In this second part (part 1 is here), you will get more information about everything you did not think about when a promoter offered you the chance to play at your first summer open-air summer festival. This week you need to practice, rehearse and book your festival transport early. For more information you should see my book on open-air, green field festival, performance.
Part 2 – Rehearsing and other preparation for your first summer festival performance.
You’ve filled in the form from the festival promoter asking about input lists, rolling risers and stage plans. Now it is time to think about how you are going to approach the show itself. The first step is to practice.
Obviously, you are going to rehearse your music for your festival performance. You should also be thinking about practising some other things as well.
For instance, are you going to use intro or walk on music? (My advice is: don’t – using walk on music is too complicated to synchronise, and too indulgent for a daylight festival slot). Do you have to change your guitar for one with a different tuning for some songs? If so, then practice that change beforehand, and time it how long it takes. Running orders and stage times are strictly enforced at festivals – you cannot overrun your allotted time on stage because you spent 3 minutes (half a song’s worth of time), fiddling around changing guitars.
Another important activity to consider practising is how you walk out onto the stage. No, I don’t mean perfecting your Jagger-swagger, I mean the order you walk out. I have seen bands completely lose any impact they may have had by messing this up, so it is something to consider. An example would be that your opening song starts with solo drums. Is it, therefore, worth practising so that the drummer goes on first, alone, starts the beat, and your band mates walk on after she has started, to take up position and start playing on whatever bar they are supposed to? The alternative is everyone filing on, putting guitars and basses on, looking around AND then the drummer starting. This sequence will look messy, amateurish and leave a big pause before any music. Which might mean some members of the audience end up walking away, without hearing a note. Which brings me onto…
The Audience Is Not There to See You (Or Anyone Else)
Open-air music festivals used to have a theme or identify with a genre. Reading Festival, (the inspiration behind the original traveling Lollapalooza festival) used to be predominately a rock festival, featuring big US-based rock bands. Pukkelpop, in Belgium, always hosted alternative and progressive rock bands, catering for a forward-thinking, younger crowd. (’Pukkel’ means pimple, or ‘zit’, indicating the target audience – pimply youth.) It used to be that if you were booked for a festival, it’s because you fitted the genre the festival offered.
Festival line-ups have changed and instead reflect our digitally influenced music discovery. According to the head of AEG, a festival promoter, “Festivals reflect how fans are consuming music in a digital world,” says Jay Marciano; “It’s sampling”(1). Which means the average summer festival is complete mash-up of genres and styles. The audience has no particular musical affinity – they don’t care what genre you are – they just want to dip in and out of the music on offer, with the hope of being entertained. This audience sampling applies to every band on the bill, except perhaps the headliners. You have to be ‘good’ to catch the casual ‘samplers’ ear. (Obviously, you are because you have been asked to perform at a festival in the first place). Once there, you should be aware the audience is not there to see you, and you have the same chance to make new fans as every other band on the bill.
Plan Your Set List…And Be Ready To Adapt
Planning a festival set list involves a bit of a juggling act, in that you have to wow an audience, and keep them interested, with a whole load of songs they have never heard before, in a less than ideal setting. (Many stages at open-air festivals have strict sound limits, which means your music may not sound as punchy and dynamic to the crowd as you would perhaps like). At the same time, you want light and shade in your set, but not have it drop so much that the audience wanders off because they are distracted by something else.
As an unknown act, you need to ‘wow’ your audience within the first couple of songs you play. It is always better to play out your best songs early in your set, and you should construct your set list to showcase at least a couple of those killer tunes within the first four songs.
So far, so as what I have written elsewhere. Festivals are more unpredictable than a conventional indoor gig though, with weather changes, drunken people climbing tent poles, power failures, and other random events, all affecting the audiences focus on you and your music. So, although you must plan a set (for timing purposes, if nothing else) you should be aware of the distractions that can occur, the audience’s perception of you when these distractions take place, and how you should adapt to those circumstances. For instance, I have never forgotten seeing Radiohead on stage at a UK music festival in the 90’s. This show was at the point in their career when the majority of their material was their angst-ridden, gloomy type. So, there they were, on the main stage, in the mid-afternoon, on a particularly wet and grey weekend. They were deep in the groove of some particularly doom-ridden number when…the sun came out. It had stopped raining, and the sun had broken through the clouds, bathing the field in warmth and spreading good cheer throughout the damp crowd. And did the band on stage acknowledge the fact of the sun coming out and the audiences change in mood? No, they did not. Radiohead carried on playing and finished off their set of break-up trauma material without a comment on the lack of rain. Now, I’m not suggesting they should have busted out a version of, ‘In The Summertime’, but I felt the focus of the audience shifted away from the band on stage, and more to themselves, at the point the sun came and the rain stopped. I also felt that Radiohead might have tried to create some affinity with the audience, at least to acknowledge that it was nice the audience was not getting p****d on now.
