If you want to put on a festival, put at least as much effort into the logistics as you do the actual show.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
It’s true that I’ve never put on a full festival by myself. I’ve been involved in a couple of small ones at some level, but I haven’t been the top dog. It’s only fair to say that.
On the other hand, though, I HAVE been the top dog at a small venue. That, and hearing about various festival problems, is what informs most of my opinions on what it means to do a festival well. While that might seem a bit odd to say, I think that experience running a “fixed” venue holds up in a festival setting – mostly because of these two, central ideas:
The stage production at a music venue is not, by itself, the most important part of the venue’s operation.
When you are putting on a festival, you are creating a temporary music venue.
It’s not that the stage production isn’t important. It is important. Very important. Critically important. However, you can have a killer stage and still have a terrible venue. The trouble is that I think a lot of folks have this notion that, “All we have to do is make the show amazingly cool.”
Yes, the show does have to be amazingly cool, but that’s not enough – not by a longshot.
This reality is displayed in an entry I found at lolmythesis. At lolmythesis, academic works are boiled down to a single, humorous sentence. The entry I’m talking about is related to a Marketing thesis done for The University of Gloucestershire: “Don’t let your festival flood. People don’t like it all that much.”
The festival in question might have had great staging. It might have had great acts – but the organizers got a major piece of the logistics wrong, and that’s what stuck in people’s minds.
When it comes down to it, I think that creating a temporary, festival venue or a permanent venue both come down to “The Five S’s.” All five of these issues have to be addressed well, or people won’t be happy:
Safety, Security, Sanitation, Scheduling, Staging
Yes, staging is in there, but notice how it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Nothing wrecks a festival like people having their property damaged, or becoming injured themselves. Festivals have even been places where folks – folks who were just out to see their favorite band – have been killed.
Not a good scene.
There are a lot of questions about safety that have to be asked and addressed. Here are just a few:
- How are you going to properly supply and earth the power for both the stage and the attendees?
- How are you going to ensure that your temporary structures are built correctly?
- How will your temporary structures (especially the stage and roof) handle a severe weather event?
- How are the temporary structures going to be secured so that they CAN ride out a severe weather event?
- How are you going to monitor incoming weather in realtime?
- How are you going to get everyone to safety in case of severe weather or other emergency? How long will it take?
- Is the festival site, in and of itself, dangerous in heavy rain? Subject to dangerous heat and/ or cold? A bad place to be during an electrical storm?
- If someone has a medical problem (and they will), how are they going to be cared for?
In a lot of ways, security is a part of safety. In this case, the distinction arises from safety being protecting humans against threats from the natural and built-up environment, whereas security is protecting humans from each other.
Some of the possible issues are:
- How are you going to demarcate and patrol the various external and internal perimeters at the festival?
- How are you going to make sure that people who aren’t supposed to get in stay out?
- How are you going to handle folks who are unintentionally causing trouble?
- How are you going to handle folks who are willfully being jerks?
- How are you going to prevent people from bringing dangerous items into the festival?
- How are you going to ensure that your security personnel aren’t just a bunch of bullies with extra authority?
- How are you going to set up and light various areas to discourage illegal drug use, drinking, assaults, and so on?
This point is easy to describe, but not necessarily easy to do well. Everybody at your festival is going to have to urinate, defecate, and toss out other forms of refuse. How are you going to ensure that they can do so easily, comfortably, and appropriately?
Also, when it’s all over, how are you going to deal with the inevitable litter and site impacts?
Here’s another point that seems simple, but is easy to screw up. It’s easy to screw up because the temptation to allocate as little time as possible to “boring” activities is very high. As an overall precaution, I recommend giving yourself a BIG time-buffer in which to execute everything – say, by allowing for everything to take 1.5 to 2 times longer than you think it should. Beyond that, you can consider:
- How much time do you need to get the ENTIRE festival set up and ready?
- How much time do you need to get the ENTIRE festival torn down and cleaned up?
- When will event staff arrive and leave?
- When will bands arrive and leave?
- When will patrons arrive and leave?
- How long will it take to handle onstage changeovers? (Hint: 15 minutes between bands probably isn’t long enough.)
- How long will each band play?
- When there is a weather/ safety/ technical/ transport delay, or a band goes over their allotted time, how are you going to manage the impact on the rest of the schedule? (This is going to happen. Be ready.)
- How are you going to handle your production staff? Remember, they have to eat, pee, and poop, just like everyone else.
- You are going to have a stage-manager and assistant stage-manager, separate from the audio and lighting techs, right? Right? (Hint: The answer should be in the affirmative.)
Like I said before, this bit really is important. Staging can also be the really fun part of the whole process, because it’s an area where artistic sense and creativity come to the front of the line. Again, though, you need to realize that focusing on staging and forgetting about the other considerations above is a recipe for “all sortsa badness.” Once all your other ducks are in a row, then you can dive into thinking about:
- How much stage area do you think you need? How much do you actually need?
- Does the stage remain fun to look at and be on when the sun is rising? How about when the sun is setting?
- Can the bands get their gear-hauling vehicles close to the backstage area?
- Is there enough backstage area for at least one band to get ready while another is playing?
- How much PA do you think you need? How much do you actually need?
- How will the PA be deployed to get proper coverage? (Using delay towers, rather than just being really loud, is a good thing to consider if you have to “throw” a long way.)
- How will you deploy the PA so that people who want to get away from it actually can get away?
- How much lighting gear do you think you need? How much do you actually need?
- Are you ready to deal with the whole issue of the lighting rig being (probably) worthless while the sun is still up (if you’re outside)?
- Where are you going to put FOH (Front Of House) control so that audio and lighting can do their jobs effectively?
- How are you going to keep your FOH cable runs from being trampled/ cut/ tampered with/ otherwise messed up?
None of these lists of questions is complete, but I think they’re a good start. Do a good job in all five areas, and you’ve got a shot at a good festival. Cut corners, and…well…good luck with that. Hopefully you won’t be on the news for the wrong reasons.