Winnetka Music Festival: One woman’s mission to open the door to new music for all ages

According to recent studies citing polls and Spotify data, researchers have reportedly identified “33” as the exact age at which most people stop discovering new music. Val Haller, for example, challenges this statistic and has made it his mission to change the notion that new music is simply a youth movement.

In 2007, the Winnetka mother of four and concert fanatic launched her ValsList brand in response to the advent of the “endless abyss,” the iTunes library, and limited the millions of songs suddenly available to listeners by curating playlists with theirs personal choice for bands that are about to break up. ValsList still thrives 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 humble endeavor soon morphed into hosting up-and-coming bands in her suburban living room, with a tip jar on their dining table, often raising 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 Fields Gallagher Way today, the idea has expanded even further to the Winnetka Music Festival, expanding Haller’s desire to bring artists and music fans together who might otherwise not come together, mutually .

Now in its 6th year, the Winnetka Music Festival is returning after COVID stalled it in 2020 and re-routed it to a smaller footprint in 2021. On June 18, the Winnetka Music Festival returns to downtown’s Elm Street neighborhood, with a lineup that includes marquee acts like blues rock scholars The Record Company, as well as ’90s mainstays Guster alongside up-and-coming Melt, Minor Moon, Abby Hamilton and others.

“We really built this from scratch,” Haller admits, noting that after word of the house concert series got around in the industry, “everything went on autopilot.” One of the regulars at her house shows happened to be on the village board and asked Haller if she would like to do something bigger.

Winnetka Music Festival showcases new bands for fans of all ages hoping to discover up-and-coming artists.|

“The village of Winnetka is very open to new ideas and things in art and in the community,” says Haller. “It ended up being a really good partnership that was built very quickly.”

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

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

Over the years, Haller has made a name for herself in the industry as a taste maker for music, and when it comes to who she can evangelize on ValsList and book for the festival, she says, “I listen to music 24/7 and try to finding new sounds and I’m really trying to look for the difference. There is so much fabulous music out there but so much of it sounds the same and it can be difficult to pick a great up and coming act when everything is starting to sound beige. … Maybe it’s an artist who doesn’t have a perfect voice but has great stage presence. Or they play instruments you wouldn’t think of.”

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

She really sees the festival and her ValsList platform as a gateway for the 33+ crowd to prove they haven’t aged, hear new sounds and attend shows. For three years, Haller had a column in the New York Times aimed at boomers, matching a classic band they were familiar with with a like-minded newer act that she recommended. Haller also planned trips to Lollapalooza with a group of over 50 peers to show them that they could enjoy the event as much as their children.

“Our demographics are good for the artist. We grew up listening to music and we didn’t take selfies during a live show. We grew up with music,” says Haller. “I want to be the spokesperson for my entire age group and even younger ones who think they are too busy. Everyone who has given up new music is secretly sad because we didn’t think that was ever going to happen.”

Winnetka Music Fest, which features a family stage for all ages and activities for children, really caters to that more sophisticated adult crowd.

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

The Winnetka Music Festival will feature two main stages in honor of Father’s Day weekend, a busking stage featuring local talent and some papa bands. There will also be a Chapel Stage (at Winnetka Chapel) where Haller will be collaborating with Evanston’s SPACE for the first time. Food trucks and local Winnetka restaurants will also be featured in the fest’s food court.

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