The Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival sold tickets to concertgoers from all 50 states last year.
Now the Lawrence festival is launching a program to offer fledgling bands from many of those states the opportunity to play the 2007 event.
"We're really looking for some regional talent in the middle west of the country, from Minnesota down to Oklahoma," says Heather Lofflin, Wakarusa media coordinator. "We're searching for those awesome bands that get overlooked but are ready to take the next step."
In conjunction with Wakarusa 2007 tickets going on sale this week, the Waka Winter Classic opens today in Lincoln, Neb. The 10-state, 20-city showcase allows five acts from each locale a chance to perform at their hometown venue. The winner is rewarded with a slot at the Wakarusa fest in June.
"They'll get that kind of exposure where they're really going to gain fans, from having their music on the Web site to the potential number of people who will see them play," Lofflin says. (The 2006 Wakarusa at Clinton Lake State Park attracted nearly 15,000 people per day.)
Each band that receives the most ballot votes at their show from fans in attendance receives an automatic invitation to play Wakarusa. Those 20 winners are also entered into an online talent showcase, where anyone can download their songs and select favorites. The top three online vote-getters are invited to play the Revival Stage - one of the main stages at the festival - as well as receiving monetary compensation.
"When it comes to bringing along local and regional talent, we definitely rank first compared to other festivals," says David Barrett, the Wakarusa coordinator in charge of the Winter Classic.
A similar contest called Battlerusa was initiated last year, which was supervised by an outside promoter. Wakarusa organizers were "disappointed with the results," even though 18 acts ended up being selected to appear at the four-day festival.
The contest effectively kick-started the careers of some of these artists, Barrett says. He cites Pnuma Trio, which landed a deal with Harmonized Records on the heels of its Wakarusa exposure.
Barrett plans on attending all 20 of the showcases. When traveling the country helping to promote Wakarusa since its inception four years ago, he has definitely seen a rise in its recognition value.
He says, "On the first year it was, 'Waka what?' But great word of mouth spread between the first and third year. We're now recognized as a national festival that is on the map for people who tour around to festivals like this."
That's not all that spread after last year's event, however. Concerns about the smothering police presence that led to people from 28 states being arrested on alcohol and drug violations have led many to dub it "Bustarusa."
"We received a lot of feedback about the heavy-handedness of law enforcement," Barrett admits. "I think it's more of a creation of an atmosphere of harassment. People might not have been personally harassed, but three of their friends were. And every time they passed by an officer they got a dirty look or something. That doesn't make people feel welcomed."
Barrett says he hasn't seen a huge dip in the numbers of those music fans who are potential repeat customers. But he stresses that there are things as a festival and as a community that can be improved upon.
He adds, "Fortunately, a lot of people are willing to give us a second chance."