How giving it all away made Phoenix’s M3F one of the strongest festival brands in the country [Interview]
For a music festival to reach its 17th anniversary, a lot has to go right. The need to be receptive to feedback is critical, the ability to be nimble on-the-go is key, and a little luck doesn’t hurt either. But for organizers of Phoenix’s McDowell Mountain Music Festival, affectionately nicknamed M3F, they key ingredient to the venerated event’s longevity, and fierce loyalty from attendees, relies more heavily on the festival’s philanthropic appeal than anything else. Sure, diverse musical programming, a great venue, and unbeatable weather play their roles in making the event such a smash success year-over-year, but great lineups are a dime a dozen and M3F knows that. How does a festival plant roots deep enough to stick around for nearly two decades? Give it all away, every single year.
At 17 years on the festival circuit and still going strong, the minds behind M3F know the didn’t get here by chance. They got here under their resounding COMMUNITY x CULTURE x CHARITY banner—donating 100 percent of the proceeds M3F generates to better the festival’s host community. Offering attendees the opportunity to be something much bigger than themselves, or even the festival experience, M3F positions festival goers as agents of positive forward progress. Proceeds from the 2020 edition of M3F will be donated to Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, fund music therapy at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and much more. Ahead of this year’s event, Dancing Astronaut sat down with M3F’s Festival Manager, Heather Rogers, to learn a little more about M3F’s legacy as one of the country’s longest running music festivals.
Rogers, who has been with the festival for more than 13 of its 17 installments, describes the festival on its smallest scale as simply an extension of M3F’s parent company, Wespac Construction’s, bread and butter—a construction project. “[M3F] is a huge team building experience for our company,” laughs Rogers, before specifying, “it’s a base of people who have the same belief, who genuinely want to do this.” From setup to tear down and everything in between, for a small group of dedicated individuals, M3F is just an elaborate company bonding experience. In fact, M3F’s giving ethos is generally what informs Wespac’s overall company culture, according to Rogers. What’s more, as Phoenix’s downtown area continues to carve out a reputation as a burgeoning food, beverage, arts and entertainment hotspot, Rogers and company’s focus is specifically geared towards “giving back to [a] revitalized, growing downtown scene, and leaving the land at Hance Park the same, if not better than how we found it.” Generally, Rogers’ definition of the festival’s purview is extremely simple—it’s a three-legged stool: Community, Culture, Give Back. “We all live in this community, so we give back to this community,” says Rogers. “We keep a common thread that this is for the people, we can’t lose sight of that.”
Though, the idea of being a 100% nonprofit event was never intended to be an edge on competitors. In fact, Rogers encourages other events to pull pages out of M3F’s playbook. “Yes, other events followed, but that’s what we wanted. We see different festivals covered on the news that are giving back, we see other things that are cool now,” explains Rogers. And perhaps therein lies the most important key to M3F’s longevity—leading by example. Beyond that, perhaps it’s the extremely concentrated effort to throw one, and only one event per year, and ensuring that your lone event is an absolute smash every time. “It takes a village,” admits Rogers. “We joke around the office that break is five minutes long before diving in to planning for next year. We’re already talking ideas, improvements, plans, for 2021.”
Rogers continues, “it’s about having pride in what you’re doing.” This year, M3F has promised new on-site art installations and specialty cabanas for attendees looking for a premium festival experience with craft cocktails, upscale food options, private bathrooms, AC, side-stage viewing, and more. The way Rogers sees it—it’s an honor that any given attendee came to M3F to begin with. Simply put, festival tickets ain’t cheap. Out of all the festivals and all the money one could have spent elsewhere, attendees choosing to spend their hard earned cash on experiencing M3F is not lost on the festival’s organizers. As such, if any given festival goer is only going to be able to attend one event a year, and they chose M3F, Rogers feels the least her team can do is make it an unforgettable experience. “Once you come [to M3F], we’re pretty sure you’re coming back at some point. Maybe not the next year, but you’ll be back,” says Rogers.
That’s where the mission becomes more than just putting an entire city on your festival’s back. On a more granular level, M3F exists solely for the benefit of its individual attendees. Rogers might even say that the event’s groundbreaking philanthropic initiatives are just an added bonus to the individual gratifications her and her team provide thousands with each year. “A person could be having the worst year of their life, see our festival and say to themselves, ‘Everything is going to be okay.'” With a lineup that includes Bon Iver, RÜFÜS DU SOL, Sofi Tukker, Snakehips, and San Holo among others, that idea of one festival weekend pulling a person out of the doldrums really isn’t too much of a stretch.
In recent years we’ve seen the middle of an incredibly crowded festival circuit begin to fold. Whether due in part to Fyre Festival exposing the flaws in luxury boutique concert events, poor tickets sales, market dilution, or a mix of all that and more, we’ve seen the middle of the pack disappear. If that trend continues, big marquee events like Coachella and Ultra and smaller, tightly curated experiential events like Costa Rica’s Envision and Your Paradise Fiji will remain untouched. For the rest of the events vying for our dollars and time, a differentiating factor needs to be considered. Purpose, intention, setting, and sustainability, are all increasingly more important elements to the festival experience for attendees these days, and since day one, M3F has used these tenets as the bedrock foundations of the event.
Yes, a lot has to go right for a festival to make it around the corner from its 20 year mark, but ultimately, when you have the right operating principles in place from day one, year 17 probably still feels like just the beginning. M3F’s 17th edition runs March 6 – 8 at Margaret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix.
Featured images: Sam Silkworth, M3F Facebook