How much should a Duluth Homegrown ticket cost?
As the Twin Ports music festival hits the quarter-century mark, artists say Homegrown has become an invaluable part of the local scene. Some wonder, though, if it's time to up the ante.
DULUTH — There's nothing quite like the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival. Anywhere.
"We're a unicorn," said Dereck Murphy-Williams, the festival's interim co-director. "I'm always amazed at the amount of music acts that apply."
An enormous point of pride for Duluth and Superior, Homegrown is an eight-day music festival that draws talent exclusively from artists based in the Twin Ports, or who have significant history here. It's a highly visible, often jubilant, showcase for the area's rich music community.
It's grown considerably from its origin as a two-night birthday party for Duluth musician and radio host Scott "Starfire" Lunt. That fact has some local artists asking whether it's time for Homegrown to revisit its business model.
"It is a celebration, and that is a special and beautiful thing," said Duluth singer-songwriter Sarah Krueger, who performs as Lanue. "Artists that sign up to want to play Homegrown, I think, for the most part they know and understand that. But (there's) also the whole idea of showing artists in this town that they can make a sustainable living."
From NorShor to much, much more
"Maybe it doesn't compare to that gathering of musicians of some renown in New York," wrote the News Tribune at the beginning of a May 1999 article about the first Homegrown Music Festival, "but it's a start."
At the time, Lunt told the News Tribune that "I wanted to be able to somehow see my favorite local bands in one weekend and there are getting to be so many that you can't even do that now."
By the following year, the NorShor Theatre festival had added a second venue, Fitger's Brewhouse, and more than doubled its lineup from 10 acts to 23. "I can see it doubling (in size) next year and still being very comfortable and accessible," said Lunt during year two.
This year, well over 150 artists are staggered across over 30 venues. It's a marathon event, even for its founder. "I can't go out every single night," said Lunt with a laugh when reached by phone last week. "I'll do my best."
From the beginning, organizers and participants understood the festival to be a community-building tool and, eventually, a sort of advertisement for the Twin Ports music scene. In 2001, venue owner and musician Jason Wussow observed that people were coming out for the festival generally, not just for particular artists they enjoyed.
"I just kind of look at it like it's a big event," Wussow told the News Tribune that year. "It's kind of saying this is what Duluth has for bands and venues."
Minnesota glam-punk legend Venus de Mars grew up in Duluth, and then left in the early 1980s to pursue opportunities in the Twin Cities. "I realized I couldn't build my career from (Duluth)," she told the News Tribune recently.
"Looking at Duluth now," de Mars continued, "the Homegrown Festival is amazing. That is such an amazing event, and I feel very honored to have a toe in the door to be able to be part of that."
Any number of artists have Homegrown success stories.
"We had a really positive response from artists at Clyde Iron Works that I don't think would typically have come out to see a Sadkin show," said that band's leader Max Mileski regarding last year's festival. "We definitely had some great feedback from a lot of different people."
"I can't even count, off the top of my head, how many Homegrowns I've played," said Krueger. "It's always been one of my favorite weeks of the year."
"It's really just a homecoming," said Lunt, "and the music's great."
A comeback, and questions
After a painful pandemic hiatus, during which grateful audiences watched selected Homegrown programming online, the festival returned at full force in 2022. "We were right on par with previous years," said Murphy-Williams. "Everyone was hungry to get out and have a festival again."
I don't think people are playing Homegrown to get paid. It's $100. It's not what we (the band Sadkin) typically ask for. But we want to participate in this fantastic circus that is Duluth Homegrown.
During last year's festival, Nat Harvie, a musician who also grew up in Duluth and is now based in Minneapolis, shared the story of their first Homegrown triumph in a widely read essay published on the website Perfect Duluth Day.
"I played my first Homegrown when I was 17," wrote Harvie. "My high school band opened for Coyote at Teatro Zuccone. It was the first sold out show of my music career." Still, the essay was titled "I love you Homegrown but I can't do this anymore!"
The spark of Harvie's frustration was a situation involving the 2022 Homegrown music mix, a regular offering from the festival. Last year's compilation was posted online and made available for sale before the artists included had been asked for permission.
"I don't think they were trying to steal my work," Harvie told the News Tribune last week. "I understand that it was a mistake." Still, Harvie was frustrated with Homegrown's apparent lack of organization. "That just seems like a really basic consideration to me."
Krueger was another artist whose work was included on the compilation, which was taken down after less than a day. "They apologized, and it was remedied in a way that also felt sad," she said. "They just removed the whole thing altogether."
For Krueger, the incident "tipped off the conversation (about) Duluth Homegrown at large and how artists aren't fairly compensated in this community."
"I really want to start a conversation in regards to at what expense do we as a community support a festival that is built almost entirely on the backbones of artists and musicians giving their time and talents and work away for nearly free," Krueger wrote on Twitter last April.
"Yes," she continued, "we want to keep the festival accessible for all but when we set a precedent that an entire week’s worth of live music is worth $30, then you’re also setting a precedent that a three band bill on a normal night of the week in Duluth isn’t worth $10 out of somebody’s pocket."
Accessibility and organization
This year's festival opens Sunday, April 30, and runs through the following Sunday, May 7. Since last year, prices for all-access Homegrown wristbands have gone up by one-third, from $30 to $40. Artist stipends have also increased, from $75 to $100.
"You do the math on $25," said Mileski, citing the large number of artists involved. "That's a significant effort."
"We want to please the artists," said Murphy-Williams, "but we still want to please the community by keeping ticket prices affordable for them. It's such a fine line."
There have been mistakes over the years, and we try to learn from them every year. We try to really focus on the end product, which is celebrating the local music scene, but also celebrating the community, the venues, the fans, the sponsors. There's a lot on the line.
