How to Start a Music Festival from Scratch: Elliott Johnson from Shakopee, MN

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Note: Since we taped this episode, Eliott has since moved on to another position and is no longer with Downtown Shakopee.

Website for Downtown Shakopee:

Facebook Page for Downtown Shakopee:


Elliott Johnson- Hello, I am good. How are you Megan?

Megan Tsui - I'm fantastic. Elliott thanks so much for being here today. And I'd love to hear your story of your Rhythm on the Rails music series. But first, let's learn a little bit more about you. Can you fill us in on how have you gotten involved in downtown revitalization.

E - Yes, I would love to. This is my inaugural podcast debut so I'm so excited to be here with you. I am honored to be talking about what's going on in Shakopee and I can't wait to see what happens here. So Shakopee, Minnesota is located at the Metropolitan Community right outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul's. So we're about a 35-minute drive from Minneapolis with 40,000 people strong here in Shakopee. And it's a quaint little community which is kind of nice. So we've got the advantage of being right near a large city but a lot of people in our community also feel that we're still far away enough that we are our own unique destination which is a really nice combination.

So I started getting involved with downtown revitalization in a previous job of mine back in Brookings, South Dakota, where we were a college town. The downtown needed some revitalization so they asked me to come work with the small businesses right there on Main Street to see what we could do to make people want to shop, live, play right in the downtown district. So flashback four years ago, now I worked with Brookings South Dakota for two years and we were in a good spot so I knew I wanted to go see what else was out there for Main Streets and Shakopee, Minnesota had an opening and so I said let's try it out. So I worked with the Chamber of Visitors Bureau right here in Shakopee, Minnesota with their Main Street program and I've been doing that for two years now and it has been such a fun ride.

And so when I first got here, I sat down with some of their business owners who were getting together once a month just to talk about the state of the downtown, what's going on, where they want to see things going. It was kind of like a strategic planning session if you will, and I kind of just ended up falling into it right on my second week on the job. So they had all these vision boards of what they wanted to do and kind of a cohesive message that came across all their different conversations were they wanted live music.

They wanted a downtown kind of community festival and they wanted it to be free to people who showed up. And so I took a deep breath. I knew I was new at my job and I was like “OK, here we go. Let's put together a summer concert series because you want the music, you want the community festival feel, and you want it to be free and we've got a Main Street program that can kind of be the face behind it if you are willing to rally together for it.” So they were all so excited. I kind of explained the rundown of what it would look like. But before we get into the logistics of how it goes, one of the things I said in that first meeting was, “You have to pay for it and we'll make sure it happens.” because I think a lot of times Main Street programs are so good at hearing what downtown businesses want to do.

Everyone loves ideas, it's fun to give ideas but a lot of people are just kind of hesitant to say “Okay but wait, what does the budget look like?” because it's so hard to put on these successful events, if there aren’t businesses who are willing to back it with actual dollars. And so that was one of the first things we said. I said, “I'm willing to put our staff behind this, I can get the chamber staff to get involved, but I need you guys to put some heavy dollar signs behind this so we can make sure it works successfully.” So that’s kind of the long story short about who I am and where we are and what this monster of a concert series started out as.

M - Oh I love that you told them they had to pay for it. I think that's one of the biggest lessons as a Main Street Director, or anyone, who is trying to revitalize. Ideas are super cheap, they are free and they are a dime a dozen.

E - It’s like black Friday for sure on ideas, we can all get a really good deal on it.

M - But it's the whole idea of, if you want it to be free, then it has to be paid for some other way.

That was so smart of you to kind of lay that down right away.

E -  Right.

M - So after that meeting and you laying down the law that there had to be somebody to pay for it, you'd have some staff but that's the start, that's the very very beginning. How did you make it happen? Well maybe just give us kind of an overview of the event itself and then we'll get into kind of more details.

