Music Festivals

Westword Music Showcase: the Path From the Past to the Future

The Westword Music Showcase returns this month.
The Westword Music Showcase returns this month. Westword
Westword publisher Scott Tobias has overseen the Westword Music Showcase as it grew from a small, local-only shindig in LoDo in 1995 into a large-scale music festival with internationally renowned headliners — all while he's grown Voice Media Group, Westword's owner, into a national media and technology company.

This year's Showcase has expanded to two days and moved to a new location: the RiNo Art District. Dozens of Denver's best bands will play venues in the district on Friday, September 17; other local acts will be included in the main stage lineups on Saturday, September 18, with headliners Young the Giant, Thundercat, Matoma and Hippo Campus playing the outdoor stages and Kaytranada and Duke Dumont playing the Mission Ballroom indoor stage (special Weekender Pass tickets are required for that indoor event).

Free tickets for Friday, September 17, are now gone, but general admission and VIP tickets are still available for the main stage event on Saturday. The full schedule is now available on the Westword Music Showcase website.

We recently caught up with Tobias to talk about the Showcase's past, present and future, and the big move from the Golden Triangle neighborhood to the RiNo Art District.
click to enlarge Westword publisher Scott Tobias. - SCOTT TOBIAS
Westword publisher Scott Tobias.
Scott Tobias

Westword: How long have you been involved in Showcase?

Scott Tobias: I've been involved from the beginning. Originally, it was [former music editor/current staff writer] Michael Roberts and me. Going all the way back, we wanted a music event to mirror and mimic what we saw in Austin at South by Southwest. Our idea was to give back to local musicians. That's always been the foundation of what we built, and it continues to this day.

We started downtown at McCormick's and the Wynkoop and some other clubs; we programmed everything down there. Originally, it was a $5 ticket! These were the early days of LoDo, and we had it there for a number of years. Then Westword moved and the neighborhoods changed, and it made sense to bring it over to the Golden Triangle.

It was fun from the very beginning. We had Apples in Stereo, Slim Cessna. We had some of the great names in local music all day on our stages, which is one of the things we're most proud of. We've always covered the scene. This was an opportunity for us to let the scene shine, and also be a benefactor of local music.

Talk about the changes over the years.

It started as just a local music showcase...that continues to be the underpinning. The market made an opportunity for us to be able to include national talent. We started out with one outdoor stage, and one went to two. We found that to be really successful. I think having a blend of local and national is good.
click to enlarge One of the original Westword Music Showcase ads. - WESTWORD
One of the original Westword Music Showcase ads.
Westword

Venues come and go; it's been great to be able to work with different venues. We've always enjoyed that. And this year, we're hoping to open it up to some different types of programming, bringing in art installations with the RiNo Art District. We've always had some cool programming around the event, so we'll continue to do that.

The opportunity right now is even bigger to program new stuff and expand what this event is. I think this year it's important for us to plant our flag in RiNo, and then from there, our mission is to grow within RiNo.

Is this type of event happening in other cities, or just the Denver market?

At SXSW, we'd been sponsoring a lot of showcases as a company. We were like, "Look, we've got to put this thing in other markets." Denver was the most successful at the time, so we rolled it out here. And we did roll it out in some other markets. Denver has been the most successful for us.

Obviously, it's a big shift moving from the Golden Triangle to RiNo. Can you walk us through how and why that happened?

The reality is that we lost a partner. The land in the Golden Triangle where the two main stages were going to be is getting developed. The developers were great; they were trying to make something work. But as we looked at it, we knew we were always going to go to RiNo at some point. It was on the road map. With the pandemic last year and the hangover of the pandemic this year, we felt it was time to make the move.

I had been meeting with Westfield on other business items relating to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, so we had a good relationship with Kevin McClintock. And so it was a natural discussion. They have those parking lots there. The space is great for the event, and the added bonus is that the Mission Ballroom is right there. We feel really good about the footprint. And we feel really good about the partnership with Westfield.

Walk me through what it means for Showcase coming out of pandemic shutdowns. What was it like canceling last year?

Last year was heartbreaking. We felt we had the best lineup ever going into that. It was a hard decision but an easy decision at the same time; by the time we got to the end of April 2020, it was a no-brainer. But it was heartbreaking nonetheless.

And here we are sitting on the heels of the original pandemic but on the forefront of Delta. So we're taking all the precautions we need to take. [See the Westword Music Showcase COVID-19 guidelines.] We're going to follow the best guidelines possible to keep our attendees and musicians from getting sick.

We do feel that the market wants live music, and they want to celebrate the bands and the talent that's in the city. And so we're super-excited about it. This pandemic is something we're just all going to have to continue to deal with and manage through together; I think that's the best way that we all can think about that. But safety and safety protocols will be very top of mind.

