An Interview with Wespac’s Heather Rogers: The story behind the music festival with heart, M3F

To prepare for this year’s M3F (formerly known as McDowell Mountain Music Festival), I had a chance to chat with the M3F festival manager, Heather Rogers. Heather has been with Wespac Construction Inc., since 2004, and has seen the evolution of the festival over the last sixteen years.

Did you know M3F is put on by a construction company? I sure didn’t and I’ve attended the festival in the past. It was so exciting to hear about the inception of M3F, how far it’s come, and how much it’s grown. Music runs through my veins and I’ve enjoyed several headliners at the festival over the years. Particularly Thievery Corporation, Phantogram, Odesza, and Empire of the Sun.

This year I’m so excited to see Rüfüs Du Sol, San Holo, Phantoms, and Sofi Tukker, just to name a few! I’m obsessed with DJs and have been known to fly to Washington D.C. for one night to see Sasha and John Digweed, my fave DJs, at Echostage. Only M3F would be able to pull in a sick lineup like this in my backyard instead of having to fly across the country to see such amazing talent. Throughout the article I’ve included hyperlinks of my top tracks for artists I’m aware of and a full video preview of my #M3F2020 bucket list artists to help get you pumped up.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the history of M3F, how the festival supports the Music Therapy Program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and what it takes to put on one of the largest festivals in the Southwest. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Be sure to follow the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation’s social media channels @FriendsOfPCH to see all of the amazing world-class care Phoenix Children’s Hospital provides. Watch our channels for exclusive #M3F2020 footage and to follow my journey at the festival! #EveryTicketCounts

What inspired Wespac to establish M3F in 2004?
Our founder and CEO of Wespac Construction Inc., John Largay, is dedicated to creating a workplace that cultivates a unique culture for all team members. The culture is to volunteer, the culture is to give back to charity and to the community.

John is also a music lover and wanted to change the live music scene in Phoenix. He wanted to use his passion for music in a way that would positively impact the community and give back to charity, while building a new culture in the Southwest with bands and artists that don’t normally stop in Phoenix. They just go to Vegas or Los Angeles and kind of skip us. This humble yet simplistic approach was the inspiration behind creating M3F back in 2004.

John brought all of this together, created and expanded the awareness while incorporating teambuilding. You can’t get a better teambuilding project for our company than this. 99% of our employees participate in the festival some way.

Awesome! Do you remember who some of the very first musicians and bands are that you had out?
Yes, we had the Black Crowes, David Crosby, The Marshall Tucker Band, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Ratdog, Blues Traveler and so many more but that’s a few.

Wow! Those are some classics. And John is a Dead Fan?
Yes, he is a bit of a Dead Fan.

So cool. If I’m not in meetings I’m always rockin’ out with headphones on because music keeps me going. Just like music is therapy and keeps kids going at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Did you, Wespac, or John envision that M3F would become a musical destination for festival goers?

I think we always thought about it. I know we talked about it. We hoped for it. So to see it grow as much as it has, and to see it be this large is fantastic! I mean, we are not music people in the industry, we’re a construction firm, so it’s out of our wheelhouse, but we treat it like one of our jobs. The party goes in and the party goes out. And that’s what you do with a job site – you go in, you build the building, and go back out. So logistically it makes sense that it’s kind of hand-in-hand.

Yeah, that makes sense. It’s kind of like opening a restaurant or a night club and you don’t have restaurant or night club experience. I just find it super fascinating that M3F is founded and operated by a construction company.
Right. Exactly. We just do the best we can and the fact that everyone on the team contributes is amazing. This is a perfect way for us to do what we say we’re doing to do in terms of building the culture within our organization and in the community. And it all just comes together.

That’s so powerful. This may be a no-brainer question but have you seen an increase in attendance year-over-year?
Our whole thing is built on the experience of M3F. You want to be next to your friend but you don’t want to be “next” to your friend, so we don’t want to lose that or lose the ability to move people back and forth across the field. We want them to be a part of every experience that we are offering. Not just the music but the Kid Zone, vendor village, food trucks, art activations, live art – we want people to see it all. So we have had an increase in attendance every year and do what we can to keep the people coming. We hope that it always keeps growing.

I definitely anticipate it growing, especially since Rüfüs Du Sol is kind of a big deal. He quickly became a name, so I think that will also help draw in a large crowd. There were some bands last year that I didn’t know but was still really cool music. It’s great exposure for the not-so-well-known artists.
Yeah, exactly.