"Artists' pay is tough," said Sam Thueson, director of Mid West Music Fest. "I don't think there are many people (running festivals) that are stoked about how they pay their artists."
Mid West Music Fest takes place over two weekends in Winona, Minnesota (this year, May 12-13), and La Crosse, Wisconsin (Nov. 3-4). Thueson said their artist stipends are $100 at minimum and go up from there, but noted that his festival books more widely than Homegrown and needs to consider artists' transportation expenses. Tickets for that festival are also much more expensive, at $79.99 for just one weekend.
"I remember my first Mid West (Music Fest). I couldn't afford a ticket," said Thueson. "It would be cool to charge more for tickets and pay artists more, but then you're excluding certain communities and people from being able to go to the festival, so it's a constant balancing act."
Murphy-Williams said Homegrown staff, over the years, have looked at other festivals to see if there's anything to be learned, but "it's so hard, because we're one-of-a-kind."
In terms of organization, Homegrown is in the process of splitting what was formerly a single position — festival director — into two, with one person focusing on administration and the other interfacing with artists and venues.
Murphy-Williams, whose interim role is on the administrative side, said he's working to "organize everything into a system really well, so that I can pull everything and look at what brought in what, and what area that goes to. Just (gain) a more concrete vision of that."
Melissa LaTour, who served as Homegrown director for several years before stepping down over the winter, said she initiated the position split as a means of ensuring that important details on both sides are taken care of. "We don't want to miss something," she said.
"There have been mistakes over the years," said LaTour, "and we try to learn from them every year. We try to really focus on the end product, which is celebrating the local music scene, but also celebrating the community, the venues, the fans, the sponsors. There's a lot on the line."
Setting a tone
Photographer and musician Keely Zynda moved to Duluth in 2020. Homegrown organizers "have a good intention," she said, but as a newcomer, Zynda was taken aback at the extent to which the festival relies on artists and other community members volunteering or working for minimal compensation.
"It's just such a small community, so people get stuck in their ways and think that we should do things just because we're all friends. However, there are new people to the community," she said. "There's a younger generation coming up that don't really fall into that 'we're all friends' category."
I really believe in the Duluth scene. It's been very important for me, and I just want to see people be compensated.
Krueger, a Duluthian of much longer standing, shared that concern about the tone being set. "Homegrown is a really big week for artists, and also for a community of people who come out to see shows and enjoy music and art," Krueger said. "I think it sets a precedent."
The Homegrown audience is unique, and for many artists, it's worth the financial trade-off.
"I think of my work in music, and gigs and all of that, on a yearly basis, not on a gig-to-gig basis," said de Mars, who said she's always taken certain shows for publicity rather than pay. This year, her band All the Pretty Horses will be playing Pizza Luce on the night of May 6.
"The exposure that Homegrown has right now is fantastic," said de Mars. "It's the biggest audiences that you can hope for at some of these venues."
"I don't think people are playing Homegrown to get paid," said Mileski. "It's $100. It's not what we (the band Sadkin) typically ask for. But we want to participate in this fantastic circus that is Duluth Homegrown."
The question of compensation for Duluth artists goes far beyond one festival, said Harvie. There's a question as to whether, as Duluth's economy grows, the city can make the collective investments required to sustain its prized artistic community.
"As Duluth becomes hipper and on the map, especially in relation to cultural artifacts like Homegrown," said Harvie, "we're seeing property values go up; we're seeing the vacancy (rate) go down; we're starting to see a lot of working artists having to leave the West End because even that's too expensive."
Looking to the future
This year, Homegrown is once again going big. While Clyde Iron Works "has decided to take a year off," said Murphy-Williams, the DECC Arena will be taking Clyde's place on the "big venue night" of Tuesday, May 2. "We have Fenestra Funk headlining (that night), and they seem to be pulling in a ton of people every show of theirs I've been at."
That said, in some areas, the festival is pulling back. Murphy-Williams and fellow interim co-director Cory Jezierski "decided," said Murphy-Williams, "let's try and cut out a lot of our own ancillary things, just to focus on the performances." That means, among other things, that there won't be a Homegrown music mix released this year.
Also, said Murphy-Williams, "we downsized the number of music acts this year a little bit, because we knew we were going to be trying to get our bearings about us" in the new management structure. "I'm just excited to steer the helm of our first year."
Krueger, who has a newborn baby, isn't in the Homegrown lineup this year, but said she'd "absolutely" consider returning in the future. This year, "I'll be trying to hit up some shows and see everyone out and about when I can."
Sadkin is playing Duluth Flame on May 6, and Mileski is pleased that Homegrown will be able to accommodate production elements that are integral to the band's performances.
"We choreograph a light show to our music," said Mileski. "It's complete with fog, and it creates this real atmosphere that corroborates the music that we write and perform."
Harvie said they appreciate what Homegrown has done to support "spaces of DIY refuge" like Blush, Studio 15 and Ochre Ghost (all of which are now closed). "I really believe in the Duluth scene," said Harvie. "It's been very important for me, and I just want to see people be compensated."
LaTour said that during her tenure at Homegrown, there were discussions about reorganizing the festival programming to space out the buzz more evenly throughout the year. "Maybe it's not 200 bands in a one-week period," she said hypothetically, "but maybe it could be 25 bands every so many months."
Lunt will be playing Sacred Heart Music Center on May 6 with his band, Father Hennepin. He noted that the Sundance Film Festival has spawned unaffiliated spin-offs organized around different principles, and acknowledged that might someday happen to Homegrown.
"That's when I think something is really established and doing great," said the Homegrown founder. "Some people get pissed, spin off and do their own things. So if you ever see that, you'll know that you're doing good."