So you wanna set up your own music festival, huh? I don’t blame you. Festivals these days are a lucrative business, attracting both hardcore music fans who love being able to see so many bands in such a short time and casual folks who maybe aren’t obsessed with music but still would love to hang out someplace nice and drink beer and chill in the back of a field while Mumford and Sons plays half a mile away. No matter which type of fan you are, when they’re done correctly — with the right bands, atmosphere, food, etc. — festivals can provide a once-in-a-lifetime unforgettable experience, the kind of thing that will stand out as a life highlight for years to come. However, if the people behind the scenes screw it up, you can go to a festival and end up as just one of 10,000 sweaty millennials straining to hear Lana Del Rey or desperately trying to buy a $12 burrito. And if you don’t die of heatstroke, you’ll still swear off gatherings of more than 10 people for the rest of the summer. So, like any massively attended event, festivals are lucrative, but tricky.
OK, well if you’re coming to me for advice, I’ll assume you’re not exactly a heavy hitter (no offense). So I’m not expecting you to pull any 72-point headliners: no Drake, Rihanna, Paul McCartney, Florence and the Machine or Jack White. But A-List headliners can be overrated. Here are some more important things that can help you set up a memorable music fest.
Unleash your inner real estate agent. It’s pretty simple, really. Just find some place that people want to go to and stake a claim on it. Whether it’s a normal venue for music or a park in the big city, a good setting can be a huge draw for people. Firefly in Dover, Delaware, has become a huge hit, and Bonnaroo gets people to flock to the middle of nowhere just to hang out and see some bands, so you can probably throw a dart at a map and still give people a solid experience no matter what. Still, if you can, pick an inviting place that won’t be an extra hassle for people.
Give people a clear idea of what you’re going for. For Coachella, it’s the glamor and the celebrities. For any of the Chicago festivals, it’s the excitement of the city itself. For Bonnaroo or Electric Forest, it’s the drugs. Pick an image for your festival — not to attract a homogenous crowd, but to show people what you’re about. You’re the new kid in town, so you have to let your audience know that you’re here to serve them. Pick bands and get food vendors that mesh with the vibe you want, and build around that. If you try to please everyone, you’ll excite no one.
Give people free water. Come on, dude. It’s summer! That’s just common courtesy. And while you’re at it, don’t gouge people on food, either. The best festivals can get a bunch of local places to set up shop in a row on the grounds, so they’re competing against each other and you won’t be stuck paying $20 for some cold french fries.
Ignore EDM at your own peril. If it doesn’t fit with the overall vibe you’re going for, fine, but be careful. Kids These Days™ go to festivals primarily for EDM. Guys (yeah, they’re all guys) like Calvin Harris, Zedd, Steve Aoki and, of course, Skrillex have become bigger than any modern rock band could ever hope to be. Right now, they’re what’s in with the millennials and whatnot, and if you ignore what young people like, you might be dismissed as — *gasp* — boring.
Don’t believe the hype. I love the HAIM sisters, and together they’re a fantastic popular band, but the indie press has been hailing them as queens of the world for almost two years now, even though they’re still far from superstars. As much as I’d love to see them live, and even with that recent Taylor Swift bump, I wouldn’t bet on them alone to draw tons of people to a festival. My point being, popularity can be tough to measure, and if you think of potential headliners as being “huge,” make sure it’s not just because of the people you hang out with or the websites you read before you put a lot of money on them.
Find cult-ish acts or local heroes who could go over great on a huge stage in the afternoon. The afternoon is where most festival-goers get curious and experiment. If you have your ear to the ground in your city, you can probably find some locally famous artists who could draw a decent amount of adoring fans early in the day. Alternatively, find some vets who can put on a fantastic, accessible live show, like Charles Bradley or Giorgio Moroder or Caetano Veloso — all great musicians capable of putting on a memorable performance even for festival-goers who may not know their work.
Make sure you can tell your bands apart. OK, it’s fine if you’re going for an indie-rock-heavy roster of artists, but it won’t kill you to add a few rappers to that list. I know I told you earlier to create a consistent aesthetic, but don’t sacrifice diversity at that altar. Give your fans choices throughout the day, and mix up the genres that play at each stage. Basically, though, just build a lineup that could reasonably survive a sudden mass extinction of straight white men, especially if your most beloved genre is indie/alternative.
Realize that right now you’re just a drop in the ocean. Remember when I said that festivals are a lucrative business? Yeah, well, that’s not exactly a secret. Every state in the union has at least a few, depending on how you define them. Here in Michigan, we have Electric Forest, Movement, Mo Pop, the Detroit Jazz Fest, Common Ground in Lansing, Faster Horses and way, way more.
I bring this up not to freak you out or discourage you, but to let you know that you’re only going to matter if you do things your way, with your own personal spin. We’re clearly in the middle of an enormous boom for festivals, but like any boom, plenty of these annual events won’t last the rest of the decade. The special ones that will stay won’t be the opportunists with the bland lineups and overpriced food — they’ll be the ones whose organizers truly care about diversity, about being unique, about giving fans a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be one of the festivals that will stay.