"It's almost like everything's enhanced because we're swinging for the fences," said Self Diploma founder Sean Herron, who has partnered for the event along with Josh Heuser, of local cultural activation agency AGAR.
Sitting in Self Diploma's new 10,000-square-foot warehouse space in the shadow of the Cincinnati Museum Center, the low-key Herron, 30, was excited to show off the reimagined layout for Ubahn and talk about how far it has come in just a few years.
While Herron and Heuser both have nothing but respect and love for the assistance former presenting partner Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber provided, they said the "passion" and commitment of the event's new partner, Nederlander Entertainment, is what they hope will take Ubahn to the next level.
"If you're trying to put on a big event and you don't walk it, live it, breathe it … this is what we do -- it isn't what the Chamber does every day," said Herron, a veteran local club promoter.
After Heuser launched Ubahn (the name pays homage to Cincinnati's German heritage with a reference to the German term for underground transit) as a free event in 2012 in collaboration with the Scion car company, he hooked up with Herron in 2013 and 2015 for paid events with increasingly higher-profile acts. (They took 2014 off due to a scheduling conflict with University of Cincinnati football.) Now they believe they have arrived at the best version of the festival.
"We looked at what Bunbury did to build their brand and turn the volume up on it with PromoWest coming in and buying it, and we decided to turn the volume up on Ubahn because we think it's unlike any experience in the country," said Heuser, whose company has worked with everyone from Hoist beverages to Toyota and Procter & Gamble.
One new element this year is a "battle of the stages" set-up, which Herron said will make it so that attendees don't have to miss any music while also getting a chance to move through the tunnel and experience the whole event.
"This is the year where it's actually becoming that festival we envisioned," he said of the chance to really take advantage of the underutilized 3,000-foot-long, 112,500-square-foot space. "It's good for every single person involved in the tunnel: the food vendor, the artist, the skate activation … if you're that huge fan of Atmosphere or MGK and you walk through that tunnel once, you might have missed seven things we have planned."
The festival, which is all ages for the first time this year, mixes artwork installations and live graffiti painting from Lions Grip, clothing vendors including Green Mitten, Zip Zoo, Tasteless Threads and Hypercolor Clothing, along with skateboard demos from nearly 20 members of the Able Projects crew.
It's the first year that Nederlander has been involved and Herron said that has helped up the ante. After previous years spotlighted less high-profile acts such as Mike Posner and A-Trak in 2013 and A$AP Ferg and Keys N Krates in 2015, this year's edition will host more brand-name acts and a reliable ticketing process thanks to Ticketmaster's addition to the roster.
"We took over the booking and we've had the opportunity to develop a few music festivals – Forecastle in Louisville in 2008, our work with Bunbury, Jammin' on Main – and we have a lot of experience doing that and on the operations side," said Nederlander's Ian Bolender, whose company took over the role previously held by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. "Most importantly, we understand the music and we have good relationships with agencies and we can bring the relevant talent."
That helps explain the more top-line talent this year. When you walk down into the Riverfront Transit Center, Nederlander's decades of experience in working high-end events also will show up in a more elaborate, tighter production as well.
"We're good at the music portion of it, production and operations, but working with AGAR and Sean, who are good at the cultural elements, art installations and skate demos … it's not like a normal concert where you just come and see music," said Bolender, who hopes to double last year's 5,000-person attendance over the course of the weekend.
In building this year's lineup, Herron said he wanted to mix the party vibes of Girl Talk with the "deep, passionate" draw of backpack rappers like Atmosphere, the classic hip-hop fans of Nas and the open-minded block of adventurers looking to discover new music and art.
"In years past it was, 'Here's the act I'm bringing … oh who's that?' And 'it's in a tunnel … where's that?' I almost had six obstacles. Now if you're a Nas fan, you'll find the venue. If you came to Ubahn year one or two, you'll come out," he said.
Heuser is all about marrying vision with passion, producing a party that also expands minds while entertaining the house. "The key to Ubahn is leveraging an underutilized asset and making it a place for people of all different backgrounds to come together for a unique experience," he said.
7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Cincinnati Metro Transit Center, 220 Central Ave., Downtown
Tickets: $89 for two-day passes, $49 single-day, $150 for VIP. Available at Ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000.