Playing Your First Festival – part 1

Picture of an open-air stage at a music festival

Are you playing your first green-field music festival or outdoor show this summer? Not quite sure how it all works on the other side of the ‘Artists Only’ sign? Don’t worry; help is at hand. In an extract from his book on playing your first music festival,  concert tour manager & live sound engineer, Andy Reynolds, gives us his tips on making the most of your first festival slot.

I firstly want to say, ‘Congratulations’ to you on achieving a pretty big milestone in your musical career – your first festival show. Whether you’ve won a battle of the bands type competition, or have been gigging furiously to the point that festival promoters have finally noticed you, taking the stage for the first time at a festival can be an amazing, fulfilling, memory -making, career-boosting highlight – if you don’t mess it up.

My summers are spent visiting festivals around the world, working with the bands, singers, turntablists and musicians who are booked to perform at those various festivals.(To clarify, I’m talking about ‘green-field’, or open-air, multi-stage festivals in this article, as well as the special circumstances that operate when trying to mix music with mud, or dust). Some festivals are huge, (Glastonbury, Coachellea, Roskilde, for instance), some are smaller, or just getting started (Pickathon, Sloss or Y-Not). It doesn’t matter if the festival is big or small though, I often see bands mess it up when they come to perform, usually because they are not prepared for the unique way an open-air festival operates. And, because nearly every festival I’ve ever worked at has a similar way of doing things, I can tell you exactly what you need to do to lessen your chances of messing it up. In fact, if you follow even some of this advice, you will have a really good show.

Part 1 – Advancing the show (the information the music festivals need from you)

Performing at a festival involves a lot more than simply turning up on the day. The weeks and months of planning by the organiser/promoter require that each band sends them information vital to that planning process. In this part you will be introduced to what is needed from you as part of that process -called the ‘advance’.

Advance

Even the smallest of festivals operate to strict timings – the conditions of the organiser being able to hold the festival in the first place usually relies on the fact that all ‘noise’ (glorious music to you and me) will finish at a certain time each day. That means the organisers have to get all the bands they have invited to play, on stage, on time, and that the festival finishes when it should.

A schedule or ‘running order’ is therefore drawn up for each stage, and for each day of the festival. Acts are allocated an amount of time on stage (’set time’) and the start and finish times of their set. Periods of time that are used to get one band off, and the next one on stage are also planned in. This time period is called the ‘change over’ time, a term you will read about a lot in this article. An example stage running order can be seen below.

You will have been sent the running order, along with other information the festival wants you to know about, and that needs to know about from you. This process of getting and giving information is called the advance – the promoter ‘advances’ the show with the band, or vice versa. It is VITALLY important you engage with the advance process for each festival, well ahead of time and, if nothing else, read and understand the running order.

Picture of the running order for Coachella festival
A typical festival stage running order. This is from a stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, in California.

The changeover at a music festival

We are going slightly ahead of ourselves here (you’ve not even got in the practice room yet, let alone arrived at the festival to perform), but basically, you having a successful gig on the day revolves around being totally ready for that change over time.

As I mentioned, changeover is the time allocated to get one band off stage, and the next one on, ready to perform. Bands do not get a proper sound check for festival performances (unless they are headlining), the first time you set foot on the stage is during the changeover, straight before you are about to perform. Changeover time at most open air, green field festivals is a leisurely 20 minutes, sometimes being as little as 10 minutes. Yip, that’s right, 10 minutes. 10 minutes to get all of the previous bands people, crew and equipment off the stage, all of your gear, band and crew members on stage, and the monitor speakers, microphones, stage boxes and cables reset, plugged in, and tested. If the band is not ready to start performing at the end of the changeover (something is not working, someone leaves something in the dressing room and has to go back for it, or the microphones are plugged into the wrong channels for instance) then the time it takes to rectify the situation and for them to start performing is taken out of their set time. So a 40-minute set could become a 30-minute set if the changeover goes badly, for instance.

Things can and do go wrong during changeover, and bands do end up going on stage late. You can minimise the chance of things going wrong though – just understanding the complexity of changeovers will help you enormously.

A picture showing festival Ssage running order and changeover times
The set length and changeover time will be given to the band and crew as part of the advance process.

Input list & stage plan

A contributing factor to a successful changeover, and therefore a great festival gig, is to make sure the festival sound crew have an accurate and up-to-date input list and stage plan from you.

The promoter will ask you for your input list and stage plan, plus any other stage requirements or additions (such as wireless in-ear monitor systems, backdrops, digital consoles, and  pyrotechnics)that you will need or bring to the festival, as part of the advance process, and you must send them the information they ask for. They will also ask you for your rolling riser requirements (if applicable), and I will get onto that in a moment. First of all though, input list and stage plan.

