Making money from scratch: How the Vinyl Music Festival is bringing Sarasota together to rethink its economic game

Published in Creative Loafing Sarasota, July 14, 2010


Downtown Sarasota is not currently known as the heart of electronic music in Southwest Florida — far from it. But that title could soon be earned if the promoters behind Vinyl Music Festival stay on their current trajectory. Since last year’s inaugural celebration, VMF has more than doubled it’s number of performers, picked up a host of huge national sponsors, garnered the support of both city and county officials, and gained access to public venues that have historically been off limits to such party-oriented proceedings.

But for the young entrepreneurs that put on this sonic assembly, it’s more than just a DJ convention or even a much needed summer tourism boost — It’s an attempt to give Sarasota a long overdue makeover. Is our fair city ready and willing to change? Rich Swier, co-creator of VMF and local tech biz incubator The HuB, believes it is: “Every year we’re going to add a little more, just to see what this town can do.”

VMF 2009 was reasonably well-attended, which was quite a feat considering it was conceived and organized in less than a month with barely any marketing, few sponsors and a drastic equipment shortage. This time around they got the ball rolling in January, and that advance preparation has yielded substantial results. Thanks to Swier and VMF musical director DJ Drager, top-notch turntable talent is flying in this week from Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, New York, South America, Europe and the Middle East; companies like Roaring Lion Energy Drink and Groove Cruise have pledged significant contributions; and Yamaha is bringing in $40,000 worth of rental equipment.

“Look at all the sponsors, they’re all from out of town,” says Swier. “That’s your first sign that something is going on down here. That’s a pretty big step for a small start-up festival. What’s cool is we’re starting to draw in more labels, more promotional companies, and more booking agents, which is good for local DJs. … The thing this year was to go from a downtown Sarasota event to a regional Tampa Bay event. We did 100,000 flyers. We hired two promoters in Miami, one in Orlando and two in Tampa. We don’t really know what that’s going to end up resulting in.”

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who helped Swier to secure permits for the Saturday afternoon event at Lido Beach Public Pool/Pavilion, thinks he has a pretty good idea. “What I like about this is that it’s attracting an age class of professionals that this community really needs,” says Thaxton. “One of the problems we’ve had attracting these tech and bio industries that would otherwise be in this county is they don’t have the young people they need. So this festival puts us on the map for these types of young professionals.”

Not only is VMF helping to introduce a youthful, creative, tech-savvy culture to the pleasures of the Suncoast, it also provides a reliable tenant for underused facilities that the county has been trying to capitalize on for years. “We want to see more utilization of the pool area,” says Kristin Steffen, business professional for Sarasota County Parks and Recreation Department. “Rich came to us and if he gets more people out there that haven’t benefited from the pool then we’re all making out.”

Another local venue that VMF will breath new life into is the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. The city has permitted organizers to use the building until 2 a.m. for the first time ever for Saturday night’s main event. More accustomed to housing craft shows than music festivals, shut down time at the Auditorium has never been extended past midnight, but Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner helped convince city officials to make an exception. “This is a well-organized event that The HuB has done that brings recognition to our community,” says Kirschner. “I hope to be conducive to grease the wheels and make sure these things are successful and have a long life, but they need to understand that they need to have a strong business plan and be a viable event.”

Young techies and digital gurus are obviously individuals that Sarasota desperately needs to attract and retain. But music festivals like these are also magnets for tourists that often get overlooked — the artists themselves. The Friday night headliner at G.WizPaul Mendez is a Scottish-born tribal house DJ who has performed in 50 countries on six continents as a member of Qatar-based entertainment company Global DJs. Even after living in Naples for three years he had never heard of Sarasota until last year’s Vinyl Music Festival.

“Drager called me and asked about doing it and I said, ‘Where is Sarasota?’” Mendez recalls. “But everyone was so friendly and it’s a nice vibe. It opened my eyes.” Mendez is excited to see community leaders opening up to Vinyl Fest, and views their tolerance as a reason to come back: “I like that the city is involved more. Just the fact that these people are allowing drinking alcohol it shows they’re behind it, and it’s good for the city. It opens it up to people like myself who didn’t even know it existed.”

Tampa-based DJ Matt Storm is also returning for his second VMF performance and feels that Sarasota offers something with VMF that the Tampa electronic music scene fails to provide. “The thing I like better about Sarasota is it’s a long festival and Sarasota is so beautiful,” says Storm. “Nothing against Tampa, but I love it down there. Up here is a different scene. We don’t have any type of fest like that. I had been there just two or three times and since [VMF] I’ve been there a lot more, just to go to the beach and stuff. They’ve got some good diving. After last year it opened me up to Sarasota.”

Welcoming new types of tourists and seeing local government open their minds to modern methods of stimulating the economy is refreshing to see, but Swier has been touched even more so by the eager requests of participation from other organizations around town. “What’s cool is it’s really started to be a community festival,” he says. “All these different entities saying, ‘Hey, I want to contribute.’ Which is a perfect example of why Vinyl is kick-ass, because it makes people think differently. That’s the whole idea is to engage existing community assets. If we walk out of this and there’s four or five other organizations now taking this market seriously, this subculture of the creative class, and they look at that as a viable market to pitch their business to, that’s the goal.”


Vinyl Music Festival co-creators Rich Swier and DJ Drager


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