COME HINTER: Sam Summers sold a majority stake in First Fleet Concerts, his promotions firm, to Live Nation. From left, Josh Hewitt, Burke VanRaalte, Summers and Zeke Whetstone, all with First Fleet, shown at Hinterland in 2022, a festival that’s not part of the transaction. (Don Muret/Staff)

Show count expected to double in Iowa

Live Nation has acquired a majority stake in First Fleet Concerts, an Iowa concert promotions company owned by Sam Summers. The news was first reported by Axios.

The transaction was completed in September, after discussions took place over the past 18 months, Summers confirmed.

The agreement does not include venues and property owned by Summers: the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Iowa; Wooly’s, a 700-capacity club in Des Moines, owned by Summers and a few local partners; and Hinterland, the multi-day festival created by Summers that takes place in rural St. Charles Iowa, 30 miles south of Des Moines. Summers owns some of the farm land that’s converted to a festival grounds for the annual August event.

Summers declined to provide the financial terms and length of the deal, but six months after the deal closed, it’s business as usual, he said. The difference, he said, is First Fleet Concerts now has additional resources and support through Live Nation, the world’s biggest event promoter.

The deal came at about the same time Live Nation and First Fleet Concerts became partners for programming Vibrant Music Hall in Waukee, Iowa. Live Nation owns the 3,300-capacity club in the Des Moines suburb that opened in November.

In a prepared statement, Jordan Zachary, Live Nation’s co-president of U.S. concerts, said Vibrant Music Hall provides a new option for artists that did not exist in Des Moines, and that partnering with First Fleet provides allows for the most diverse lineup of acts to play the venue.

Sam Summers

First Fleet Concerts’ reach extends to existing booking deals with the Capital Theatre, a 1,600-capacity club in Davenport, Iowa, and multiple venues in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I thought about this for a long time,” Summers said. “It’s something that, historically, I’ve spoken (out) against doing. I’ve been guarded by my independence. It didn’t change what I used to feel, but when I looked at it more closely, it checks a lot of boxes for me. It allows us to bring more content to the market. Our show count in the market is going to double now.”

As part of his due diligence, Summers voiced his concerns with Live Nation officials Josh Lacey, market president in Minnesota, and Jason Wright, president of the Midwest region in Chicago.

“I’ve known Josh since he was a booking agent in 2004 when I got started in the business,” Summers said. “Jason is well loved in the industry. That was a lot of (what drove the deal) too. I mentioned my apprehensions and where I stood in the past and what this would mean for me, those who work for the company and fans that go to shows.”

Over the past year, First Fleet Concerts went through a trial run of sorts, with Live Nation booking Larry June at Wooly’s as part of the rapper’s national tour. It’s one example of a tour that would not typically play central Iowa, given the market size, among other factors, Summers said.

Moving forward, more national tours, such as Dashboard Confessional (Sept. 25) and the Drive-By Truckers (Oct. 29), both booked for the Val Air, will come through the Hawkeye State as a result of the change in First Fleet ownership, he said.

For Summers, another benefit of the deal is the opportunity to streamline his operation. Over the past four months, First Fleet officials have been looking closely at how to make things more efficient for the company. Previously, they were “flying blind” on that part of the business, he said.

“I make decisions based on, hey, that worked well, or that didn’t, let’s keep doing it or stop it,” Summers said. “By meeting with (Live Nation) people and asking questions, I’ve been able to put processes in place that make my team’s life easier and allow us to get more shows and handle more volume.”

That doesn’t mean cutting staff; in fact, First Fleet recently hired two more people for the home office in Des Moines, he said.

In addition, Summers looks forward to building on what he’s already accomplished in terms of crafting an artist’s career as they climb the ladder from playing clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums. His deal with Live Nation doesn’t prevent him from taking a more active role from that standpoint.

“I’m good at booking in my market, and after seeing how they do it on their side, that’s something of interest to me,” he said. “One thing with Hinterland I’ve found is that we’re able to identify artists while they’re building their careers. I have multiple businesses and it was important for me to have that freedom. I’m an entrepreneur and we spent a lot of time on this deal to make sure that I could continue to do that. The best thing I can do is prove it.”