Disney is the happiest place on Earth. So why wasn't Tre Brashear smiling?
Brashear, co-founder of the Maha Music Festival, left for a December family vacation to Walt Disney World all but certain that the band Wilco had agreed to headline Omaha's up-and-coming festival in 2013.
Wilco is the band that more Maha concertgoers have requested — the band more 30-something Omahans have begged for — than any other since the music festival began in 2009.
Wilco is a band that could help launch the already successful Omaha festival even higher, generating ticket sales and publicity that might grow Maha to two days, or two main stages, or more.
Wilco is Tre Brashear's wish upon a star.
So it seems particularly cruel that his phone buzzed on New Year's Eve day 2012, and Brashear looked down at the text while standing in line for the roller coaster at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
“Wilco said no,” the text read. Brashear read that and may or may not have said something that would make Mickey Mouse blush.
“I still don't know why they said no,” he says. “I don't take it personally anymore.” He smiles. “Try not to.”
Brashear is telling this story because I've asked him to explain the art and science behind booking bands for Maha. The fifth annual version of the festival starts at high noon Saturday at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village. Despite the dashed Wilco dream, Brashear and the festival's brain trust have assembled a 13-band lineup that seemed impossible in Omaha a decade ago.
Rock legend Bob Mould. Brooklyn indie pop duo Matt & Kim. And the headliner: The Flaming Lips, winners of three Grammys and a band renowned for playing raucous live shows that may include confetti, lasers, dancing aliens, dancing gorillas and a giant plastic hamster ball that lead man Wayne Coyne uses to crowd surf.
When Maha began, Brashear figured that booking was like ordering off a restaurant menu. I'll take Band of Horses to start and then Springsteen with a side of Matisyahu, please. No, no dessert. But booking the festival turns out to be more like baking a gigantic soufflé, one made with equal parts money and logistics, a dash of rock-star randomness and a heaping spoonful of dumb luck.
The 2013 version of the event started to take shape in the fall of 2012 with a wish list of three dozen bands that Brashear and the Maha board would have loved to headline the festival.
Wilco sat near the top of this list. So did the Replacements, a classic alt-rock band that recently reunited. And so did The Flaming Lips, who have put on two well-attended and much-beloved shows in the Omaha area in the past decade.
But two factors — money and Europe — quickly forced the Omahans to start crossing off names as they sent out dozens of feelers to prospective headliners. A few bands are simply out of Maha's price range, though the festival now has the budget to book most of its wish list.
The Strokes are one notorious example. Several years ago, their booking agent responded to a feeler from Maha with his price tag: $1 million.
“Just ... wow,” Brashear says, remembering the number. “We can sell every single ticket to every person (who can fit into Stinson Park) and that still wouldn't make sense.”
Most potential Maha headliners fall into the low six-figure range, Brashear said, a doable number as the festival builds its sponsor base and sells more tickets each year. But it turns out that Maha isn't the only music festival hoping to book a wildly popular band on a summer Saturday in August. Foreign festivals tend to pay crazy sums of money for exactly these bands, which means that Maha frequently gets back the same annoying response: Sorry, the booking agent for a wish-list band will say, going to Europe.
After the near-miss with Wilco, Maha figured out that The Flaming Lips and their confetti cannons were staying stateside. The Maha organizers got out their checkbooks — paying the most they have ever paid a band — and booked The Flaming Lips by the time the Nebraska snow started to melt.
Money well spent, Brashear thinks, because The Flaming Lips is the sort of timeless band that can draw college kids as well as 40-somethings, both Omahans and people who will drive many hours to see Wayne and the boys.
“Headliners sell tickets,” he says.
Then, the really hard work began. Maha had a dozen other slots to fill and had already spent more than half its allotted money on its headliner.
Brashear and the festival's eight-person board started to send out offers to dozens of other bands that could fill the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 slots on the bill.
Part of the gamble of this process is trying to determine whether a band is on the way up or down. Sign up a largely unknown band in January, and maybe by August its members will be stars. Or maybe they will still be largely unknown.
An example: Maha came oh-so-close to booking the Lumineers as a No. 3-type band in early 2012. By the time 2012 Maha rolled around in August, the Lumineers had a huge hit song (“Ho Hey”) and were popular enough to headline festivals. And Maha nearly had them at an insane discount, except back in the winter, organizers were waiting to hear from another band and delayed making an offer to the Lumineers. The other band turned Maha down, and it missed the Lumineers by 48 hours.
Brashear just sighs after telling this story.
This year, like every year, the festival organizers used an array of facts to determine the festival's supporting bands.
Are they getting more buzz on the Internet and on social networks? Brashear uses a website meant to measure online popularity to check that.
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Are they coming out with a new album? If so, is it going to be good? The organizers talk to industry insiders and read music blogs to try to read the tea leaves.
Has this band played Omaha before? If so, how did it do? If not, are there people hungry to see it? The Maha organizers get those answers from Marc Leibowitz, the top man at One Percent Productions and probably the city's most experienced booker of bands.
They kept asking these questions, and the fifth edition of Maha started to take shape.
Mould, along with The Lips, may bring out old-school fans who might not otherwise attend the festival.
Matt & Kim just played to an enormous crowd at Lollapalooza, America's pre-eminent outdoor festival, and come to Maha with momentum.
The festival will also have lesser-known but much-beloved national acts, like the Thermals, a Portland trio who recently signed with Saddle Creek, Omaha's renowned indie record label.
And several tantalizing local acts, too: Members of the Millions, a legendary Lincoln band from the '90s, are reuniting for the festival. I'm also excited to see what sort of havoc Omaha's Digital Leather will rain down on Stinson Park when it closes the local stage in the early evening.
The soufflé is baked, and Brashear feels confident that the finished product will make Saturday's festival the most well-attended in Maha history, bigger even than last year's event, which drew 4,100 fans.
And then, after the last piece of Flaming Lips confetti falls to the ground, he will start thinking about 2014.
Then he will wonder: Can we book Wilco next year?
“We will get them eventually,” he says, conviction in his voice. “It will happen.”