Input list

There is a detailed explanation of input lists and how to create one on my YouTube channel. If you have any doubt about creating one yourself for your festival appearances, then don’t. Find an experienced live sound engineer (if you don’t already work with one), and ask them to create it for you. The information you send to the festival sound crew has to be 100% accurate, and formatted in a specific, industry-standard way – see the figure below.

An example input list & stage plan
An example input list & stage plan. A version number and expiry date are useful to avoid the wrong input list being used by a festival sound crew.

Stage plan

Equally important will be your stage plan. Again, my video is a detailed explanation of the purpose of stage plans and how to construct one, and again, your stage plan for festivals has to be 100% accurate and up to date. (Good, industry standard practice is to label your input list and stage plan with expiry dates and version numbers – see the figure above.)  The stage sound crew will rely on your stage plan being correct to position your monitor wedges, power drops, and rolling risers accurately. Which brings me onto …

Rolling risers

Rolling risers are small platforms, on wheels, which are used to help speed up changeovers. The idea is that your band’s equipment is pre-built on rolling risers, off stage, before the changeover. So your drum kit will go on one riser, your keyboard rig will go on another, and so on. (Guitar amps and stacks can be built on smaller platforms, called ‘skids’.) Everything can be assembled, mic’d up, supplied with power, plugged into the PA system, and be made completely ready to simply push onto stage at the start of the changeover. Obviously, this makes getting gear on and off stage a LOT quicker than having to bring on all the parts of a drum kit, for instance, and stick it in the right place actually on the stage.

A picture of an empty rolling riser
An empty rolling riser.

You will be asked about your rolling riser requirements as part of the advance process, so make sure you exactly specify what risers you need, and where they should end up on stage during change over. (That’s why your stage plan needs to be accurate and up to date).

Rolling risers are big (commonly either 8’ x 8’ or 8’ x6’) and so take up a lot of room back stage. A typical band will need at least one riser (for the drum kit usually), and bands that have lost of ‘tech’ (keyboard/electronics stations, extra percussion set ups, etc.) can need 4 or 5 rolling risers each. Consider a typical festival bill will have 6-8 bands on each stage, and you can appreciate that space will be an issue if all the risers are available to every band before they go on. There could be something like 20 or 30 8’ x8’ platform back stage – occupying an extraordinary amount of space. Rolling risers are therefore usually limited in number, usually 3 or 4 sets, which are used in a sequence. A typical riser sequence would be:

  • Band A on stage on one set of risers
  • Band B, who are coming on next, gets their gear built on another set of risers
  • The band that has just finished performing (band C) and is off stage, packing down their gear from a third set of risers.
  • The risers for band C are then given to band D, who are on stage after band B.
Diagram of sequence for three sets of rolling risers at a festival
The sequence used for three sets of rolling risers at a festival

That way, backstage space can be kept to a bare minimum, as only two sets of risers are actually needed at any one time. (The third set is in use on stage).

Picture of band equipment on a rolling riser at an open-air festival
Band equipment set up on a rolling riser, ready to go on stage at changeover time.

What this means in practice is that you will not have access to your risers until they become available in the sequence. You, therefore, have to be ready to start building your equipment as soon a those risers become available. So, on arrival backstage at the festival, your first question to the stage manager should be, ‘what time can we get our risers’? Hopefully, the stage manager will have worked out the sequence and timing of the riser allocation, and will be able to tell you. A common way to indicate the time is to  say, ‘You are getting ‘Blah Blah Bands’ risers’, which means when ‘Blah Blah Band’ come off stage, they will get their gear off risers which then become yours. If the stage manager says something like this, you can then check ‘Blah Blah Bands’ stage times, see what time they are due to come off, and then be ready at that time with your gear, ready to be built.

Picture of band gear on risers behind the festival stage. You can also see the microphones, cables, power and stage boxes are also in position.
Another picture of band gear on risers behind the festival stage.

Spend some money on a professional.

I don’t mean to worry you with all this talk of accurate stage plans, up to date input lists and rolling riser allocations, but is very, very important to your musical career that your festival appearances happen with no hitches, dramas or technical problems. People go to open air, green field festivals to see and hear great bands. If they happen to catch you, and you are totally on fire, playing a great set and full of confidence, those people are likely to become fans. There is so much competition at each festival, and every band has that once chance to ignite the crowd, even if they are a well-known and successful act. None of the bands can afford to be ill-prepared or leave things to chance.

