Fort Collins is the Startup City Built on Rock-n-Roll

Fort Collins, Colorado is a collaborative, non-competitive, startup music city without a big ego. Fort Collins is a city built for musicians by musicians. For over ten years, musicians laid the groundwork for the next golden era of “musicprenuers“ by constructing an ecosystem built on encouragement, support, and empowerment. This shifts the paradigm and disrupts the music industry systems of the past.

The foundation without ego

Ten years ago, some “small time” local bands needed a place to play in Fort Collins. The Venues wanted to attract big national touring acts, not book local bands. Fort Collins was not a town thriving on a local music scene, just yet. Greta Cornett, a member of one the few ska bands in Colorado, 12 cents for Marvin, was one of the Fort Collins musicians experiencing the ramifications of this. The musicians wanted more gigs, and they wanted them to be in their own backyard. Instead of moving away or playing on the street, they rallied together and converted a local bar, Road 34, into a performance venue.

Greta Cornett is the Co-Founder and President – Board Member of Fort Collins Music Association. Photo by Marc Leverette Photography

The community of musicians flocked to play at Road. When they were not playing, they were supporting each other. As much as they needed to be on stage, they craved good live music. It was evident the level of talent in this town and the need for venue support. Tight relationships formed. The ties that fated them were the kindred desires to unify the musicianship of FoCo. Musicians sought to build awareness of the burgeoning music scene in their hometown. The newfound friends talked about how to support music in this town every Sunday, unofficially over beers. As much as it looked like just a “Sunday-Funday” inadvertently, they started a music revolution.

That is how Fort Collins Music Association (FoCoMA), a nonprofit musicians association, originated.

FoCoMA wanted to celebrate the performers and their successes with a local “Grammy style” awards ceremony, The Peer Awards. Regional awards ceremonies were not aware of the talent in Fort Collins. Bands vote on the winners in the respective categories, discover another local band, go out, and support. The first Peer Awards bands were clueless on how to cast the vote. The lack of venue support and exposure in this town was showing and something had to change. That led to the next great innovation of the FoCoMA, which was a “local mini-fest,” to highlight the bands before the Peer Awards so the musicians could give an educated vote. It would also turn the community on to the emerging local music scene.

The original idea consisted of four venues with only a hand full of Fort Collins bands. The association introduced the idea to the City of Fort Collins, who rallied with abounding support. In its first year, FOCOMX, the Fort Collins Music Experiment, booked over 111 bands in 19 Fort Collins venues, well over what they thought. Over the next few years, FoCoMX evolved into a Front Range musician festival. Acts from Southern Wyoming to Denver all apply to play.

Greta Cornell talks about the progression of FoCoMx:

“We may have started the festival, but I feel like the musicians have the ownership of it, and the people who help, who care about it, and come out and support it. We all have an input on what a sustainable model for the festival should be. What do we want it to be? It is whatever we make it. That is why it is the Experiment.”

The Fort Collins Music Experiment is a two-day festival in Fort Collins with a diverse inclusive lineup mixing local favorites, youth, and newcomers. As they celebrated the ninth year of the festival this year, 1259 submitted applications with 258 bands on the playbill.

FoCoMX
Click image for FoCoMx Adobe Spark page all images by Cynthia Wilson

A booking committee listens to every single submission and makes the decisions. FoComx is all volunteer led. Even the venues close their doors for two days to the outside world and donate their space to the festival. All the ticket sales go to the artists who perform.

Eric Gilbert, Co-founder of Treefort Music Fest and Alysia Kraft discuss the logistics of a local music festival.
Eric Gilbert, Co-founder of Treefort Music Fest and Alysia Kraft discuss the logistics of a local music festival. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

There are Pro Development workshops during FoCoMx in addition to live music, which is to inform and educate the community about important issues affecting musicians. This year Eric the Co-founder of Treefort Music Fest, and current festival director and talent buyer emerging arts and music festival based in Boise, Idaho spoke on a panel with local musicians to discuss the synergy and dissonance betwixt the two festivals. As well as an affordable housing for the creative community talk evaluating the current housing needs for the creative artist.

