Three years ago, the Middle Waves Music Festival began as a way of doing something different in Fort Wayne.
It was northeast Indiana’s first destination music festival, offering two days of bands on three stages in Headwaters Park, along with a host of other activities for people of all ages and interests.
But because it was a new concept in the region, the team that created it spent much of the first two years explaining it to the community what they were doing.
Now that people have heard about it and attended, the festival is zeroing in on the deeper elements of its mission—“connecting our community through unique, jaw-dropping, pride-inducing music and art experiences.”
“It’s not just about doing awesome things,” says Festival Chair Katy Silliman. “It’s about building pride in the community.”
Middle Waves is a two-day festival.
Perhaps the greatest testament to this pride is the ever-expanding army of Middle Waves volunteers. The festival is entirely run by volunteers from its highly committed board members to its more casual shifts the weekend-of.
This year, the festival will be Sept. 14-15, with the lineup of local, regional, and national acts announced May 31st. That same day, the volunteer platform will go live as well, offering anyone in a “pride-inducing” community experience.
Input Fort Wayne sat down with Silliman, Jasmine Bejar (Chair of Marketing), and Beth McAvoy (Chair of Volunteers) to learn more about the evolving vision for Middle Waves and how it's offering new ways to get involved with Fort Wayne’s growth.
Middle Waves is run by volunteers.
IFW: The new mission statement for Middle Waves is focused on building pride and engagement in the northeast Indiana community. Tell us about that goal. Jasmine Bejar
JB: Over the last few years and going into this year, people feel a lot of ownership and pride in this festival. It’s not just something that’s given to them. It’s something that they see as more than a music festival they go to, and that’s how we crafted this mission statement.
It’s really about how are we bringing people together and the experience that they’re having—no matter who the lineup is.
Every year, the bands are going to be different. But the one thing that is the same is that it’s Middle Waves, and it’s something that the Fort Wayne community feels ownership of.
People have already been asking how soon they can sign up to volunteer because they’re so excited and so ready to contribute to something that they really believe in.
IFW: Middle Waves was modeled after destination music festivals in similar cities like 80/35 in Des Moines. How has that vision helped guide its growth?
BMC: Des Moines is one of the benchmark cities that community leaders have identified as being similar to Fort Wayne, as far as goals and community involvement goes
The first year of Middle Waves, there was a group of people who went on a city visit to Des Moines, and learned about the 80/35 music festival to bring that idea back here.
80/35 is in their 11th year, and they were really great in helping us learn the ropes and get a model together and figure out how that works for our community.
KS: I believe it was the festival director of 80/35 who said, “The morning after the first 80/35, the community woke up and felt differently about themselves.”
That is exactly what we want to do with Middle Waves.
I think we can all be ho-hum, humble Hoosiers, but we want people to say, “Things can happen here. Whatever dream you can come up with, you can get the right people, and the right resources to make it happen. Let’s give it a try.”
The St. Marys Stage comes alive at night.
IFW: Middle Waves is run entirely by volunteers. How has the leadership team evolved to accommodate the festival’s growth?
BMC: We had 15 fulltime leadership volunteers year one. Last year, we had 30-35, and this year, we have more than 50. These are the core people planning Middle Waves. Beth McAvoy
It’s a giant undertaking. We have no staff. Everyone has regular jobs and then is a volunteer in some kind of leadership capacity. Hats off to those who worked to make the festival a success in year one and two. They are all incredible people with big ideas and truly helped form the vision.
In growing the organization this year, we established a board of directors and formalized that process for ourselves. So we have volunteers serving on the board of directors, and then we have a lot of people in committee chair or committee roles. Then the committees have lots of volunteers to execute and plan.
We’re really expanding our core leadership to make sure that everything can be executed smoothly.
IFW: Not only are you growing in numbers, but you’re bringing new faces to the table to get involved in the community, too. Tell us about that.