What's it been like creating new relationships with new venues? What's it been like saying goodbye to some of the venues in the Golden Triangle?

We've had a great run with SoCo and the ownership team there. They're doing a few different things in programming in the neighborhood, and we'll continue to support them however we can. In terms of developing new relationships, it's been awesome. All the businesses have been receptive; we've had great conversations with all of them. RiNo has welcomed us with open arms, and we're super-excited about it. And we're super-excited to give back to that neighborhood and make it really worthwhile for everybody.
click to enlarge The plaza facing the Mission Ballroom will host the Westword Music Showcase main stages on September 18. - WESTFIELD
The plaza facing the Mission Ballroom will host the Westword Music Showcase main stages on September 18.
Westfield
What's your take on RiNo and its future?

It just keeps growing and getting cooler and cooler, and it keeps expanding. It feels like the right place for us to be. I think there's a tremendous audience down there for this event. We're really excited to harness the energy that's happening.

Talk about the music at Showcase and how it's shifted over the years.

There was more of that Americana folk rock in Denver way back when we launched. There was some early hip-hop that rolled through. Then we had a great grunge, alternative-indie vibe that was happening for a while. We've had Calvin Harris and Girl Talk and a bunch of more poppy bands. Shakey Graves was one of our best years ever. That was a great lineup.

Of course, we always cater to the Denver scene, which is always changing. What we've found from a music perspective is that when we get the right mixture of national talent, when we have a good blend at the top of the lineup, we do really well. We have that this year, with a good, diverse lineup with Young the Giant, Thundercat, Matoma, Hippo Campus. There's a great representation of different genres on that bill. We serve a lot of different listeners; I like that. If you look at the national acts over the years, the dynamic of that lineup has changed every single year.
click to enlarge Fans at the Westword Music Showcase in 2017. - SCOTT TOBIAS
Fans at the Westword Music Showcase in 2017.
Scott Tobias
When Showcase started out, Denver was not as expansive a market as it is now.

It's been like a rocket ship seeing what's happening with the competitive nature of the music scene here. We have really important partnerships in the city with all the promoters; we'll continue to have those. Back then, were we even a C market? At this point, Denver is, pound for pound, an A market for live music. Our business has always been attached to live music and always will be. Going all the way back to the early days when it was just Barry Fey and Chuck Morris when they were together, and now all the splinters that still exist, and the megatron forces that are AEG and Live Nation existing in the same market — it's awesome. It's nothing but good for a music lover; it's one of the best markets to be in if you love live music. I've spent time in a lot of markets, and I've just never seen something quite like what Denver has.

I'm curious how it plays out in comparison to Miami or some of the other places where Voice Media Group owns papers.

All the cities where we are have incredible lifestyle components and great music offerings. Seeing the velocity and depth of show counts that happen here — I don't think other markets could compare.

Even Miami?

Even Miami. Well, Miami with a specific genre — if you're talking about dance music. But when you're talking about a variety of different genres and live-music outlets, it just doesn't feel the same as it does here. Dance music? For sure. EDM? For sure. But we've got EDM, too. The live music — it just doesn't roll through there like it does here. We connect a lot of different parts of the country for touring bands. And because there's such a demand in the market, again, it bodes well for music lovers.
click to enlarge Young the Giant will headline the Westword Music Showcase in 2021. - ERIC RYAN ANDERSON
Young the Giant will headline the Westword Music Showcase in 2021.
Eric Ryan Anderson
Has Showcase been a model for the other cities?

Yes, it has. We've had a pretty big event in Dallas. We've transitioned that into a Saint Patrick's Day event. Again, the Denver Showcase remains the flagship.

There are so many events here designed to support live music: The Underground Music Showcase, Bohemian Lights, all those kinds of things. I'm curious how you see the Westword Music Showcase differentiating itself?

All these events that happen in the marketplace are strong — super-strong. They're all a little different to me. We were always a one-day festival. We're going to two days this year, and Friday night is free. So, you know, anyone who wants to see live music and the local bands on Friday night and got a ticket in time can do so for free. I guess the differentiator for us has always been the blend of 50 to 85 to 100 local bands with four to six great national acts.

And we do really slice across multiple genres. I'm not saying that we're the only event that does that, because it's competitive. But we just continue to try to bring the best local bands to the event, and to have a great cross-section of talent on the national stage.

That's really where our commitment is, and we're not afraid to invest in the event or the lineup.

As long as the local market likes what we're doing, we'll continue to do it. We feel we've got a good position in the marketplace. We know that the bands have liked playing the event. We try to do our best to take care of the bands, both locally and nationally, as well as the music fans. So I think it's a good path.

Westword Music Showcase runs September 17 and 18 in the RiNo Art District. Tickets are available at the Westword Music Showcase website.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris