Rocky Mountain Highway makes Springs a music destination

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Steve Harris said he tries to book bands for the MeadowGrass Music Festival and other concerts before they become household names. 

Harris is executive director of Rocky Mountain Highway, a nonprofit that puts on concerts and partners with local venues and businesses to boost Colorado Springs’ music scene and produces the MeadowGrass Music Festival. For many in the Pikes Peak region, the annual three-day event over Memorial Day weekend means camping and seeing up-and-coming bands from around the country.

Ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2018, the MeadowGrass Music Festival — in addition to Rocky Mountain Highway — is participating in the Give! Campaign for the third consecutive year.

“We’re trying to find those entities that will support our mission, which is really to transform Colorado Springs by bringing great music in,” Harris said. “We’re underserved when it comes to music compared to Denver and Boulder.”

Each year, Harris said one-third of the bands at the festival are comprised of local musicians getting to perform alongside more well-known bands.

Rocky Mountain Highway’s greatest expenses come from hosting concerts throughout Colorado Springs, and the annual MeadowGrass festival. Those expenses come from booking quality artists and renting out the La Foret Conference & Retreat Center in Black Forest.

“Fifty percent of all of our expenses are artist payments,” Harris said. “Whether they are national touring artists, local artists or regional artists — because part of our mission is also to support local musicians and songwriters.”

The concerts and the annual music festival cater to more than one musical preference — most of the acts Harris signs fall in the Americana genre, which he describes as having elements of country, folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and bluegrass.

Past MeadowGrass artists include Elephant Revival, Nathaniel Rateliff and Gregory Alan Isakov.

In 2009, the festival’s first year, the then two-day concert saw about 400 people per day, and in 2010 the event grew to 600 per day. As the festival continued to blossom, the La Foret Conference & Retreat Center began losing money by allowing the festival to use its venue for free, and Harris said he realized the event couldn’t stand on its own.

“One of the board members called me and said, ‘We’re not going to continue this, because it’s losing money,’ and [La Foret’s] mission is not about producing a music festival,” Harris said. “It was kind of beyond their scope, so at that point I did not see anyone else in the community who could step up to lead [the festival] because it’s a ton of work, and I decided I wanted to take a shot at saving it — so I founded Rocky Mountain Highway as a nonprofit.

“Essentially, my vision for Rocky Mountain Highway is bigger than MeadowGrass, but I couldn’t have started a nonprofit in the music world without having some big event — and MeadowGrass was there.”

Now Harris pays La Foret to use its space, and this year, 1,200 to 1,500 people attended the festival each day. About 400 were kids 12 and under, who attend for free, as well as 150 volunteers who received free entry, he said.

If the festival continues to grow, Harris said he would like to hire one employee for marketing and another for fundraising. Currently, Harris is the only paid staff.

“My goal for the organization is to grow it where I can hire other people,” he said. “Right now we rely on volunteers, who are awesome, but they have their own lives going on and can only contribute so much time.”

Last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the MeadowGrass Music Festival operated on about $150,000. Most of the festival’s income is through ticket sales, and this year about 700 tickets were sold.

“[That’s] incredibly small for a festival,” Harris said. “That’s one of the challenges we have is that the Colorado festival market is so hot we’re not able to negotiate better prices based on the fact that we’re smaller. I would like to convince agents that they should treat us differently but there’s so much opportunity for musicians in the summer, it’s hard to compete with other festivals.

“So our tickets sales, including everything, like parking, are not nearly covering the cost of the festival.”

To help keep the music alive, Harris has received a $6,500 Colorado Creates Grant for the past three years from the Colorado Creative Industries, which supports art and culture in the state, but the nonprofit will not receive the grant next year. It’s tough to keep a multi-day music festival going, but Harris said he would like to see the MeadowGrass Music Festival providing entertainment in Colorado Springs for the next 50 years.