50 percent more passes this year. Still, finding an attendance ceiling is the least of his concerns. This year's capacity is 15,000 people — roughly 5,000 fewer than the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. With LouFest, it isn't about quantity.

Last Year Dan Jones has been playing in bands around St. Louis for years and will have enthusiastically attended both years of the festival. He noticed an attention to detail last year that had him buying a two-day pass this year as soon as they went on sale. "Things that always get left out of other national festivals, LouFest had taken care of," he says. "The very friendly staff left a positive impression on the out-of-town guests that joined us at the fest."

None of the details are accidents. "It sounds conceited, but I think we got it right last year off the bat and are trying to keep that up now," says Cohen. "There wasn't a lot of time to sit back and enjoy it because as soon as it was over, we realized it really had legs and would be happening again but bigger."

What's New The biggest complaints about last year's festival centered on minor logistical oversights: Shade and water were in high demand and short supply. "I thought there could easily be twice as many water distribution stations," says Jones. "And it would have been nice to have been able to sit under some trees throughout the day. "Those tents got very hot last year."

There will be more of both water and shade this year. Other changes include a Schlafly Beer Garden, larger and ritzier VIP accommodations, the children-friendly Area K and the Chatter Box, a Wi-Fi social-media center that doubles as a recharging station.

In the year between its first and forthcoming lineups, LouFest's organizers have centered their attention on branding the festival. Much of last year's feedback suggested not enough people knew the festival even existed, and its recent campaigns include advertising spots at stadiums and partnering spots with gigs at the Firebird, Off Broadway and the Billiken Club. Jordan McCall, who went last year and plans to return again, says he's noticed a year-round LouFest presence — the partnered shows are what caught his attention.

Although it's still unclear what effect (if any) the addition of Kanrocksas will have on the Midwest festival landscape, Cohen and LouFest's other organizers are paying attention. While LouFest's eco-friendly priorities and intimate aesthetic lend it to a smaller niche, Kanrocksas' strategy involves larger names and a exponentially greater size, even in its first year. By sharing nearly its entire lineup with Lollapalooza and being organized by an out-of-town operation, Kanrocksas made its focus national. LouFest, by contrast, has meticulously looked to St. Louis for nearly every detail of its infrastructure.

"It's neat because last year you had Sleepy Kitty making posters, Euclid Records providing a pop-up store and Schlafly providing beer," says Jones. "In contrast, I was at Coachella in '09. There was only $9 Heinekens, a $100 screen-printed poster and a national chain record store."

Who knows what sort of long-term impact that commitment will have. Certainly the pricey beer isn't keeping people away from Coachella. Still, in an industry with a fractured audience and diminishing sales, thinking small and selective may prove the most sustainable practice.

"There have been a lot of festivals that come in strong the first year and get lost, and [Kanrocksas is] a very different kind of festival from LouFest," Cohen says. "The comparison I always make is the turtle and the hare here. We're the turtle that is going to end up making it."

The Lineup Cohen and his team split the selection process into two stages — local and national. The actual consideration for both follows the same steps: creating a wish list that mixes genres, calling artists from the top to bottom and fleshing out the list when it wears thin.

"Aside from getting a little spoiled by having hometown hero Jeff Tweedy playing an acoustic set in Forest Park last year, this lineup really stacks up against last year's," says Jones.

The handful of local bands are chosen with reputation and history in mind: "We want to be a springboard for St. Louis music, and we want to make sure that bands that have paid their dues get a chance to play with TV on the Radio," Cohen says. "The biggest hardship for us is convincing people that the bands we're bringing in are really important for them to listen to."

Their efforts haven't been in vain — the excitement built around LouFest generally has worked for the local bands as well. "People started talking what-ifs on this year's LouFest lineup last December," says Jones. "It's something that music fans have to look forward to each year. I think that is something that local bands could strive to play each year as it grows and expands."

It's hard to know how well an afternoon set at a festival will go. Jon Hardy & the Public plays at noon on Saturday, and Hardy says he isn't thinking about big implications. "I'd like to leave the experience open. We're going to make sure everyone who's there at noon on Saturday is glad they were," he says. "That's what I'm thinking about."

Future Plans Right now, LouFest's five-year plan focuses on size. "People think that because the field is big we have the ability to just take up more space, but we're talking about controlled growth here," Cohen says. The original goal was to eventually expand the festival to fill up the entire field, but its current level of intimacy is a huge part of the current appeal. Festival staff will review this year's larger numbers and determine how much to expand next year, and a stiff hike in size could make it more difficult to maintain LouFest's eco-friendly focus on minimizing or eliminating waste. In the meantime, current plans include the addition of art activations and a potential DJ tent.

"I think St. Louis can support a much larger festival, which would bring in more people and money from outside," says Cohen. "But whether that's what people really want...we'll have to wait and see.

What LouFest Means For St. Louis LouFest has made efforts to be a year-round presence, but the festival could have implications beyond a name you see around town. "St. Louis has always had a good music scene," says Jones. "It's just sometimes you had to know where to find it. This is an event that can really showcase local indie bands in a way that hasn't been available before. It also gives local kids a place to go to see bands that might otherwise skip over St. Louis. It's those same kids that are going to pick up a guitar and try to start a band."

Whether LouFest inspires you to play music or simply listen to it, Cohen and his five-person staff say it will always remain deeply tied to this city. "I'd like people to think first and foremost that it came out of St. Louis for St. Louis," says Cohen. "I want people to continue to know they have input, that it's not something that just dropped on top of them and that it's alive and evolving." 

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.