How Summer Set became the region's top fest

Summer Set 2014

Summer Set 2014

With the field of music festivals spreading like neon ink in vinegar, throwing a summer weekend bash has ceased to be a guaranteed cash grab. That's especially true in the vortex between Lake Michigan and the Dakotas, which has become something of a Bermuda Triangle for promoters hoping to spark a movement.

Just ask Live Nation, which lost millions on St. Paul megashow River's Edge and backed out of its five-year contract in 2012 after only one run. Or First Avenue, whose outdoor concert at Parade Athletic Fields was nixed shortly thereafter despite rumors of a Replacements reunion. In 2009, it was the 10,000 Lakes Festival that closed up shop after seven years.

Meanwhile, Summer Set Camping and Music Festival, the massive EDM playground scheduled to take over Somerset, Wisconsin, this weekend, is thriving. Now in its fourth year, Summer Set is bringing 74 artists to a crowd of around 30,000, even adding a fifth stage to accommodate rare Midwest visitors the likes of the Weeknd, Bassnectar, and Deadmau5.

"Our goal with all our festivals is to create an unbelievable experience through music and the setting," says Lucas King of React Presents, one of the organizers behind Summer Set. "When we first laid eyes on the grounds at Somerset, we knew this was the place to create an amazing experience in the Midwest."

Summer Set isn't the first to try to marry tone and setting at the Somerset Amphitheater, though. SoundTown, the first festival to move into the former Float-Rite Amphitheater following its 2011 renovation, turtled just ahead of its would-be sophomore showing due to low ticket sales. But Summer Set found its wheelhouse in genres like EDM, dubstep, hip-hop, trance, and jam bands, a swath that allows the festival to attract young music lovers ready to go gonzo in a campground setting.

"Ours is really the only major camping festival in the area, so we've differentiated ourselves in that way," says Scott Leslie, co-owner of Summer Set sponsor Majestic Live. "There's always been a concentration of EDM and hip-hop, but additions like the Weeknd, Purity Ring, and Tune-Yards really make us stand out."

The charm of Summer Set is the feeling of a euphoric atmosphere that includes DJs spinning downstream from the Apple River, where festivalgoers can list lazily in inflatable tubes. It's a secluded electronic utopia that's become a retreat for fans looking for absolute immersion.

"I'm really not sure if there's something specific to these genres that makes them conducive to a festival setting," says Jack Trash of Minneapolis partner SIMshows. "What really matters is having a unique or interesting collection of artists together at the same place."

For younger and hipper Minnesotans, only Rhymesayers' annual hip-hop throwdown Soundset and 89.3 the Current's Rock the Garden have maintained festival footholds. But both of those fests, launched in 2008 and 1998, respectively, come with built-in audiences and lack wider appeal. Long-running rural Minnesota fests WeFest and Moondance Jam cater to very specific demographics; On the Wisco side, boutique indie extravaganza Eaux Claires enjoyed a triumphant first run this year, but its staying power is still an open question.

If there's a mold for regional festival prosperity, it was cast by Milwaukee's Summerfest. But the World's Largest Music Festival is really more of an exaggerated block party that doesn't rely on ticket sales the way inclusive destination fests do. Only Summer Set stands to translate Bonnaroo and Coachella for the Grain Belt.

Festival reviewer and entrepreneur Tucker Gumber, who's been to more than 77 gatherings in the past five years, knows that festivals don't become recurrent without solid initial branding. "When you throw a festival for the first time, it's like you're auditioning," he says. "If you throw the right festival, you could literally sell tickets to next year as people are on their way out the gates on the last day."

"I love the people that attend and work the festival," says 23-year-old Lakeville native Alyssa Friedrich, who'll take part in Summer Set for the third year. "Seeing friendly faces around is always a good feeling. Plus, the workers at the festival always seem to be enjoying the music on stage as much as the festival-goers themselves." Friedrich, who also works on the street team for SIMshows, is one of a huge contingent who've become romanced by the fest's community-building reliance on fan feedback to improve.

Summer Set's attendees are ritualistic and fanatical — so much so that there's currently a petition circulating to resolve the scheduling conflict between Purity Ring and ODESZA. While this abuse of social justice networking may seem absurd in any other context, it's not outside the norm for Summer Set regulars, who've grown so used to being consulted that they're nearly an organizing partner unto themselves. "Every year, we send out a survey to the fans and work closely with the local community to improve and build upon what has been established," King says.

It may seem solipsistic, but Gumber notes that festival organizers who recognize the value of putting fans first are the ones who survive. "We are the headliners," he says, paraphrasing Insomniac Events founder and electronic festival magnate Pasquale Rotella. "No matter how good the lineup, if it isn't a successful music-viewing experience, it doesn't matter how good all of that is."

"We feel fortunate that we actually have such immediate access to feedback," Trash says, adding that some specific logistical changes to Summer Set were catalyzed by fan requests.

For now, this sort of ear-to-the-ground focus has propelled Summer Set into rarified air. As part of the triumvirate of promoters who finally cracked the formula, King doesn't hesitate to frame his excitement from the perspective of the folks who made it possible.

"As a lot of our fans would say, we're incredibly stoked."

Summer Set Music & Camping Festival 
With: Bassnectar, Big Gigantic, Deadmau5, the Weeknd, Action Bronson, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Carnage, Die Antwoord, others.
When: Fri.-Sun.
Where: Somerset Amphitheater, 715 Spring St., Somerset, WI.
Tickets: $74.50 single-day passes & $199 three-day passes — click here for more info.