Midwest Music Fest in Winona has been announced. Safe to say, it’s the most complete line up of high end regional talent that has ever been assembled. A literal Who’s Who of the Minnesota scene. Maybe that’s what makes it my favorite festival every year. Hands down.
If you love the Minnesota Music Scene, it’s a sure bet you’re familiar with Midwest Music Fest. The question is whether you’ve ever made the short trek down the river to catch it? Those who have always return. If you haven’t yet, mark Winona on April 29-30 on your calendar. When information for the September 16-17 edition in LaCrosse is announced, we’ll write about it.
What makes MWMF so cool? In a nutshell: The finest acts in the upper Midwest. Variety. A charming river town that warmly welcomes festival goers. Accessibility to 8 stages. Vibe. An ongoing mission to support and give back to the local scene. All for an amazing price.
Look, I understand the fan who spends his or her hard earned money to see their favorite international headliner at some huge festival. (If seeing their image on the big screen since the stage is a quarter mile away really counts as “seeing”) Been there done that. The issue for so many of us is that it’s all a bit impersonal. Expensive, crowded, long lines, a nightmare getting in and out. MWMF is the perfect alternative; more akin to a mini SXSW. No sprawling festival grounds. Instead, an entire town creating space for music.
You get up close and personal at MWMF. You can stand by the stage if you’d like. It’s not like you have to stake out and guard your spot hours in advance. You will run into musicians not only at Merch but in the audiences and out on the street. They don’t disappear before and after sets. That’s because so many of these bands are friends. They put on their fan hat and head down the street to support one another. Or go catch a newer band that’s creating a buzz. MWMF is Minnesota’s biggest family reunion for regional bands. It’s the ultimate Meet and Greet for fans. If you prefer feeling a part of, rather than being just a spectator, you can’t beat it. Like I said, a very cool vibe.
Midwest Music Fest continues to evolve. Traditionally, it splits between Winona and LaCrosse. This year it’s two days in each location. Spring in Winona. Autumn in LaCrosse. We’re going to focus on Winona in this article as that one is locked and loaded. Details and tickets can be found HERE.
In an attempt to give you an inside look at what goes on to pull it off, TCM reached out to Executive Director Dylan Hillicker. Dylan was kind enough to answer questions about what the organizers have been doing, the festival’s history and goals, as well as how they managed to pull together such an incredible line up.
On one hand, it seems like MWMF has been around and doing great shows forever. How long has it been and how did it get started?
MWMF was started by Sam Brown in 2010 (now owner of Big Turn Music Festival in Red Wing, MN) as an AmeriCorps service project. The idea was loosely based off of SXSW in Austin, TX with the idea of activating all of downtown Winona with music and art. Although the pandemic cancelled the normal large-scale festival model, MWMF held virtual festivals in 2020 and smaller in-person events in 2021.
How did you become involved and how long have you been associated?
I became involved through my friend Zach Zurn at Carpet Booth Studios, who’s a Winona State grad and now adjunct professor. Doug Westerman, who was on the board of MWMF at the time, mentioned the job opening to him and he sent it to me. I’ve been running festivals since I was 16 years old—I started ROCKchester Music and Arts Festival in Rochester, MN as a high school student and grew it to a 1000+ attendee event in 2019. I’ve never been associated with the MWMF until now but I think the board believed that some new blood would be good, especially because of my experience and close connection to the area.
This year’s line up is a Who’s Who of great Midwestern bands. How many are involved in just the Winona event?
We have 70+ acts at the festival this year. The headliners are HALEY (fka Haley Bonar), who first played the fest back in 2012. This might be her only full band show of 2022. And POLIÇA, one of my favorite MN bands ever. Way too many great bands to fully highlight them all but you can find them all at https://www.midwestmusicfest.org/winonaartists
People in the know have always said that Winona punches way above its weight when it comes to the music scene. Why do you think that’s the case? Is MWMF one of the reasons for that or is the festival a beneficiary of that scene?
Winona is a community that really supports local art. So along with the festival being here, the town also has an ethos of celebrating and supporting art. I think any festival or large-scale event helps show community leaders how how important it is to support the arts. Through their support, more of these large-scale events can happen. Everybody benefits. Artists, music venues and city coffers.
