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Iowa Music Festival Organizers Cautiously Optimistic About Summer 2021

Hozier performs at the 2019 Hinterland Music Festival. The 2020 festival was cancelled due to COVID-19, but organizers hope to return in 2021.
Hinterland Music Festival 8/2/19 Headliner

Due to the pandemic, all of Iowa’s major music festivals were cancelled in 2020. IPR’s Tony Dehner checked in to find out how organizers are planning for summer 2021.

The new year always brings with it a sense of possibility and hope, and that’s rarely been more true than in the case of 2021. The news of a vaccine for COVID-19 raises the possibility that we might be able to look forward to the return of things we’ve lost, including live music, something that would benefit fans as much as those who work in the live music industry.

According to Ron Laffitte's testimony during the hearing Examining The Impact Of COVID-19 On The Live Event Entertainment Industry, 95 percent of all national live events in 2020 were cancelled or postponed, which, in turn, caused 77 percent of industry workers to lose their income. This doesn't include contract workers like tour bus drivers, lighting companies, or sound engineers. According to the hearing, 97 percent of contract workers in the live events industry lost their jobs due to COVID-19 cancellations and closures.

Hoping to put some people safely back to work, organizers for some of Iowa’s biggest and most storied music festivals are cautiously optimistic and working to plan for this summer.

Looking back at 2020

The 80/35 festival in Des Moines was one of the first festivals to cancel in 2020, shortly after the cancellation of the annual South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Jarin Hart, the former executive director of the Des Moines Music Coalition and one of 80/35’s organizers, called South By Southwest’s cancellation “the turning point.”

mking_IPR Staff at fests-10.jpg
IPR/Madeleine King
The crowd gathers at the IPR Live Sessions stage at the 2019 80/35 Music Festival. 80/35 organizers expect to put on a much different-looking event in 2021.

“It was a scary decision to make, but ultimately, the decision was being made for us,” Hart said. “In some ways, it was a little bit of a relief. To truly plan and put in place what was necessary to make sure that public health and safety were in place, in such a short time, would have been incredibly stressful.”

The DMMC let Hart go at the end of 2020, due to budgetary issues brought on by the pandemic. She says it was a fearful and stressful year for event organizers and everyone involved with the live music industry.

“There’s always a little bit of fear, wondering what the public is going to think, but the response was really positive,” said Hart. “It just kind of helped reinforce that we really did make the right decision. At that time, we thought we could start that planning process almost a year in advance, and try to get a jump on ensuring 2021 happens. We had no idea that we’d be in this position at this point, where even 2021 is murky at best.”

The Hinterland Music Festival wasn’t postponed until late May. As 80/35 did with South By Southwest, Hinterland organizer Sam Summers followed the lead of another event. He regularly checked in with producers of the Newport Folk Festival, which is held annually in Newport, Rhode Island.

Hinterland and Newport were both scheduled for the last weekend of July in 2020.

“We were optimistic, but there was definitely no certainty,” said Summers. “As states started closing, and Newport postponed, it became apparent that we weren’t going to safely get it done in August. I spent a few weeks getting all the artists re-confirmed for 2021, including all headliners. There were a couple smaller artists who couldn’t commit yet.”

Summers said that while it was the right call to cancel the 2020 fest, it was really depressing.

“I look forward to that every year, and so do a lot of people,” he lamented.

Camp Euforia was supposed to be hosting its final festival of it’s 17 year run last summer at Jerry’s Farm in Lone Tree, just outside of Iowa City.

“Just like all things in life, we've run our course with it,” said festival organizer Eric Quiner. “Instead of doing this event for years and not putting the proper energy into it, we decided we’d like to leave everyone wanting more, as opposed to ‘they should have ended this event 10 years ago.’”

Photo Courtesy of Camp Euforia
A performance at Camp Euforia.

Being a smaller festival, Quiner said re-booking and postponing was relatively easy for them.

“We had a couple things that we had to eat some cost on, but by and large, we were okay,” said Quiner. “We didn’t have a lot of contracts out, and the lineup we were going to announce was very heavy on local bands. Many of them were ‘throwback bands’ who were on the lineup 15-16 years ago.”

What’s in store for 2021

With 2020 now in the rearview mirror, and a possible end in sight for the pandemic, festival planners are preparing to adjust. 80/35 organizers are expecting to put on a much different festival in 2021.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about is whether or not Western Gateway Park will still work for us. That would be a big change,” said Hart. “We’ve been looking at some other possibilities.”

Hart said that in addition to concerns about the location, organizers are also looking at options for putting ticket holders into pod-style areas to enjoy the music and are working through how to host the event without clusters of people and long lines.

“A big part of 8035 is the free area, and that’s something we’re trying to work through,” said Hart. “Can we livestream, and would that serve as the ‘free’ aspect of the festival? Maybe we condense down to one day, or do a free day on Friday and a paid day on Saturday? I think no matter what we do for 2021, having some sort of virtual element is key.”

A message of hope from a 2019 Hinterland attendee.

Of course, nobody has any idea what to expect from the coming year, which makes planning ahead difficult.

“So much could change in the next three months, or nothing could change,” said Summers. “My mind has gone from ‘masks, testing, create a bubble, etc’. to ‘maybe everybody will be vaccinated and we can do it like normal.’ I’m sure it’ll be somewhere in between there. We’ll do anything and everything we need to for everyone to feel comfortable.”

Quiner hopes that Camp Euforia will be able to have its final year in 2021, but he is open to pushing the final event to 2022.

“I would love to have the show go on, but we’ll see. Truth be told, until it’s a much safer world, we’re going to stand on the sidelines.”

All three festival organizers were grateful for the support they’ve received from the community. Summers said he heard from lots of people who obtained refunds for their tickets who plan to re-purchase them in 2021. Quiner and Hart expressed similar sentiments.

“What makes Camp Euforia great is those grounds and the camaraderie,” Quiner said. “We do about 1,000 tickets a year, and 500-700 of them have been going for 5, 6 or 7+ years. It’s a family reunion.”

The Des Moines Music Coalition held a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $28,000 to help ensure the future of 80/35. Hart says the festival costs almost a million dollars to produce, but brings $1.4 million into the city of Des Moines over the course of two days.

“It’s so important that the community support arts and culture organizations as a whole,” Hart said. “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

Tony Dehner is a Studio One Host