Loss Leader

Music-wise, this weekend's Mill City Festival looks like a winner. Business-wise, it's a $1.7 million gamble.

           "Oh, man, what have I got myself into?" It's a question every promoter asks at some point, and Danny Alexander, founder of this weekend's Mill City Music Festival, says he posed it to himself this past February. Faced with nearly $1 million in talent fees, a good chunk of it due before the start of the festival, Alexander asked for help and found a 50/50 business partner in Triad Entertainment, the Eden Prairie-based agency that handles music bookings at the Fine Line, Cabooze, and Guthrie Theatre. With a total operating budget of $1.7 million, Mill City is about seven times the size of the Minnesota Heritage Festival, a celebration of 19th century Minnesota that Alexander produces on Nicolett Island over the Fourth of July weekend each year.

           The lineup Triad and Alexander have pulled together for Mill City is ambitious (48 national and 77 local acts representing all kinds of music), audacious (it's being staged during the final weekend of that economic steamroller known as the Minnesota State Fair), and for now, unfortunately, an almost guaranteed money loser. Whether Mill City goes the eventual way of New Orleans's two-week Jazz and Heritage Festival (as its organizers hope) or folds after a few years like Riverfest, may be determined by more than good luck, good weather, or even good intentions.

           Though Triad president Sue McLean says Mill City is modeled after Jazz Fest and Seattle's Bumbershoot, it's closer in spirit to Denver's LoDo Festival, a street party designed to help keep that city's lower downtown alive; in Minneapolis, Alexander says he wanted to promote an event that would keep the Warehouse District from becoming a ghost town over Labor Day weekend. To try and accomplish this, Mill City will offer music on three free outdoor stages and four paid stages covered by tents along First Avenue North between Washington and Seventh Streets. The strong emphasis on local acts, says McLean, is meant to echo Jazz Fest's celebration of hometown talent, which in Mill City's case means everything from pop stars (Soul Asylum) and hardy club veterans (Slim Dunlap, a reunited Suicide Commandos) to gospel greats (Sounds of Blackness) and cheese-curd-level kitsch (the Dakota Valley Chamber Orchestra and Laser Show, apparently known for their wicked versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes).

           Of course, it was the Allman Brothers, not Louisiana's Mamou Playboys, who drew 65,000 fans at this year's Jazz Fest. Similarly, most of Mill City's big-money draws are from out-of-town: B.B. King, George Benson, Diamond Rio, the Nevilles, and the Village People, armed with a laser show at least the equal of the DVC Orchestra's. In the same way that Jazz Fest is most distinctive for presenting performers on the musical margins, Mill City's biggest treats should be lesser-known artists such as Tejano singer Tish Hinojosa, Afro-pop star Tabu Ley Rouchereau, and Latin jazz masters Eddie Palmiero and Ray Barretto (see Music Notes, below).

           On almost any summer weekend, Mill City's 125-act lineup would probably guarantee large crowds. But factor in that it's a holiday weekend--when locals leave town and visitors head straight to the Fair--and the proposition's iffier. At $25 for a daily ticket or $60 for a three-day pass, Alexander says that he expects to draw 25,000 paid customers each day and an equal number of people checking out the free stages and the 28 food vendors. McLean, who has twenty years of local booking experience, offers a more conservative estimate: 10,000 paid attendees and 10,000 budget-minded music fans each day. She's convinced that most of the tickets will sell once the festival begins, which is why she hasn't kept track of advance ticket sales: "I haven't been checking them on purpose," she admits, "so I don't know."

           Alexander predicts that 90 percent of this year's festival attendees will come from the seven-county metro area, and insists he's not worried by competition from the State Fair. "It would be different," he suggests, "if the two events were a mile apart." But compare the above figures to the Fair's Goliath-size numbers. Last year, it drew 1.6 million people over its 12-day run, and attracted 225,000 on its second Saturday, which coincides this year with the first day of Mill City. State Fair spokeswoman Susan Ritt says that the second Saturday of 1995 was the Fair's biggest day ever, and claims to be unfazed by Mill City as an upstart competitor: "It's more curious to us that they chose the same weekend," she says. "If you're planning to go to the Fair, I don't think you're going to skip it to go to a music festival." Though her tone is nonchalant, Ritt doesn't hesitate to add that the fair offers cheap admission ($5), features plenty of free music (60 performances each day on 6 stages), and has some under-$25-a-ticket grandstanders of its own, including Bill Cosby on Saturday and Trisha Yearwood and Randy Travis on Sunday.

           Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of the national concert-industry newsletter Pollstar, says events like Mill City have been successful in cities eager to support downtown revitalization. But the head-to-head competition with the State Fair surprises him: "I've been there [Minneapolis-St. Paul], and the two places are not that far apart. I would have thought that the timing could have been better, especially for a first-year festival." He notes that in Fresno, California, where Pollstar is based, "It's almost suicidal to book anything against the State Fair."

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