Winnetka Music Festival: one woman’s mission to open a doorway to new music for all ages

If you believe recent studies citing surveys and Spotify data, researchers have allegedly pinpointed “33” as the exact age most people stop discovering new music. Val Haller, for one, takes issue with that statistic and is on a mission to change the idea that new music is simply a youth movement.

In 2007, the Winnetka mom of four and concert fanatic started her brand, ValsList, as a response to the advent of the “endless abyss” that was the iTunes library, narrowing down the millions of songs suddenly at listeners’ disposal by curating playlists with her personal picks for bands about to break. ValsList continues to thrive today as a music discovery site to help busy adults keep up with new releases and artists. But the platform has become so much more.

Haller’s modest venture soon turned into hosting emerging bands in her suburban living room with a tip jar on her dining room table that often pooled together more money than the bands would make at a club gig. And, after booking successful pop-up shows at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Wrigley Field’s Gallagher Way, today, the idea has extrapolated even further into the Winnetka Music Festival, expanding on Haller’s desire to link up artist and music fan that might not otherwise find each other.

Now it in its 6th year, returning after COVID stalled it in 2020 and diverting to a smaller footprint in 2021, the Winnetka Music Festival makes a full return on June 18 in the downtown Elm Street district, with a lineup featuring marquee acts like blues rock savants The Record Company, as well as ’90s mainstays Guster, alongside up-and-comers Melt, Minor Moon, Abby Hamilton and more.

“We really built this out of nothing,” Haller admits, noting that after word of the house concert series started getting out in the industry, “everything started going on auto pilot.” One of the regular patrons of her house shows happened to be on the village board and asked Haller if she was interested in doing something bigger.

The Winnetka Music Festival showcases new bands for fans of all ages hoping to discover emerging artists.|

Provided

“The Village of Winnetka is very open to new ideas and things in the arts and for community,” says Haller. “It ended up being a really good partnership and built it up really quickly.”

In the first year, Haller and her business partners (her husband Mark, and Scott Myers, who was once on the Chicago Olympics bid committee) booked 12 acts with Chicago’s own Wild Belle headlining.

“We thought maybe 50 people would come,” recalls Haller. “12,000 ended up coming over two days.” Later years have welcomed Larkin Poe, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Billy Strings in their infancy — all acts that have gone on to viral fame.

Over the years, Haller has become respected in the industry as a music tastemaker, and when it comes to knowing who to evangelize on ValsList and to book for the fest, she says, “I listen to music 24/7 trying to find new sounds, and I really try to look for the different. There’s so much fabulous music out there but so much of it sounds the same and it can be hard to pluck a great emerging act when it’s all starting to sound beige. … Maybe it’s an artist that doesn’t have a pitch-perfect voice but has great stage presence. Or they play instruments you wouldn’t think of.”

She adds, “That’s why I love to go to so much live music — I’m in audience as a fan watching the artist on the stage, and it needs to be visceral.”

She really sees the festival and her ValsList platform as being a gateway for the over 33-year-old crowd to prove they haven’t aged out of listening to new sounds and going to shows. For three years, Haller had a New York Times column aimed at Boomers, matching up a classic band they were familiar with alongside a likeminded newer act she recommended. Haller also used to plan excursions to Lollapalooza with a group of 50-plus peers to show them they can enjoy the event just as much as their kids.

“Our demographic is good for the artist. We grew up listening to music and not taking selfies during a live show. We grew up buying music,” says Haller. “I want to be the spokesperson for my whole age group and even younger, who think they are too busy. Anyone who has given up on new music is secretly sad because we didn’t think that would ever happen.”

The Winnetka Music Fest, which features an all-ages family stage and activities for kids, really caters to this more discerning adult audience.

Says Haller, “I really wanted to bring a downtown vibe up to the ‘burbs. You could plop our model right on Randolph Street and it would fit. My goal really is to get more people here to go out to live music,” Haller says. “There’s room in this industry for every type of fan and I want to broaden it because the artists need us.”

Winnetka Music Festival will feature two mainstages, a busker stage with local talent and some dad bands in honor of the Father’s Day weekend. As well there will be a Chapel Stage (at the Winnetka Chapel) that finds Haller teaming up with Evanston’s SPACE for the first time. Food trucks and local Winnetka restaurants will also be highlighted in the fest’s food court.

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