B-T-S of Festival Planning
The music festivals you attend don’t just show up out of thin air - there’s hundreds of people, hours, dollars and emails behind each one. If you’ve ever wondered how a music festival goes from idea to reality: look no further.
Festival season is over and fall tours are in full swing. But we’ll all be reminiscing for months to come, right? Whether you went to a festival this summer or you watched the livestreams at home, the magic it takes to put on an event of that scale is incredible. Let me give you a taste of what behind the scenes of a music festival is like.
I work for an on campus organization that plans free events throughout the year for students, it's my job to work with my supervisors and team to plan music festivals that feature elements such as world renowned talent, food vendors, sponsors, art, decor and activities for students to do. I spent five and a half months planning a six hour event. And trust me, large scale festivals take even longer.
Planning the Event:
The first thing I have my team do when we begin planning is thinking of our goals for the event. What do we want to accomplish? How big of a crowd do we want to draw? What needs of our audience do we want to satisfy? What do we value and how is that reflected in how we plan the event. For example, one goal I had last year was to book diverse talent. Diverse referring to both in music type and in how the person identifies. I wanted to make sure my team and I brought a variety of music genres (not just the most popular) and that we booked a lineup that looked like our campus (diverse array of ethnicities, sexualities, etc).
Your budget determines both the boundaries and possibilities of your event. It’s always important to consider hard costs like security, safety measures, first aid, and stage production, before you add things that don’t impact your event’s ability to happen (extra marketing materials i.e. giveaway items, fancier decor). Once the hard costs are accounted for (or at least roughly accounted for) then you can allocate the rest of your budget based on what you want to bring to your festival. If you want big name talent, then allocating more money to how much you can spend on artists might be in your best interest. Money is both your best friend and your worst enemy so keeping track of your budget is crucial. Time is an important asset when it comes to event planning. The more time you have to get everything completed, the smoother the event will go. Keeping yourself and your team on top of tasks ensures everything is completed on time.
What would a music festival be without the musical talent! Booking talent can be exciting and fun but also tiring and disheartening. The minute you confirm an act a lot of weight lifts off your shoulders. When you get bad news or find out you can’t afford an act you really wanted it can be hard to see past the difficulties. Often times talent will be represented by their agents, which are in turn apart of agencies. Usually you have to work through the agent to book an artist. You’ll rarely, if ever, email directly with an artist.
Production is one of my favorite parts of the festival. Production usually refers to everything you need to make sure your acts have a place to perform. From the stage itself, to the video screens to the speakers all of this is considered production. Think of the biggest show you’ve seen (think arenas or festivals if applicable). Now think of the smallest show you’ve seen (your local 100-500 person venue, a backyard). The difference in scale is the production needed to fill the space. Some large acts will require a certain level of production and won’t perform on a stage that can’t accommodate their level of performance. This is why production is crucial. Booking someone incredible is great, but if you don’t have a stage for them to perform on, you don’t have a festival.
A music festival is not just having a stage and talent to perform on it, there are other elements you can add that make the festival fun and exciting for your audience. A crucial aspect of any festival is the food. Whether that’s in the form of food trucks or food stands, there has to be something for the attendees to eat especially if the event is several hours long. Additional activities at your festival can also help sell tickets and keep your attendees entertained while they wait for acts they came to see. ‘Cause let’s face it, not everyone is going to like every single act on your lineup. So having something fun or interesting for your attendees to do can be really helpful in shaping the overall festival experience.
One of these things that can be fun for your attendees but also beneficial to you as an organizer are sponsors. Sponsors will pay to have a space at your festival to promote their product or service. This gives you more money to put back into your festival and it gives the people who come to your festival the opportunity to get free items or discounts. The cherry on top is always the decor. Decor can help establish the mood of your festival and giving your audience interesting art to look at and interact with will make their experience that much better.
Without staff at your festival it wouldn’t happen. This goes from staff to manage the stage(s) to industry professionals to build the stage and make sure sound and lighting works. This also applies to parking attendants, ticket takers and custodial staff. A lot of people are needed to organize the festival and ensure the day of the festival can actually happen. It can take a staff of hundreds.
Marketing your event is not only a way to make sure you have attendees, it’s also a creative way to brand your event. What message or feel do you want your event to have? How can this be communicated through the event poster, the festival’s online presence, etc. Additionally, if you’re selling tickets you want to make sure that you sell your goal amount. Marketing to the public, or your target audience, with a strong brand will ensure you reach this.
The planning process is probably the best, yet the worst part of the entire event producing process. You have the freedom to be creative but you also have a billion administrative tasks to complete. It’s a whirlwind, but it’s all worth it when you see all your hard work in front of you.
Day of the Event:
This is what it all boils down to. After months of planning it all comes down to a few hours (or a few days if you’re a huge festival). Nonetheless, the ratio between the time spent planning and the time the event is happening is very slim.
The busiest part of the day should be before the event starts. That’s when all your vendors, sponsors and all the other companies you have contracted to come usually show up. Of course, the stage(s) and other important infrastructure is built days, if not weeks, in advance of the event. This is because they take multiple days to build and often have to be in place for other things to be put in them or on them.
Once the event starts and you planned well then the entire event should run on auto-pilot. All vendors and sponsors become self-sufficient, any other activities you have at the event should be streamlined and the stage should run from one act to the next with few hiccups. Of course, a good event producer also needs to be an excellent on the spot problem solver. There may be some surprises that arise that may require a quick fix in the moment but other than that your event should hopefully run smoothly.
The Realities of Planning:
Event planning, especially large scale events is a huge undertaking. One that requires such a large team that you honestly won’t be able to do everything or even make everything exactly how you want it. This just means trusting in your team, and giving them the guidelines and training needed to succeed.
Working as an event producer means that you have a job to do. Even if you love the artist you have to remain professional. At the last festival I worked I didn’t have the chance to meet any of the artists. I saw a few backstage and walking to and from the stage between sets but that’s about it. My duties lied elsewhere. That’s the reality of it. When planning events your job is to make the event enjoyable and worthwhile for those attending. It’s not your personal opportunity to meet your hero or enjoy a lineup you curate. The event begins and ends with the audience. It’s your job to make sure they have a safe, enjoyable and memorable experience.
Personally, I find this very rewarding. I have the opportunity to provide artists with a stage to perform their music on. I also have the opportunity to curate an event that people will hopefully remember for years to come. It’s extremely rewarding and humbling to think that the events I help create are places where people can make some of their favorite memories.
So, that’s briefly what goes on behind the scenes of a music festival. It’s a long, tedious, time consuming job. After the day of the event you’re a kind of tired that echoes throughout your entire mind and body. But there’s something incredibly fulfilling about seeing all the hard work you’ve put in over the months right in front of you. I hope this gives you a little bit of insight into the music festival world. Hopefully after reading this you have an appreciation for the work it takes to make some of the best festivals a reality.