Mike Ziemer - So What?! Founder - Interview
We had the privilege of speaking to So What?! Festival founder Mike Ziemer recently, take a look below as we dig deep to find out what it takes to get a festival going and how everything started for Mike!
Adam - First thing's first, what drove you to creating So What?! Festival?
Mike - So many bands were routing through Dallas for SXSW and would reach out to me to book them on my annual show I was doing in Plano. My first show was in March 2004 so 2005, 2006, and 2007 were all anniversary shows. We went bigger each year and eventually it became the festival it is today.
Adam - Where did the name come from?
Mike - The original name, “South By So What?!” came from a fellow promoter and graphic designer that we worked with in the early days. He joked that with all these bands coming to Dallas there was no need for the under 21 crowd to try to get into the limited amount of all ages events at SXSW. A couple years ago we changed it to “So What?! Music Festival” to separate ourselves more from the SXSW brand and not limit ourselves to only doing the festival in Texas during SXSW.
Adam - Why did you choose to host the festival where you have?
Mike - We ran out of options. We grew too big for the Plano Centre (where years 1-2 took place), Dr Pepper Arena (year 3) didn’t work out because once the floor sold out kids didn’t want to sit in seats, Palladium Ballroom (year 4) sold out in advance and we had to turn away around 1000 people. The outside ballpark is really the only option. We have toyed with the idea of doing it all inside again, but there’s just something cool about an outdoor event.
Adam - How long did it take to get things in motion?
Mike - The festival progressed naturally as we as a company grew. I honestly didn’t realise what I was creating as I was creating it. To me it’s always just been about having fun with my friends, promoting music we enjoy, and bringing the best festival we can to our audience.
Adam - Who were the first band you ever contacted about playing, and why?
Mike - I contacted Refused because I was obsessed with their music video, unfortunately, the band broke up long before I even became a promoter haha.
Adam - Looking back now, is there anything you wish you had done that you didn't when you started out?
Mike - Relationships and loyalty are very important, but you have to make sure it’s returned. We have put our faith and business in the hands of a lot of people that didn’t really give a shit about taking care of us as well when it came down to it. At the end of the day, this is a business and we missed out on money because we gave the wrong people the right opportunities.
Adam - What did you do before So What Festival?
Mike - I’ve been promoting music since I was in high school, so I guess I was a high school student haha. I haven’t really known anything except marketing and music since I was 17.
Adam - Where did your passion for live music come from?
Mike - When I was in middle school, my friends in Orange County were in bands. I loved to support them. In my freshman year of high school we went and saw Thrice, Dogwood, and Off the Record at a church in Irvine, CA and I moshed for the first time. I felt the energy of the room and it changed my life. When I moved to Texas sophomore year of high school, everyone assumed I was a “punk” because of the way I dressed (like a skater kid) and so I was lumped in with the kids in bands. These dudes became my best friends and all we did was make mix CD's, go to concerts, wait for concerts, and play music together.
Adam - Have you ever considered camping for So What?!
Mike - Definitely not. I’ve never wanted to worry about that with our festival.
Adam - What process do you go through to find the perfect line-up each year?
Mike - It’s insane. We go after the bands we want, mix that with who is available, we try to please everyone and stretch the budget and make the best line up we love / the fans love, but it’s all subject to availability and if the bands even want to play. People don’t get how hard it can be to put together a mid-sized, niche, music festival in the state of Texas. It’s a headache but I love it.
Adam - And how soon after the festival finishes do you start work on the next edition?
Mike - The next day. I don’t even think I take a day off. I’m usually so inspired by what went right, determined to fix what went wrong, and trying to plan how to shape the future.
Adam - What makes So What?! better than any other festival in the USA?
Mike - I don’t think we are better than any other festival, I think it’s just a matter of what you love. If you love pop punk and hardcore and metal and Warped Tour and you miss Bamboozle, we are the perfect festival for you. We give a shit about the bands and the fans though, and I think that goes a long way.
Adam - Have you ever considered a UK version of the event, considering how well known you are over here?
Mike - I have! I would love to do something like that.
Adam - If money was no object who would your three must have headliners be for a festival?
Mike - Blink 182, Bring Me The Horizon, Tyler The Creator
Adam - What is the hardest part of running the festival?
Mike - A festival becomes your entire life and your entire “being” so to speak. If you have an “all that can go wrong, went wrong” type year, you may never promote again.
Adam - What is the easiest part?
Mike - Everything besides worrying about the weather and stressing over ticket sales is easy for me. It’s all a well oiled machine and I love it.
Adam - What is the most rewarding thing to come out of So What?!?
Mike - The full circle moments of booking the bands I grew up loving as well as the friendships I’ve made because of the festival.
Adam - What steps are you taking ,if any, to try improve the music scene in Texas/USA?
Mike - We care about the community, the people that come to our shows, and the bands they do and don’t want to see. We listen to our audience and we stay true to who we are and who they are.
Adam - What is the worst thing you have ever experienced at So What?!?
Mike - We had extremely bad weather one year and had to cancel some bands and another year everything that could go wrong did and we lost almost enough money to stop us from moving forward.
Adam - What is the biggest put off a band can do to prevent them playing the festival?
Mike - Be assholes or jerks. I don’t care how great your band is, if you can’t treat people well, we don’t want to have you on our festival.
Adam - Where would you like to see So What?! in the next 5 years?
Mike - I would like to go back to doing a one day event, scaled down with all killer and no filler and do these in different parts of the US.
Adam - Are there any immediate plans for major changes in the pipelines?
Mike - Nothing for sure, but I think moving forward we want to scale the festival down, focus on a strong line up of bands we love, and bring it to new markets.
Adam - What do you think the key differences are between a UK festival and a US one, besides your scorching heat?
Mike - I have never been to a UK Festival, but they look WAY bigger haha.
Adam - To finish off we normally ask all bands for their zombie survival plan, so, what is yours?!
Mike - I hardly sleep as it is so I think I would blend right in haha!
You can check out this year's killer line-up over here: So What?!