How were the three Cs derived? (Community, Culture, and Charity)
I think they grew off of the charity aspect. M3F has been 100% non-profit and we donate all the money at the end to charity. Watching it evolve is kind of like a three-legged stool, with all legs working together to hold up the stool. We’re trying to build the culture in Phoenix, which impacts the community by bringing people together for the greater good. All of these blend together, so it makes sense that they’re a three-legged stool to build the mission on.

I love the three-legged stool analogy! Can you tell us why Phoenix Children’s Hospital is one of the organizations M3F supports?
We’ve always tried to stick with family-oriented organizations, in some respects, and we love helping children. Who doesn’t go in that direction? Especially with the recent addition of the Music Therapy Program at Phoenix Children’s. I mean how much better does it get than a music festival and a children’s hospital coming together to make a difference in the lives of so many children? Similar to what you said about how music keeps you going, we all wear headphones at some point in the day over here just to drown each other out but it also keeps us going. Everyone has their own tastes in music but this is such a rewarding partnership, knowing how much the Music Therapy Program helps heal sick children and their families and helping to create more awareness in the community. That’s magic right there!

Some people are aware that all proceeds from M3F go back to charity but I don’t think people realize that the Hospital has a Music Therapy program. This partnership will also help create more awareness and put a spotlight on where those dollars are going.

Have you, someone on your team, or someone you know have any type of experience our encounter with any of their children being in the Hospital at Phoenix Children’s?
I believe one of our project managers’ young daughter had a liver transplant. He was in the hallway with his daughter at Phoenix Children’s and a Music Therapy Specialist passed in the hallway playing a drum and they all did a little dance. Even though the program is so much more than that, it was an uplifting experience for them. He was so proud when he sent the video because he knows that Wespac supports the program that’s helping his daughter and so many other children.

That’s really touching. I’ve never had a job where we cry so much. You see these kids and everything they’re going through, which impacts their families and their siblings. I talk to a lot of parents on the Foundation’s social media channels and it’s such a great feeling to know that I can be there to listen and help in any way I can.
A group of us from Wespac went down to visit everyone in the Music Therapy program and I’m the one that started crying out of the group. It was like, “ok, this is why we do what we do.”

It really puts life into perspective and you think, “wow, the challenges I think I have are so minor compared to what these young fighters are going through.”

For those that may not know, can you share how much M3F has donated to local charities since 2004?
Yes, we’ve donated just over $2 million.

Whoa. That’s so cool! Do you plan on beating last year’s amount raised? I’m sure it’s a goal but $509,000 in one year – that’s a whole lot of money.
I mean of course, yes, it is always the goal to do better the next year. We never make any promises because you don’t know what will happen, life comes at you in many different forms. But it is always the goal, we don’t fail well!

Ok, so now onto the music side of things. How have you been able to bring in some of the hottest artists year-after-year?
I’d say it’s a collaboration. When John started, he had a wish-list, of course, of several hundred bands, because if you’re going to do your own event you may as well get bands you really want to see, you haven’t seen, or you have seen and want to see again.

We use a couple of consultants that are actually in the music industry to help advise us or they may have access to information that we don’t have access to. We try to watch trends, we read, we just try to do as much dive-in research as we can. We keep the local bands involved too, so we maintain a local representation. Overall it just depends on the trends. We just have one event a year whereas some venues have more access to more acts or even better acts because they do twenty-five shows year-round. We have just one event and one chance to make a substantial impact.

Sometimes it’s a little harder – routing doesn’t work out or there’s another festival that may fall on our same weekend. There are so many factors that go into it. So we appreciate that you love M3F and the talent we bring in because that’s what’s most important — that the fans like it. And everyone walks away with a new band. I may go in and I’m like – “I don’t know any of these but one.”

This year I’m looking forward to seeing Sofi Tukker. I know some of the others but I’m really looking forward to seeing them. You walk away sometimes like, “oh ok, now I’m going to check them out, research them more, or maybe go to their show next time they’re in Phoenix. I think everybody walks away with something new.

How excited are you to have Grammy nominees Bon Iver and Rüfüs Du Sol headline at this year’s festival?
We’ve had a few in the past which definitely helps. If people are new to the festival and they look at the lineup, they see that we’re not having Joe who plays on the street corner every other Friday. Its actual groups you’ve heard of, on the radio, or out there doing their thing. So the lineup you bring in does help the reputation, which is always a good thing. I watched the Grammy’s and when they said the names of a few groups we’re having this year, I was like “they’re coming to our festival!” It gets you excited.

