Backstage Pass

Photo by James Ngugi

It’s a hot July night. The sun’s gone down, but blazing lights dance across a crowd of glistening bodies. Fresh talent jams on the 80/35 stage as the noise from screaming fans competes with the blaring amps.

This moment cannot exist without hundreds of others before it. Hours spent organizing, negotiating, and crafting a cohesive lineup. That’s Amedeo Rossi’s job. As project manager of Des Moines’ biggest music festival, he books all the acts.

Drake Magazine sat down with the music man to get a behind-the-scenes look at 80/35, talent buying, and the Midwest festival scene.

Drake Magazine: Des Moines was already pretty rad. Why start a music festival?

Amedeo Rossi: The festival is a tool. It’s one of the things The Greater Des Moines Music Coalition [the non-profit organization that produces 80/35] identified early on that could be a lightning rod for change in the city’s music scene. We’ve been booking acts that don’t stop here—or weren’t stopping here—that we thought needed to. We were motivated by what could result from having a good festival here, not necessarily the festival itself.

DM: Weezer, The Avett Brothers, Death Cab for Cutie—you’ve had some pretty well-known headliners throughout the years. How do you get such big names?

AR: We start with a long list of artists. We decide which ones we want to contact and see if they have any summer availability. This starts in the fall. If somebody is potentially available, we make an offer and negotiate. If they’re not available, we move to somebody else.

DM: Once you have a headliner, what’s next?

AR: We start at the top and work our way down. The next area is recognizable national talent, then regional talent—acts from Minneapolis or Chicago that aren’t necessarily very big. And then we do an all-local stage.

DM: For those who don’t get into indie music, do you book anything else?

AR: We build in two basic appeals. One being broad indie—everything from indie bands to a lot of hip hop—and two being broad jam, which could be jam music, folk, Americana, or bluegrass. If you’re at the festival, you can follow a track. One or the other is always happening.

DM: How difficult was establishing the 2008 line up without any sort of reputation?

AR: The first year, we wanted The Flaming Lips. They were an original act that hadn’t been here, and we knew they’d have a dynamic show that would be well-received. Their agent called me and basically said, ‘Who the heck are you? What’s this festival?’ Just to consider booking, they wanted money up front. So we put a deposit on the act without it even getting approved. We had to be confident in what we were doing. [Editor’s Note: They succeeded in booking the band.]

DM: Do people know who you are now?

AR: There are a lot of festivals out there, but our notoriety has grown a little bit in the industry. A lot of the primary agents know who we are, so it’s a little bit easier to book. It’s also become a big following locally.

DM: What does 80/35 mean to the Des Moines community?

AR: You want to have an event that’s worthy of what you’ve done in the past. I think generally people aren’t going to know about 75 to 90 percent of the acts that are playing, but a lot of them will discover their talent. People have faith that we’re going to deliver something quality.

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