For 19 years, Whitney Luckett has ushered complete strangers into the long L shape of her Skyway living room for a night of swaying in time with an acoustic guitar, singing along to old favorite tunes and learning new ones.
“My sister-in-law took one look at [our living room] and said, ‘You’ve got two choices — bowling alley or house concerts,’” Luckett said with a laugh. “So we chose house concerts.”
Luckett and husband Marc just finished up their 19th Friends House Concert season, and the mission remains largely unchanged: Artists are responsible for hiring a sound company and providing chairs for the guests, but otherwise 100 percent of the concert’s profits goes to them.
“Artists rarely get to connect with their people on such an intimate level. Everybody else is always grabbing parts of it,” Luckett said. “This was originally designed so that the artist would take home most of the money from the evening, and we have kept solidly to that all along.”
As co-founder and board president of the Rocky Mountain Highway Music Collaborative — which in 2013 took over the popular MeadowGrass Music Festival, held every Memorial Day weekend — Luckett’s ambitions for the Pikes Peak region’s music scene have grown. She wants to partner with other local nonprofit organizations to eventually transform Colorado Springs into what she calls “the Austin of the Rockies.”
“Somebody told me I’m kind of Pollyanna-ish about it, but why wouldn’t you come to Colorado Springs as opposed to Austin?” Luckett said. “We really have got awesome things here, and it just takes the packaging and the collaboration.”
Luckett spoke to the Business Journal this week about the business of running a music festival, the importance of keeping it local, and why she truly believes the Springs can keep it just as weird as the Lone Star State’s capital.
Can you talk about the mission of the Rocky Mountain Highway Collaborative?
We have spent a concerted amount of time this year on two different things with our house concerts. No. 1, we have brought in local artists to open for all of our touring artists. So we have nationally touring artists, but it’s all been local openers, which again gives local guys a chance to open for national, which is so awesome. They get to have dinner with them. … With MeadowGrass, we try to give our local artists, as well as our regional artists, a place onstage with our nationally touring artists. We have a very formulaic approach to what we do, with one third local, one third regional and one third nationally touring artists. The idea is to have a little bit of that rub off on everybody. The local guys just get so excited being able to be in the green room with Glen Phillips [lead vocalist for alternative rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket].
The other collaborative part of our mission is that … in House Concerts, we give local nonprofits a chance to take the stage. They set up all of their information in the corner of the living room on a small table, and then we also give them 15 minutes on the stage up in front of people. We’ve had Springs Rescue Mission, Play Date, TESSA [of Colorado Springs]. We love giving the other nonprofits a chance to be introduced to the House Concert audience. … What I love about it is all of these people giving of their resources and collaborating with one another to hopefully make Colorado Springs a better place to live. Isn’t that what we’re all about, darn it?
How did you become involved with the MeadowGrass Music Festival?
About 2013, the MeadowGrass Music Festival, which had been put on for a number of years by La Foret [Conference and Retreat Center] itself — the church decided they didn’t think they needed to be in the business of music production or, more importantly, festival production. So Michael Hannigan, who was the executive director at that time of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, came to me and then he also went to Steve Harris, who was at the time the festival director, and said, ‘Guys, the festival is going to close. Is there anything we want to do?’
[Hannigan] said, ‘Let me make a suggestion. You do a foundation.’ So Steve Harris and I came together and formed what became Rocky Mountain Highway. It is today known as Rocky Mountain Highway Music Collaborative. … MeadowGrass is in its 11th year already and we are incredibly excited because, believe it or not, most music festivals don’t make it past three years — they just don’t.
What do you think has contributed to the MeadowGrass Music Festival’s success?
The idea behind that is that you need to behave fiscally responsibly, especially when you’re looking at a festival. It’s one of those things where everybody is having a great time and if you’re not careful, cost overruns can kill you. … I think it’s really that we treat it as a business. … It’s the ability to make that really hard choice sometimes. For instance, we’d love to have The Avett Brothers, but you know what? We don’t have $100,000, so that’s not in our budget. … You just have to try to balance it all out.
How do you plan to ensure the festival’s growth keeps in line with the local Colorado Springs flavor?
We’ve actually been incredibly deliberative about curating local. … Two or three years ago, we sat down and said, ‘Wow, a slam dunk for us would be to bring Coors [Brewing Company] in.’ There was also a big vodka and a big rum producer that were offering to come in with real money for sponsorship… but when you look at something like that, that’s not Colorado Springs. So Pikes Peak Brewing, 3 Hundred Days of Shine and [Distillery] 291 are our alcohol partners. Believe me, we could pull in a lot more money from others.
The other thing that we’ve done that’s kept it very local is — and this is very exciting — we have a beer garden on Friday night. Nineteen local breweries will be in attendance — Smiling Toad, all of the local guys. That comes at a cost to us because that means we are not selling beer for those couple of hours, and I will tell you that the only way festivals make money is by selling beer.
The other thing we do is in terms of vendors — again, everything is local. We don’t have chains come in to do food. It’d be really easy to have a big name come in and do food and supply all the green room, but no, we’ve worked with Rasta Pasta to completely outfit the green room.
How have you seen the Rocky Mountain Highway Music Collaborative evolve since it was founded?
We spent the first two years with MeadowGrass as our focus. That was the most important thing, and it was an important thing, because we did have a 6-year-old festival, and it needed some tender love and care to make it better. … I’ve watched the board evolve from trying to keep MeadowGrass afloat and thrive, which we have done — our sales out of the box this year were 60 percent over last year’s, and we’re still a solid 25 percent over last year, and last year was a record as well — to a point where we are out there and really wanting to become a music resource for the community.
… We would like to put together for instance, a Colorado Springs music forum. We are there as a collaborative nonprofit to open up those discussions about how music can benefit Colorado Springs. Turning this all back to the business side of things, festivals in Colorado, over the course of the last two years, have been selling out like crazy. I think that music in Colorado Springs, in conjunction with it being a healthy outdoor destination — these are the ingredients. These are the types of things that will take Colorado Springs to the next level.
Any final thoughts?
Come on out. It really is an incredible Americana festival.