Music festivals are amazing. Let’s just establish that right here.
Videos by American Songwriter
But what does it take to put one on? What are the intentions and intricacies of organizing one of these prized summer events?
Also, since we’re here, what are the best ways to attend and enjoy these festivals?
Well, that’s exactly what we’ve asked some of the folks who book, arrange, organize and conceive of some of the most impactful events of the summer. Here we’ve talked with Adam Zacks (of THING), Kevin Sur (of Timber!), Chris Porter (of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass), and Steven Graham (of the Bothell Block Party and Brewfest) to find out exactly how they do it.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Putting on a Festival
Adam Zacks (of THING): “I’d encourage all festival producers to spend a good deal of time honing in on the purpose, mission, and goals of the event and communicating that clearly to all those involved before getting too far down the line with the planning process. Everyone involved should be able to simply and clearly answer the question, ‘Why does this festival exist?’”
Chris Porter (of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival): “For putting on a festival—be as detailed oriented as you can in your preparations. Do not ever assume anything is fine and will get taken care of. There are so many moving parts in festival presenting and you have to doubly make sure that everything is in place. For attending a festival—while it’s great to go and see the acts you already want to, always make time to discover performers you’re not familiar with. To me, the essence of a festival is discovery and exploration of new experiences of music and art.”
Steven Graham (of Bothell Block Party and Brew Fest): “Because this event is also a beer festival, we get a really great mix of music fans and beer enthusiasts. With this in mind, it’s important to try and program a lineup that is both going to impress the music lovers and also feel accessible to the beer crowd. The director of the Bothell Block Party and Brew Fest, Sean Marsh, always talks about how he wants the festival to feel like a great backyard BBQ, so we really try to nail that party atmosphere with the activities around the event like yard games, some light mini putt, and of course the type of music we book.
“The people involved in organizing the festival are all music lovers ourselves so we thought about what kind of music festival we would want to attend. We all agreed that we really hate having to choose which bands to see because multiple stages are live at the same time, so while we do have two stages, only one is active at a time. We also don’t like all of the downtime between bands, which is why our stages are scheduled to start about five minutes after the performance on the other stage ends. We build the stages across from and facing each other so music fans don’t have to walk far to enjoy the next stage. Really all they have to do is turn around.”
Kevin Sur (of Timber!): “Don’t: Don’t put on a festival just because you see others doing them and want to copy what they’re doing (booking the same lineups, having similar design, experiences). If your inspiration is solely about making money and isn’t inspired by creating an experience for both the attendee and concert-goer that other festivals don’t, you’re going to spend your time over the years simply chasing after what other people are doing, and that lack of authenticity and inspiration is something the festival-goer will experience first-hand and inspire them not to come again.
“Do: Create a festival that you and your team would attend. If you constantly challenge yourself with this foundational goal, you will never lack inspiration for something that will connect with others.
“Do: Make the artists’ experience the foundation that you build your festival on. Treat them right, include them on all the things that make your festival joyous as it will elevate their performance and any additional joy they have in being in the place they are will carry over to the audience they’re performing for.”
The Do’s and Don’ts of Attending a Festival
Adam Zacks (of THING): “Regarding THING, specifically: Get on board with the thrill of music discovery. This event is best experienced from start to finish, to ride the arc of a tightly curated day. Performers reflect the energy they receive from the crowd, so the more we show up the better the experience is for everyone and that’s a recipe for some beautiful memories.
2) Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Organize your needs well before heading out to the festival and at a bare minimum check the weather report.
3) Set your intention. Examples: ‘I want to see every single band,’ ‘I want to let go of my daily stresses and come back from this event feeling rejuvenated in body and spirit,’ or ‘I want to make a new friend.’
4) Let go. Life is short, make time for celebration and connection.”
Kevin Sur: “Don’t: Don’t go to a festival with the mission of being seen (selfies, constantly posting to social media). Go with the mission of being present. Put the phone away and enjoy each moment for what it is and each artist for who they are.
“Do: See the bands you don’t know. Make a mission to see the names on the lineup you aren’t familiar with because there are few things more impactful in experiencing live music than falling in love with a band you’ve never heard of. The familiar names on the festival you’ve more likely to have seen numerous times, but the first time you learn of or see a band that you’ll love your whole life is something you’ll never forget and something you’ll be wanting to tell the world about.”