John Ugolini (Middlewest Fest)

This weekend people, artists and bands will converge on DeKalb, Illinois for what has been named Middlewest Fest – a meeting of all things art for those more accustomed to the Midwest. We spoke with Middlewest promoter John Ugolini about what this festival is about, how it connects to the music scene and what we can expect to see and hear at the festival.

[email protected]: Tell those who are unfamiliar with Middlewest Fest a little bit about how the whole thing started and what they can expect to see at this year's festival.

John Ugolini: Middlewest Fest is a two-day long music and arts festival in DeKalb, Illinois. The fest is a block party-style event, hosted in various venues and art spaces in downtown DeKalb. In a sense, it is very similar to other multi-club festivals such as SXSW, CMJ and Bumbershoot. Although we do deal with a good deal of National / touring acts, the majority of the artists / entertainers are relatively local. Attendees can expect to see a potpourri, if I may make mention of fragrant plants, of some of the finest musicians, artists and entertainers the Midwest has to offer.

[email protected]: As far as the history of the festival goes, how specifically would you say it has grown since last year? How has it changed, for better or worse?

John Ugolini The first year of the festival was produced solely by myself, which isn't the best thing in the world for ones personal sanity. My idiot friend recently pointed out a few of my grey hairs. I am fairly certain these aberrations have come by way of this event. This year, I have the backing of a local event management company, Ravenswood Event Services...who will assist in the production, management and execution of the event. They are fantastic and will make sure that my hair greys at a more agreeable rate. The city of DeKalb, and the greater Northern, IL community as a whole, have really rallied behind the festival in its second year. Consequently, we have had more opportunities to build additional components into the festival by way of the relationships we have made within the past calendar year. For instance, the City of DeKalb is organizing a city-wide sidewalk sale in conjunction with the fest. All in all, these additions will help to create an inspiring and active ambiance to the festival.

[email protected]: Dekalb plays backdrop for this festival as you bring bands, artists and people to it for a sprawling two-day event. What made for the decision to bring it here, and what sets this city apart in terms of support for the arts?

John Ugolini: As a former student of Northern Illinois University (located in DeKalb), I have always been really fond of the downtown area. Downtown DeKalb is charming and intimate, full of independent businesses and shops, and serves as the perfect venue for a block party event like Middlewest. It also doesn't hurt that all of the participating venues are located within one to two blocks of one another.

[email protected]: Besides music, there is space for filmmakers as well as an arts and crafts market. How does the support for music tie into the support of film and independent artisans?

John Ugolini: Music, art and film are all intertwined and bound together as a part of our culture. It only seems fitting to encompass them all within the context of a festival.

[email protected]: As far as the music goes, what goes into selecting the bands you'll put
on the bill each year, and how has the approach/sound of the fest changed?

John Ugolini: Middlewest is not necessarily a genre-specific festival. We try to focus within the gradient of the independent, counter culture-based genres of rock music. I try to be as representative as I can to the great Midwestern music scene. Each year of the festival, we try to secure atleast a handful of prominent, Midwestern-based, bands such as Murder By Death, Maps & Atlases, Cornmeal, Xerxes, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, etc.

[email protected]: Switching things up a bit, can you tell us a little bit about your
background in the arts, as a promoter or otherwise, and how it led you to
this point?

John Ugolini: I began my concerts promotion career as a member of several bands. At the time, my bands did not have anywhere to play. The venues in DeKalb were either non-existent or restricted to 21+ (I had been a minor at the time). Not having anywhere else to turn, I began coordinating DIY shows in basements, VFW halls and anywhere else I could find. This eventually lead to a position as the concert chair with the Campus Activities Board at Northern Illinois University. When I graduated college, I committed myself full time to independent concert promotion and have never looked back.

[email protected]: What parts of being a promoter are the most difficult in your eyes?

John Ugolini: It is never easy, being independent, competing with the big guys...Live Nation, Jam, etc. That being said, my situation is no different than any other small business owner...so I certainly cannot complain. Staying current and relevant within the rapidly changing music business is always an exciting challenge.

[email protected]: Similarly, what are some of the more rewarding things?

John Ugolini: Hands down, producing an event or a concert that is meaningful to someone. As cheesy as that may sound, that motivation drives me through the toughest days I have in this business. I remember piling into a car with a bunch of friends, and making the trek out to shows when I was in my formative years. I met great people, refined my taste in music, discovered new bands and developed a greater appreciation and perspective for the independent music scene. Those early shows I attended greatly shaped me as a person. If I can contribute and help foster a local music scene / community and have similar effects on people...that is really all I can ask for.

[email protected]: Lineup for Middlewest aside, what are some bands you see doing great things in music right now, perhaps even some yet to make the break into the national circuit?

John Ugolini: I enjoy seeing bands finding ways to be successful without major label support / backing, without compromising their artistic integrity. More and more bands are finding creative ways to interact with their fanbases and get their music out. The days of having a presence on major-market radio are dwindling. You see independent artists fund albums on Kickstarter, gaining audiences through blog coverage, social media, etc.

[email protected]: What are your thoughts on the current arts landscape, music or otherwise, and how do you feel Middlewest ties into that?

John Ugolini: The music scene is in such an exciting period of transition. We are, only now, starting to realize and understand the effects of the internet, downloading, social media and other modern technologies. Long-standing music industry models are crumbling and everyone within the music industry is scrambling to make sense of this 'Brave New World' that is modern music. As a by product of all of this...artists are finding new and exciting, more organic, ways to connect and interact with their fanbases. As a promoter, I as well, have to find ways to stay current and intune with my audience. Ultimately, I believe all of this benefits our National / local music scene. Through Middlewest, we try to be progressive as a festival and representative of this change.

[email protected]: Bringing everything full circle, what would you say the overall goal is
for Middlewest Fest?

John Ugolini: The overall goal of Middlewest is to provide and unique and fun concert going experience reflective of the great Midwestern Music & Arts scene. It is our hope that the festival continues for many years and serves as a pillar for the local music and arts community.

[email protected]: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

John Ugolini: Check out the website! middlewestfest.com!

Head to www.middlewestfest.com for full lineup and event information. Thank you to John for taking the time to answer our questions and Derek over at Solid PR for helping us put this together.

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