Music festivals have quickly become one of the most popular ways to consume live music. The culture, the price, and the huge amount of quality live acts have all contributed to the success of festivals everywhere.
In my opinion, the decline in live bands playing university frosh parties has also led to an increased demand for live festival experiences.
As an artist, festivals are incredibly fun and useful career building experiences. You’re often playing to a built-in crowd of people who may not know your music. It’s a perfect place to build your fan base.
In fact, because less bands are building careers playing universities, bands are now building careers playing festivals. They’ll have a killer “festival set” that makes an immediate impression on the crowd.
If you’ve been to a festival or played one, you’ll know how special they are.
And maybe you’ve thought to yourself: “I would love to put one of these on”.
Well, this is exactly what my band did last year. We put on our own music festival.
2017 was our second year, and we’re currently planning 2018’s festival.
In truth, it was one member of our band, Dylan MacDonald, who put on the festival (called Summer Lights Music Festival) but we all helped out and made it happen.
It was a difficult but rewarding. It was also some of the most fun I’ve ever had!
We learned a lot both times, so today I’m going to guide you through some of things that we’ve learned, and give you a practical overview of starting a music festival.
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Begin With An Idea, A Goal & A Location
All great festivals are founded on an idea, have a goal in mind, and have a location that works.
Our goal was to bring our hometown (where we no longer live) a live music experience that they wouldn’t normally be able to experience.
We held the festival in Brandon, Manitoba, and not many touring acts come through there. There is only one other festival and it services folk music. So, we wanted to bring cool, hip, diverse indie bands and local acts to the city.
We also wanted to make it a high-production event. That way, people who came would be so blown away by the live music experience that they would crave more in the city.
Our secondary goal was to nurture the local music scene.
Along with the festival we held three, free mid-budget concerts in a park. These were hugely successful and served to increase the amount of live music in the city as well as promote the festival itself.
Along with these concerts, we had the artists host workshops for the young artists in our city. This was hugely beneficial to them and fostered a sense of community in the scene.
Finally, we wanted to put on a festival that we as a band would have loved to play.
We made sure the hospitality and backstage vibe was awesome. The sound and production were amazing and the communication with artists was impeccable.
Having goals like these really bring a festival together, and they can also encourage sponsors to participate.
What are your goals?
Some festivals try to be small and exclusive, others large and commercial. Some are geared towards supporting a cause, others are pure entertainment.
Look carefully at other festivals, and figure out where your idea fits in.
Finally, find an appropriate site to host the festival. Ours was right in the middle of the city, which played directly into the idea of bringing music into the city.
When planning your festival, consider the following:
- Space for the stage and audience.
- Space for washrooms, camping and a backstage area.
- Shade and vibe.
Find Funding & Volunteers
This is the hard part, but it’s also incredibly important. Funding and volunteers are the two things that make a festival happen. It’s all just hard work from there!
We were lucky to have municipal support for the festival. We got a large sum of money to put on the festival and had a sizable budget to play with.
Most of the time this won’t happen, and you’ll have to secure your funding elsewhere. Here are some common ways to secure funding:
Many cities, states, and countries have grants available for concerts. Concerts are great economic drivers and they bolster the cultural value in a city. For this reason, you can often secure some funding from a local source.
Many private companies (often alcohol companies) have grants for entertainment events. This will usually be money as well as a liquor sponsorship, where you are only allowed to sell their beer/liquor.
If you can put together a solid marketing plan and can prove that there will be people at your event, businesses will want to advertise with you.
Every business has an advertising budget, and many would rather give their budget to a local event than to a giant advertising firm.
Put together a handsome sponsorship package and do the legwork.
If you think your festival will be able to turn a profit, you can approach private venture capitalists who may want to fund your festival.
Many festivals will be funded this way.
You will have to provide a return on their investment, and sooner rather than later.
It’s often a good idea to get help with these things. Securing financing is not easy, and you’ll want somebody experienced on your side.
On that note, securing a dedicated core group of volunteers is key.
On our festival committee we have six people, which is a pretty good number.
One of those people is in charge of finding about 25 more volunteers to help with everything else. Setup, tear down, entry, cleanup, artist services, hospitality, and more.
Secure All The Necessary Permits & Insurance
Before you do anything else, you need to investigate what the rules are locally for putting on an event.
You’ll need a Noise Variance Permit, probably a Health Permit, you’ll need permission from the landowner, and you’ll need insurance.
For the first two, you can go to city hall and figure them out.
You will need to secure a large insurance policy. Ideally, you won’t need it, but you’ll want it if anything goes wrong.
These are some of the dreary parts of setting up a festival, but without them, your festival will not happen.
Book Your Lineup
Once you’ve secured some money, a site, and all the necessary permits, your next priority is booking acts.
Many acts will be booked a long way out, especially in the summer on weekends. You need to start way ahead.
The reason I list this so early is because it is the single biggest thing that determines the vibe and potential for your festival. If you manage to book a fairly big name act, you may want to invest more money in marketing, and you’ll probably have more sponsorship opportunities.
