When Chris Haghirian and Nathan Reusch came together to start the Middle of the Map Festival in 2010, they shared a vision of what it could be. That vision was an all-encompassing arts and culture event in Kansas City which mimics South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual music, film, and interactive media festival in Austin, Texas.
Now, six years later, after considerable expansion, both in content and in location, they’ve accomplished much of what they set out to do in emulating the exceptionally popular SXSW. But, at the same time, they’ve kept the festival their own.
Fittingly, Haghirian and Reusch met through local music. And local music, from both Kansas City and Lawrence, is what has kept Middle of the Map Fest different than SXSW. Although now the festival has numerous national acts — this year they hosted the Cold War Kids and Vince Staples — they’ve curated a breeding ground and a community for local artists.
“That was the idea, and the idea for Middle will always be to showcase local talent from great Kansas City and Lawrence bands,” Haghirian, a co-creator of the festival, said. “In order to do that, sometimes you have to bring in the big guns: you need to bring in the Cold War Kids and the base of the Cold War Kids fans, and their fans will come early, and they get to see great local bands.”
This year more attention was turned to the national acts than ever before. That process to bring in more national names came naturally, though, as the Middle of the Map continued to grow from its roots in Westport.
Now acts are branched all over Kansas City; from the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland in the middle of downtown Kansas City to multiple venues in the rapidly growing Crossroads district. That sprawling map of shows, along with the streetcar, which opened up this week, gave everyone in Kansas City access to shows and, more importantly, the local music from Thursday to Saturday.
“Just like Kansas City itself is growing and expanding, we as a festival decided that was a good move for us as well,” promotions and events coordinator Ashley Dowgwillo said. “One tagline that we’ve used is, ‘A festival born and raised in Kansas City.’ And that’s exactly what it is.”
Alongside Kansas City, multiple Lawrence acts have helped raise the festival as well. One of those acts is Ebony Tusks, a rap group which is composed of Marty Hillard, Nathan Giesecke and Daniel Smith.
The group performed for a crowd of about 100 people before national acts Gallant, Vince Staples and ZHU played at the Midland on Friday night. Before Ebony Tusks performed, the stage belonged to Kansas City rap duo BLK FLANL, a group which has made plenty of noise in Kansas City since coming onto the scene, just like Ebony Tusks have.
“The festival goes to great lengths to bridge a lot of community gaps,” Hillard said. “They recognize all the community creators, all of the people who foster community between Lawrence and Kansas City, and I think they do a really good job of having them represented in the festival.”
But alongside individual acts, Haghirian and Reusch have admittedly stolen another part of SXSW which has made so popular: showcases. This year, as well as in 2015, Middle of the Map invited Lawrence website I Heart Local Music to host a showcase, which this year featured exclusively Lawrence bands, including Your Friend.
Middle of the Map also organized a 21 and under showcase this year, as well as multiple local record company showcases, including Kansas City record companies High Dive Records and Haymaker Records.
“We saw at SXSW how there are all these different day parties, like NPR, so what we’ve done is work with interesting organizations within our own communities to give them day parties and to let the shine,” Haghirian said. “You piece things together that make sense and you see those things — well, I saw them — for the first time at SXSW.”
But most importantly, for the creators of Middle of the Map, the community has embraced both the national and local music. With the festival’s rapid success, now sprawling 11 venues all over Kansas City, it’s clear that Haghirian and Reusch have learned exactly how to weave music lovers together from all over Kansas City.
Then, in one way, the Middle of the Map Fest is its own. It does not bridge gaps between states, or cultivate music from all over the globe like SXSW has for years. Instead, it has truly mimicked it’s name, bridging the gap between all varieties of music lovers — music aside — in Kansas City.
“We’re lucky to have it so embraced by the community that it’s their own festival; it’s a festival you make of it, and people have embraced it as their own, which is awesome because we’re trying to do something really cool,” Haghirian said. “That’ll always be the goal: to shine a light on the music that’s coming from Kansas City that we think — that everybody in the community thinks — needs to be heard.”
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