KS: I worked at the Regional Partnership for eight years, so I got to know a lot of community leaders in my age range, and you would see the same people populate every board and the same people populate every committee.
The thing that I’m really excited about with Middle Waves is that it’s brought forth a whole new group of people stepping up in really significant ways. We’re developing the next crop of leaders.
BMC: That’s been my favorite part. I’ve had the same experience as Katie. The very first year I volunteered with the Middle Waves logistics committee, I went to meetings with people that I did not know at all before. Volunteers enjoy the festivities at Middle Waves.
That hadn’t happened to me in Fort Wayne for a long time.
We spent some time together leading up to the festival planning things. Then the festival weekend came, and it was like a giant slumber party without any sleep where we were together Thursday through Sunday.
It was the coolest thing to come out of that, and be like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this many strangers came together and did this cool thing and worked together so well.”
IFW: How does the recruitment process work for volunteers and committee members?
BMC: It hasn’t been hard to recruit people at all for leadership positions. But this year, there was some turnover with commitment, and we’re adding some new positions.
We have had an open call out for interest in some of the leadership positions, and we’ve had people come to us. We just posted it on Facebook and our website.
We treated it like a job opening and asked people to fill out a mini resume for the position they’re interested in, and we’ve had a great response of super qualified people.
Then on top of that, 80 percent of the people that responded had volunteered in some capacity for Middle Waves before or said I didn’t volunteer but I attended. I think that’s a huge part, too.
It’s people who have been invested and felt that they really enjoyed it before and wanted to take their commitment to the next level.
JB: It’s been so easy to bring people onto the committees because they all care about the festival and have expressed interest in various ways.
These people are extremely talented people who are willing to put forth time and effort outside of their jobs to make what they believe makes Fort Wayne a better place to live. It’s a very rewarding experience.
Festival goers have the opportunity to make crafts like flower crowns.
IFW: Jasmine, you’re a good example of a volunteer who has gotten more involved with Middle Waves over the years and worked your way up the ranks. Tell us about that experience.
JB: The first year, I volunteered to take photos for Middle Waves, so my responsibility was only the weekend-of. I was just excited to be part of it and loved seeing the genuine teamwork and passion it took to pull it all together.
The second year, I stepped up and joined the marketing committee, which was fun and just a little more responsibility.
This year, I full-on committed to the marketing chair position and joined the board of directors. I’ve found that Middle Waves has been an awesome opportunity for me to grow as a leader. And the great thing is there are so many opportunities to get involved that you can do so at a pace that works for your life.
IFW: What are the different ways volunteers can get involved?
BMC: There are three levels of planners: Board members, leadership chairs, and committee members. We started meeting and planning probably around November or December of last year.
Then we also have weekend-of volunteers. Those shifts are around 4 hours, and you can do more than one shift.
For new volunteers, I would definitely recommend the weekend-of positions. Those positions will be open to anyone and everyone on May 31st after the lineup announcement, and we’ll need more than 300 of those positions to make the festival happen.
KS: If there’s a specific area of the festival you’re interested in, look for those positions when you sign up. For example, if ticketing is an area of interest, you might want to be a box office volunteer. Or if you’re interested in production, we’re looking for stage hands to help load in and load out bands. Stuff like that.
Thousands of people across the Midwest attend Middle Waves.
IFW: What is the advantage of being on the board versus in a general committee role?
BMC: Decision-making powers is what it comes down to. The board level positions take votes on things that affect the festival as a whole. Then the other chairs maybe not be on the board level, so they’ll bring ideas to the board for a decision.
But for the most part, committee chairs are free to make most of their own decisions.
KS: We really wanted to empower people to have ownership over whatever aspect of the festival they’re working on. We joke that we can only pay you in beer and pizza every once in a while. But we can give you ownership over whatever part of the festival you’re working on. So if you want to be able to leave your mark, that’s what we’re really trying to do.
