I Honestly Don't Know What You Expect From 80/35 at This Point

In case you missed it, The Des Moines Music Coalition made their initial lineup announcement for 80/35 this week, including headliners The Shins and MGMT. But, of course, you didn't miss it. Because as a simple perusal of the social media format of your choice will show, there are always two phases to every 80/35 lineup announcement: the statement itself, followed immediately by the moaning from people who can't wait to tell you how much the lineup always sucks, but how this year's is the Worst Ever.

This is the 10th installment of an event that has become, for hundreds of people, an annual must-do. And while the festival continues to draw healthy crowds -- though probably not as healthy as they keep wanting you to believe -- I think we've reached a point when we can all collectively stop expecting anything different from the folks in charge. And while that may not necessarily be a good thing, it's also just as certainly not a bad one.

It's something that stems from a more fundamental place, I believe. If you like what the DMMC does or purports to stand for, then you're probably going to be pretty happy with its signature event. If you think the DMMC has done more harm than good or is, at best, a floundering non-entity in the local landscape, then you're going to be equally blase about 80/35. And just as no amount of goodwill on their part will change your opinion, I assure you that no amount of bitching on yours part will change theirs. And this is coming from someone who gets paid actual money to bitch about things.

People don't turn to Facebook every January to complain that we're kicking off another year where Principal Financial doesn't sell kazoos. Nobody complains that the Iowa Cubs show up, year after year, refusing to add volleyball to their schedule. When you buy a ticket or walk through the doors, you do so fully knowing what to expect. And yet, every year, people are happy to tilt at this windmill, and complain that 80/35 doesn't feature more metal, or hip hop, or hard rock, or Norwegian experimental noise death polka.

Similarly, the other tired complaint that the 80/35 lineup gets every year is that the bands -- especially the headliners -- are "old" acts, whose best, biggest successes lay well in the past. And it's totally true. Neither of this year's headliners have made the cultural needle budge in over a decade, and last year's big get, Nas, has seen his last three albums COMBINE for fewer sales than that of his 1994 debut, Illmatic.

But, again: this is what 80/35 is. The event is clearly not trying to be a tastemaker; it's indie comfort food. Frankly, people should be a lot more OK with 80/35's lot in life than they are by now: The Iowa State Fair brings in middling country and big time nostalgia acts, Lazerfest was home to past-their-expiration-date metal acts and Halestorm, and 80/35 is one stop shopping for radio friendly, indie pop from your high school and undergrad years, with a sprinkling of bands you've never heard of.

The event has been doing this shtick for 9 years now. Event grand poo-bah Amedeo Rossi is the very definition of an Old Dog; new tricks are not going to be learned at this stage. The only way 80/35 will ever experience any kind of format revamping, is if the day ever comes that the likes of Rossi, old-guard board members like Justin Schoen, and On Pitch's Jill Haverkamp decide that it's time to pass the torch to some new blood. That's not something I expect to see happen any time soon. The group running 80/35 -- those three in particular -- have been there since the very beginning. The event is their child, and it can be hard to imagine anyone else taking care of your child as well as you can. Also, after a decade of being The Man Behind the Curtain (or, in Rossi's case, The Man Who Stands on Stage Every Year), ego can be a strong master.

But also, I'm not even saying it's something that should happen any time soon. Whatever your qualms about 80/35's headliners may be, Rossi has proven himself to be something of an idiot savant when it comes to his ear for local and regional talent, and the 80/35 free stages are consistently stocked with strong, emerging acts from Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and beyond. For her part, Haverkamp continues to be one of the most criminally under-appreciated talents in the state; a woman who believes passionately in the idea of promoting our home-grown artists, and who forged the ability to do so out of nothing more than her own sheer will and hard work. Everyone from Hinterland to Nitefall on the River to the Des Moines Civic center has or continues to use On Pitch to promote their shows and, at just 34 years old, there's absolutely no reason to think that Haverkamp isn't just now hitting her stride.

There may come a time when the financial situation forces Rossi's hand. There are rumors -- unverified but coming from people in a position to know -- that the past two years' events (and possibly further back) have been bathed in an ocean of red ink. So it may be that the time comes when sheer necessity forces 80/35 to shorten to one day, or bring in a different caliber of act to appeal to a larger crowd. But assuming that Rossi and his staff are left to their own devices, then no matter how much you might think you want it, 80/35 isn't changing its tune anytime soon.

The days when 80/35 could reasonably be looked upon as an event with the potential to be something bigger than it is are past. When I interviewed Schoen for a DSM Magazine piece in 2012, he made mention of the festival having been referred to as "Pitchfork's baby brother." Nobody is doing that anymore, and it's clear that everyone involved in putting the festival on every year is fine with that. It's equally apparent that several thousand people in the the Midwest are fine with it as well, as 80/35 continues to bring a mass of humanity downtown every summer.

80/35 isn't going to be the event that turns Des Moines into the Austin of the Corn Belt. The DMMC can continue to release puffed up crowd estimates in the 25- to 30,000 range every year, but the days of 80/35 actually selling more tickets than Hinterland are probably over as of this year. The event has already served whatever purpose one could legitimately ascribe to it, and the days of expecting 80/35 to be Bigger, Better and More should be laid to rest. Instead, look upon the festival for what it is. It taught a full generation of Iowa youth the importance of volunteering and getting involved in something you believed in. The people who will lead the local non-profit organizations of the next 20 years have probably already gotten their starts by sitting in 80/35 volunteer meetings. The ones who will lead this city's cultural and artistic worlds long after I'm too old to give a shit anymore will be standing at podiums someday, giving thanks to the likes of Rossi, Haverkamp and 80/35 Volunteer Coordinator Cherish Anderson.

But bitch about the lineup if you must. Whatever. Make sure everyone around you knows that you've never been to an 80/35, and you'll never go. I mean, complaining about something you've never personally bothered to experience is an interesting move, but live your life. 80/35 is a weird, flawed little event, put on in the middle of a weird, flawed little town. Maybe people wanted it to be more, or maybe they just wanted to see a bunch of young, happy people fail at something. But whatever the reason, 80/35 -- and the DMMC -- are going to always have their detractors. I don't think any of the people involved have actually made peace with that fact, but at least they know it's coming every year.    

I said a minute ago that 80/35 has already served whatever purpose it had, but I don't think that necessarily has to be true just yet. With a little luck and some clear eyes on the part of everyone on both sides of the fight, 80/35's longest-lasting legacy can be where we go from here. 80/35 didn't turn Des Moines in to Austin, but it can still do something even more important: it can be the thing that got us one step closer to not wanting to be Austin anymore, and figuring out what Des Moines actually is.