The Summit City might not be high on your list of top summer vacation spots. But for people in the music industry worldwide, it’s becoming a popular destination.
Kristen Gutherie, Director of Marketing for Visit Fort Wayne, says Fort Wayne is becoming a “Midwest Music City.”
Thousands of musicians in search of world-class gear, experiences, equipment, and training are planning summer vacations to Fort Wayne, largely thanks to Sweetwater—the music industry’s leading retailer for music gear.
With a sprawling campus just 15 minutes northwest of downtown at 5501 US-30, Sweetwater hosts many events that give music fans a reason to schedule some time in the Summit City.
Here are a few ways locals and tourists alike can experience Sweetwater this summer.
The Sweetwater campus is northwest of downtown at 5501 US-30.
Visit the campus
Walk onto the Sweetwater campus—a LEED Platinum Certified building—and you are immediately welcomed by the receptionists and the soft sound of classic rock music overhead.
While Sweetwater is primarily a retailer for music gear, its campus offers more than a shopping experience to customers. It’s open to the community, as well.
From gourmet food at the Downbeat Diner cafeteria, to coffee concoctions at the Crescendo Café, to a quick haircut at the Wavelengths Salon+Spa, even an indoor slide and arcade, there’s something for everyone to experience.
Sweetwater is a LEED Platinum Certified building.
But beyond a fun place to visit, this element of Sweetwater’s business underlies a cornerstone of its concept.
In fact, “making customers happy” was the inspiration behind founder and CEO Chuck Surack’s vision for Sweetwater in the first place.
In 1979, he was running a 4-track recording studio out of the back of his VW bus, and he was looking for a professional music or audio dealer who could provide him with the right combination of service, support, selection, and pricing.
“That's where the problem reared its ugly head,” Sweetwater’s website says.
Surack felt that such a retailer did not exist to serve musicians, so he created it, and his business took off.
He opened the Sweetwater campus in 2006 with a warehouse and retail location and added world-class sound equipment, recording studios, and stages in following years.
Customers are encouraged to test instruments at Sweetwater's retail location.
Today, more than 1,000 employees of Sweetwater are trained to go above and beyond for their customers—whether it be providing the best deals on gear or meeting them for a cup of coffee at the Crescendo Café.
Sweetwater plays a significant role in the regional community, as well, from local sponsoring events and projects in northeast Indiana to hosting events of its own.
Each summer, two events, in particular, bring music lovers to northeast Indiana in droves: Gearfest and Rock Camp.
Guitarist Eric Johnson performs at GearFest.
While Sweetwater is open to the public all year, for two-days each summer, the campus—and the Fort Wayne community—swell with “gear heads” and hundreds of industry exhibitors for GearFest.
This year marks the 17th annual event from June 22nd – June 23rd from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
The festival allows attendees to try out the latest music equipment, hear seminars from professionals in their craft, and meet the manufacturers of their favorite products, says GearFest Organizer Bob Bailey.
As Director of the Sweetwater Academy of Music, Bailey organizes this major event, and he says GearFest, in particular, is something that music lovers plan their family vacations around.
“It’s an opportunity for customers to meet us and understand our culture,” Bailey says.
GearFest Organizer Bob Bailey
Last year, the festival welcomed more than 14,500 guests, and this year they expect even more. When GearFest began in the early 2000s, it was a regional event. But over the years, it has grown internationally.
“We’ve had customers come from Japan and Australia just to get the experience that we offer,” Bailey says.
For manufacturers, the GearFest experience is equally rewarding. It means they get feedback on their goods from some of their most loyal consumers.
Regardless of your interests or experience level, Bailey says there’s something for everyone at the festival.
“Even for those who are not into traditional musical instruments, this is an incredible opportunity to learn about music technology and all facets of the industry,” he explains.
Jonatha Brooke hosts a session on Songwriting at GearFest.
Experience a Rock Camp concert
Along with gear and festivals, another one of Sweetwater’s main attractions is its professional music lessons and camps for individuals of all ages and abilities.
Each summer, its most popular camp is Rock Camp for students ages 12-18.
Rock Camp is an intensive weeklong program that offers students a true rock star experience with the professional support and services available on campus.
This rare opportunity attracts families nationwide to spend summer vacations in Fort Wayne so their students can learn what’s it’s like to be a professional musician.
Professional musicians help students experiment with sound equipment at Rock Camp.
At Rock Camp, students are divided into rock band groups, which practice 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Throughout the week, they experience the life of professional musicians, creating a band name and album artwork while learning to play two cover songs and writing one original song of their own. But that’s not all.
As the finale to their time and effort, students receive the exclusive opportunity to record their original songs at Sweetwater’s state-of-the-art recording studio and perform it live for family and friends on Friday in the acclaimed Sweetwater auditorium.
Bailey has overseen hundreds of students and groups come together through Rock Camp. He says that as the week progresses, even timid students rise up and rock out.
“On Monday the students are pensive, but as they progress through the week, there’s just something that happens when they get on stage,” Bailey says.
Sweetwater offers students the chance to use world-class equipment and recording studios.
This year’s event will take place June 11 – August 3 at the Sweetwater campus. Students can sign up for one week each.
While registration is already closed for most instruments this year, Rock Camp is still registering bass players. The public can get involved, too, by attending free Friday night student concerts.
Community support is always welcome and appreciated, Bailey says.
So if you’re looking to learn more about the music industry, or experience Sweetwater’s growing influence in it, mark your calendar this summer, and see why Fort Wayne is a national destination for music lovers everywhere.
A Rock Camp student tests a guitar.
The Sweetwater is at 5501 US-30, and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Attend Gear Fest
GearFest is June 22nd – June 23rd from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Sweetwater campus.
It is free to attend. Guests are asked to register at https://www.sweetwater.com/gearfest/register/.
Attend Rock Camp Concerts
Rock Camp is June 11 – August 3 at the Sweetwater campus. Students sign up for one week each. Registration is still open this year for bass players only.
The public can attend free student concerts each Friday night at 6:30 p.m.
To learn more about Rock Camp 2019, visit the Sweetwater Academy website.
Note: The author is a former employee of Sweetwater.