School of rock: How Laurel School students created one of Ohio's top music festivals

Ask Denny Young about the biggest music festivals in Ohio, and he’ll make a case for these three: “Bunbury in Cincinnati, Rock on the Range in Columbus, and LaureLive in Cleveland.”

He might be biased about that last one—he did help found it, after all. But there’s no denying the numbers. LaureLive has already hosted over 100 bands from around the world, many of them huge names in contemporary music. It’s drawn thousands of attendees. And the festival, which takes place this weekend, is only entering its third year.

All of this takes place on the scenic campus of a small, all-girls school in Russell Township.

A contemporary music festival at Laurel’s quiet campus is unlikely, to say the least. Quite possibly, it’s one-of-a-kind. “To my knowledge, there is no other multi-day, multi-stage festival taking place on the property of a non-university school,” says Young. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the country that does this.”

Young is the president of The Elevation Group, a national event management, sponsorship consulting, and music production company with its headquarters in Cleveland. Years ago, as music festivals began establishing themselves in other Ohio cities, he and business partner Steve Lindecke began discussing the idea of staging a music fest in Cleveland to fill the void.

Around this time, a Laurel board member reached out and said the school was looking to put music programming into the pavilion at the Butler campus. “The pavilion was just too small,” says Young, “but the campus itself was 140 acres of the most gorgeous land in this area.” He and Lindecke presented the idea of a music festival on campus. The board loved it, and LaureLive was born.

A festival held at Laurel—consistently ranked as one of the area’s best K-12 schools—couldn’t exist without an educational component. That’s why Young and Lindecke have, since the festival’s start in 2016, co-taught a class at Laurel’s upper school on music management and festival planning.

“They’ve done a terrific job,” says Trey Wilson, Laurel’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, of the co-teaching team. Students take the class in order to have a role in staging the festival, whether that’s helping stagehands, working the box office, or even providing talent hospitality. “They’re on hand, in the trenches right next to us,” says Young.

To no one’s surprise, the class is a popular elective.

Students come to the class for the chance to meet big-name musicians, but they stay to learn the intricacies of running a music festival. “What surprises most of the girls is the scope of what goes into creating an event this size and scale,” says Wilson. The class asks students to consider everything from food vendors to marketing to the number of port-a-potties necessary.

Young is proud of the 100 students he and Lindecke have taught so far. Several students previously planning on studying accounting or law have, after taking the class, gone to prestigious colleges to study music management. “In an industry that has been [historically] light on women,” he says, “we’re training the next generation of executives for the music industry.”

Elevation ultimately chooses the acts that will play LaureLive, but Young says students provide “great feedback” in putting together an all-ages festival. This year, that feedback steered them toward more bands for a younger demographic. It’s paved the way for names like Fitz and the Tantrums and Foster the People, perhaps some of the biggest headliners yet. And there’s still space on the bill for self-described “journeyman” acts like Ohio rockers Red Wanting Blue.

The festival draws thousands from Northeast Ohio and beyond, but it’s a special touchstone for the Laurel community. “It always happens on the heels of a school year,” Wilson says, pointing out that the upper school’s graduation was this past Tuesday. “For staff, faculty, parents, it’s a nice way to end the year.”

When asked about his favorite LaureLive moment so far, Young goes back to the first festival in 2016. Singer-songwriter Michael Franti (who would go on to headline the next year at LaureLive as well) gave his performance the day after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. The next morning, Franti picked a flower for each victim of the massacre, then placed them onstage in memory of the victims.

“He gave a short eulogy and then proceeded to put on one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen,” says Young. “It was the signature moment of LaureLive.”

As for the festival’s future, Young doesn’t see a vast expansion. “We’re not motivated or planning to make this the next Lollapalooza,” he says. “We want to make this the very best boutique festival it can be.” He expects festival attendance to rise to and comfortably plateau at 20-25,000 in the next few years. It’s likely the fest will need a third night at some point down the road.

But for now, the focus is on LaureLive 2019. When asked when preparations for next year’s event will begin, Young laughs. “We’ve been planning 2019 for several months now,” he says. “We’re always thinking way ahead.”

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Read more articles by Billy Hallal.

Billy Hallal works as a freelance writer and an adult literacy advocate at Seeds of Literacy. You can find his writing on Northeast Ohio dining and culture at Thrillist and Cleveland Scene.
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