In the live show ecosystem for musicians, there are generally two types of gigs: traditional venue performances and festival spots.
But what are the significant differences between the two? And how do artists prepare for one versus the other? Good questions. Here, we’ve asked a number of musicians how they take it up a notch for festival performances and what they love most about doing so.
So, sit back and relax and enjoy some thoughts from artists like soul singer Lady Wray, Chris Dowd of Fishbone, master guitar player Malina Moye and many more.
Lady Wray: “Festival shows are much different than traditional venue shows because to me it’s a bit of a surprise with the crowd because some people may not know your music and came to see other artists that they know, and it’s a great way for new ears and eyes to see and hear you as an artist. Also, festivals are exciting because of the effort and money that’s put into the decorations, colors, food, and energy and everyone’s there to have fun and to hear good music to talk about for years to come. To take it up a notch for me, I usually find the cutest colorful hippie sexy outfit because it’s so warm and I feel like I’m back in the ’60s at Woodstock.”
Malina Moye: “What I love about festivals is that they bring in a broad range of artists to their stages, which puts the even more eclectic artists in front of audiences that wouldn’t normally be exposed to their music. So, festivals become a great way to discover new artists and new music. For me, my energy and show level is the same whether it’s a festival, arena, theater, or club. I’m the performer who will give 200% percent every time. I don’t care if it’s one person or 80-thousand people, my goal is to leave you with an unforgettable performance.”
Eva Walker (of The Black Tones): Festivals are so important to me in terms of getting in front of a new audience. It’s the new world’s version of “the carnival circuit,” which many early groups played in their day. Festivals usually welcome all ages, and all tastes in music, and offer new faces in the crowd that may not have bought a ticket to your venue show (because they don’t recognize your name on the poster). We always make our shows high energy regardless of venue or festival, but sometimes there’s a bit more to a festival gig just because we know these are new faces who don’t necessarily know what they’re getting themselves into. And we love it.
Chris Dowd (of Fishbone): “Last time we played a big festival slot, we were doing The Reality of My Surroundings in its entirety at Riot Fest. But I think to really optimize something like that, it should just be done in a more intimate setting than a festival. There was a time when I felt like festivals were really amazing. But now I feel like it’s become kind of like the public swimming pool. It’s just a bunch of people showing up to get a regurgitated version of what a band can do. In all this festival stuff, I don’t think you’re seeing bands necessarily at their best. For example, I had a bunch of friends playing in David Byrne’s band when he did American Utopia and I got to see it in a theater. Then I went to see it at Coachella and I felt like fuck. When I saw the Coachella show, it wasn’t even translating, you know what I mean? At Coachella, all the intimacy was gone, all the focus was gone. It’s not the same type of show—I don’t think it’s reflective of any artist at their best.”
Marshall Hue (of the Marshall Law Band): “When it comes to festival performances, the MLB really embraces the opportunity to convert new audience members into lifelong fans. We’ll pull out old tricks from past shows like “The freeze” where we end the song on hits and then literally freeze for one to three minutes and the audience goes crazy with anticipation. Festivals tend to bring a wide variety of diverse music lovers together who expect to discover new artists. Whereas traditional venue performances typically have three to four acts on a bill that is promoted for a month-plus, meaning that most concert attendees are aware of the acts they are going to see. Additionally, festivals are often outdoors which brings the potential for larger crowds and larger sound. There is NOTHING like rocking the Main Stage with massive speaker stacks blaring your music to a new audience.”
Gifted Gab (of Blimes and Gab): With festivals, you get people from all over. And festival-goers are (or used to be) the real lovers of music because even going to a festival is hella more expensive, you’re in the elements all day, walking around and everything. But with that, you get people just walking by that will stop and check you out. That doesn’t really happen on that level at a venue. Festival sets can be a lot longer than venue set times in most cases, so preparing for a festival set versus a venue set is different, as well. My festival sets are usually more rehearsed and with a lot more energy because you’re not just catching people’s ears but their eyes, too. With venue sets, it’s more about the clarity and making sure my words are heard clearly rather than jumping around and shit.