Sitting on these panels are members of the FoCoMx board, musicians, professionals and employees from organizations that serve as relationship builders for the creative art scene in Fort Collins.

All of Greta’s hard work and persistence created a scene that is bursting at the seams with growth. The musicians are pliable, innovative, and integrated with musicpreneur credibility.

Supportive synergic relationships

The Music District is a hub of education, performance, and support for musicians and aficionados in Fort Collins. Erin Roberts is the Community Manager. She duals her time as the lead singer of soul rock band Porlolo and she is a lifetime trumpet player.

Erin Roberts of Porlolo and the Music District playing at FoCoMx 2017 on the main stage of Downtown Artery.
Erin Roberts of Porlolo and the Music District playing at FoCoMx 2017 on the main stage of Downtown Artery. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

As the community manager, she manages the internal operations of the District. She is akin to the air traffic controller of the music district in a broad way. Erin is new to living in Fort Collins but moved here because she believes in the vision of the musicianship in Fort Collins. The scene has outgrown the Status quo and is building up a strong foundation to propel. Erin is a key player in the strategic plan. She took a role at the Foundation knowing the strength of the roots in the local scene. Like the FoCo music scene, she is just as hungry to grow.

Erin Roberts discusses her decision to commit to a life in Fort Collins:

“I have been in bands for as long as I could remember. I have played the trumpet since the fourth grade. I needed this to be a place where I thought my music career would thrive. It felt like a scene that loved music and supported music.”

Erin Roberts is the lead singer of Porlolo and the Community Manager at the Music District
Erin Roberts is the lead singer of Porlolo and the Community Manager at the Music District. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

She did not come alone. The Bohemian Foundation also hired the drummer from her band Porlolo, Ben Desoto, as a talent buyer. Roberts knew the hire would enrich her vision of music in Fort Collins and enhance her role as community Manager of the Music District.

Erin suggests:

“It all worked together in a very symbiotic way.”

The most rewarding part of her position is overseeing the tenants and Co-workers of the Music District. Ten music-related businesses with devoted offices that are 80% music related are her responsibility to nurture. She gets to see “Music as a business” prosper and thrive in the community. Each one is interdependent of one another but a whole subset of community is being born within the walls of the space.

“It blows my mind that so many smart entrepreneurs and individuals that are making a great living off of music in this town. It is not just musicians but a whole industry that supports musicians integral to the industry. I think is important for a music scene. You cannot just have the musicians. Management, sound, lawyers, and everything else that connects to that. Knowing that element is here in Fort Collins it gives me great faith that this will be a great music city.”

The tenants have below market rate rent and add value to the workspace through a community contribution. This free programming event is a workshop to the public in the Music District. The whole idea is not that they come to the district, shut their doors, and work away in the office, but to have an open door and to give back to the community. Offer a bit of guidance, or expertise in their field and to interact with the community in multiple ways. This community gives back for the sake of enriching others lives with knowledge.

The philanthropic spirit of the future

Julie Sutter is the Programs Director of the Music District. Organically through her passion and philanthropic spirit, she has enriched the culture of music in Fort Collins. Sutter grew up in Colorado. She went away to College in Dallas, TX at Southern Methodist University where artist surrounded her and musicians that immersed her in an artistic culture as a journalist. Julie traveled around after college, compelled to come back to Colorado, she returned to be near to family.

Thirteen years ago Julie Sutter was working remotely for a software company. After a few years of being a digital nomad, she craved community. Julie sought out opportunities to get involved with music and creatives, two of her favorite things. Sutter volunteered for Bohemian Nights, a fun citywide festival built on community volunteers and touring musicians. The following year the Bohemian Foundation hired Julie as an official contract writer for Bohemian Nights.

Julie speaks of the relationship of the music ecosystem:

“I think the thread through all of this is, there is the artist and then there is the audience. The art can happen without the audience but at some point, it is so much more fun when you are both there and you can break down that barrier between the two.”