I always recommend spending most of your budget for artists on a headliner. Most local bands will play for less, and the fact is, your headliner is the most important artist on the bill.
Try to book a diverse lineup. You can stick along the lines of a genre (if you want to), but try to make it ethnically diverse, and have a fair bit of gender diversity as well.
This is not just a wise move – it makes your festival more attractive to sponsors and grant givers.
Book Technical Support & Production Support
Next, book the best sound/production company that you can afford.
If the sound sucks onstage, your artists will have a bad time. If the sound sucks out front, your audience will have a bad time. Avoid bad times. Spend the money on a good production company. Get lights. Get fog. It’s worth it.
Always remember that you can negotiate and you should absolutely get quotes from multiple companies. But also know that cheaper is not always better.
Along with a production company, you should be thinking about hiring a designated, experienced stage manager. They could be a volunteer, but it’s not a bad idea to pay someone to be on deck all day.
At this time, you’ll also want to book a fencing company, reserve a bunch of portable toilets, and reserve anything else that will cost you money. There’s no point in waiting. Do it now.
Make A List Of Everything That Needs To Get Done & Delegate
Here’s where your volunteers come in.
You need to make a big list of everything that needs to get done. Here’s how to do that.
Draw a big map of the festival site. Plan out where everything is going to be. This will allow you to figure out what all you need to accomplish.
- Tents and facilities for festival entry.
- A tent for the backstage area. Anything you require for serving food to artists.
- Power and an area for vendors.
- The stage. Where is it, where did you get it from, etc.
- Decorations. For the site and for the stage.
There will be more to consider when you make the map. It’s a very helpful tool.
Then, there are other things.
- A website and social media accounts.
- Branding and festival art.
- Marketing and promotion.
- Pre-festival organization (sending directions to artists and volunteers).
…. And more.
It turns into a ton of overwhelming work. That’s why it’s your job to break it down into smaller pieces and delegate it to your volunteers.
Plan Your Non-Musical Experiences
The “experiences” your festival provides are almost equally important as the music. Different festivals do things differently.
If the festival is very music-focused, you may want to have non-musical activities like life-size board games that people can play while listening to the music.
Other festivals don’t have much music during the day, and so they have volleyball tournaments, drinking games, workshops and more.
If your site is big enough, you may want to have different areas of the festival grounds that people can go to get away from it all.
A huge part of the “experience” are the decorations and vibe you give the festival. Making the camping area interesting is important. Having visual art is important. Keeping people engaged is important.
Reach out to your local art community and see if you can drum up ideas and support!
Plan Your Marketing & Set Up Ticketing Partners
It’s hugely important to leave a sizable budget for advertising. Half of the budget for bands at least.
We were fortunate enough to have enough money to rent billboards and do some radio advertising. This is awesome, and you should totally do it.
That said, not every festival has enough cash.
Still, your posters should be everywhere. You should partner with some local magazines and radio to get free advertising in exchange for a sponsorship.
Then, save a considerable amount of money for your social media advertising.
Facebook and Instagram ads are hugely important and will drive people directly to your ticket buying platform.
Consider making teaser videos, shooting live artist spotlights, and utilize other out-of-the box marketing ideas. Drum up some buzz!
There are a ton of great ticketing partners that will sell tickets for small events. I’ve been using Brown Paper Tickets, an American company out of Washington. They’re killer and allow you to easily sell tickets online.
You should also set up some physical partners in the area. Record stores, coffee shops, and music stores are all good options for physical retailers.
Start Site Set Up Well In Advance
We start site set up a week in advance, and it’s awesome. A week gives you enough time to figure out if you’ve missed something (and you have, trust me). You can go and buy whatever you need and have it there on time.
It gives you enough time to really think about the decoration and layout.
You only need around four to six people for site set up. Having a small crew ensures that everyone is on task and it keeps your food costs down.
Set up is extremely fun and busy. You’ll love it.
Festival Day & Wrap-Up
Festival day is nuts. Fun, but totally nuts. It’s basically indescribable how busy it is.
You’ll have to put out a dozen small fires with artists and unruly guests. You’ll probably have a few ticketing problems, and the food will be late.
You may run out of water. You might not have bought enough portable toilets.
It’s okay. It happens. If you’ve hired a professional stage manager and have a great production team, then all of the really important bits will be taken care of.
Everything else is pretty much out of your control. It sucks if the weather isn’t good, but there’s nothing you can do. If an artist is late, improvise. There’s nothing else to do.
Then, when it’s all over, keep a few volunteers around for tear down, and meticulously organize all of your stuff as you're packing it up. You’ll need it for next year.
Then, wait a few weeks, and get all of your volunteers back in one room. Throw a bit of a “Volunteer Appreciation Party”. This increases morale and will be guaranteed fun.
Before the party starts though, get everyone’s thoughts on the festival. What went well, what needed improvement? Write it all down, and file for next year.
Then, about two months after that, get your core committee back together, and do it all over again.
That’s about all the advice I can give you! It would be easy to write a full guide on any one of these specific things, but I’m hoping that you learned some valuable lessons from these points. Best of luck with your festival. Have fun!