These days, Cleveland might not have a Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo or Coachella — but it does have WonderStruck, its own two-day music festival featuring major acts, put on every year by the Elevation Group.
This summer marks the festival’s seventh iteration, with a lineup of 26 bands and musicians that features headlining acts Khalid, Walker Hayes, Nelly and Flo Rida. Other lineup highlights like Coin, Jimmie Allen, The Struts and Aly & AJ are also set to take the stage at Kirtland’s Lakeland Community College, July 8-9.
For Elevation Group co-founders Denny Young and Steve Lindecke, the 2023 festival is a culmination of two decades’ worth of work building up their company. The two former IMG executives branched off to found the IMG offshoot in 2002. Ever since, they’ve been coordinating entertainment events like WonderStruck, NASCAR races and more.
Elevation Group has gradually built up a portfolio of events, experiential marketing campaigns and musicians, running every kind of show for 20 years — all from its offices in Beachwood and, more recently, Chagrin Falls. So, what’s it been like to be at the helm of this entertainment empire?
“It’s been quite entertaining,” Lindecke says, simply, “and, I think, something for us to be quite proud of.”
With Elevation, there’s always something new to find pride in. This summer, the company will introduce another two-day Cleveland festival: Victory Live, a revival of former Northeast Ohio festivals WMMS Buzzard Fest, and WGAR’s Country Jam, set to take place Aug. 4-5, respectively, at North Ridgeville’s Victory Park. The fest — a collaboration between Elevation, Victory Park and iHeartMedia — is headlined by Incubus, Bush, Chris Young and Brian Kelley.
Then, there are, of course, the company's three other two-day music festivals: Columbus’ WonderBus (Aug. 25-27), Indianapolis’ WonderRoad (June 17-18) and Pittsburgh’s WonderWorks (May 27-28) — potentially, with more on the way.
“God willing, we would like to continue to add festivals,” Young says. “Our philosophy has always been to have a certain size of festival. Where we might not be Lollapalooza or Coachella in size, when you add up all of the events we’re doing, we become that size. We just always felt that volume was better than sinking your teeth in one event only.”
(Photo courtesy of Mark Mindlin)
It’s an approach that’s worked for Elevation in what can be a turbulent industry. WonderStruck, in its first four years, was a festival with a different name and location: LaureLive, taking place at Laurel School’s Butler Campus. In late 2019, following four successful years at Laurel School, the festival announced it would change locations to its new home at Lakeland Community College, and go by the “WonderStruck” moniker.
In January 2020, Laurel filed a lawsuit against Elevation Group claiming the organization owed the school money from a 2019 event contract. (“The only thing I can say about the lawsuit was, it was all very unfortunate, and amicably resolved,” Young says.)
Just a couple of short months later, while the Elevation team was busy prepping for the festival’s debut year at Lakeland, the coronavirus pandemic reached Ohio and shut down live events: suddenly, a year off.
“There is no promoter in the world that would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea: Let’s run a festival under a certain name for four years in a certain location. Let’s do a good job. After four years, let’s change the name, find a new location and start all over and take a year off,’” Lindecke says, bluntly. “I think given what we’ve done and the fact that we’ve actually taken a step up and are taking yet another step up — that’s nothing short of amazing.”
With those choppy currents swirling around the music festival world and leading to a dip in 2022 ticket sales, Young and Lindecke changed tack when it came to the 2023 WonderStruck lineup, leaning away from its alternative and indie roots and toward pop and country music. The mix is meant to appeal to a greater fanbase, Young says.
“Alt-indie is absolutely, from a personal perspective, my favorite music and has been my entire life. But Cleveland is more than that,” Young says. “Cleveland has huge support for country music, and especially crossover country; huge support for urban, R&B and pop.”
WonderStruck, soon to reach its third summer since the pandemic, might still be in its rebound phase, the organizers say — but Young and Lindecke remain steadfast.
“It’s going to take time, and we’re very confident that we will get back to pre-pandemic numbers and then some,” Young says. “We’re confident, but we’re not there yet.”
Tickets to WonderStruck, ranging from $69-$150 for general admission ($299-$499 VIP) are available at WonderStruck’s website, wonderstruckfest.com.
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