E - Yeah I love that. So we in Shakopee, right in our downtown district, the train actually comes right through our downtown which is really unique. So we knew we wanted to incorporate some sort of atmosphere where the summer concert series was going to be right on the streets of our downtown. So we wanted to make sure that as the chamber, it's our job to make sure the business community is being heard, being utilized and people are shopping small. So we knew our best that was to somehow utilize the streets right in our downtown and we wanted to cross-market the fact that we were also a train station kind of town so we came up with the concept of calling it Rhythm on the Rails. And so our stage was set up right on the end of one of our streets where the backdrop behind the stage was actually going to be the train that came through. So we knew we worked with we worked with the company that is in charge of the railway that goes through they’re called Union Pacific and they gave us a schedule of what times the train was coming through on Wednesday evenings because we knew we wanted it to be unique in the sense that since we're right in the Minneapolis area people leave for the lakes every weekend.

And so we took a challenge upon ourselves by doing it on a Wednesday night, which was faced with some opposition, I'll be honest some of the business owners downtown didn't think it was going to work. No one wanted to come downtown on a Wednesday night for live music, keep it on the weekend do it on a Saturday. And it turned out to be the total opposite of the truth. I mean people are hungry to do things with their family during the week. Get out of the house, get the kids busy, go out on date night. I mean Wednesday was probably one of the best things we could have done for ourselves because nothing else is going on during the week.

So Rhythm on the Rails is a Wednesday night Summer Concert Series over five Wednesdays in the summer. Which is a daunting idea when you think about it right away, but people loved that it wasn't just one weekend. So when you ask the community what's unique about Rhythm on the Rails, it's different than just your typical weekend festival that I know a lot of businesses, communities put on where it's a Friday-Saturday come down to Shakopee as just for the weekend sort of thing. Ours happens over the course of the summer and you really feel it too, I mean it goes on for quite a while and I know of some communities that do it seven weeks. Some communities that do it all summer long starting right after Memorial Day going through Labor Day. It's really kind of what your budget can handle and how important it is to your community I guess.

So we found a solution with five Wednesdays in a row and it's been really fun. So we do a Wednesday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. So we hit families right when they're getting off of work. Grab a few hours, an hour or so, to get home and change, get the kids settled and then they actually come down for dinner. So we've got food trucks, we've got inflatables, we've got beer tents.

We have a set up on the streets where it's really something for all ages, but we want to make sure it happens in time where you feel like you can spend your whole evening with us. And then there's just live music going on the entire time as well

M - Wow. So let's talk about what a big production. I mean it's a lot to do that once, but then to do that you know multiple times over summer and week after week after week. I mean, I'm assuming you have to set up a stage and you have to get the food trucks in the right place and close down the street and all those kinds of things that people don't always think of when it's an event like that. Can you tell me what was the biggest challenge?

E - Yeah so the breakdown of kind of how I went about this was first and foremost, needing to get the sponsorships lined up to make sure there was a budget in place. I know the Chamber works with a consultant firm here in the Minneapolis area by the name of Hello Booking and what they do is focus on bands, staging, sound, lighting, anything that you would need for a concert. Whether it's a series of concerts, one large concert, they do a really good job working with you on small budget/large budget. They kind of break down based off of your needs, how much you'll need just to make sure the concert runs.

So we worked with them first and said here's what we want to do, “We want five Wednesdays in a row. We want regional sized bands that will bring people out, buys them beer, have some fun and also just get the conversation going about our downtown. What's our budget for a stage, lighting, production, and the bands. And the caveat for us was that we wanted them to make sure it was all running smoothly. So that's kind of the nice part is if you set it up with them right away they'll provide staffing for you so we didn't have to touch lighting, we didn't have to touch stage or sound.


That all happened week by week with crews specifically. So the stage crew came in at 10:00 a.m. they were set up by noon, by 1:00 o'clock the sound crew was coming through and it was such a well-oiled machine all because we decided to pay a pretty penny to get the company hired right off the bat. So this Hello Booking firm found us the bands, found us the stage, found us the lighting, and the sound production and we didn’t have to think about it afterwards. We signed a contract, we read over it with them and it was all set from there.

