Chad Donnelly's SnowBall Music Festival is on a roll
A fire keeps fans warm at last year’s SnowBall Music Festival, held in Winter Park. This year, the dance-heavy event moves to Sports Authority Field.
Sports Authority Field at Mile High is often filled with fans who provide unfaltering support for their home team, who come out in droves and weather malicious snowstorms, biting wind and blinding sun to be a part of something special. With the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains to the west and the skyline of the Mile High City to the east, this plot of land is Colorado through and through.
But this weekend, it won't be the Denver Broncos that fans will be rooting for at Mile High, but a different Colorado-born endeavor: the SnowBall Music Festival. Hometown favorite Pretty Lights will headline the festival; the party will also include the bombastic sounds of Knife Party and the commanding flow of Busta Rhymes. In addition, this year marks the first time SnowBall will be held east of the foothills, after three years of bouncing around mountain towns with mixed results.
The festival's founder and CEO, 33-year-old Chad Donnelly, spent his developmental years schussing down the groomed runs of Vail, teeing off onto the lush fairways that dot the semi-arid Front Range, and cultivating his skills as a team player in various lacrosse programs in the state.
The youngest of five siblings, Donnelly felt the need to prove himself early on. He left Colorado in 1999 to attend Chapman University in Orange, California, where he thrived in the school's golf and lacrosse programs while pursuing a degree. In 2001 he ventured to Prague to study economics.
Donnelly graduated from Chapman in 2004 and accepted a coaching position with his alma mater while also working with Nike Team Sports as an account executive.
"I looked at [coaching] as my first business," Donnelly says. "I was managing budgets, planning travel, and I had 25 guys looking to me for guidance and direction."
Still coaching, Donnelly left Nike to work for CBS, again as an account executive. Although the money was better, he quickly found that the demands on his time weren't worth it. "I learned that the amount of money I was making was in no way reflective of my happiness," he says. He quit three months into the job, just two days before Christmas in 2005.
He decided — not for the last time — to use his entrepreneurial spirit for something he loved, and started USA Starz Lacrosse.
"I wanted to fuse lacrosse and business," he says, "so I convinced twelve players to come over to Europe and play in some international tournaments. Really, I wanted an excuse to travel."
Donnelly was three years into his tenure with the Chapman lacrosse program, coaching a team that would go on to play in two national championships, when the university opted not to renew his contract. In 2008, he moved back to live with his mother in Colorado.
He found opportunity once again in his home state. His older brother, Jeff, had started a software company called EmagineIF. Although Chad was still involved with USA Starz Lacrosse, he jumped at the opportunity to work at EmagineIF. "My brother started this software company and brought me on board, and I was valeting cars at Shanahan's Steakhouse to uphold my financial obligation."
EmagineIF's success ultimately resonated with a group from New Zealand, who helped move the company there. Chad remains on the board of directors to this day.
But his future didn't lie in software. During a weekend ski trip to Vail, facing lackluster nightlife opportunities, Donnelly had an idea: "I was waiting to go to Coachella, and I thought, 'Why can't we have something like this in Colorado?"
It was a nice thought, but he had no experience in festival management — or entertainment production of any kind, really. Putting on a large-scale music event is difficult, especially in a state like Colorado, where major companies such as SFX Entertainment, AEG Live, and LiveNation control huge portions of the market. In late 2011, Donnelly called the only person he knew with ties to the industry: a junior agent at talent company Creative Artists Agency named Latane Hughes, whom he had known for many years. "He loved the idea and really [helped] with the talent," says Donnelly.
For his part, Donnelly went to his list of contacts and was able to find a substantial amount of people — most of whom had no experience with any kind of music-related project — who were interested in investing in the first SnowBall Music Festival.
The festival was held in Avon, in the Vail Valley, and artists that first year included then-rising star Pretty Lights, the Flaming Lips, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Bassnectar, among others. Somehow, Donnelly had managed to assemble a music festival. But the mountains, beautiful as they may be, present challenges, and the night before SnowBall's first day, Vail Pass was closed due to inclement weather.
Donnelly was sitting in his rental property in Avon when he got a call from his brother. "All of these people are going to your festival," he said. "The roads are packed!"
Whether that's actually where all those people were headed probably doesn't matter. Plows finally cleared the road, and the fans came to SnowBall. "It was wild for me," Donnelly says. "To see all these people pouring in the gates, laughing, smiling. We were the farthest thing from perfect, but it was a dream come true."
With the success of the inaugural SnowBall behind him, Donnelly hired four employees and set up his fledgling music-festival operation in a basement office in Venice Beach, California. They set their sights on throwing another event in Lake Tahoe called SnowGlobe Music Festival. In just three months, the crew managed to put together a lineup similar to that of SnowBall's. They were a highly improbable two for two.
Donnelly decided they could complete a trifecta, and they started work on SnowMont in Killington, Vermont. He immediately began booking artists and locking in contracts, but his lack of experience finally caught up to him: There wasn't enough time to plan the event, and SnowMont was canceled.
"I stretched our team too thin," Donnelly says. He paid the deposits to the artists himself. "It was an expensive mistake — several hundred thousand dollars. It's good to know that you are not invincible."
SnowBall returned to Avon in 2012 — a second installment that would be the last in that particular mountain town. Avon decided it had had enough of the rowdy music, lights and fans. The fact that the local media reported the ninety-plus citations given out for minor infractions as arrests didn't help.
But Donnelly had started in the mountains and wasn't ready to leave. In 2013, he moved the festival to Winter Park, which sits on the other side of Berthoud Pass, an even more formidable obstacle to travelers than the road into Vail.
But it wasn't snow that made Winter Park a bad long-term home for SnowBall. Though the town is a staple in the ski and snowboard community, it was ill-equipped to handle the demands of thousands of music tourists. Attendance was good, but Donnelly decided to seek yet another new base for the festival. Fate supported his decision.
"If we would've stuck with the mountain model, we would've had the festival in early March," says Donnelly. "This year, [that] Friday night had an avalanche that closed Berthoud Pass." SnowBall's third year might have been its last if it had been sitting on the other side of that pass.
Grant Kwiecinski, a SnowBall veteran and music producer who performs under the moniker GRiZ, approves of the move to Denver. "With the forward-thinking nature of the state," he says, "it's a perfect way to curate more new things for downtown."
The mountain towns may represent the things Donnelly and others love most about Colorado, but they aren't necessarily ready for this large new industry.
"They kept hitting roadblocks with the mountain towns," Kwiecinski says. "[SnowBall] creates this influx in business, but they don't really need that. They have other things going for them; they are set in their ways."
Still, Kwiecinski loves the idea of a mountain festival. "It was eight degrees outside and there were girls in tank tops, just rocking out. It was a special thing."
He's not the only one who saw the appeal. The decision to move SnowBall to Denver's Sports Authority Field's parking lot has been met with mixed reviews. Some fans who attended in years past have taken to social media to accuse the festival of abandoning its mission. Others feel that the proximity to downtown is a welcome convenience.
Regardless, SnowBall Music Festival is still going because of its founder, a Colorado native whose life has taught him plenty about adaptation.
"I remember it snowing, sitting in those plastic seats at Mile High Stadium and freezing my ass off but having a great time," Donnelly says. "And that's just stationary, watching football. If you're up dancing with your friends, it creates a whole new experience."
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