BMC: And the great thing is, you really can do that in Fort Wayne. If you’re in another larger place or city, and you want to start something, it’s harder. But here, you can bring us an idea you have.
My experience of Fort Wayne in different startup organizations and volunteer organizations has been that you have the opportunity to learn and really develop some skills for yourself while you’re doing something that you’ve decided you’re totally interested in already.
JB: I moved to Fort Wayne for school from the Chicago area, and I stayed because saw that exact opportunity—that I would be able to connect and do things here.
Being involved in something like Middle Waves wouldn’t have happened to me if I went back home. Here, not only do I get to get involved with a music festival, but I get to help build it. I’m not just walking into something that has already set up for me.
Middle Waves attracts attendees of all ages and interests.
IFW: It sounds like a great way for young leaders to get plugged into the community after college. What do you look for in a volunteer?
BMC: We look for an understanding why people are interested in it, and then really what strengths do they have that are different from what we’ve already got. Finding a different perspective is important and different skills.
KS: We also look for self-starters. We are definitely a working board.
BMC: And because of that I think we’re really open about time commitment for each position and want to make sure we’re honest with people about giving them an accurate picture of what the expectations are.
KS: It’s a lot of work, and we’ve said multiple times that life happens. The thing that I have experienced in being on boards and committees is, you’re on a board or committee, and you’re trapped there for perpetuity.
We’re really actively trying to give people permission to say things have changed, and I can’t stay engaged. There’s no shame in that. Life is hard enough, and we want this to add joy to people’s lives.
That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful, and it’s not crazy. But I think one of the reasons why this team is so special is we’ve all really gotten something out of this experience, and we can’t quite articulate what it is, but we keep coming back, and we’ll spend 3-5 hours around beers, talking about how we can make ticketing better or fighting over which bands we want.
It’s just become a real passion and a love for a lot of us.
IFW: You mentioned the innate sense of joy in being part of the Middle Waves team. Can you tell us more about that?
KS: This is probably super sappy and sentimental, but I feel like I’ve had stories with everybody where there was something they were kind of missing in their life about ways to be authentically themselves and really committed to the city in a way that’s so important to them. And I feel like, in many ways, the universe threw us all together with Middle Waves.
JB: That really hit me hard last year when we were at an all-team meeting, and Katy said, “Thank you for letting me be myself, this girl with green hair who wears funky leggings.” And I was just like, “Yeah, that’s what this is.” Not only can I be my crazy, different, passionate self, but I feel welcomed here because the point is no matter what our interests or backgrounds are, we can all rally together around this one cause.
BMC: It also makes me think of people like Brad. He helped out with ticketing toward the end of the event last year, and he has come on board to run ticketing this year.
He has the most amazing analytical-thinking, data-processing capabilities that just brings something entirely new to what we’re doing and puts it on a whole different level. With his help, we can make decisions based on data and trends instead of “this feels like the right thing to do.”
No one else really had those skills. So being your authentic self could be having green hair, or it could be making this amazing Microsoft Office 360 program.
It’s really funny how all of those things come together. It’s a music festival that’s got a ton of things around art and music. But the skills needed to pull it off aren’t necessarily artistic skills or creative skills. There’s a lot more to it.
IFW: Beyond volunteering, what are some other ways people can help make Middle Waves a success?
BMC: If people want to make the festival a great place, promoting it is such a huge part. Just spreading the word. Being champions of this event in your circles and getting people to come to the festival with you is the best way you can help make it a success.
KS: The budget for the festival is about $400,000, and we spend over half of that on talent, which is a lot going to national acts.
While that is an important decision for us to establish the legitimacy of the type of music we want to provide, it means we’re stretched in other areas.
Any support we can get from organic marketing and spreading the word is really critically important.
Come to the 2018 Middle Waves Lineup Announcement
May 31 at Hop River Brewing
1515 N Harrison St
Doors at 5:30 PM, Announcement at 6 PM
RSVP and learn more about Middle Waves at http://middlewaves.com/.