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Growing Des Moines into a Music City in the Midwest

Sam Summers in DSM

February 9, 2024


During the latest Small Business & Startup Stories DSM podcast, Sam Summers, a serial entrepreneur who has built and founded several music and entertainment businesses including First Fleet Concerts (FFC), Hinterland Music Festival, Wooly’s, Val Air Ballroom, Up-Down Arcade Bars and is a Des Moines Register 2024 Person to Watch, shares his entrepreneurial journey.

Growing the Live Music Scene in DSM

Summer first started his music booking business, First Fleet Concerts, in 2005 while he was at Iowa State University. That first year, FCC produced a total of 10 shows. Fast forward to today, the team behind FFC booked over 200 shows across many recognizable Des Moines and Iowa venues in 2023.

After opening Wooly’s and Up-Down Arcade Bar in the Historic East Village in Greater Des Moines, Summers went on to produce Hinterland, a music festival in Saint Charles. Over the last two years, he took ownership of the historic Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, overseeing Val Air’s recent remodel and reopening, set for later this month. The Val Air historic ballroom excited Summers, who hired a historian and architect to undertake the project while still upholding the historical integrity of the building, utilizing tax increment financing, or TIF, a Destination Iowa grant, and debt financing to make the project happen. Summers’ own role in has evolved as he has founded new businesses and begun to hire and train his staff so that he can focus on being a good manager of people. Each venue is self-contained because they have their own teams. Summers is in the process of opening more Up-Down locations including one in Nashville. He has seven locations The 21+ arcade bar is, according to Summers, is a fun place to hang out in the neighborhood with a “special kind of vibe.”

Growing the music scene in DSM also means making DSM a place that’s easy to get around. In an ideal world, Summers sees public transportation and the expanded airport project as ways to do this. Aside from those larger projects, if you’re looking to support local artists, show up to shows, purchase merch and support DSM venues bringing in up-and-coming acts. This month don’t miss Steel Panther on Sunday, Feb. 18 or Skizzy Mars on Saturday, Feb. 24 at Wooly’s.

There’s even a Sneak Peek of Val Air Ballroom prior to the reopening of the venue that includes live music, backstage tours and free entry on Sunday, Feb. 25 from Noon until 4 p.m. Val Air is set to open for its first show, open to all ages, on Thursday, Feb. 29 with Greensky Bluegrass.

Want to know more about Sam’s entrepreneurial story? Listen to the entire podcast above, learn about upcoming events or follow FFC on Facebook or Instagram.

Inspired by this Startup Story? Subscribe to the Small Business & Startup Stories DSM podcast and check out upcoming events, videos and other free resources dedicated to helping startups and small businesses accelerate success in Greater Des Moines (DSM).

Startup Stories DSM

Startup Stories DSM is a podcast featuring conversations with entrepreneurs who share both their victories and failures on their paths to success. It is produced by the Greater Des Moines Partnership.