So What?! Music Festival: Q&A with Founder Mike Ziemer

The ninth annual So What?! Music Festival takes place in just a little over two months, with artists such as Underoath, New Found Glory, Bayside, Saosin and Beartooth and more performing this year. Different from many other music festivals across the country, So What?! is a festival made by fans, for fans, as founder Mike Ziemer puts it. We had a chance to catch up with with Ziemer in between his busy schedule to chat about this year's festival and what goes on behind the scenes. Read the full interview below, and get your tickets HERE

Interview by Dom Vigil

This year marks the ninth year of So What?! Music Festivall. What do you feel that you’ve learned over the past few years that has made the festival an easy and enjoyable experience for you, the bands and the fans? What makes So What!? different from the rest?

Our festival isn’t just a concert, it’s a destination event for music lovers from around the world to come together, forget the bullshit in their daily lives, and enjoy a couple days of awesome music and friendship. So many people have amazing stories about making friends, starting relationships, even meeting their husband / wife at our festival. I learned early on to put the fans first and it’s always reflected in our decisions from the ticket price to the line up to contests to everything we do.
 

When first starting out, what was the main goal for So What?! fest?

To grab all the tours from this scene that were going to SXSW and put them together in one big concert so people wouldn’t have to chose between 10-15 tours or go broke trying to attend them all. We wanted the under 21 crowd to have a place that wasn’t limited to them having to be 21+ or trying to get into a small packed venue.
 

Besides artists/management teams coming to you for booking on So What?! how do you decide what bands are going to make the bill? Were there any bands that you were particularly excited to announce for the 2016 lineup?

We just pick bands we like, whether it’s their music or the people themselves. I’m very pumped to have The Word Alive on this year, they’ve had to cancel in the past and Telle is one of my closest friends in this industry. Also stoked on Underoath obviously, all the pop punk bands, Dance Gavin Dance, Beartooth… I mean can I just say everyone? haha
 

The festival also recently underwent a name change. What was the reason behind taking the “South By” out of the title? 

There’s a few reasons. SXSW wanted us to start licensing it from them for a fee instead of them just letting us use it because we have grown so much. We realized we have developed our own identity and wanted to separate from them. Also, we are bringing the festival to new markets in different states and the “South By” part doesn’t make sense with the branding. “So What?!” kinda sums up our whole attitude also. We don’t book radio bands, we don’t book top 40, we book the music our fans wanna see and I think a lot of the people that come out are different and music is the one thing that connects us all and you can get lost in the festival and just say “So What?!” to everything else in life for a weekend.
 

Could you walk us through exactly what goes into running the festival once it’s finally here? When the gates open on that first day, what does your day look like?

I am the most stressed person running around. I run into people I don’t remember seeing, I have conversations I don’t remember having, it’s just chaos. Over the years it has gotten easier with building a solid team I trust, but at the end of the day, when you’re in charge, everyone comes to you with questions. By the time the gates open, I’ve already gone at least a week with very little sleep and put out a bunch of “fires” (solved problems) that always seem to pop up. It’s crazy because we work 365 days a year on the festival and it flies by. I seriously get post-festival depression the day after because I know it’ll be a few months before we really get to do much.
 

After the festival wraps up each spring, do you already have ideas to make the next year even better? What are you most excited about for this upcoming festival?

I’m constantly observing both our festival and other festivals and taking notes on how to improve. I really listen to the fans that support us because that’s what matters most. Also the bands, I have a lot of friends that play and they will praise the festival so if any band or band member has a less than amazing experience, we want to improve it immediately. 

This year I am most excited to just watch as many bands as I can. I am hiring extra staff this year to handle everything so I can enjoy it more this year. I love so many of the bands and I want to appreciate the event we built rather than stress through it like most years.
 

On top of running So What?!, you also juggle promoting, event producing and management with your companies, Third String Promotions and Evolve Music Management. How do you feel these different roles overlap one another and how do you keep the balance between it all?

The number 1 thing you have to do as a business owner is build a great team, without a great team, you can’t do one job, let alone multiple jobs. Third String Productions is currently in California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and we are headed to more states. The only way this is possible is with a great team, great promoter reps, great street teams, etc. For management and my label, I have hired two very talented dudes to oversee all operations and act in the best interest of the company. Over the years, as hard as it has been, I have let go of a lot of control on certain ventures to allow myself to focus mostly on the festival and shows and trust my other ventures with people as passionate as me.
 

Working in the music industry can be a 24/7 job - what advice do you have for the people who are trying to break into it, be it with journalism, event promotion, artist management, or even trying to start their own festival? 

You have to REALLY want it. It’s 3:15am right now, I started my day in Globe, AZ, drove through a blizzard, had lunch in Phoenix where I answered at least 100 emails, arrived in LA around 8pm, responded to about 50 more emails, got dinner with a few members of my team, our web designer, and the guy that runs my label, had a few drinks, came home, and started answering interviews around 2am. You have to be willing to do what a lot of people aren’t to do this. If you are passionate and driven, you’ll be fine. You have to be willing to take losses, face rejection, lose an artist you gave everything, whatever it may be, and keep moving forward. It takes a special type of person to work in this world.
 

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us for a bit! Is there anything else you would like to add?

Kanye 2020.

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