Now, it was super expensive and I don't want to downplay that. I mean, we're talking six-figure budgets here where we needed to make sure everything was aligned. Where in year one, our budget was probably about 140,000 in expenses. In year two, it became 220,000 dollars to put this event on. So yeah we're six figures deep at this point and it all is because we have the right people in place to make sure it's running smoothly. And so you look back and the reason we're able to attract, I think our average this year was right around 5,000 people every Wednesday night, because it's such a smooth operation when you have the right people in place. And so the most daunting piece, going back to that initial question, was what’s our budget? What is the scope of work we want? Do we want one concert? Do we want five? Do we want seven? Once our chamber staff was able to figure out what we wanted to happen for our downtown, we were able to go to our consulting firm and say “Here's what we want. How much do you need?”

M - And then how did you raise the money.? Because if it's a free event, you don't have ticket sales so how did you raise the money? You mentioned sponsorships. How did you raise the sponsors, you know, how did you approach businesses or organizations and then is there a revenue stream from food truck or kind of anything like that?

E - Yeah yeah. So once we got done talking with the booking agent about stage, sound and bands, we got that price and then we went to a marketing firm. And we knew we wanted to make sure the marketing was top notch these first few years as well.

And so let's say it was about 80,000 dollars, given this is a quote that I can't remember from the first year of course, but roughly 80,000 if you will. 70 to 80 thousand just for the band and all that equipment and then we wanted to also make sure there were 20,000 dollars set aside for the marketing that first year. That was the commercials, that was the logo, that was the online promotion from SEO to YouTube ads to Facebook ads.

We had everything in place to make sure the banners were cohesive, the posters were cohesive. If you heard anything about Rhythm on the Rails, we wanted to make sure people knew there was a specific brand in place that it all looks the same. So we got the price point from the booking agent, we got our price point from our marketing agent and we put together a budget based off of that. So we knew what was going to be the bare minimum we needed to raise to make sure this was going to happen free of charge to our community.

So we broke it down into four pieces, which was kind of unique. In any sort of event that we put on at the Chamber, event or program, we have a pretty unique structure about how we how we use sponsorships. There's a top tier, a middle tier, and a bottom tier if you will. Top tier spends the most/gets the most out of the marketing that they're purchasing. We tell them that we're going to introduce you to an average of 5000 people every Wednesday night right here in downtown Shakopee. It's going to be marketing for your business, you're going to have conversations week by week with your customer base. Here's how much you have to pay so on and so forth.

So that top tier got branding everywhere our Rhythm on the Rails logo went, so did theirs. And so we have our local hospitals, one of our sponsors, who have been back two years in a row now. So in our first inaugural year, our local hospital partnered with Minnesota tourism, actually. So what’s really unique is our statewide tourism branch does first-year grants for companies and nonprofits who are trying to put on events that are going to do good for the greater whole of your county, of your region, of the state if you will. And so it's a one time grant that you can apply for. And so I applied for the grant amount that was going to be matching what that top tier would be if you will. So a hospital and Minnesota tourism were the top two that first year. And then we did a middle of mil sponsorship which was less than the top tier but also a pretty hefty fee. That was the middle size and then a bottom fee for your local businesses who wanted to get involved, but didn't necessarily have as large of a budget to get so well involved that the larger sponsors were able to get involved with.

M - Wow and did you find it hard to sell those sponsorships when you started going out to people?

E - No, I was so excited and I think our chamber was so excited as was the community. What's unique about this, and I think what can be relatable, to any downtown district is we wait until someone asks us to put something on. So we weren’t trying to make a pitch, the pitch came to us. So they said we want a concert series, we want a taste of Shakopee event, we want whatever the case may be. They want it in the quaint downtown district and they are looking for a chamber or a Main Street District or a Main Street program to put it on for them and that's really where the excitement happened. so we already knew they wanted it to happen, it was just our job to put it together for them. And so luckily enough because of that chain of command, if you will, the sponsorships were able to come in therefore because of it. And quite frankly we have to keep in mind of Main Street programs or chambers for that matter, we're the outlet to connect commerces to community to these small businesses.

