Thursday, May 24, 2012

So, You Want To Start A Music Festival?

My husband and I are both performers. I perform classical music, more or less; my husband performs popular music, more or less. Between us, we have a broad background in music and performing, and we have been involved as artists in music festivals for years and years. These experiences as participants in music festivals has more than proved to us that the last thing we would ever want to attempt is to run our own music festival.

Well, my husband had been approached by an older gentleman, one who has been a fan of his work for years. The gentleman has had the notion to mount a full-scale festival of folk music in his immediate community, and along the lines of the very kind of music that was full of vim and verve in 1958. He has been on this quest, now, for several years. Dr. ___ is a very nice man (I met him today), but he has no idea about his idea.

Dr. ___ called the other day and asked my husband to meet him prominent local venue, one that hosts a very well-known subscription series of concerts where we live. He had apparently made an appointment with the assistant to the director of the program.

“What are you doing?!” I said to my husband. “Why didn’t you just say no?”

“Well,” my husband said, vaguely.

“I think I had better come along.” I said, and set my chin, “someone needs to clarify this. You have no intention of being a presenter. This man has no idea about any of this. You are wasting your time!”

There was an hour before we had to leave to drive to the meeting. In that time, I made a list of some of the basic requirements. As a public service, I offer you that list here, for free, no consultation fee necessary. You can brew yourself a cup of coffee and mull this all over in the privacy of your own home, if you have ever had the hair-brained notion you might like to start a music festival, or otherwise present Some Really Big Event.

Preliminary Notes Toward the Building of A Music Festival

Is your concept meeting a need that is not met by any other organization or activity in the area where you want to present?

Who is your target audience, and how large is it?

Identify your resources (venues, volunteers, home stay situations, donors in-kind and financial backers).

Identify and commit members to a working board of directors.

Identify and commit a headliner with recognition among your target audience.

Is transportation and/or parking an issue?

Do you need permits from local government?

Make a preliminary budget to include all possible overhead and expenditures.

Make a preliminary monthly schedule of tasks and due dates.

Identify an opportune time of year in which to hold your event.

How many other events will be competing for audience in the same time-frame?

Start small and work your way into something larger, if the target audience is receptive.

Identify appropriate pricing for tickets.

Find existing models and learn from them.

Book your venue only once you have a business plan, seed money and a committed headliner.


To the meeting we went. The assistant to the director of the subscription series was a bit surprised that my husband and I showed up, and I could tell that she was wondering what we all were going to lay out for her. We introduced ourselves and sat down at a conference table.

Dr. ___ spoke first. I felt this was appropriate, as it was all due to him that we were sitting in this conference room. He verbalized his desire to start a folk music festival, suggesting that it be offered in his immediate community and, further, could the organization that administers this well-known subscription series be a resource for it?

Now, I have to confide that the reason I had taken it upon myself (unasked) to be present at this meeting was to sit in an advisory capacity. I did this because I do happen to have inside knowledge of the inner workings of music festivals, not because I have ever administered one, but because I have performed at many, and have been on the board of small arts organizations that have been involved in presenting at festivals. I have seen a lot of the pitfalls and have even fallen into the pit, through no fault of my own. I felt that I had to speak to the heart of the matter with some immediacy.

“Can you give me an idea as to the scope of what you want to do?” I began, “Are you contemplating presenting a single performance, or something more involved than this?” The assistant to the director looked over at me appreciatively—she wanted to know this, as well.

“I want to present a weekend of performances in the classic folk music genre. Well, it is nearly the end of May, now, and if we are thinking of putting something on in July—“

“Oh, dear!” I said, telegraphing alarm, “It is really impossible to organize and publicize an event that soon.” In fact, what I really thought is that the good Doctor is trying to transplant a 70-foot redwood tree from an old-growth forest into his back yard. There is no such thing as an instantly organized and publicized music festival.

“I would have to agree with that,” the assistant to the director chimed in, “A presentation of any magnitude requires at least three months advance advertising.” My husband cited examples from the many subscription series’ he had performed through, over the years.

“The subscription series that is put on by this organization,” I said, whipping out my own copy of the season mailer (bringing a smile to the face of the assistant to the director) and pushing it toward the good Doctor, “takes at least a year in advance to plan and prepare.” She nodded.

“I see. Well, perhaps we’ll have to hold off until next year, then. In the meantime, I am here to see if I can enlist the help of your organization in holding an event in the alternative location of my nearby town.”

“This organization has worked in situ very successfully. We would be reluctant to move into an alternative arena. It is difficult to see how we might benefit from an arrangement that takes us away from an infrastructure that works so well for us.” The assistant to the director was kindly, but matter-of-fact. We all nodded.

I had to direct us back to the meat of the matter, “I have to say that, just walking up the street to this building, I saw flyers and posters advertising a number of similar types of events to the one you are proposing. This whole area is actually quite rich with the kind of offering you want to make. What unique feature is going to set your event apart from all these others; what will draw people away from these other events to yours?” The assistant to the director nodded at my question; she had obviously planned to head in that direction, herself.

And that is really the crux of the matter. If you live in a location where there is very little, if any, of the opportunity you want to make available to the public, you are perhaps more likely to get an audience. But the concept still needs to be vetted against your target audience. If you live in a location where this concept is already available and abundant, then you are going to be competing with a lot of other groups for audience.


The conversation circled around for a bit longer, but didn’t gain any traction. We asked the Doctor why he thought that people would drive to his community for such an event, even though accessibility and parking were issues. We verbalized our concern that the style of music he wanted to present was not compatible with the image of that community. The assistant to the director did very little of the talking, as we were presenting most of the points she would have made. She did offer real examples that backed up our assertions to the good Doctor.

I looked at my watch.

“I’m afraid we have an appointment elsewhere,” I smiled and extended my hand to the assistant to the director of the subscription series, “thank you so much for taking the time to see us, today.”

“It has been very interesting speaking with you,” she smiled back at me. I had saved her some trouble.

“It has been lovely meeting you, Dr. ___,” I shook the good Doctor’s hand, “we wish you luck with your venture.”

As we drove away, my husband was frankly relieved. And so was I.

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