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Playing Your First Open-Air Summer 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 my book on playing your first music festival,  I am going to give you my tips on making the most of your first festival slot.

[dropcap]I [/dropcap]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 music festival can be an amazing, fulfilling, memory -making, career-boosting highlight – if you don’t mess it up. Here are some tips to make the most of your opportunity.

Advancing The show

Performing at a festival involves a lot more than turning up on the day. The months of planning by the organiser/promoter require that you send the promoter information vital to that planning process. We call this process of exchanging information the ‘advance’ (it takes place before the show), and must be taken seriously.

The festival organiser will send you the running order for your stage, and from that, you will see your changeover time. Changeover is the time allocated to get one band offstage, 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 the previous band’s 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. Things can go wrong during changeover, and bands 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.

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 want to bring to the festival, as part of the advance process. You must send them the information they ask for.


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 will approach the show itself. The first step is to practice.

Obviously, you will rehearse your music for your festival performance. You should also think about practising other things.  For instance, are you going to use intro or walk on music? (My advice is: don’t–using walk on music is 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, 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.

You should dedicate some of your pre-festival practice time to planning your set list for the event. Planning a festival set list involves a juggling act; you have to wow an audience, keep them interested in a less than ideal setting. Many stages at open-air festivals have strict sound limits for instance, which means your music may not sound as punchy and dynamic to the crowd as you might like. You want light and shade in your set, but not have it drop so much that the audience wanders off because something else distracts them.

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, so construct your set list to showcase at least two of those killer tunes within the first four songs.

On The Day

One of the many things that will irritate you after you have played at festivals for a couple of years is the need for your performing personnel and their equipment to be on site at least 3 hours before your changeover time.

When you play a bar, club or theatre show, you arrive early to do a sound check. But given the fact you have no chance to perform a sound check at an open-air festival, it seems odd you should have to get to the gig so early. It sometimes is unnecessary, especially if the promoter has not spent money on extra sets of risers, and you have to build on the stage, anyway.

I condone the 3-hour ‘rule’ though – festival organisers have adopted it after years of bands arriving late (or not at all) and missing their slots. So it is right and professional to plan to be there three hours before your change over.

And, here is my organisational check list for your summer festival show:

1. Decide who will be in charge of all this.

It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot simpler when one person does it all. Trust me on this.

2. Book your transport and hotels.

Do both now.

3. Make a proper input list and stage plan.

Find someone to construct one for you if you don’t know how/are unsure/cannot be bothered. Your live sound engineer or local PA rental company will help you with this. Make sure you specify stage positions on the stage plan and don’t swap places on the day of the performance!

4. Treat the advance process seriously.

Read everything you receive from the festival organisers, and if you receive nothing (or not much) ask them for it. The advance process is to help them, as much as you, and the festival people need to know everything about you and your technical requirements.At the least you need to know how long your set time is, what time is changeover, and what time you are on stage.

5. Find out if the festival can supply rolling risers.

You might not need them, and if you do, ask about the quantity and availability of any risers the festival can supply.

6. Sort out you set list.

You know the time you have for your performance from the advance, so now figure out how many songs you can play in that time and what order they should go in.

7. Sort out your guest list.

Tastemakers and those who deserve a big ‘thank-you’ only.

8.Make sure you know where you are going, and how long it will take to get there.

Google Maps may say it’s 2 hours from your house to the festival site. It takes a long time to get onto a large site, such as Glastonbury or Coachella, and you will compete for road space with the thousands of people who are also travelling to the festival. Take all this into account when planning your journey.

9. Remind yourself to enjoy the whole thing!

It will all be worth it – honestly!

You can read more on playing your first music festival show in my book, called ‘Playing Your First Music Festival – A Mini Guide to Performing at Open-Air, Green-Field, Music Festivals’.