How to start a music festival

How to start a music festival

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 28/06/12

Despite our notoriously rubbish weather, summer in the UK is synonymous with music festivals. If you’ve ever found yourself in a muddy field amid a crowd of sweaty revellers thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool to start my own festie?” read this sage advice from three people who did…

Planning it takes ages

So you’ve got a 10k sound system and more mates in bands than you can shake a welly at? Good for you – but to organise a festival properly you also need time. “Start way in advance before the date,” recommends Zaran Vachha, founder of Rivington Street Festival, which took place in venues across Shoreditch for the first time this June. “I started probably a year in advance. I run events all the time but [was surprised at] the volume of people I had to speak to.” 

You won’t just be chatting up potential venues, sponsors, bands and stallholders, you also need to get the police and local council onside. And forget creative vision and charisma – this lot want to see your licenses and safety plan. “The most boring safety regulations are what councils and police care about most,” Zaran points out. “You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t jump through their hoops the festival’s not going to happen.” Jumping through hoops isn’t as speedy an endeavor as it sounds. Zaran again: “Dealing with councils is a slow process. You have to wait for them to get back to you and can’t really push them to do anything because once you start getting pushy, they’ll just tell you to f**k off.”


Beware of hidden costs

However much money you think you need, it’s probably not enough. “Our £4,000 budget grew very rapidly into a £20,000 budget,” recalls Natalie Smith, who launched Mischief Festival in 2011. “You’ve got to take into consideration the cost of portaloos, health and safety, lighting and especially power. Last year on the Friday we found we had no diesel left so that’s another £500 to £1,000 on that.” Natalie goes on: “It’s difficult sometimes for a creative mind to say how much does each nail cost, how much does each bit of wood cost, it’s so boring, but work out your budget and then work out your ticket price from that.” 

“With a free festival it’s more difficult to get revenue,” says Zaran “We ran an outside bar and got revenue that way and we were lucky that the venues were willing to pay. With a free festival, ideally you want to have sponsorship.” And don’t expect to be rolling in it straight away: “The first one is always either going to lose you money or you’ll break even.”


Bring like-minded people on board 

“Make sure you’ve got a damn good team around you of people who have experience and are hard working and enthusiastic, [people who] care about your idea and really want to help you push it further,” says IdeasTap member Lee Denny. Lee set up his festival, LeeFest, in his parents’ back garden. Now in its seventh year, the festival’s line up includes Ghostpoet and Mystery Jets. 

Like most music festivals, even the biggies, you'll be reliant on volunteers. Show them some love! “As a small, grassroots festival, [Mischief] hasn’t got any commercial side to it – there’s no sponsorship and no-one’s getting paid,” says Natalie, so making sure there is top notch “crew catering is fundamental to the entire event.”


Think of the punters

When programming, pay attention to what’s on when, keeping alert to any clashes that might hinder people’s merry-making. “Last year we had too many things on at the same time, so you would have 50 people in one place, 10 people in another, and 50 people somewhere else, instead of having 100 or 200 people in one place,” remembers Natalie. “This year we have tried to stagger the stages’ opening times so that people flow between venues.” 

“Understand your audience, the people you’re doing it for, because when it gets to a certain size you’re not doing it for yourself anymore,” says Lee. “You don’t choose the bands that you’re going to enjoy; you choose the bands that your audience is going to enjoy.”


So what are you waiting for?

“There is no right beginning, just formulate your idea and start doing it,” says Lee. Natalie agrees, but issues a note of caution: “Don’t be too scared, just do it but don’t remortgage your house, or take out a loan; find another way – save up some money or something,” adding: “There’s a fine line between being optimistic and realistic. Try to find a balance between the two.”


The spa

Read more How to articles.

Image from LeeFest 2011 © Sophia Whitfield.  

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