They say in show biz, it’s all about who you know.

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They say in show biz, it’s all about who you know.

This rule is also true when planning a major music festival.

Dauphin’s Countryfest kicks off on June 25, and this year’s fest features some absolute giants of the country world, including Miranda Lambert, one of the most decorated women in country music. According to Pollstar, her tour is one of the top 20 highest-grossing globally.

How, you may be asking, does a city like Dauphin manage to wrangle these huge headliners?

Well, it takes a lot of foresight — the ability to predict who’s going to be big, sometimes more than a year in advance — but it also doesn’t hurt to have had the same people at the helm of the four-day summer festival, now in its 26th year, working with the management, reps and PR people, building long-term relationships.

"I’ve been doing this a long time — 25 years for me at country fest —and because of that, I have spent a lot of time working with the agents and artists," says festival promoter Rob Woloschuk. "So I look at the charts and radio and then I get a hold of the agents and try and find out what’s in the future for that particular artist."

Woloschuk has a keen eye for gauging who’s going to be popular by the time the festival rolls around each June. His best example was 2013’s headliner, Florida Georgia Line, who, a year before Woloschuk booked them for Countryfest, were only getting air time on satellite radio. Shortly after he locked them in, their song Cruise, featuring rapper Nelly, blew up the charts, becoming one of the most successful songs of the year.

"I happened to know their manager very well and we discussed it and it seemed like there were big things coming up for them," he says. "By the time the festival rolled around, they were pretty big, to say the least."

Woloschuk recalls the band Alabama was one of the first big acts to sign on to play Countryfest, on or around the festival’s 10-year mark. By that time, C-fest, as it is lovingly known, had already become a reputable event and had developed into big player in the music scene, which made booking progressively larger bands an easier task.

"It was like ‘They had Alabama last year, so they must be good place to play,’ and it just kept going from there," he says.

Countryfest president and Dauphin Mayor Eric Irwin remembers things taking off for the festival a bit earlier.

"In about year three — that was the first year we made money — I remember having this emergency meeting of the board over lunch in order to determine if we were going to book the Kentucky Headhunters. They had been in the Top 10, they had a bunch of catchy tunes and were a cool band. We sat down and we had to really rack our brains to decide if we would pay them $35,000 to close Saturday night. We agreed we would, and things really took off that year. After that, we started selling out in November when tickets went on sale," he says.

Now dropping 35 grand on a band would require no thought at all — it’s not uncommon for the festival to spend 10 times that amount, says Irwin, who was involved in Countryfest long before taking his seat as mayor.

The organization has paid up to $800,000 for a headlining act in the past, but balances that spending with the inclusion of alt-country bands and other performers who are at the beginning of a burgeoning career. They scout out events like Breakout West for those new talents that have followed the transition of country music into a more pop-inspired genre to maintain the festival’s appeal to its younger attendees.

"Country music has progressed leaps and bounds over the years," says Woloschuk. "We had to make those adjustments — our audience has gotten a lot younger and that’s what they wanted to see. We try to keep a good mix, though. We have a lot of seasoned Countryfest goers who are looking for something more traditional and we try to keep that in the mix as well."

"We really try to provide a good amount of breadth and depth," adds Irwin.

The history of Countryfest is a story of the little festival that could. A small group of people decided to throw the first festival as a way to sustain and maintain the historic Selo Ukraina site, where the event is held. The first concert was a success, but investors didn’t see a return. The next year, a call went out to community members to contribute, and the Countryfest committee was able to gather $100,000 as seed capital. The festival lost money that year as well.

By year three the festival was finally in the black. Since then, the event has become one of the largest music festivals in the province and has earned enough profit to contribute back to the community in a huge way. Countryfest has poured more than $1 million into the City of Dauphin, building a movie theatre, community pool, an arena and a skateboard park along with funding extensive renovations to the festival site.

Countryfest’s volunteers also benefit from the success of the festival — unlike other Manitoba festivals, Countryfest volunteers all come from different not-for-profit organizations around Dauphin, such as the Rotary Club and the school band program. In return for their work they receive a monetary donation from the festival.

"Dauphin is a wonderful community, and I don’t think there’s a lot of communities where so many people would volunteer. Some people spend $500 or more on a VIP ticket and stay late and enjoy themselves, and then they’re getting up at 6 a.m. to help pick up garbage because their kids are in the band program," says Irwin. "That type of person is not unusual in Dauphin. That’s the kind of small-community attitude people have here. It’s just amazing."

Manitoba-grown band Doc Walker is no stranger to Dauphin’s Countryfest, having performed 10 times since its inaugural set in 1994. The group will take the stage again this year as Thursday night’s headliner.

As local musicians, the festival holds a special place in their hearts.

"They’ve always really helped this band and given us a chance, especially when we were first starting out," says vocalist and guitarist Chris Thorsteinson, who has attended the fest both as a fan and a performer.

"It’s a blast. When I was there with my buddies, it was some of the best times of my life. I’m almost speechless about how crazy it can get sometimes. What happens in Dauphin stays in Dauphin," he says with a laugh.

Doc Walker tour-mates and friends the Road Hammers will also be performing Thursday night, their fourth time at Countryfest. Guitarist Clayton Bellamy relishes the opportunity to see old friends, as he says the "bands and the festival have really grown together."

Like many Countryfest lifers, Dauphin holds a bit of nostalgia for Bellamy — the Road Hammers’ first Countryfest performance was also his first time as a festival headliner. "Ten thousand people in a concert bowl screaming down on top of you — it’s something I’ll never forget.

"It’s honestly one of the most exciting venues to play; it’s at the top of my list every year."

 

erin,lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @Nirerabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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