It's our job to connect them to their customer base. And so whether that's a concert series, a holiday parade, it doesn't matter what you're doing. Our job, in my opinion, is to make sure people are frequenting their businesses. And if that means putting on these elaborate productions that makes families love coming to downtown and then also check out the restaurants and businesses that are right there as well. We're doing our job because their sales are increasing at the same time. So the sponsorships were able to flow because they were buying marketing, they weren't buying sponsorship. We were pitching it as here is your marketing that can go right into your marketing budget and we can promise that you're going to see your sales increase every Wednesday night more than they were last summer because there was nothing going on last summer on Wednesday night from 6 to 9 p.m..

M - I'm assuming that the larger sponsors were probably larger businesses that are constantly looking for employees, or you know or something to offer the people who work for them. That can come down and feel proud that the place they work for is sponsoring something and that adds to that connection too and so smart, you know large businesses. I think sometimes Main Street organizations feel like we have to stay small and stay only going after those Main Street businesses, local businesses, but really the truth is that, what we found in Red Wing too, is that those larger businesses want to connect as well.

So it's great that you've decided to kind of structure that way so that they could participate and you could put on a bigger show because of it. But then there's also opportunities for those smaller local businesses, something that's affordable. What kind of increase did those downtown businesses see? You know restaurants or retail or whoever's open. Did you do any kind of reporting or anything like that, do you know what was the impact?

E - Yeah it's something that we really wanted to focus on because we knew as a chamber we didn't want to just put on an event to say we did it for the community. Although that's important, we knew at the end of the day our job is to represent the business community. So we wanted to make sure it was making a difference for them.

So at the end of the concert series in the first year, and we haven't gotten around to doing this year yet just because it ended last week, so we're still kind of in the process of doing our own clean up if you will. But in the first year, we asked businesses to give us their sales increase or decrease from the starting date of our concert on that Wednesday through the last Wednesday of it. And just tell us based off of their 2016 Wednesday sale versus their 2017 Wednesday sale, what kind of difference did it make during that time frame. And I have to look back in my notes, I can't remember if we did just that Wednesday or if we did the five weeks collectively including Monday through Sunday. But regardless, what we found was that it was on average, I want to say a 27 percent increase in sales on Wednesday night comparatively to the summer before. And so for a lot of these businesses, 27 percent in sales increase is really a make or break for some of them. It's funny because I was just having a conversation this morning with the local brewery in our downtown district and he said this past summer right here in 2018 their Wednesday night sales were comparative to their Saturday evening sales.

And so anyone who knows small business, I mean especially as a brewery or a restaurant for that matter, if your Wednesdays are matching your Saturdays you know you're making an impact. And so it'll be interesting again to see kind of what that impact was for them. So a 27 percent increase in sales. And then we also asked them to give us a dollar amount for a lot of programs because we also do a pretty robust kind of holiday event. And I know, kudos to Red Wing because you do killer holiday events, I do know that much. And so we asked them to give us price points on those events as well and we see about last year in 2017 because of our events like the holiday one and this concert series, it was an increase of 220,000 dollars in sales for these businesses.

M - Wow

E - And that's just because of these programs we’re putting on that the community loves and keeps coming back for. Because it's such a positive environment that they now associate with downtown Shakopee which is the best part.

M - I think that's one of the keys, is that it's easier to measure you know, the day of sales increase or impact. But what’s harder to measure are kind of the ripple effects. And you know I just know that for our events, that people go into a store that they've never been in before or haven't been in for a long time, because they're downtown because there are some special inside, some special promotion that they're offering during the event. And it just really changes people's shopping habits and makes them think twice about where they go buy something or what they do for fun or how they entertain themselves in their own towns. And that doesn’t even count the kind of tourism draw. I mean, I'm assuming that people come from all over, not just Shakopee, to come to your series so that they're getting a taste of your downtown in a new way as well.

