Washington University in St. Louis media specialist Brian Cohen teaches WUSTL education students how to use new educational technologies in their classrooms. Before that, Cohen produced documentary films. Absolutely none of that qualified him to start LouFest, St. Louis’ two-day indie rock festival.
“To be honest, naiveté played a part,” admitted Cohen, who staged the first LouFest in 2010. “I wasn’t in the music business, so I didn’t have a real understanding of how to produce a large-scale music festival. I only understood it from a fan’s perspective. I had to learn along the way.”
In its first three years, LouFest has drawn dozens of tops acts to Forest Park, including the Flaming Lips, Girl Talk, TV on the Radio, She & Him and Deerhunter. This year, Cohen and team have partnered with C3 Presents, producer of Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival, to expand the festival from 16 acts on two stages to 30 acts on three stages. Headliners include Wilco and The Killers, along with the National, Icona Pop and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The Record talked to Cohen about what makes LouFest rock.
Why did you want to create a music festival in St. Louis?
Cohen: I’ve lived in other cities that have great music festivals. And the weekend of the festival was always the best weekend of the year for me. So when I decided to make St Louis home, I asked myself, “What sort of things do I want to have in the city I live in?” The very top of that list was an outdoor multi-day music festival. And so I waited a few years for someone else to do it because that wasn’t my line of work. And when that didn’t happen, I decided to give it a shot.
There are entire companies devoted to staging music festivals. What made you think you could pull together a major festival in your spare time?
Cohen: At first I didn’t have a full comprehension of what was involved, but I knew it was important to surround myself with people who were experts in different areas of the production. An unknown part of this story is how important City Hall and the Parks Department have been. The only reason LouFest exists is because they supported us. Not financially, but logistically. Officials who had the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ all said yes. As a first-time promoter, I don’t think my chances would have been very good in any other city. That says a lot about St Louis.
You’ve seen the funny parody poster promoting “Yet Another (expletive) Music Festival.” It mocks all of those things concertgoers hate about festivals — the overpriced water and the bad food. But LouFest has sidestepped many of those problems.
Cohen: The starting point for me and the other organizers was to create a festival we would want to go to as fans. We made a list — ‘Here are the things we love about festivals; here are the things we hate about festivals.’ So no ticketing fees. I can’t stand them. And free water. The people who were looking at the bottom line begged us not to offer free water, but it was a must-have for us. Keeping food and beverage prices down is also important. We want to make sure what you pay for a beer doesn’t ruin your whole experience. And that won’t change with C3. They have those same core values.
How much of the LouFest lineup, past or present, represents Brian Cohen’s favorite bands?
Cohen: That’s funny. When this first started, I submitted by dream lineup to our booking agent. And he said, ‘This is an awesome lineup and it will be a great experience for the 500 people who show up.’ So I learned very quickly this can’t be a festival of only my favorite bands. So we all submit our wish lists and the booking folks put together a lineup that has depth and diversity and will resonate with a number of different audiences.
How will a third stage impact LouFest?
Cohen: The big difference will be overlapping sets. That means you’ll have to make some decisions. The stages are close enough though that you’ll be able to bounce around and still see everything.
How has LouFest changed the music scene in St. Louis?
Cohen: St Louis is definitely less of a flyover city than we’ve been in the past, and I think we’ve played a part in that. In booking the fest we talk to a lot of agents. Even if things don’t work out in terms of a particular band making the lineup, agents are reminded that St Louis has a vital music scene with a major music festival.
So who are you psyched to see this year?
Cohen: I’m really excited by the middle of the lineup, so Local Natives, Courtyard Hounds and Fitz and the Tantrums are a few. I try to pull myself out of the production area at least a few times each day to stand in front of the stage with everyone else.
When: Noon Sept. 7-8
Where: Central Fields, Forest Park
How much: $55, $95 for two-day pass
More info: loufest.com
to get there: Walk – LouFest is two miles east of campus; Bike –
Trailnet will provide free bike valet; Metro – Take MetroLink or
MetroBus to Forest Park, transfer to the Forest Park trolley, which will
make regular stops at Central Fields.