Which is why I suggest you spend some money, and employ someone who has a lot of experience of working with bands at multi-band, open-air festivals with quick changeovers and the other considerations you have discovered so far. Unfortunately, festivals are not the place for amateurs or crew with no expedience. Obviously, everything I do with my books, web sites and online courses is about getting the next generation of artists and crew to a professional level of success, and I always encourage that ‘new blood’  be given a chance. However, if you want to make a good impression at your first festival, you need to spend some money and pay someone who really, really knows what they are doing.

Ideally, you need an experienced tour manager, a monitor engineer who knows your particular stage sound requirements, and an FOH engineer who has mixed on lots of open air festival systems, with no sound check. You probably cannot afford to employ three people though and so, as the sound is probably the most important part of organising your festival performance, I suggest you find an experienced audio engineer and spend some money employing them. And, you don’t need to employ one exclusively- paying for their transport, hotels etc. You simply need to find out which engineers are already working at the festival for other bands, on the day you are performing, and see if they are willing to help you mix the sound on the day and, more importantly, help you with the advance process (input lists, stage plans, riser requirements), and interface with the festival sound crew on the day.

As they are already there, and being paid by another band, you should be able to negotiate a fee that is a bonus for them, and is not as an expensive outlay for you. This is a common practice, with audio engineers, lighting designers and backline techs working for 2 or more bands during a festival. (Road crew call this practice ‘double bubble’, as they are getting paid twice). Finding engineers is fairly simple, not necessarily easy, process. You could post in one of the many touring crew Facebook groups or job sites, for instance. Or, chances are you know another band on the bill (you may have opened up for them back in the day, for instance) and might know their engineer. Or your manager might know the manager of one of the other bands. Whatever the scenario, there are ways to reach out and get a good, experienced engineer, who will alleviate some of the stress of the advance process, and do a really good job on the day.

Put one person in charge

There is a lot to think about in the run up to your first festival appearance, and most of it does not include anything to do with you as a musician or your music. You need to concentrate on that aspect as well (more on this later) and so the things like the advancing process, checking input lists, and booking transport, can be overlooked, done too late, or simply forgotten altogether. Missing some part of the advance process can have a pretty bad effect on your show on the day, so it is important that everything gets organised, and checked, properly. Unfortunately, there is only really one way to make sure this happens – and that is to put one person in charge.

I am concert tour manager, and I get employed to do this kind of work for bands all year round. However, my workload (and the importance of that work) increases dramatically during festival season. The sheer volume and importance of information needed by festival organisers can be overwhelming, and in my experience can lead to essential activities and processes not be taken care of, unless someone is totally focused on that as their role. It is my role as tour manager for the bands I work for and unless you have a tour manager, you need to find someone in your band or someone else you trust, to be put in charge and take on the job of ‘festival production manager.’ It should then be their job, and their job alone, to deal with the advance process, creating (or have created) professional input lists, stage plans, catering riders, and everything else that the festival organiser is going to require from you.

Your first thought on reading this is probably, ‘that’s fine – our manager can do all this’. You are right, and, in my experience, it’s probably a bad idea to ask your manager to take care of the festival advancing. It is a load of work, which will take them away for other stuff they should be doing on your behalf, and so is probably better off being done by your sound engineer, or someone else in your band, or a good friend, or you.

Don’t assume anything

You may be reading all of this so far and thinking, ‘well, this does not apply to me – I have a contract rider that goes out. That tells the promoter exactly what I need for each show I do’. And, for ‘normal’ gigs – clubs, bars, and theatres – you would be right. But festivals and festival organisers are operating in less than optimal conditions and are not able to provide the usual technical, stage and hospitality requests you would expect in a purpose built music venue. Open-air festivals are built from the ground up, especially for the event, and then taken down again. And much as organisers try to make their guests (artists, crew and audience) comfortable and safe, there are limits to what is possible (and affordable). And so, when it comes to the demands on your rider – well basically, forget it. You can request/demand whatever you like, and your contract rider will be returned to you, along with the signed contract, with most of the clauses you include crossed out and the words ‘festival conditions apply’, or ‘standard festival rider’, written underneath them. So, don’t assume anything. The golden rule for festivals is: if you need it to perform at your festival show, then take it with you and don’t rely on the promoter to supply it for you.

A picture of an amended contract rider
A contract rider that has been amended by the promoter to indicate that standard festival conditions and rider are in effect.

 

Playing Your First Music Festival book. A guide to performing at open-air, green-field, music festivals.
A guide to performing at open-air, green-field, music festivals.

 

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