Julia Kugel (of The Coathangers and Soft Palms): “Festival shows offer the unique opportunity to play outdoors. It’s pretty liberating and strange. Festival sets can be at any time of day, as opposed to club shows which are typically in the evening. Getting all riled up for a noon set can be challenging. Also weather. Better hope it’s not 108 with the direct sun—pretty brutal. We’ve definitely overheated before. Plus one time in Chicago we had to cut the set short because of an angry lightning storm. You just never know. But on the plus side, festival crowds are usually amazing and crowd surfing is really fun. Because stages tend to be really big, at festivals I make sure to interact with the crowd more, so they can feel a sense of closeness. The energy is definitely contagious so I would say I play a little harder too.”
Larry Schemel (of Death Valley Girls): “Festival shows are different from the traditional venue experience because everything is so unpredictable and it adds another element of excitement—the crowd, the weather, usually no soundcheck, so it’s very spontaneous. You jump on stage, plug in, and fly by the seat of your pants. It makes for some fun shows for both the band & audience. We usually don’t do anything that different from our regular performances at these festivals because it’s, for the most part, crowds who may not be familiar with our music. We want to give ‘em a fun, solid set of music and hopefully win over some new fans.”
Ellie English (of L.A. Witch): “I really like how fast-paced of an environment festivals typically are. Usually, when I think of a festival-style show, it’s outdoors, which I personally love. The only thing that can be rough outdoors is that the stage sound can get away from you. But we usually just make eye contact and stay close to each other if that happens. Playing outdoors can be so much fun because you don’t have to worry about being too loud or overplaying, which I think is good from an audience perspective. You can just have fun and play. Some of my favorite festivals that we’ve been a part of are Desert Daze, Wheels and Waves, Milwaukee Psych Fest, and Endless Daze in South Africa.”
Jimmy Brown (of UB40): “Festivals are very different from your own gigs. At a festival, people aren’t necessarily there to see us—although, if we are headlining, a lot of the audience will be there for us. If it’s a big festival with lots of major acts then you have to compete for the audience’s attention. So you have to think about the setlist. A festival set is usually shorter than a normal show. At least for us, it is. So, obviously, we have to include more well-known tracks. UB40 is lucky in that regard. We’ve got a handful of BIG tunes that virtually everyone recognizes—about half a dozen, so we try to place them strategically in the set so that the audience’s attention doesn’t wane.
“That allows us to indulge ourselves a little and include other aspects of the band that non-fans and even casual fans might not be aware of. In our own shows, we feature a lot of dub sections where we jam dub versions of some of our tunes. And we like to sneak in a few dub sections into the festival set, knowing that, if we do lose the audience we can get them back with a popular sing-along anthem. Our whole careers have been a balancing act between commercial hits and the more esoteric side of Reggae music.”
Damien Jurado: “Personally speaking, I find music festivals, or any outdoor show for that matter, to be a far less intimate environment or experience for what I musically do. After so many years of trying to make it work, I just gave up. It doesn’t work for me. I play such quiet music at a traditionally acoustic level. It doesn’t make sense to be outside. I don’t think musicians should have to push their volume up so that people can listen, and enjoy over a chatty audience. At the same time, I also find loud, over-amplified acoustic music to be some of the worst-sounding shit I’ve ever heard. Acoustic music, in my opinion, should stay indoors where it can be listened to at a decent, nonoverbearing level. And without the interference of talking, smartphones, suntan lotions. On a side note, I would be one of the first to line up to see my favorite metal, or hip hop groups at an outdoor event. No, I take that back. I wouldn’t.”
Art Alexakis (of Everclear): “Festival shows have evolved over the years, as have festivals themselves—becoming bigger and often more inclusive of different genres of music. The biggest difference between festivals and traditional tour dates are the lengths of the sets of each band and the depth of the song catalog. In other words, festivals tend to allot shorter times for each band to play which in turn tends to lead to more hits and current singles and fewer fan favorites and deeper cuts. When Everclear plays festivals, we try to find a balance of playing all our singles (and maybe a cover or two) and our most requested deeper songs and being as interactive as possible with the crowd. All good rock and roll bands try to treat every show like it’s the last show you ever play, regardless if you are in front of 500 or 50,000 people—you need to leave everything you have on that stage.”
Photo by Isaiah Mays