Indie

So What Festival Founder Mike Ziemer Explains How He Created Texas’ Biggest Emo Festival

When Mike Ziemer launched the inaugural So What Festival in 2008, social media was in its infancy. There was no Instagram for him to purchase advertisements, no TikTok to share videos, and no music streaming platforms, as Spotify hadn’t arrived to the US. By way of MySpace, word of mouth, and building a niche community in Plano, Texas, Ziemer was able to grow what began as a series of concerts in a local community center into one of the most anticipated festivals of the year.

The 2022 So What Festival marks the first iteration of the festival in three years, and its first in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in five. This year’s lineup boasts throwback artists like The Maine, Simple Plan, and Sum 41, and newer acts like Trippie Redd, Princess Nokia and 2 Chainz. With its largest and most diverse line-up yet, the festival will take place May 27-29 at Arlington’s Choctaw Stadium.

Born and raised in Huntington Beach, California, Ziemer moved to Plano at the age of 16. Though he admits he struggled to fit in with the suburban crowd, he found solace in Dallas’ music scene. In order to get into shows for free, Ziemer would interview bands for online zines. After building a presence online and within Dallas’ music community, a local band called The Perfect Ending reached out to Ziemer and asked him to manage them.

“The biggest thing that I came across was that at the time, which was 2004, there was no scene for all-ages shows,” Ziemer tells Uproxx. “You had to play in a bar, and the show would end at like eight o’clock, and none of your friends from the suburbs could go. I rented out a small room at The Plano Centre [which has since been renamed Plano Event Center], with some money that I borrowed from the guitarist of the band’s mom, and put on my first show. I paid everybody off. And there was some money left over, even after I paid her back. And I was like, ‘What do I do with this money? Like, oh, I’ve made some money. This is cool. I should do this again.’”

Ziemer would then launch a series in which he would hold monthly concerts at The Plano Centre. Those Plano Centre shows became staples for indie artists and emo kids alike, as Ziemer brought in artists and bands like The Maine, Terminal, and Jeffree Star — yes, that Jeffree Star.

During The Plano Centre concert series’ early beginnings, Ziemer and his street team would hand-deliver flyers to mailboxes in Plano, Frisco, and Richardson. As popularity for these shows grew, he and his team would deliver the flyers to even more surrounding cities, like Rowlett, Mesquite, Arlington, and Fort Worth.

In tandem with the ardent efforts of his street team and the scene kids who frequented these shows, Ziemer says MySpace was one of the biggest factors that pulled in large audiences every month.

“The ability to invite people and post bulletins and grow these insane followings on MySpace was incredible,” Ziemer says. With Facebook, you’re limited to 5,000 friends, unless you start creating new profiles. And on MySpace, I think I had 65,000 friends on there. Everything about MySpace was in order. If I post a bulletin, I’m on top. There was no weird algorithm. We spent zero dollars advertising, except for printing out flyers. The average person couldn’t just boost a post. It was all organic and word of mouth.”

In 2008, Ziemer would celebrate the concert series’ fourth anniversary with the inaugural So What Festival. Originally called South By So What, the first festival brought “just over 40 acts” to North Texas that otherwise wouldn’t get booked for SXSW, including Breathe Carolina, Memphis Mayfire, and Scary Kids Scaring Kids.

“The guy that was doing all my graphics was like, ‘Man, you have everybody everyone wants to see. You may as well call it South By So What,’” Ziemer recalls, “And I was like, ‘That’s funny, Let’s see if we can get away with it.’ We posted about it and it just became a brand. Even if you were over 21, if you wanted to go see anything that was rock or metal, it would be at a venue that could fit 500 people but there were, like, 3000 people trying to get in. The alternative was come up to Dallas to get away from all the chaos and enjoy all the bands. It wasn’t necessarily a stab at SXSW.”

While the South By So What name was all in good humor, the festival continued to grow over the years. Within two years, the festival had expanded from The Plano Centre to the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco. By 2011, the festival had moved to Dallas’ South Side Ballroom, then known as Palladium Ballroom, before taking place at QuikTrip Park, now known as AirHogs Stadium.

By 2016, the festival had garnered a fanbase comparable to that of SXSW.

“It got to a point where they considered us a competitor,” Ziemer says. “So when [SXSW] reached out and they were like, ‘Hey, at this point, we would like to get actual compensation from you using [‘south by’] because you’re now a competitor,’ We were just like, ‘Ok, we’re just gonna go by So What.’”

Around that time is when Ziemer had begun seeing a shift in music culture and within his audience. He would see crowds forming mosh pits at hip-hop and EDM festivals, realizing many of the individuals in these crowds were people who went to the Plano Centre shows growing up.

Having grown up in Southern California, Ziemer himself has an eclectic music taste, comprised of West Coast hip-hop and bands like Less Than Jake and NOFX. Ziemer’s own personal musical inclinations, paired with the shift taking place in the realm of music, prompted him to diversify So What’s lineup.

In 2017, for the festival’s 10th iteration, So What took place at AirHogs Stadium, as well as various venue’s in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood. On the lineup were Mayday Parade, Forever The Sickest Kids, and Every Time I Die, along with local hip-hop acts Lil Lotus and Blue The Misfit.

“Obviously, we’re not the first people to ever mix the genres together,” Ziemer says, “…but it just felt natural. Some people comment like, ‘How could you do this? This is supposed to be a metal festival,’ but I feel like those are grumpy people that aren’t going to come anyway. But the music all flows to me, especially in an era where Travis Barker is collaborating with every possible artist.”

Booking some of the newer acts feels like a full-circle moment for Ziemer, who first met 2 Chainz while his friend was working backstage at one of his concerts. He recalls being at a Rae Sremmurd show, which was the first time he saw fans form a mosh pit at a hip-hop concert. He’s also been following Blackbear’s music since he was performing under the name Mat Musto.

This eclectic lineup is expected to bring in fans from various parts of the world, which makes Ziemer all the more proud to have grown this festival in Dallas.

“Dallas is home,” Ziemer says. “I tried to deny that for a long time. I moved to Texas with spiky hair and Hurley shirts, when everyone was wearing Abercrombie. I was automatically thrown into this category of being a punk. I honestly didn’t think I would ever find my place here. I moved to LA for two years and came back. I talked about moving to New York, but this is just home.”

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