The night before the Maha Music Festival, Mike App stays up late washing and folding towels for the bands performing in the heat the next day.
Tre Brashear's kids assemble VIP ticket packages that same night. The App and Brashear families (and others) also split up a 40-page grocery list and shop for snacks, booze, juice and beer to put backstage.
And one year, Brashear woke up at 2:30 a.m. on the day of the festival to find that an artist's flight was delayed, messing up the meticulously planned stage schedule.
App, Brashear and fellow founders Tyler Owen and Mike Toohey take on many tasks — little ones such as laundry and big jobs such as raising hundreds of thousands of dollars — as part of their work on the indie rock-focused Maha Music Festival, which announces its 2013 lineup Sunday.
All four work busy, high-stress jobs and often add up to another 20 hours of work to their weeks to stage the volunteer-driven festival, work that has resulted in steadily growing audiences, a bigger venue and better bands. And all four are focused on further improving the festival, staffing it with more volunteers and, someday, expanding to more days.
App heads investments for Omaha's Lozier Corp. and Brashear heads the company's corporate giving, while Toohey runs a food and beverage company and Owen works at a steel company, Owen Industries. All are on the job up to 70 hours a week, but they still organize the music festival in their spare time.
To lessen their load, the four have added additional Maha board members, and they're looking ahead to the days when they can hire someone in a paid position and, eventually, hand off the reins to someone else.
For now, though, they're still in charge — and still on the line if things don't go according to plan. If Maha were to lose money, it would be up to these four men to write checks from their personal accounts to cover costs.
The festival has had successes — last year, 34 people got a Maha Music Festival tattoo (a real, permanent tattoo), and this year, the festival sold out of early-bird tickets before the lineup was even announced. But the founders are still nervous.
“It gives you religion in a hurry,” App said.
With expenses of more than $250,000, Maha lost money after 2009, its first year. Through sponsorships and donations, however, Maha was able to set aside money for a cushion after the 2010 and 2011 festivals.
Attendance at the first Maha festival, which featured Dashboard Confessional and Big Head Todd & the Monsters at the Lewis & Clark Landing on the Omaha riverfront, only amounted to 1,900, but attendance has been between 3,100 and 4,300 in the three years since, with more high-profile acts such as Garbage, Matisyahu, Spoon, Desaparecidos and Superchunk and a move to the bigger, greener and grassy Stinson Park at Aksarben Village.
With 4,300 ticket buyers, last year's festival was the best-attended in Maha's history, but the festival still showed a loss because of fewer donations. Fortunately, money set aside from previous years paid the bills.
WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME FROM?
Maha Music Festival continues to sell more and more tickets, but ticket sales cover only a fraction of the expenses the festival incurs.
Most of the festival's budget is provided by donations and corporate sponsorships. Here's a breakdown of the festival's revenue sources from last year and its first year.
45 percent, donations, sponsorships
30 percent, ticket sales
22 percent, food and beverage sales
3 percent, merchandise sales
73 percent, donation, sponsorships
14 percent, ticket sales
12 percent, food, beverage and merchandise sales
Source: Maha Music Festival
“Sponsorships and donations are really the key. We had great sponsorships in years two and three, and that's what we need to grow,” Brashear said. “We know we can always be successful because we always match our expenses with our fundraising.”
Each year, if organizers don't secure as many sponsorships as they'd hoped for, they change what bands they go after. The more sponsorships Maha has, the more it can spend on artists.
Though some festivals show big profits — Lollapalooza in Chicago or Coachella in California, for example — many lose money. And others — such as Omaha's Red Sky Music Festival and Denver's Mile High Music Festival — have shut down entirely.
Various factors can be blamed for that, including location, artist fees, attendance and weather.
“The most important factor in the longevity of a festival is the quality of the site from the fan's perspective,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of concert industry publication Pollstar. “Bottom line is, 'Did they have an enjoyable time?' and music is only part of that equation.”
The festival, which takes place this year on Aug. 17 at Stinson Park, draws thousands of fans, but in the beginning, there were only four friends and acquaintances who wanted the same thing: a not-for-profit, community-focused music festival to complement and celebrate Omaha's lauded music scene.
Almost 10 years ago at a training session for Omaha leaders, Brashear wondered aloud why Omaha didn't have such a festival. App heard his pitch, and a few years later, he and Owen had the idea to bring bands to town for what they initially dubbed the Aksarben Music Festival.
Owen and App invited Brashear and Toohey to form the initial festival board and, after hashing out some details, they incorporated as a nonprofit in 2008. They organized the first festival, which took place about a year later.
The first festival was tough for a few reasons. First, they didn't get the bands they wanted, a problem they still face today.
Each year, the festival might take 100 offers or inquiries to various bands to book a slate of six or so artists.
“If you have any problem with rejection, you don't book bands,” Toohey said. “I had no idea before I got involved with this and how many offers you make just to lock up a group of headliners.”
The first festival wasn't well-attended, and the founders heard some criticism. But App, Brashear, Owen and Toohey didn't give up.
“I remember being so impressed that they were like, 'We're doing this again,'” said App's wife, Becky. “They could have easily given up, but they were even more motivated. It was like, 'The harder stuff has passed and we know what to do next.'”
They meet all year long — both for planning and soliciting sponsorships — but the weeks before the festival are the busiest. Their families are lucky to see them.
“Three weeks from Maha, we black out the calendar for any availability from Mike,” Becky App said.
“It's kind of chaotic before the festival. Tre basically checks out,” added Brashear's wife, Kris. “Even when he's here, he's thinking about Maha or talking about Maha or sending Maha email.”
Brashear, president of Maha's board, described himself as “the biggest control freak of a bunch of control freaks.” Everyone in the group has a hands-on work ethic, he said.
With all of the work also comes a load of stresses. App, for one, had an eventful home life during the couple of years leading up to the first festival. His wife launched eCreamery, a Dundee ice cream shop with a major online component, and their son, Jay, was born.
“We say this kiddingly now, but our wives are still with us,” App said. “But it was difficult. I had a boss and a wife tell me after the first year, 'If it goes like this again, you're out.' So that got the four of us sitting down and saying, 'We gotta bring in other people that we trust.'”
They now have an army of volunteers, including an accountant, grant writers, marketing professionals, merchandise managers, a street team and workers who step forward and do almost any job. Some have returned to help out year after year.
About 250 volunteers worked at last year's festival, which featured Garbage and Desaparecidos, among other bands.
Still, many tasks fall to the founders. And though each year seems to get better, some details always fall through the cracks.
“You think, 'We've done this four times before and we've got this down,' but here I will be two or three nights before the festival where I lay there wide awake and think about all these little details,” Toohey said.
Someday, the founders say, they'll have to hand control of the festival off to another group. At 46 years old, Brashear and App joke that they might not always be cool enough to run an indie rock festival.
“We want it to continue. Bumbershoot (a music and arts festival in Seattle) is 40 years old, and that's where we want Maha to be,” said Brashear.
Expansion may involve a second day of music, which will necessarily increase the amount of money, volunteers and time needed to produce the festival. They've even thought about hiring a full-time, paid employee, and grant writers are working to obtain infrastructure grants, which would provide for that expense.
Some of the best ideas about Maha originate from new people. A volunteer proposed the idea for a community village — a group of tents and tables featuring local nonprofit organizations — and helped implement it with last year's festival.
“It's bigger than the four of us,” Owen said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1557, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/owhmusicguy