When I was 17,I booked a music festival on my father’s farm.TheIndie 500 lasted two days, about 1000 people came, and the stage was a hay truck. That was a long time ago, but I still try to keep that kind of excited, nervous spirit alive in the events I organize. It’s just that now I actually know what I’m doing. As an experienced old person, I book Basilica SoundScape, a two-day “anti-festival” that takes place in a 19th century factory in Hudson, New York. We limit the audience to 1400, don’t have sponsors, and aim to keep the lineup small, particular, and multi-disciplinary. It’s been successful so far: In the five years of Basilica, I’ve never spotted anyone in attendance wearing a flower crown.
In an idealistic, punk, all-inclusive sense, anyone can put on a festival. But, in reality, it takes a certain kind of person. You have to be detail-oriented, obsessive, and able to deal with major setbacks (and major personalities) without passing out. That said, if you find yourself tempted by the proposition, and want to test the waters and your own mettle, it’s helpful knowing where to begin. Here are some basic steps to get you started.
First off, ask yourself why you want to book a festival. There are tons of festivals, more than anyone needs. What will make yours different? Meditate on this. Think about Altamont.
If you think you can bring something unique to the festival calendar, choose an interesting place to host your event. A lot of festivals take place with fairly boring backdrops; if you have an unique place to host things, you’re already a step ahead. Still, unless you want a special smaller destination-festival, where the journey to the festival is part of the fun, make sure it’s easy for the audience to get there. I remember going to a festival on an island years ago, and most people left before the last band was halfway through (and the last band wasRadiohead) because they were all afraid of waiting in line to escape.
But be adventurous! I’ve done shows in basements and attics and backyards. Once I booked three floors of the New Museum (Grimesplayed in the glass-walled Sky Room, while Trash Talk destroyed things in the basement theater). I’ve also done shows in record stores and garages. I once had Pharmakon play in a bookstore, Björk DJ in a parking garage, and amateur wrestlers fight before a black metal show in a warehouse.
Keep in mind if you’re using a space where shows don’t generally happen, you’re going to have to spend money on a sound system and anything else a traditional venue might’ve supplied. You’ll need staff, too, if there isn’t one attached to the venue—people to handle the doors, security, bartenders, stage and production managers. The benefit to using a readymade club is that they’ll have a P.A. and staff on hand. And a liquor license (oh yeah, you’ll need one of those, too). The downside is that it can be kind of boring.
Now, this is crucial: No matter where the festival ends up being, make sure you have enough toilets. When I put on that festival at my dad’s farm, I only rented one Porta Potty. It filled up quickly. Major miscalculation. The event happened over the Fourth of July. I managed to find someone to drain it half-way through the weekend, and we survived, but we were very close to a fairly disgusting disaster.
Don’t overbook the festival. You also don’t need to book every band in a 100-yard radius. Be picky. Think of yourself as a curator, not just someone mindlessly adding all the “big” bands in any given genre or scene. Try to connect the bands in an interesting way. Think of their histories or some overall themes. Include non-musical stuff, too, like art and literature. But stay as rigorous in those zones as you would with the music. Focus on maintaining quality across all aspects of your festival.
As you book the bands, you’ll begin receiving lengthy hospitality riders. Don’t panic. In festival situations, you generally don’t buy everything on the rider for each and every band. It’s too expensive, and when there are dozens of acts on a bill, bands don’t really expect to get all of it anyway. When I was in college I booked an experimental guitarist in my friend’s attic, and because I didn’t know any better, I bought everything on his rider. He almost fainted when he showed up: I think I was the first person to ever fulfill it completely. I was out $350 for something that hadn’t even been expected.
Of course, this can be a case-by-case thing. If you book Kanye West, make sure to get all the stuff on his rider. And other stuff pops up, too. I recently booked a show where I was repeatedly asked to get hot water for a singer with a sore throat. I kept sending someone from the venue to the coffee shop next door, but by the time he’d find the singer, the water would be “too cold.” In situations like this, you can’t just bash that singer on the head like you may want to do. You have to smile, say you’ll get some more water, and move on.
Pay attention to the tech riders. These are more important than the right brand of hummus. If someone needs a special hand drum or in-ear monitor, and you don’t have it when they hit the stage, there will be issues. If you’re not familiar with tech and sound, make sure to hire a production manager who is. This is probably the single most important role at a festival. If the sound sucks, nobody will be happy, even if you’re in an amazing space with very good hummus.
Also, hire a good sound person. If you don’t know a sound person or anyone who can help with tech riders, and you’re starting to get nervous about all of this, then hire a production company. You can stick to your role as “curator,” and they’ll do all the other stuff.
You have the venue lined up, the staff in place, and the lineup booked… now you need to figure out how you’ll sell tickets. Will they be online only? Will people be able to get them at the door? Both? You’ll also need to set the price so you don’t lose your shirt. The price will be affected by whether or not you have sponsors. This is another big question: Do you want sponsors, which can make life easier, but can also be a pain in the ass? Or do you want to do it without sponsors, which can be stressful, but can also give you more control in the end? Up to you.
Once all of this is set, you’ll need to promote the festival on social media. You may also want to organize a street team to hang up physical flyers. Even with the internet, these are still really useful. As the festival date gets closer, switch up your promotional tactics a bit so people still pay attention. If you use the same approach each time, it’s easy for people to tune it out. See if any of the artists are up to tweeting the info or doing interviews. Speaking of which, if you have the money, you may want to hire a publicist.
Final tip: Don’t drink when you’re putting on a show. If someone needs your help, and you’re a sloppy mess, things won’t end well. By the end of the event, most folks will likely be wasted. They’ll need you. Stay the course!
All said, it comes down to controlling the things you can control, and dealing with (or working around) the things you can’t. Like, for instance, the weather. What if it rains for the entire event and you’re doing it outdoors? Did you think ahead and get a tent for over the stage? Did you provide ponchos? That’s the tip of the iceberg. Bands will have vans that break down. People will get lost. People will have meltdowns. People will have bass amps that explode (maybe more than once, speaking from memorable experience). People will shit themselves on stage and keep playing (another true story). And when this kind of thing happens, you’ll be standing there, smile on your face, knowing you did the best you could do, and that things will all be OK. And then you’ll tell the band it’s up to them to clean up that shit and you’ll go home and go to slee