Tent or open air
A factor that will determine your set list, and the material that goes in it, is whether you will be playing on an open-air stage or inside a tent. It is easier to recreate a club, small theatre environment in a tent, and so you may choose more intimate, or slower songs if your stage is actually a tent.
You may be familiar with my view on performing cover versions – why waste precious public exposure time on someone else’s material? However, a quick Google around performing hints and tips for musicians at festivals shows I am in the minority. I still say though that you want an audience to get to know you, and your music, and not some version of someone else’s’ song.Unless it’s been raining all day, and then the sun comes out. In which case, you better have had rehearsed a version of ‘In The Summertime‘…
One of the more annoying aspects of being booked to perform at a summer festival is the automatic request from your friends/family/parents/neighbours for tickets to the show. I wrote about this before, and the same advice applies equally for festivals – a better use of the guest passes the festival offers you (if any) would be to give them to that hip journalist from Pitchfork or Drowned In Sound, so she can get in for free and have access to your nice clean, backstage toilets, and be then be grateful enough to write a good review of the show and your new album. That may not be what your friends/family/parents/neighbours want to hear, but it is your music career, not theirs. And I say ‘if any’ when talking about the tickets you may get from the organisers as it is not a given right that you will receive many, or any, guest tickets. If a festival ticket costs £150.00 for the weekend or £80 for a day, then the promoter is not going to be keen on giving away 10 or 12 for each and every band on the bill, are they? So, if you do get some festival guest tickets, use them wisely.
A common method to get extra people into a festival without guest list tickets is to add them instead to the ‘cast & crew’ list submitted to the festival organisers. The promoter will want to a list of the stage performers and the crew as part of the advance process (see part 1), to issue the correct number of passes, as well as ensuring that the overall attendance on the day does not exceed the capacity as stated in any licence application.
The temptation for bands (and their management) is to add extra crew, such as ‘hair & make-up’, or other, fictitious, backline techs to the cast and crew list, so that some extra friend and family can get in, for free. I’ve done it before, and it’s not big and clever, and something that should be relied on, or suggested to your friends and family. You are creating more costs for the promoters by inflating the cast and crew numbers for your party (printing of extra passes, providing extra catering facilities, etc.), money that needs to be recouped from the ticket price. Which is why the tickets are so expensive. Which is why you are trying to sneak people in. More importantly, the fictitious crew have access to all the same dressing room, catering areas and performance areas as your legitimate band members and crew. A frightening thought if your mate Dave, who you have smuggled in as ‘bass tech’, decides to get falling-down drunk (by drinking the beer allocated for you) and makes a fool of himself, falls into something and breaks it, or tries to invade the stage during the headliners show (all of which I have seen happen with band ‘guests’). Seriously, it’s not worth the hassle. You have enough to worry about, just performing and organising everything that goes with a festival gig, without hoping your mates don’t run amok, drunk on free beer.
The Pollstar ‘Major Euro Music Festival Calendar – ILMC Bonus Edition‘ lists 213 festivals in mainland UK alone between May and September of this year (2016). That is a lot of festivals, just in the UK, with a lot of bands performing at those festivals who are going to need transport for the people and gear, there and back. So, if you need to hire something to travel in, book it early. It’s probably too late if you are performing at a festival this year, and make sure you put any hired transport on hold as soon you get a provisional offer for next year.
So, what are you transport options? You may own your van, or car, in which case you need to make sure it is reliable and has the relevant tax and some breakdown cover in place before you set off for the festival. Festivals can be pretty inhospitable environments, without proper roads, and so any vehicle needs to be capable of driving over rough ground for short distances. Custom low-riders probably won’t cut it, although a tank might.
You are going to have to rent something if you don’t own transport, and the safest and most capable transport available in the UK and mainland Europe is the splitter van. These dedicated music touring vehicles will transport up to 9 people (including the driver), plus all your equipment, which goes in a dedicated compartment. No more sitting on top of the amps in a cargo van – which is illegal and unsafe. In the States, you can be inventive with a 15-seat passenger van (taking the seats out after driving away from the rental lot) or add a trailer to your rental.
Whatever transport your budget dictates, make sure you book it early.
(1) Neil Shah. (2015). Music Festivals: Peace, Love and a Business Battle. Wall Street Journal. [Online]. Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/music-festivals-peace-love-and-a-business-battle-1438296207 [Accessed: 6 September 2016].