Oh my, how far the Maha Music Festival has come.
Few remember its inauspicious beginnings in 2009 at Lewis & Clark Landing, because few were there. The day featured has-been emo act Dashboard Confessional and where-are-they-now casino fodder Big Head Todd. From an indie music perspective, the festival’s biggest moments came early in the afternoon when Appleseed Cast and Little Brazil played to fewer than 300 people standing on the hot concrete slab alongside Rick’s Boatyard.
Those of us who follow indie music just kind of wrote off the Maha Festival as another vanity project by a group of upwardly mobile young professionals who didn’t know what they were doing but had the money to do it. We thought Maha was a one-and-done boondoggle. We were wrong.
Maha’s power team of businessmen Tyler Owen, Mike App, Mike Toohey and Tre Brashear pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat by partnering with local promoter One Percent Productions, who helped book Spoon, Superchunk and The Faint for 2010. From then on, Maha had a string of hits, moving from Lewis & Clark Landing to Stinson Park at Aksarben Village in 2011 where it’s been ever since.
Last year’s Maha Music Festival raised the bar to new heights with a plethora of indie stars headlined by Death Cab for Cutie and including The Head and the Heart, The Both (featuring Aimee Mann and Ted Leo) and local heroes Icky Blossoms and Domestica. I remember sitting on the edge of the park’s bowl looking out on the estimated crowd of 7,000 with its arms raised wondering how Maha could ever top it.
But with this year’s line-up, it appears they might. Modest Mouse, Alvvays, Speedy Ortiz, Purity Ring, Ex Hex and Wavves are just half of the scheduled performers. For the first time there are rumblings that the festival could actually sell out this year. If it does, will Maha look for a bigger location or expand to multiple days?
It’s something new Maha board members are contemplating. While founders Brashear, Owen, App and Toohey are still involved, the board has grown over the past few years, adding among its members current board president Aaron Shaddy and vice president Lauren Schomburg. The injection of new blood was necessary because, well, the board was getting old.
“We sacrifice a lot of personal time to put on a festival like this,” said Schomburg. “As people get older, families and jobs take more time. Younger people have more time to give to this.”
Maybe so, but the current Maha board ain’t exactly spring chickens. Schomburg is the youngest member, at age 29. “Our target audience is younger, and the people doing this don’t line up with that target,” she said, adding that the disconnect could result in stale offerings or a lack of responsiveness to the community. “I don’t think it’s a problem right now because it takes a certain skill set to pull this festival off.”
And just because they’re the ones organizing it doesn’t mean they’re not asking for help. “We seek input from people of all ages and backgrounds,” Schomburg said. “This is by far the most diverse line-up ever, and that was the result of feedback.”
Feedback that included surveys, and the No. 1 requested band on those surveys was Modest Mouse, this year’s festival headliner.
Even before the first vendor tent has been pitched, the Maha board is looking at 2016 and beyond. “A couple years ago (the festival) was a year-by-year and wait-and-see sort of thing,” Schomburg said. “Now we’re becoming sustainable enough that we know we’re going to do a festival next year.”
Though Stinson Park already has been booked for the 2016 festival, Schomburg said Maha will need to continue to seek sponsors and fund raise. “We still haven’t reached that 10,000 people mark and the significant dollars that come with it,” she said. Could that happen this year?
If not, there’s always the possibility of Maha collaborating in the future with other entities, maybe even the City of Omaha. Schomburg said some have suggested consolidating Maha with other high-visibility local events, such as Big Omaha and Fashion Week. In fact, this year Maha expanded its reach by partnering with Loess Fest in Council Buffs for a “Mini Maha.”
Still another question the board has been pondering: Does Maha really want to get bigger?
“Could we lose that ‘Maha experience’ if it gets too big,” Schomburg asked. “We don’t take for granted the role the location plays. Part of Maha’s appeal is that it’s an intimate experience. You can get a comfortable spot all day. We don’t have to set up video screens because there’s always a good view. You can walk right up to the stage. That’s part of the appeal.”
Omaha native Tim Kasher, who fronts The Good Life, one of the bands playing this year’s Maha Festival, thinks it would be cool if Maha became a two-day event. He said he understands the concern about getting too big. “You want to be careful that you don’t burst that bubble,” he said, “but Omaha could use some bubble bursting. A larger festival could help put Omaha on the map.”
For Schomburg, the ultimate dream is for Maha to become something that encompasses the entire community. “I’d love to see restaurants have special menus for Maha and Film Streams host a movie series in conjunction with the festival,” she said. “I’d love to see something happening downtown, in Benson and Dundee, events all through the city that culminate in this festival. Then it would truly become a community event.”
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org