E - And that's what's so funny. Just this past concert series last week, we were wrapping up and one of the residents who's running for city council coming up, wrote to us just said: “Thank you so much for putting on another wonderful series for our downtown and our community.” And she said, “What's funny is I asked, I was walking around during the concert just having conversations with residents getting what they wanted to keep going for community.” And a lot of the time she would run into people who weren't even from Shakopee, they just knew about the concert series from friends, online and they just had to get down here for it. And so like you said, you see that ripple effect now where the tourism side of things. I mean people are coming to, not only Shakopee which they've never been to before, but a downtown that has so many small businesses that our community was founded on which is the best part as well.

M - Absolutely. So if you were going to give advice to someone who you know, who is maybe board or a group of businesses in their community decides that they wanted to try something like this. What's the one biggest piece of advice you'd have for someone who wanted to start an event like this?

E - I think from my experience with that, and whether it's a concert series or any sort of program you're putting on for your Main Street, the success in my opinion comes from letting the businesses or letting your audience tell you what they want. Because then they will be your supporters, your outreach, they will be the ones who fund it. I mean, I think if you allow them to give you those ideas and then work with them in some sort of strategic planning setting, kind of like we talked about at the beginning of this podcast, where I kind of fell into this elaborate envisioned meeting where they were trying to scope out what was going to happen over the next five years.

And that's really what sparked these conversations and so allowing your businesses or your residents to give feedback about what they want to see and then using that as the inspiration behind what you come up with. So that's kind of the inspirational side of things but I'll say like I've probably nailed here over and over again, it all starts with the funding. My boss, the Chamber President here in Shakopee, would have never let this happen had we not had such structured financial piece in place to make sure it was going to run without a hitch. Because we aren't concert experts, we aren't stage experts.

We wanted to make sure we had the money set aside to have professionals come in to make sure the experience for our customer base was top notch from the beginning. So you have to make sure businesses are willing to back it and having those, what I like to call, sweaty conversations with them right away saying, “This won't be cheap and if you are willing to support it financially, we're willing to make sure, yes we'll run it effectively for you.”

M - That’s fantastic. Oh I’m so excited and I’m so excited that it’s grown, I mean, the fact that it’s grown is good and hard because it just means you have to raise more money too. Oh you know what, what kind of revenue sharing deal do you have for beer or food trucks or any of that kind of stuff?

E - Yeah so that’s the really important part I think. We, our chamber as a nonprofit, we take the beer sales so we run the beer tents, which is kind of a unique setup. So city applications, closing down the streets, none of this would have been possible without our partnership with the City of Shakopee, which is why we’re so grateful too. Because we were able to work with them and having that relationship is vital. Make sure your streets are closed properly, you know exactly what has to take place to make sure you have your temporary liquor licensing. I mean, there is so much behind the scenes, that if you don’t have that relationship with your city administrator, and quite frankly, city clerk because they’re the ones with all the knowledge of what has to happen from a state level, it wouldn’t be possible. So we worked to make sure we were the beer sale and so because of that, what’s unique also in these kind of conversations, and I think you can attest to this too, is a lot of time I think businesses and residents think we’re kind of like a volunteer nonprofit where all we’re doing is just volunteering our free time.

And that is just so beyond the case, where since this is our full time day job, we know that we have to make sure there is operational fees that are included in that budget. So one of the things I told our sponsors when pitching these concepts to them, the money that you put, not only goes into the marketing for you, to provide for the bands we want to book, the staging. A portion of it, it’s also going to go to make sure our staff can provide the proper hours we need to make sure this goes off effectively.  So we always air on the side of the 20% range, where of your expenses, let’s say it’s 180,000 dollars to put it on this year, 20% of that should reflect how much goes into your staff time to make sure it runs correctly. So we take the beer sales and ideally, the income you make from this concert series or whatever program you do, should be right around that 20% range to know that you’re not doing this at no cost to all the employees that ran this program if you will.

M - Right, I think that’s often a misconception like you said that people think it’s just well we just put it on, everything happens with volunteers just a little bit of staff time to oversee it so we don’t need a lot of operational expenses. But really, to do something really well, I think, and to have a broader vision and to do transformational things in our downtowns you have to be paid for. It’s not going to happen just on the backs of volunteers, because they get burned out, they get tired, it’s exciting in the beginning.