How on earth did you book everybody? That doesn’t happen without the acts feeling really appreciated and talking to each other, does it?
The booking process is basically done in two stages. First, we put together a crew of 10-20 of our musically inclined and connected friends to help us brainstorm a list of up to 500 bands (plus we sift through over 300+ submissions each year). Through that process we rank, vote, and narrow down the list to about 100 or so bands that become the basis of how we book the festival. Then, Nate Nelson and myself take this list, form the schedule and submit offers to each band. It takes about 2-3 months from start to finish to book the festival, but it is one of my favorite parts because I get to listen to and discover new music that I don’t hear every day.
As far as why people are so willing to jump on board, I think MWMF has made a name for itself over the years as being the premier music discovery festival in the region. We don’t get the biggest, flashiest acts, but we do have a storied history of getting acts before they break (i.e. Lizzo, Caroline Smith, Charlie Parr, etc.). If you come to MWMF, you know you are going to find an artist that is going to be bigger in a few years.
It’s also a family atmosphere. Bands that have played before come back because they know their friends will also be here. It’s our philosophy that no matter where the band is slotted, they are important. They are special to this family that we create and get treated as such. I think bands buy into what we’re creating because they know that at MWMF they’re all treated like they could be the next one to break.
The range of acts spans the gamut from really established acts to those trying to make a name. What’s the impetus behind giving all those up and coming acts a shot?
A strong arts community puts as much energy and emphasis on the up-and-coming bands as they do the established acts. We are in a unique position as a festival to be a resume builder for an up-and-coming band. A big selling point in the live music industry is who you’ve opened for or toured with. So we give bands that are trying to break out the opportunity to play with larger acts that they wouldn’t normally get the chance to.
There is literally something for everyone in terms of musical style and taste. Is the festival organized in a manner that people can catch the stuff they want without too much schedule conflict? Or will the performance schedule be more like the proverbial box of chocolates?
In my opinion, there will be some tough choices at the festival this year. However, as a music discovery festival, there will be something for everyone at any time of the day. One exciting development this year is the launch of our new app – which will feature a “My Schedule” tab. Attendees can find the bands they want to see and add them to their lineup. The app will then notify you when a band that you added is about to play. As an obsessive planner and researcher, this feature will help me decide where I’m going to go throughout the festival as well!
Is there a particular vibe or objective associated with each of those 8 different venues? In other words, if I’m into singer/songwriters might I want to hang out in some particular spots? Or some places where I should go to get my rock on? Can I stick to a couple close venues and let the music I want come to me? Or do you recommend chasing the bands you know and moving around?
Yeah, there is a vibe to some more than others. No Name Bar is going to be where you find your heavier alt rock and punk acts. Island City is going to be where you find the jam/psych bands. At Acoustic Café and Blooming Grounds you can expect mostly mellow singer/songwriter or small band acts. Eagles Club this year will serve more as a folk/americana stage. Our new stage–Peter’s Biergarten–will be the ultimate smorgasbord: with rap, experimental rock, shoegaze, post punk, and emo all represented. The Levee Park lineups are curated by whoever the headliner is that night. So for HALEY, expect to see more indie rock and power pop bands, and for POLICA, expect more moody, experimental pop and rock acts.
While I can’t stop you from staying in one spot, every venue has something to offer and I think you should experience as much as possible.
I know as Executive Director, you have to love all your bands equally so this is a tough question: As Dylan the music fan, would you be willing to point to some acts that you will try to attend or performers who you suspect are going to pack a venue?
Great question. I think the acts that I can see getting even bigger in the next few years are (in no particular order): Abby Hamilton, Gully Boys, Future Crib, Heart to Gold, WHY NOT, papa mbye, and Mike Kota. And that’s just one tenth of the acts!
Speaking of packing a venue. Many of your performance spaces are intimate. On occasion, a venue hits capacity. For instance, I’ve seen The Shackletons cap out No Name Bar. What advice do you have in terms of arriving if you want to make sure you get in?
I think that’s up to the individual festival goer to decide. If you really want to see someone, stay as long as you can at that venue and you’ll probably find some new favorite bands along the way. But I usually like standing in the back so I might not be the one to talk!
