Audiotree: Two guys from Portage bring the fruits of their successful business back home again

Why is the Audiotree Festival coming back to Kalamazoo?

Adam Thurston laughs at the question. "Sometimes we ask ourselves that as well," he says from Chicago.

Thurston and Michael Johnston co-founded Audiotree in 2010, a Chicago company that Forbes calls a "music discovery platform." Audiotree records video/audio of up-and-coming bands, puts them on YouTube and their own site, and splits the proceeds with the acts.

They also own two Chicago clubs as venues for their bands. The population of that burg is 2.7 million, surely enough of an audience to draw from for a big annual showcase of the talent they've discovered.

But to stage the sixth Audiotree Festival, Thurston and Johnston are coming back to a city of 75,985.

They'll return to the Arcadia Creek Festival Place with what Thurston says is "the best lineup we've ever had," Sept. 22-23.

Thurston and Johnston were friends growing up in Portage, trying to see cool bands as teens in the late '90s. They were too young to get into bars, and the bands they were into only played in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Chicago. "We got lucky with Weezer, and Jimmy Eat World came to Wings Stadium one time. But it was rare," Thurston says.

College and the birth of Audiotree followed. They held their first showcase at The Strutt (now Ruperts Brew House) in 2011. But they wanted to do something much bigger.

The first full Audiotree festival was at the Wings Stadium parking lot in 2013. They ambitiously booked the big '90s headliner Blues Traveler, plus a variety of acts, from Islamic hip hop to Kalamazoo's famous Greensky Bluegrass.

"Oh, yeah, you just book the bands and people are going to show up in droves," is what they assumed, Thurston says. They expected a crowd of thousands, but only got 1,200 attending. Not bad for a new festival, but, "You've got to take the time to build something like this."

To build that festival, Audiotree turned to the Arcadia Festival Place as its home. Maintained by Downtown Kalamazoo Incorporated, the site had hosted nearly a festival a week during summer months, but activities rapidly declined in the past few years.

DKI president Andrew Haan says in an email to Second Wave, puts that in perspective, saying ““Arcadia Creek Festival Place is one of the most iconic public spaces downtown. When conceived of in the early 2000s, the community came together to raise the resources necessary to construct a place where people could connect, a venue to host events that brought people downtown, and an everyday public space to be enjoyed by all.

“Since its opening in 2004, the Festival Place has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors downtown, bringing with them millions of dollars of spending at local retailers, restaurants, and hotels. When initially launched, the venue played host to five major festivals, today, two of those remain, and two new major events have been brought to the Festival Place in recent years.”

The site has its drawbacks. There's the obvious, which comes with every outdoor festival site: The weather. In 2016 a tornado warning in Allegan county spooked Audiotree into canceling the first four bands. Last year a heatwave dampened attendance. They'd hoped to get more than the actual 3,550 who attended the two days.

Aside from unpredictable September weather, what's the problem with Arcadia? "I think now, it's about 25 years ago since that was built, I think the site's struggled with its identity. What it is exactly? It's a public park, essentially, it was built to have events and festivals, have stuff happening downtown and bring people downtown." 

The organizers are hoping that 5,000 people will show up for the 2010 Audiotree Festival.
The reason behind the dwindling use of the site is clear to Thurston. "I understand that DKI has expenses, bills that need to get paid to keep the place clean and managed and all that, but it seems that they kind of push too much of that on festival organizers, or potential festival organizers," he says.

"Just the expense to rent the site for a couple of days and rent the parking, bag the meters, and the mandatory cleaning fees and power washing fees and everything that goes into putting an event on there, it can be prohibitive for people who are doing smaller events.... Those expenses can total up into the $10,000-to-$15,000 range just to put an event on there." 

DKI president Andrew Haan told Second Wave last October that DKI would convene a group of leaders from community, residents, concert promoters, and venue managers to, as Haan said, "take a hard look at how we leverage the huge investment the community has put in that space already, and capitalize on the warm feelings the community still has." 

That meeting took place but those called together quickly realized resources were needed to move forward. 

Haan's says in his email: “With long-term improvements in mind, a Task Force was convened in late 2017 to review the infrastructure needs, programming, operations, and maintenance of the Festival Place. Realizing the scope of the work needed, the Task Force has been on hiatus as the necessary work of developing resources moves forward.”

He goes on to say that DKI and those it works with have heard from the community through the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 that more everyday public spaces, events for all, a four season programming are high priorities. “We believe the Arcadia Creek Festival Site is a key community asset in helping to realize that vision, with the necessary resources and investments.”

In its current configuration, that the site presents challenges to event promotors and DKI looks forward to working with stakeholders to address those challenges in the future, Haan says. The Festival Place has served the community well but is in need of improvements to infrastructure, additional programming, and continued maintenance. “Moving forward, we are excited to work with the community to leverage the Arcadia Creek Festival Place to its fullest potential.”

In close partnership with the City of Kalamazoo, downtown businesses, institutional partners, and many additional stakeholders, Downtown Kalamazoo Incorporated has worked over the last year to identify a sustainable funding source to support downtown infrastructure and public space development.

The needed resources appear to be forthcoming. “We are in the final stages of an approval process to establish a new Downtown Economic Growth Authority, which the City Commission will decide by vote on Monday, October 15th, that will provide the necessary resources to improve not only the Festival Place, but infrastructure and public spaces throughout downtown,” Haan says.

And Thurston says, ”I think they need to figure out what they are and what that space is. If they want to have more events there, they should figure out other ways to raise more you don't have to worry about an extra $15,000 just to be able to set foot on the site. That seems silly to me, because we're already taking on massive financial risks." 

So, why Kalamazoo?

In August, Thurston was at Arcadia planning for the festival when he noticed a groundbreaking ceremony -- what was Parking Lot #9 will be a $70 million mixed-use development. 

Will this mean more neighbors to complain about festival noise? "That's true!" he says, laughing. 

The positives still outweigh the negatives at Arcadia for Audiotree. "The Arcadia Creek Festival site sets up for us very well. A lot of infrastructure is there already, it's centrally located obviously in downtown Kalamazoo, people are familiar with it. It sets up very well for what we're trying to do," he says.

"Like you said, a company based in Chicago trying to do a music festival in Kalamazoo, really doesn't make sense, for any other reason than we're doing it for the community."

If they did the festival in Chicago "we'd probably get something like 10,000-15,000 people to come out." 

But in Kalamazoo, Thurston has seen the crowds grow with every year.  He's hoping for 5,000 this year.

Audiotree's brand isn't so much genre-specific -- bands run from indie rock to hip hop to folk to metal-based. The company runs through "almost a thousand bands a year" at its Chicago studios and venues, so festival-goers trust that they'll get the standouts to the Arcadia stage. 

Thurston hears people say every year, "I walked away with two new favorite bands."

Loyal followers of the Audiotree brand "trust our taste in music," he says. "Every band might not be their favorite band, but they trust us that if we give a band a nod to either hop on our festival lineup or come to our studio in Chicago to play a session, that we think they're talented and have promise."

As they bring in their Chicago-choice of bands, Audiotree also knows that if the festival continues, they have to involve the community. WMU's student radio station, WIDR  will have its own stage for Kalamazoo and regional bands. And food/drink vendors will be nearly all local.  

Thurston understands there's a smaller audience in Kalamazoo. "But we do it because we love music and we love southwest Michigan and that's where we're from, he says. "And we love this community, and we want to continue to push good music."

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see