E - And we all know how exhausting, and it’s no offense to volunteers, they’re beautiful, they’re important, they’re necessary. But from a volunteer standpoint, it’s hard to rely on that especially, for a week by week concert series. I mean, they have full time jobs, they have families, it’s tough. So when you tell these businesses we have to do this correctly and that’s why we’re including this kind of conversation, to make sure you know an operational fee has to be included too. And it’s hard from a nonprofit standpoint, any nonprofit can relate to this, you know you’re doing betterment for your community and therefore in this world you’re not a moneymaker, you’re a community maker. And that’s why it's tough sometimes to be willing to say, “Ok we’re doing good for this community but we also need to provide for our nonprofit as well” and it’s ok.

And that’s why we need to be having those conversations. In staff meetings, we are trying to read up on that research and how often times nonprofits shy away from those conversations rather than willing to embrace the fact that our communities have really well put together nonprofits that are doing good and we appreciate your backing of it at the same time financially. So, it’s a lesson to be learned for sure. But, if you’re not willing to kind of go in with it spearheading that conversation you will never see the budget to make sure this runs successfully if you will.

M - I think that’s true and I think that again, the ripple effect go off into other events and other programs that you want to do. We kind of have to teach our local businesses and our larger corporations that are in our towns how to be philanthropic. Because otherwise they think “well it’s just happening, that parade just happens ok, you know I don’t have to give anything.” Then you wonder why it’s not bigger, why we haven’t included bigger bands in our event or why we’re not expanding.

Well, we haven't taught each other how to ask for money and how to ask for things to get bigger and better and be able to provide more of that operational income so that we can continue to bring other things as well. So I think that it’s always a difference between scarcity thinking and abundance thinking and you obviously have an abundance way of thinking about this. It’s not how small can we make it so that it’s safe and we can just pick from the same people who have been giving to us for the last 10 years but obviously you said, that’s not going to work. If we want to do big things we have to go big and we have to take those risks and make bigger asks and of course that’s always a little scary for people.

E - And what’s really interesting is, one of the things we do at the concert series for example or the holiday events we put on is we put it back on the residents as well. So when we’re doing introductions on the stage with the microphones, we always make sure we say, “The reason this is free today is because of the business community. So if you want to keep seeing these free community events make sure you do your part by shopping small, supporting local, and just simply thanking these businesses for putting this together for you.” Because it’s one thing for us to run them, but without their support and so that’s really helped as well. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from the business community saying people are just so appreciative of what’s happening downtown and they tell us that and that’s rewarding enough for the continued conversation of these sponsorships as well. So it’s not just the burden of the businesses and the Main Street program, we also put some burden on the residents to help us out here. Like make sure they know, you have a part in this and your part is to shop and tell these sponsors you are grateful for what they are doing here.

M - I think that’s the most important part because isn’t that as a Main Street, isn’t that our whole point? It’s connecting commerce to the community and making people feel like a mesh, they’re together. And the stronger the community and the commerces together, the stronger the entire community is. So I guess at the end of the day, that’s our mission in a nutshell.

E - Yeah

M - That’s a great way to wrap it up Elliot, good job!

E - This was so much fun! I feel like I’m in depth with the podcast world now and I just, I loved it. I loved every minute of it. Let’s do it again.

M - Well thank you so much. We will, we definitely will. I plan on having lots of interviews with lots of people that can talk about not just events, but other programs and projects that are happening in downtowns. And I know you’re doing other great stuff too so we’ll have another fun time.

E - I can’t wait to listen to you and “travel the country” because I really, it’s always good to hear from what’s happening all across the Main Streets. So I commend you for this podcast and I’m thankful you let me be a part of it so good luck to you and I can’t wait to listen in.

M - Well thank you so much, I appreciate it. All right, I’m gonna put links and show notes to Elliot’s information and to information about the city of Shakopee and also Rhythm on the Rails. So stay tuned for that and look for that in the show notes. Thanks, Elliot and you have a great day and we’ll see you downtown!  

Megan Tsui