One of the really cool things about MWMF is that the entire city of Winona is involved in some way. Can you speak to how all those various locations and venues give you the ability to make this festival unique?
What is so great about Winona is that the downtown area is very walkable. This makes a multi-venue music festival perfect because all attendees can get around from stage to stage easily. So I think the answer to the question is just how you phrased it: MWMF is unique because of the uniqueness of the venues and of Winona’s downtown area.
Music fans from the LaCrosse, Winona, Rochester triangle have been driving up to the Twin Cities to see their favorite bands forever. What would you say to Twin Cities music fans about the city of Winona and why it’s worthwhile to make the trip?
It’s worth it to make the trip to see good music and to explore and experience Winona fully. There’s so much more than just the festival to explore during the weekend. There’s campgrounds, hotels, and airbnbs for attendees. Plenty of ways to get out into nature, with the Mississippi and striking bluffs. No shortage of local businesses to pop into and find a meal or a drink. It’s only 2 hours from Minneapolis, and the drive down Highway 61 is beautiful at any time of the year. So I encourage more Twin Cities people to take a Friday off and come and spend a weekend in the Winona area.
You talk about moving the festival into the future in terms of sustainability, new technology and unique experiences on top of just adding to the line up. Can you give us some examples of what you’re trying to do?
Coming into the organization, one of our main priorities was to re-envision the festival post-pandemic. Being in a community where you’re surrounded by the Mississippi River and the bluffs, sustainability means a whole lot. Our efforts include recycling stations at all venues and encouraging refillable water bottles rather than single-use plastic bottles. We’ve eliminated paper waste by moving our traditional printed festival guide into a full user-friendly app experience. In terms of unique experiences, keep on the lookout for events the week leading up to the festival…
On top of curating such a deep and diverse musical line up for fans, MWMF also gives back to the community in a big way. For instance, you’ve focused on issues like mental health and outlets for young journalists. Can you speak to those objectives?
The three core tenants of MWMF are arts programming (i.e. the festivals), teen education, and mental health advocacy. We talk a lot about the festival because that is the high profile event. But MWMF also provides Winona and La Crosse area students with the opportunity to meet and interview bands from the festival–helping them develop their communication and journalism skills. That gives them something tangible to have for their resume and, hopefully, gives them a better understanding and appreciation of what it means to work in the entertainment industry.
Additionally, MWMF provides mental health programming to regional musicians and the broader community to help them get the tools and resources they need to live healthier lives. We hope in the future to expand this program to provide year-round services to anyone in the entertainment industry and local community who are in need of mental health resources.
When a fan travels down to Winona for the festival, they’ll likely be wandering between venues. Any advice of how best to prepare or should anyone be concerned with distances?
Bring a good pair of shoes and stay hydrated! The farthest distance from one venue to another is less than a mile, so don’t be too concerned!
How about food and lodging for those who are traveling?
The Plaza Hotel and Prairie Island Campground are my two favorite spots to stay at while I’m in Winona. Acoustic Cafe has one of the best hot hoagies in the state. My advice for those lodging – book early as the rooms are already filling up! My advice for food – pop into any shop in Winona to find a good bite or visit the food trucks down at Levee Park during the hours of the festival.
Looking into the future, what are your goals in terms of the types of acts you want to promote?
In the future, I’d like to continue bringing in higher level talent from around the Midwest. My goal of the festival is to be known in the area as the festival to go to to find your next favorite Midwest band.
Ticket prices for a line up of this calibre are incredibly affordable. How are you able to continue to do that and what can people do to support you throughout the year?
Thank you for mentioning that! Weekend tickets for Winona this year come at the cost of just under $1/act. This only happens with the help of our sponsors, donors, community partners, and ticket holders.
If you would like to make a donation, follow this link.
If you would like to buy a ticket to the festival (and leave a donation!) click here
If you’re interested in sponsorship/partnership or just want to talk about the organization and any of our programming, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love meeting new people who are as passionate about live music as I am!
Finally, MWMF is such a remarkable grass roots, music community driven event. It presents a remarkable opportunity to meet and rub elbows with artists and industry people. For those who want to be a bit more involved in making the festival a success, are there opportunities to volunteer?
To volunteer, sign up with this link. Volunteers are integral to the festival and are rewarded with a custom t-shirt, and pass to the festival.