Julie Sutter is the Programs Director at the Music District
Julie Sutter is the Programs Director at the Music District. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

Julie is avant-garde in the Fort Collins music industry.  She is a long time music fan and her most notable work is empowering Fort Collins musicians with the non-profit organization, SpokesBUZZ. SpokesBUZZ was foundational in creating the Fort Collins music scene. SpokesBUZZ incubated local Fort Collins bands with education and training on how to be a band. They elevated local bands to national platforms and empowered them to be professional performing entities. They started the Colorado Music Party at South by Southwest and Band swap.

Sutter met Dani Grant, owner of Mishawaka Amphitheater and fellow music supporter while volunteering at Bohemian Nights. They connected on a deep level almost instantly. Dani formed SpokesBuzz and Julie accepted a role of Marketing Director where she remained for six years.

Julie speaks about her relationship with music:

“I was never classically trained in music, I was never immersed in art history, but it feels a spot in my heart and in my life that nothing else does. Nothing else works as quickly, nothing else works as easily. It is the ultimate healing experience and the ultimate joy. I always feel that when I am exposed to any sort of art. But music is really the short circuit for me that is a quick way.”

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The Music District is less than one-year-old but it is constantly evolving. The main goal is to take the relationships that all the staff makes out in the world with artist, musicians, and music business and to bring it back through programs and community. These are both educational and inspiring programs with a component of savoir-faire from seasoned, well-established, musicpreneurs, performing artist, and industry leaders.

Programs and partnerships

Programming at the District is two-fold. It attracts industry experts to come into the space and use it as a platform for education, but it acts as amplification to the industry as a whole. Geographical location does not restrict a musician. They are out on the road touring most of the year. The District can be home for a creative project, it can be an inspiration polestar to create an album. It can be where a new band convenes once a week to practice. It can be the home to magic within your instrument. It is where you can find your place in music. It is whatever you want it to be. It is an open door for anyone, fans, globetrotters, community members, and professionals. A number of programs are evolving at the Music District.

The staff director, Jesse Elliott, who is a national touring artist, will help shape these ideas and nurture them with Julie. He does a big deal of outreach to research new concepts and they work as a unit to transpose these ideas to working programs, that will enrich the community of musicians that live here, and be a home for a touring musician while passing through.

Julie expresses the communication of music:

“I am not a musician myself but it is such a universal language we can all connect really quickly to one another.”

Artist in residence is a program that allows a touring musician passing through to stay in an Airbnb-style apartment on campus. The musician is to contribute a program open to the community. Joe Pug was one of the many touring musicians that took part in the program.

Joe Pug leading the workshop, “How to Steal like a Professional Songwriter
Joe Pug leading the workshop, “How to Steal like a Professional Songwriter” during his artist in residency stay at the Music District. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

Pug performed at the Downtown Artery in Fort Collins. While visiting the Fort he took advantage of the residency at the Music District and taught the “How to Steal like a Professional Songwriter” workshop.
It was an intimate experience where Pug seemed more of a peer than an icon. It broke down the audience to artist barriers by opening the door to discussions, and questions for musicians to hone their own songwriting craft.

Joe Pug smiles as he plans his delivery on how to steal like a professional in his artist in residency at the Music District.
Joe Pug smiles as he plans his delivery on how to steal like a professional in his artist in residency at the Music District. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

A newly formed partnership between Colorado Sound, Colorado State University and on site videographers, to produce national programming for the Colorado page on the national VuHaus page. Vu Haus released the first of many Colorado Music performances with local musician Brent Cowles playing at the Colorado Sound birthday party. This is a unique model of students, professionals, and the organization working together to create a nationally aired production.

VuHaus filming Brent Cowles at the Colorado Sound birthday celebration.
VuHaus filming Brent Cowles at the Colorado Sound birthday celebration. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

A video is an important part of marketing for a band. As an expansion of this idea, a series workshop for musicians that teach skills in creating video is in the process. It ends in a- 48-film fest for musicians and is free to attend: Music Video Creation Series II: Working Together. All you have to do is Rsvp free on the Music District website. The district programming aims to give a working musician access to tools or knowledge to become a sustainable professional.

Vu Haus Colorado filming Dragon Deer at the Colorado Sound birthday party in Fort Collins at the Aggie Theater.
Vu Haus Colorado filming Dragon Deer at the Colorado Sound birthday party in Fort Collins at the Aggie Theater.

