Miami has Ultra, Los Angeles has Electric Daisy Carnival and Des Moines has 515 Alive. For fans of electronic music in Iowa, Saturday is their 80/35 or Lazerfest.
This weekend the 10th annual 515 Alive electronic music festival will be held downtown. Over the last decade the event has grown from a handful of local DJs performing DIY style sets with scrounged together equipment in clubs to an outdoor event with five professionally produced stages and thousands of attendees.
In that time electronic dance music (EDM) has become a much more prominent part of the mainstream music scene in the U.S. (It’s long been popular overseas.) Acts like Girl Talk, Pretty Lights and Bassnectar play for huge crowds, including in Des Moines, and dubstep has been embraced by the mainstream music industry.
But 10 years ago, the scene was just emerging from a period of notoriety. In the ’90s and early 2000s, EDM was hugely popular at raves, underground dance parties regularly held in rented warehouses and fields in the country. But nationwide concerns over the drug Ecstasy, a Des Moines ban on dancing after 2 a.m. and the passage of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (which began as the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy, or RAVE Act) by Congress in 2003 helped put the brakes on the scene.
Richard “DJ Flash” McCabe, 32, co-founded 515 Alive in 2003 with Matt “DJ Rukus” Carpenter, 38. The duo put on raves for years, but McCabe said he was starting to see a darker side to the rave scene. McCabe wanted to be an advocate for electronic music, but not the problems that accompanied it. 515 Alive was his attempt to put a new face on EDM.
“I wanted to get that music and culture out of the warehouses and fields and put them on a stage for the city to see,” McCabe said. “I wanted to put them in the light.”
515 comes alive
The first year of 515 Alive was different from future festivals. There were no street closures, and the action all took place inside bars on Fourth Street and Court Avenue with the main stage in the ballroom at the Kirkwood Hotel. It was a very DIY affair, with McCabe and his DJ friends scrounging up equipment and funds to put the event on. Around 1,500 people attended.
In 2004, the festival grew considerably. McCabe and Carpenter teamed with the then-fledgling Des Moines Music Coalition. DMMC founder Fritz Junker was looking to use 515 Alive as a springboard event to increase awareness of his group, and 515 Alive was looking to expand its growth by working with other organizations.
“We didn’t have a baseline in Des Moines for electronic music, I think, 515 Alive showed there was more depth to it here,” DMMC project manager Amedeo Rossi said. “(McCabe and Carpenter) were early adopters and have poured their passion into this event and what they do.”
The event grew to 11 stages in 2004, including six outside. DJ Swamp, former DJ for Beck, headlined. Attendance more than doubled.
That was also the first year current 515 Alive organizer Brad Goldman became involved with the event. Goldman offered McCabe his help and donated use of his sound system in exchange for a DJ slot.
Goldman, 32, was just dipping his toes into the world of controlling music with a computer. In 2004 the programs were primitive, and Goldman found himself on stage with a computer program that wasn’t working. In front of a live audience he had to quickly adjust to plan B.
“Luckily I brought a bag of records with me,” Goldman said. “So I dropped on some vinyl and got things going. In those early days the tech was a little iffy.”
Over the next few years, attendance grew, with the event attracting headliners like Ming & FS, DJ Misjah and Akil the MC. But more than just big names, McCabe was seeking community acceptance for the music he loved.
In 2009 he decided to move 515 Alive from the nightlife-focused Court Avenue District to the East Village. In addition to nightlife, the new location was surrounded by more retail and housing. Some within the East Village were welcoming of the festival, while others pushed back at the idea of thousands partying late into the night outside their shops and homes.
“We had to fight for it that year,” McCabe said. “We had to go to the City Council and basically plead our case. Going into it we got so much negative feedback, but things went great, other than some mild graffiti. Overall I thought it was our best one.”
After the festival, McCabe lingered to clean up the grounds. He wandered the East Village, picking up garbage while wearing a T-shirt that read “515 Alive Ruined My Life.” McCabe said the shirt was half joking, but he had poured countless hours into the event, at the expense of a personal life. Coupled with difficulties with his festival partner that year, McCabe decided to stop organizing the event and leave Des Moines. He spent two years DJing in Pittsburgh, New York, Toronto, Baltimore and elsewhere before moving back to Des Moines last fall to be closer to his kids.
“People don’t understand how much it takes; a festival like that is basically a work of love,” McCabe said. “It literally changed my life forever, in good ways and bad ways. Sure, I could have kept going, but I decided to be a little selfish and focus more on me. So I turned the keys over to someone else.”
New hands on the turntable
Those keys are now in the hands of Goldman, who has put his own spin on 515 Alive since 2010. He moved the festival toward the Des Moines River, with the Brenton Skating Plaza as the hub. All the festival’s stages are now outdoors, with few nearby businesses to be rattled by the noise.
The genesis of Goldman’s vision for 515 Alive came from the 2005 edition of the event. Goldman asked McCabe for a space to sponsor a stage. He took over a portion of a parking lot on Fourth Street in the Court Avenue District, built a stage, brought in professional lights and tried to make it a unique experience within the larger festival. For the four years that followed, Goldman always ran one stage, expanding what he could do there with lights, sound and production.
“One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to bring the bigger sound and lights I had seen at festivals around the country to Des Moines,” Goldman said. “I wanted to continue to improve the quality.”
In his first year Goldman brought big headliners to 515 Alive, Shock G, AKA Humpty Hump of the Digital Underground, World DJ Championship winner DJ Craze and DJ Scene. The 2010 festival was completely gated for the first time, with a $15 ticket price versus the rarely enforced $5 admission of the past.
After a 2011 event that included headliners Jack Trash, DJ G Mint, Dirty Talk and others, Goldman decided to switch things up for 2012. The lineup for this year’s 515 Alive is all Iowa DJs. The result is a merger of the feel of the first 515 Alive in 2003, with the high production values Goldman’s shows are known for.
“I think one of the trends of the last year is that people have become enamored with these DJs that have hit the rock star level. Acts like Skrillex, Tiesto and Deadmau5,” Goldman said. “It would be fantastic to bring in someone like that, but at this point they’re six figure artists.
“What a lot of promoters are realizing is that what people want is the experience of those shows. There are lots of DJs who are just as talented, and we can put them in the same sort of setup. People tend not to care as much about the DJ as the experience.”
Mainstream embraces EDM
Goldman thinks 2012 is the year America truly embraced electronic music. After years of having trouble drawing 30-50 people to a party, shows at People’s Court and 7 Flags are drawing 500 or more regularly.
Goldman estimates 3,500 people attended last year’s 515 Alive, but he’s not looking to boost that number substantially. He points to other EDM fests that have lost some of their appeal as they grew to 15,000 or more attendees. He doesn’t want another 2,000 people to walk through the gates. He wants 2,000 more EDM fans.
“We want to represent EDM properly,” Goldman said. “Anything can be utilized for commercial purposes, but we want to keep some of the heart and soul. If it hadn’t been for 515 Alive, someone might just be throwing together an EDM festival because they saw the music was becoming hot. We were EDM fans way before it was cool.”
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Brenton Skating Plaza, 520 Robert D. Ray Drive
Cost: $15 in advance, $20 at the gate