Do you have a fave Rüfüs track?
Yes! Treat You Better.

Ok this is kind of geeky, but San Holo released a new track called, “Honest” and he did so much heavy promotion about it. I was looking at his fan base and it was really crazy good to see everyone say, “I can’t wait for this to come out.” So my question is, do you think fans will go nuts if he plays that track at the festival?
Oh I’m sure! Especially if he’s making a big deal about it. I don’t know his music really well personally but I know other people do and are excited. In conversations they’ve mentioned it and it’s like “this is going to be good because he’s never been here before. He’s also not doing his DJ set he’s doing his live set. So I think for the fans that are like “I would’ve had to travel forever to see him and I don’t plan on doing that in the next year, so I think it’ll be really good.” The waving of the phones is what I’m envisioning right now!

I know you’ve already said this but who are you most excited to see this year?
Sofi Tukker! I saw them when they were here when they were just getting started and I loved their show, so I’ve followed their journey. Now I feel they’re blowing up and they’ve also done a lot of promoting about us on Sirius XM and we didn’t even ask them to, it just became part of their thing. We love it when people do that. Sofi is my big one.

I was and still am excited about Rüfüs Du Sol, because I like that song and I’d like to see that performed live.

Are there any up-and-coming artists at the festival this year that people should check out?
I went and saw the Growlers when they were just here, so I think that’ll be a good experience for everyone. I don’t know that they’re up-and-coming, because I’m not even in the music business but I think a lot more people will enjoy that show.

Same thing with Local Natives, I feel they’re growing in popularity just because they are on the radio more than they have been. I’m not really a good critic. Toubab Krewe is returning, they’ve played at the festival before so that’s kind of cool. Their music is a little different and I think people will enjoy that and then some will be like “oh yeah, I saw them back in whatever year that was.” So I think for the returning fans it’s always nice to have a band they recognize. I always like all the locals, they kind of surprise me from time to time. And next thing you know, maybe one of them has made it, like the Wyves. The Canaries played at the LLS event for us. They were really good and they’re from Flag (Flagstaff) so I hadn’t actually heard them perform before so that was kind of nice.

When the talent comes into town, are they usually coming straight off the plane to their set, do some stay in hotels, or is it a mixture?
Yeah, it’s a mixture. A few have to just come in, do their thing and head back out of town. Most of them will spend the night in a hotel, and over the last few years we’ve seen a growth in Airbnb stays so they can be themselves, and maybe stay a few extra days. Some of them drive, maybe they have tour buses and they’re on tour or they’re routing close enough to just come on their bus. Some of the smaller bands are still in a van with a trailer and they’re saving all the money they can so they’re just traveling in that fashion. So it’s a mixture.

Ok, kind of a silly question. If you could date any musician or celebrity (cracking up) who would it be?
First of all, don’t ever date a musician or a celebrity.

Right? Or a professional athlete.
I’m just kidding. I have no idea! Hmmm. I don’t want to date myself if I say some people. I love Will Smith. If Will Smith shows up at the door I’m gone!

Haha! He’s still in excellent shape.
Yes! I’m so going to get a hard time about this.

What’s next for M3F? Does Wespac plan on keeping the festival going as long as you can?
We tend to take it year-by-year because you don’t know what comes up or how things will change. We’re always looking ahead, we’re always making notes for the future, and we’re always like “we should change that next year.”

It all just comes together — we all come together and do what it takes to get it done, and we want to do it really well. We want the experience to be like, “whoa, we can’t believe they did this. This is amazing!” We all have a little bit of pride in us that we have to knock it out of the park.

Sure, and that expectation is there now.
Oh yeah. And our expectations alone are off the charts so then if we can get some of that out there for the people, that’s a win. It is the best feeling to stand on the stage and see 8,000 people out there just having a good time. They don’t realize what just happened backstage, or down the street, emails that are coming in, no one knows. They’re all just having a good time, they’re all smiling, they’re all dancing, they made new friends, they’ve got old friends, and their family is there with them. That’s what it is for me, personally – just to see a happy crowd. This is the breather I needed, now go finish everything, and go see it through.

My #M3F2020 Bucket List Artists:

Rüfüs Du Sol: Sundream

San Holo: Light

Phantoms: Just a Feeling ft. Vérité

Sofi Tukker: Swing

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