Programs aim to educate and inform musicians and the community. As the district matures, they will continue to have programming that elevates the musicianship of the city.

 

Community building through organizations

Angel Meakins Kwiatkowski is a nationally recognized Co-working expert that creates Co hubs for people to work in shared spaces. Angel had musician friends in Fort Collins that had gotten their gear stolen. This is one of the most common occurrences in the music world. Often musicians do not have insured gear, so it is a loss of their livelihood if stolen. Out of a need for secure, safe rehearsal space and a realization that musicians are essentially freelancers, Angel, Julie Sutter, and Shane Zweygardt, Technical Manager of the Music District, all pulled their innovative spirit together to create a Coworking-style rehearsal space-Cohere Bandwidth.

Angel shares about the scene:

“The thing I have learned because I haven’t been in the music industry except through Cohere Bandwidth is that the people who are supporting the musicians in Fort Collins are musicians. They form the foundation of the fan base.”

Angel Meakins Kwiatkowski is a nationally recognized coworking expert who started CoHere Bandwidth - a shared workspace for musicians.
Angel Meakins Kwiatkowski is a nationally recognized coworking expert who started Cohere Bandwidth – a shared workspace for musicians. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

Mishawaka marketing manager and longtime Fort Collins musician, Tim Massa is the Community Cultivator. He plans and carries out events and is the main contact for bands using the space. Cohere is a shared rehearsal space that is back lined. All you have to do is book a room, bring your instruments, and plug in. Besides the rehearsal space, they have educational resources and networking opportunities. Twice a month there is an opportunity to meet individuals who are seeking new band members, want to form a new band or just want to mix and mingle. Local bands provide a live show after the meetup. They helped bands prepare for FOCOMX  with workshops and prep playlist.Cohere has an upcoming play date for musicians’ which happens monthly. The next workshop is Social Media for bands, RSVP here.

Tim discusses the ways he brings organizations together:

“We always try to make it a community building event. On our panels, we try to get representation from as many bands, FOCOMA, the Music District.”

Timo Massa is the Marketing Director of the Mishawaka Amphitheatre and formerely the Aggie and Hodi's Half Note.
Timo Massa is the Marketing Director of the Mishawaka Amphitheatre and formerly the Aggie and Hodi’s Half Note. Photo by Cynthia Wilson

Angel is bringing big town ideas to a small town of Fort Collins. She hopes it adds value to the community and the bands keep showing up. She bases all her decisions on market research and data collected. The latest research for the creative community is the issue of affordable housing. Creatives can take the survey and give input on the future of housing in Fort Collins. These efforts are directed through the City of Fort Collins, the Downtown Development Authority, Bohemian Foundation, and national nonprofit Artspace Projects are leading the Arts Market Study phase.

Overall, the efforts from all the organizations build a community so much that people are attending shows from genres out of their norm. There is a comrade around supporting friends, not taste. They are learning to work together as a stronger unit so they can act as a united force of music. There is a crossover of member sharing that happens.

Local involvement

In the summer, you can see live local and national music free almost every day of the week.

Noontime Notes Concert Series in Oak street plaza every Tuesday starting June 6 featuring local music.

The Lagoon Concerts are every Wednesday at the Lagoon on the Colorado State University Campus. The line-up is all local bands.

Thursday Night Live is every Thursday in Old Town Square featuring all Colorado lineup starting June 1.

Downtown Sessions every Friday featuring an all Colorado Lineup.

Sounds of summer every Saturday at Front Range Village.

Summer Sunday’s at Foothills mall every Sunday starting May 28.

For the grand finale, stay tuned to Bohemian Nights at New West Fest free three-day festival in August.

To learn more about the local artist or get involved check out organizations and sponsors that host weekly free music events. Fort Collins is a city built on rock-n-roll, aside from these events there is music in venues, festivals, and patios throughout the town.

There is inclusiveness and a startup mentality encompassed within “FoCo Music.” Musicians are bonding together to raise the bar on the industry. They are working to take a grassroots approach to music and build a new ecosystem that thrives and supports musicprenuership locally and globally.

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