First off, Saturday’s Maha Music Festival held at Stinson Park was nothing less than a success. Great bands. Record crowds. Good times had by all. But as I was pedaling my mountain bike back home through a break in the rain, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this the best Maha will ever do?
With an attendance of 4,300 -- the highest in the event’s history -- Maha organizers can claim some sort of victory. But in the big picture, how successful is Maha really, especially compared to the MECA’s Red Sky Music Festival, an event that indie music fans sneer at due to its bill of yee-haw country bumpkins and spandex hair bands? Laugh all you want hipsters, but on any given night Red Sky outdrew Maha by two or three to one.
“The two events are apples and oranges and the attendance numbers bear that out,” said Tre Brashear, a member of the Maha organizing team two days after this year's event. “Their cost structure is completely different. They have employees whereas we have volunteers. Their cost structure means that they have to book popular artists to cover that cost structure. Our cost structure allows us a little more leeway to book differently.”
In other words, Red Sky would never take a chance on up-and-coming breakthrough acts like Dum Dum Girls or Delta Spirit for its main stage. And for its second stage, Red Sky went with cover bands, whereas Maha pointed to the future with amazing local acts such as Icky Blossoms and Eli Mardock. But as good as they are, those local bands are virtually unknown outside of Omaha’s tiny indie circle.
While still adding the numbers on Monday, Brashear said this year’s festival will “do better than break even,” but that it “won’t be a huge financial home run.”
“Although our attendance was up markedly over 2011, because we spent more on talent this year and still price our tickets very reasonably, those things tend to cancel themselves out.”
It’s hard to argue that Maha’s $35 ticket price is anything less than a steal. Maha headliner Garbage by themselves would likely cost you that much or more if they were playing Stir Cove. And those ticket buyers wouldn’t get the rest of Maha's line-up, though to be honest, the folks I talked to who came to see Garbage didn’t give two shits about UUVVWWZ or Desaparecidos.
Is it time for Maha to reconsider its indie-flavored format? “In my mind, the bigger ‘format question’ is should we instead be spending the vast majority of our money on one artist and/or should we stick with this low ticket price format,” he said. “We have always believed that our budget should be spread around because that’s what makes a ‘festival,’ but does Desa + Garbage + Delta Spirit do more for us financially than booking Jack White?”
When Stir can charge $42.50 or whatever plus fees for Avett Brothers and Maha charges $35 and eats the fees, Brashear said he can’t help but think they're leaving money on the table. “Now we have always kept a low price because we want to be affordable for everyone in the belief that the community will buy in and get behind Maha," he said, "but if the reality is that lineup is everything and people don’t care that we are a nonprofit and won’t buy a ticket if they don’t love whoever is on stage, then maybe we should charge more every year to get as much as we can from those that are passionate about the lineup.”
Maybe. Maybe not. A friend of mine was jazzed when Maha announced Garbage as a headliner months ago and told me he definitely was going, especially with the added bonus of seeing local high fliers Conduits and Icky Blossoms. But in the end, he stayed home. Why? He said although he thought Garbage was a bold choice, it still seemed like the festival leaned too heavy on ‘90s rock bands when they pull in what they think is a big name. There always will be an excuse for those only interested in the lineup who ignore the festival's overall vision. But what exactly is Maha's vision?
“I think we have coalesced around the theme that we are a ‘community focused indie music festival.’” Brashear said. “It wasn’t necessarily that way in 2009, but with Red Sky being the music event with a broader scope, we are comfortable staying in the indie music realm with some minor deviation from time to time if the opportunity presents itself.”
Brashear also pointed to Maha’s Community Village concept, where non-profits set up booths and interact with fans. “It breaks down the barriers of people thinking Maha is ‘only’ a concert,” Brashear said. “We want people to come regardless of the lineup, not simply because of it."
It's that non-profit, community-based vision that ultimately sets Maha apart from Red Sky's concert series. It's a vision shared by anyone who smiled as teens spray painted murals and children ran through the grass flying handmade paper kites.
As Maha heads for year five, Brashear said the festival's growth depends on finding a presenting sponsor willing to support that vision with dollars. “Not having a presenting sponsor the last two years has been a huge financial negative and impacted our ability to pay up for talent,” he said. “Without one, I don’t know if we will ever be able to afford to go to two days, which is still what we’d like to do.”
He pointed to Des Moines’s 80/35 Festival, a two-day event which this year featured Death Cab for Cutie and The Avett Brothers and boasted 17,500 paid and 35,000 total attendance. That festival got $500,000 in seed money from a community foundation and Chamber of Commerce. Just imagine what Maha could do with a half a million bucks.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.