The inaugural Sloss Music & Arts Festival, dreamed up by Red Mountain Entertainment, was one for the books.
Written by Lindsey Osborne
Ever heard the phrase “you just had to be there”? The Monday after the inaugural Sloss Music and Arts Festival, held at Sloss Furnaces last July, that’s the phrase I was using to describe the two-day event. It took place as Alabama neared the peak of summer, but thousands—more than 25,000 in fact—turned out to sweat, jam, and dance together. By the time I got home Sunday night, I had more layers of dirt on my feet than there are in the Grand Canyon (I wore sandals like a rookie.) But I, like many other Birminghamians, came home that night with a full heart for what had just happened in my city.
Sloss Fest is the brainchild of Red Mountain Entertainment. Red Mountain Entertainment partner Jay Wilson, bookers Trevor Starnes and Jill Wheeler, and president Gary Weinberger took the lead on curating and booking the event. The idea for the festival began simmering in 2013, and in 2014, the team decided they would launch the following year. “With the bands that have been coming through Birmingham in the last couple of years and seeing how well they’ve done, it was obvious that there has been a huge shift in the music scene in Birmingham. Not to mention the revitalization that Birmingham, as a city, has had over the last couple of years. We felt that people would embrace a festival that showcased two days of great music,” Wilson says. “It took us two years to put together a plan that we felt fit the market. We went through several different scenarios of how many stages, which bands to book, and what the ticket prices should look like.” Based on the live music trends in Birmingham—alternative/rock bands have been particularly well-received, in large part due to Birmingham Mountain Radio putting the music out there, Wilson shares—they decided to focus on the alt/rock genre and settled on 33 bands spread out over two days.
In 2013, when the Alabama Shakes played two nights at Sloss Furnaces, the team realized they had found their festival venue. “Sloss Furnaces is one of the most unique structures in America. We have promoted concerts in the shed at Sloss for more than 30 years and bands are blown away when they show up and see how iconic the venue is,” Weinberger explains of their decision. “Sloss represents the rich history of Birmingham and is located so close to the city center, it just made sense to bring the festival there. The historians at Sloss were very helpful in letting us bring the history of Sloss alive with tons of historic pictures in our marketing [and on our] website.”
The team at Red Mountain has a plethora of experience in bringing the best music to Birmingham, including putting on City Stages and the Schaeffer Eye Center Crawfish Boil, but they admit that bringing a festival of this magnitude to Birmingham for the first time was a new undertaking. Nonetheless, they felt certain they could not only pull it off, but pull it off well. “We divided and conquered,” Wilson explains. “We created different groups in our company responsible for booking, site layout and logistics, production, marketing, ticketing legal, etc. We had a solid idea of what we wanted to do and executed it with almost daily meetings for over a year to discuss every detail. We had many meetings with the great folks at Sloss Furnaces and walked the site over and over for several months to fine tune our plan.
“Then, about a week before the event, we started building out the site,” he continues. “Then [we] had a bunch of killer bands come to Birmingham, served great food and showcased vendors, opened the gates, and watched as people showed up and seemed to have a great time.”
And a great time was had by all. The thousands who turned out got the chance to see iconic bands like The Avett Brothers, Modest Mouse, and Birmingham’s own St. Paul and the Broken Bones, as well as be exposed to up-and-coming ones like Purity Ring, Zella Day, and First Aid Kit (many of whom have, well, up and come since the festival.) And while it’s true that the team had focused on the alt/rock scene, make no mistake—the bands were varied, each bringing a new sound to the stages. “Our focus was to create a diverse lineup that offered different genres, including some new acts people might not be familiar with,” Starnes says. “We looked closely at radio airplay in the market, concert history, and which new bands were starting to break out, and additionally, we looked at bands that we, as a music loving team, really liked. After many months of discussions, we booked what we think was a great lineup of exceptional artists.”
In addition to the music were local artists showcasing their work, a team of local iron pourers displaying their skills (a nod to the venue), and vendors offering really good food. Weinberger says that beyond the ticket sales, which obviously point to success, the team was able to see their success in real time on social media as the festival goers Instagrammed, Tweeted, and Facebooked their experiences. “People had very nice things to say about the music and the activities and loved the venue,” he says. “We feel like we met our goals, which were to provide music and art to the community in an atmosphere that made people want to come and spend their weekend with us.” And overall, the team says, their extensive planning and experience meant the weekend went off fairly smoothly. “Of course there are going to be challenges when you launch a brand-new festival, but we had a really great team with a great deal of experience and we were able to meet these challenges head-on,” Wheeler says. “The city and the team at Sloss were extra helpful as we transformed a historic landmark into a festival site.”
And of course, there were some memorable moments over the weekend, especially for the RME team. “[One of my favorite parts was] definitely when Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant jumped into the crowd and then chanted ‘Sloss is boss!’ over and over,” says Wheeler. “Also, being able to see St. Paul and The Broken Bones play at the inaugural festival to such a huge welcoming hometown crowd. Those moments were very special to us.”
The Red Mountain team is looking forward to an even bigger and better festival this year—the second Sloss Music & Arts Festival will be held July 16–17, 2016. “Next year we are going to continue to focus on the patron’s experience while at our event,” Wilson says. “Yes, the music is a big priority, but so is offering other things to do and making sure that the festival-goers have a great experience from the time they enter Sloss Furnaces until they leave at the end of each night. We think we did a good job of that last year, but there’s always room to improve! We are constantly learning new things and striving to make each year better and better.” Tickets, as well as festival information and the lineup, which will be released gradually over the next several months, are available at slossfest.com.