The Business of Music-Des Moines

I remember the first time I drove in to Des Moines. It was August of 2012 and I was starting law school in one week. It was the first time I had been in Des Moines, and frankly I didn’t know what to expect. My initial impression when seeing 801 Grand tower over miles of cornfields was surprise. Here was a real city (or at least a tall town) in the middle of nowhere, smack dab in the middle of the Midwest. It was more than I expected.

That initial impression is a great illustration of every subsequent interaction I’ve had in Des Moines. Des Moines is always surprising me, the people, the businesses, the culture which adapts and grows is a hybrid of Midwestern values, agricultural work ethic, and coastal ingenuity. When I called my girlfriend at the end of that first week in Des Moines she asked what I thought of the city. My response was a simple one that I believe rings true to this day, “Des Moines . . . it’s surprisingly cool.”

So what brought me around? What was it that captivated me so much with this urban oasis in the middle of corn fields and pig farms? It was the music and arts scene, this vibrant, magical, culture tucked into corner bars and alleys, gathering in parks, cafes and side streets, a passion for the arts which I had never experienced before. It was that realization that brought me here today, an attorney and business planner for entertainers.

Des Moines is not your typical artistic spotlight, there’s no mystical tie to a specific genre like Nashville or Austin, nor is it a hub for artistic production like New York or Los Angeles. Des Moines is more like a Seattle or Portland of the plains, growing and adapting yet ever mindful of the people and businesses that call it home, an ever changing blend of insurance, banking, finance, agriculture and transportation. Oh, and music, that one’s important.

The growing entertainment districts along Court Avenue and Ingersoll offer music and entertainment seven nights a week for anyone looking for it. Venues such as Wooly’s, Vaudeville Mews, Lefty’s, The Des Moines Social Club, the Gas Lamp (whose future is in question after a recent purchase of the property by Kum & Go), and Wells Fargo Arena showcase local, regional, national, and international talent throughout various segments of their careers. It’s amazing to see a local act go from playing in front of a crowd of 25 at Vaudeville Mews to a crowd of 500 at Wooly’s. This diversity and dedication of artistic development is genuinely Des Moines, and it should be embraced.

The bigger economic aspect of all this is felt in music festivals. Des Moines is home to quite a few, and that number is only getting larger. Increased interest in small entertainment production start-ups has this market on the rise. Established festivals such as 80/35 and 515 Alive have lead to the rebirth of festivals such as River Bank Bash and the establishment of Hinterland, both in Waterworks Park. These are only the beginning! The Greater Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) also sponsors GDP (a local showcase festival held in the spring) and Little Big Fest (a world/folk music festival held in the fall). The community outreach of each of these festivals, as well as the continued involvement of the DMMC by both promoting and educating the community has created a surge of interest. As I type this, there are dozens of additional start-up festivals of varying genres, local connection, and influence all looking at Des Moines as the next big entertainment investment.

The economic impact of these factors cannot be ignored, in fact, back in 2013, I helped the DMMC with an economic impact survey on the music industry in Des Moines. Believe it or not, music and entertainment in Des Moines is becoming a big business, and fast. That growth will only continue so long as the community allows it to do so, which is obviously a good investment considering the ties Des Moines seems to have between music/entertainment and the happiness of it’s young professional population (which, if you haven’t noticed, is pretty happy based on nearly every recent award touted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership).

So, what should we do? Well the answer seems obvious, continue the investment. The old warehouse areas along the river often sit empty and in disrepair, condos and townhouses are going in, lofts are in fashion, so if trends continue you’ll have a lot of young professionals moving in to that area. Build it up! More entertainment venues, small clubs, music bars, these are the businesses that people want, and it will help develop the local talent, which will only increase the awards received from that investment.

Speaking briefly on local talent, there’s an absolute slew of it here, do yourself a favor and check out any local band (genre of your choosing) at any venue in town, you will not regret it. Continue to support local music, it’s just good for everybody.

Specifically, there are three important gaps which need to be filled in order to maximize the potential in the Des Moines music and arts scene. First, there really isn’t any regular access to local music for people under 21, which is due primarily to the budget-balancing power of alcohol sales. If a shrewd businessperson could find a way to run an alcohol-free venue in town, it would certainly fill a niche. Second, there’s no venue in town for mid-level acts. This is a venue that ranges in size from 1000 to 2500 people. Ideally, you’d have two to four of these with varying capacities in a city the size of Des Moines. At this time Amedeo Rossi and Sam Summers of First Fleet Concerts are looking into establishing such a venue, but movement has been slow according to a recent Des Moines Register article. Third, and lastly, more local media exposure. Day in and day out it seems as though local radio is in it’s death throes, but that doesn’t mean the local exposure needs to die as well. Podcasts, blogs, live outreach, all of these activities will help bolster the business. The Des Moines Social Club is now teaching classes on podcasting and blogging (also sound engineering and dozens of other things, make sure to check them out).

All of this is about communication. The more we communicate, the better our business will be. This lesson has been beautifully embraced by the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Sonic Factory Studios when they put on the Des Moines Embassy Music Showcase (#HellYesDM) at SXSW this year in Austin, TX. I met complete strangers on the streets of Austin who were so impressed by that showcase that they were making plans to visit Des Moines just to see what the scene was all about (I advised them to visit during the summer). I was repeatedly told that the showcase was the best at the festival, and the best way to drum up support for your music business.

And that’s what this really is, music and entertainment is business. Whether you’re a young musician just starting out, or a bar owner thinking about closing your doors, it’s all about running your business. The sooner we’re able to recognize this and plan accordingly, the better off we’ll be in the business of music.

For any of your transactional, entertainment law, business or estate planning needs please call Kreamer Law Firm at 515.727.0900.

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