In what has become a tradition, bands performing during the Winnetka Music Festival avoid staying in a hotel in favor of a room with a host family in town.
For many, such a stay offers the comforts of home in the midst of a busy touring schedule.
This year’s sold-out Winnetka Music Fest takes place on June 18.
“Once a band from Australia stayed here and we were gone for the day,” said Val Haller, founder of Valslist and producer/curator of the festival. “We went to visit my mum and when we came back they were cooking a roast for us in our kitchen.”
So much for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
The festival, which primarily brings new and emerging artists to downtown Winnetka, is now in its sixth year. Since the inaugural festival in 2017, the event has steadily grown in popularity. This year’s festival on June 18, featuring 90s indie band Guster and blues rockers The Record Company is sold out, with tickets selling for more than double their original price in the secondary market.
“A sure way to get into the festival is to volunteer,” Haller’s husband Mark said.
Adults 18 and older can earn a general admission ticket by volunteering at least three hours.
While the festival is only a few years old, its roots can be traced back to the launch of the digital store that revolutionized the music industry, iTunes and Haller’s response.
“When iTunes launched in 2003, I felt like all of my peers had fallen into an abyss,” Haller said. “We were all busy with careers and kids. I feel like as soon as iTunes came out and there was this massive digital music store that gave you any song you wanted all over the world, it got really hard to decide what I will download. And then half of us didn’t even know how to download. The whole platform has changed. We weren’t buying records anymore.
“I just felt like it was a really big zigzag for my generation,” she said.
Four years later, at age 50, music fan Haller started her own music business with one goal in mind.
“And it was to help busy adults keep up with new music. I didn’t promote the alumni, because everyone else has already,” she said. “You always expected baby boomers to go with oldies. But I was always more about new music.
So she started Valslist, where she creates playlists of 15 songs of new music — plus a few old ones, to familiarize herself with, she said.
“I thought if you trust me as a tastemaker for new music, I need to connect you to something you already know,” Haller said.
As Valslist grew in popularity, music industry blogs and then Oprah’s magazine covered it. This led Haller to write for a New York Times blog aimed at baby boomers.
“They invited me to be a weekly music columnist for three years,” she said.
“All these accidental things kept happening to me. During that time, I was raising four boys: two college-aged and two high schoolers. When I started the business, they were mortified…Of course, now , they call me ‘Can you get us on this sold-out show, mom?’
In the meantime, as Haller assembled her playlists, she reached out to groups to let them know she was including them. When she saw that the bands would be playing at a club in Chicago and she had time before moving on to the next town, she invited them to play at her house.
“I started saying, ‘you have a free evening after playing Schubas. Would you like to come to the suburbs and play in my living room?’” she said.
Liking the idea of an intimate show with people who had never heard their music before, bands began to accept the offer.
“It took off like wildfire. People from the suburbs who weren’t going downtown to listen to music started hearing about it and before you know it we were getting 150 people crammed into our house for each one of them,” said Haller.
With a tip jar model, bands typically earned between $1,000 and $2,000 for the hour-long gig.
“I would say to the band, ‘I know we’re not your sexy audience, our kids are. And I know that’s what you’re targeting in town. But my audience is a very important demographic for you. We’re a lucrative demographic for you,” she said.
Home gigs led Valslist to hold gigs at country clubs, the Chicago Botanical Garden, and Gallagher Way outside Wrigley Field.
Now in their eighth year, the house concerts draw an eclectic audience. One day, Scott Myers, a Winnetka resident and concert goer, asked if Val and Mark were considering hosting a music festival in their hometown.
In 2017, with Myers now the Hallers’ business partner, the first Winnetka Music Festival was held downtown over two days with 20 bands. It drew 11,000 people.
Over the years there have been some changes, including a COVID-19 related move in 2021 to a field for a music day under the Emerge moniker. But this year, he’s back where he started.
“This year we are back, loud and clear. We are back on the street. Back to the Winnetka Music Festival name,” Haller said.
Nearly 20 acts will perform on four stages throughout the day. The Chapel Stage is presented in partnership with SPACE in Evanston.
“My goal is to make you taste a lot of things. Bluegrass, rock, folk, electronic,” Haller said. “It’s a very digestible amount of music to sample a bit of everything and come away feeling like I’ve just discovered a new band that I like or a new sound that I like.”
“I think Val does a really good job of selecting based on the music and the musicians, not based on who the promoter happens to be pushing. And in many cases, the artists she has chosen are prominent at all of these other festivals,” Mark Haller said. “Val has an excellent success rate for picking the next big thing.”
Like guitarist Billy Strings, who performed at the Winnetka Festival in 2018 and last year won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Or the folk trio Caamp.
“They played in our living room four years ago and they’re playing at Wrigley Field this year with the Lumineers,” Mark Haller said.
Similar to the musicians who play and stay with the Hallers, the festival bands stay in the homes of host families.
“We have people here begging to host a group. And they feed them and make them homemade food and help them get around town and give them real beds,” Haller said. “And so many of these artists are exhausted from their summer tours where they drive all summer from one thing to the next and they get tired and pile into hotel rooms together. So we like to think of our festival as a kind of oasis.
“Even Guster said this year, ‘oh yeah, we want to be hosted by a family.’ It’s something we do that sets us apart in the music industry,” Mark Haller said. “And yeah, sometimes agents are skeptical about it…”
But it works, they said.
“For bands, I think we’re a memorable stop on their tour,” Haller said.
Winnetka Music Festival
When: June 18
Where: 610 Lincoln Ave, Winnetka
Tickets: exhausted; volunteers who work a minimum of three hours receive a general admission ticket
Kathy Cichon is a freelance journalist for Pioneer Press.