Photo by Sarah Squires
Above is Sam Brown, founder of the MWMF, during a 2012 festival performance at Jefferson’s Pub. Taking a moment to reflect on the most successful festival yet, Brown said the 2012 turnout really showed what MWMF can achieve.
When the lights cast a rainbow of colors across the stage, when the crowd grows still in hushed anticipation, and the first guitar riff or piano chord sounds, Sam Brown is there. Sometimes he is in the crowd, sometimes he’s on stage himself. Sometimes, he’s backstage, directing the show, working hard to bring the best of the Midwest to Winona. Since he arrived in Winona a handful of years ago on a mission to create a new kind of music festival, he has become a fixture in the music scene, downtown life, and the arts. Earlier this month he was given a special award from the Winona Fine Arts Commission to recognize his hard work and achievements.
Brown, founder of the Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), is busy nearly year-round with festival plans. However, that doesn’t stop him from being involved in myriad other arts and music efforts. He’s currently at work reviewing musicians’ submissions for the April 2013 MWMF and selecting headliner acts. He has a community nonprofit radio station in the works. He just bought a storefront on East Third Street to be used as a festival headquarters, art gallery, music venue, and he just recorded his own album to be released soon.
Busy doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Somehow, Brown not only keeps himself motivated, but is known as a facilitator for other arts and music efforts and an inspiration to those working with him. “I really am a firm believer in giving opportunities to others when it comes to music,” he said. “It’s not about me or any particular person, but about everyone coming together for a shared reason—to celebrate music. I have a skill in bringing out the best in other people and in turn that gets me energized to bring out the best of my talents.”
Part of that collaboration, said Brown, comes from all of the committed people he has found in Winona, people who share his passion. The Red Wing native said he’s extremely proud to call Winona his home. “I am thrilled with all the great people I’ve met in Winona, especially the creative types, good community-minded people all doing great work in their own way,” he explained.
Staring out the bright window of his East Third Street studio, Brown said he knows that Winona's art and music scene has really grown over the last five to ten years. There are the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Boats and Bluegrass, and independent galleries and music venues are popping up in downtown. These and MWMF have not just helped shape Winona’s identity as a an arts destination, they’ve promised that there is more to come, that Winona is a place where music and art can thrive.
During the first three MWMF events, thousands from across the region flocked to Winona for the spring festival. MWMF has most recently partnered with the city of Winona on Earth Day celebration events. From the start, the festival has been a nonprofit aimed at raising money for local organizations that serve children and/or the arts.
The 2013 festival will benefit the Early Childhood Initiative, and Brown said this time the festival will focus on raising funds for one organization, rather than two or three as in years past. “I’m really pleased and proud to be able to support early childhood efforts,” said Brown, who worked for several years with local kids through the Americorps program. His work was focused on helping children aged three through five build healthy social and emotional skills, so he knows the benefit of working with kids at an early age. “I feel like the arts are important for kids, to be a part of their lives,” he said.
The 2013 festival will again bring three days of music to multiple venues across the city, giving attendees a variety of musical styles and atmospheres to choose from as they take in the tunes. During the last festival, when the third day of music was added, attendance doubled. It was the best year so far, said Brown, but 2013 is shaping up to be even better. “This year things are all coming together,” he said. “I’m really excited and hopeful that this will be the year that really shines.”
A music education stage is planned for the upcoming festival, which will give local student musicians the opportunity to hit the stage, too. Brown and other organizers are working on “MWMF Presents,” a concert series that will keep the music playing all year. Also new this year is the festival’s sustainability campaign, an effort to ensure that the festival has the kind of local support needed to keep the festival going in years to come. In the past, said Brown, the festival has been able to run in the black and donate to nonprofit organizations partly through donations from outside the Winona community. The goal this year is to attract all the local support possible. “We’re trying to close the gap so the festival is mainly funded by Winona and the greater community,” he said. “It’s about having ownership of the festival and seeing that community value.”
Brown has another nonprofit up his sleeve: a plan to run a low-power FM radio station from his East Third Street studio, Some Sum Studio. The station would feature local musicians and some live music, as well as produced locally produced programming.
“Radio is a great medium,” said Brown. “I feel like time has flown the fastest when I’ve been able to share my thoughts and interests and things on the radio. I’m more interested in sharing that feeling of being on the air with other folks, because it’s a great feeling.”
Brown has been holding informational meetings on the radio plans, and he has invited everyone in the community to the table to help.
With the radio station, the festival, his new album, and studio space, Brown is constantly in motion. When he took a break to sit down and speak about his recent award from the Fine Arts Commission, he reflected on how great it feels to know that MWMF has really become a part of Winona, and Winona has really become a part of him, too. “It’s so wonderful to have this conversation, and to know that the festival is growing beyond just one weekend,” he said. “It continues to be relevant and a part of the community. I couldn’t be happier.”
To get involved with MWMF or any of Brown’s other efforts, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.