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Where would we be without festivals? Hopefully, this is something we will never be faced with. But sadly, some festivals, after years and years of struggling, are calling it quits.

There are new festivals being born each year, but I’m afraid the number of festivals that are closing is the more rapidly growing percentage. It’s going to take a little from all of us to ensure the festival experience continues for years to come if you want to be able to take your kids or grand kids to one of these events, instead of just one day telling them how much fun a festival was.

We must all work together to keep these festivals going. Whether you are the festival promoter, band member, volunteer or audience member, your help is needed! One way you can help is by voicing your opinion on what ways we can improve the festival experience.
Prescription Bluegrass heard from a few concerned bluegrassers regarding this issue, so we surveyed several more to try to get the ins and outs, the ups and downs, and the things that are really treasured, as well as those that don’t really get the job done to the satisfaction of all concerned.

What we found was not necessarily shocking. Just look around at any festival you attend and you’ll probably quickly spot items of interest on both the PROS as well as the CONS side of the list. However, the PROS and CONS can easily get mingled or completely trade places with each other depending upon just whose list upon which they happen to be.

In our very informal survey, we discovered that there can easily be two or more sides to an issue or problem: Promoters want to pay less for everything. Bands want to earn more for their time and talent and vendors never have enough traffic (sales) to justify their space rent.

We asked two simple questions: We wanted to know what works and what doesn’t, limiting answers to just one example in each category. And we promised to keep everyone’s identity strictly secret to avoid any possible retaliatory action if someone didn’t agree.

From the promoters we got an over abundance of a feeling of sameness … in that they seemed to think they know what their crowds want to see and hear and they felt confident that they were booking the best bands they could get for the money they had with which to work. From many of the musicians we got an entirely opposite opinion with one saying that at too many of the festivals where they played, they ended up sounding just like the bands before them and after them. “Not enough variety” was a comment that was stressed by several. “An audience member can only take so much of the same thing before losing interest. Why not add a strictly gospel group in the mix? And, then maybe one that is a bit more progressive? Entertaining your attendees is the whole point of hosting a festival, right? Give them a show!”

Variety shouldn’t just be a staple for entertainment either. Why not add variety to all aspects of the event? What type of food is served? “Not everyone will spend money on a plate of all fried food.” Healthy food choices, if available, can help people stay on the grounds instead of taking their appetites back to the tent or motorhome.

Like the music, too much sameness in the vendor area can also be a negative … more variety pleases more folks. Any local promoter might know his crowd better than musicians or even fans coming from great distances away. For instance, supplying vegetarian crab-flavored tofu cakes at a festival on the Navajo Indian Reservation might not go over too well, while the Indian fry bread vendor sells out on the first day. However, the other side of the coin is that not all festival attendees are local and a lot do travel great distances in huge RV’s and variety in food is a simple way to help keep them on the grounds.

On the positive side of the line one stand-out comment put bluegrass festivals right up along side state and national holidays, “Highly anticipated. No need to ask what the dates are because most know that such and such festival is always on the third weekend of such and such month. Time off from work and vacations are often planned around the bluegrass festival calendar.”

You can usually tell who has put planning and thought into a festival as soon as you arrive, maybe even before. There should be signs along the road for several miles leading folks to the festival. People WILL turn around and leave if they have to hunt for it. Things should be as simple as possible for festival guests – especially access and entrance. One response, most likely from a performer who was late for the show said, “Not only did they have zero appropriate signage, but their directions were all backwards. They gave us left turns when they should have been right.”

With Mapquest and onboard navigation and apps in data phones these days that may be less of a problem than it was years ago, but online maps and navigational apps don’t advertise your festival the way a highway sign does. More than one attendee has paid the admission because the sign was more enticing than their original plans.

Another musician obviously felt slighted at a few gigs, commenting, “… remember your performers. Artists need a place to adjust their set … to warm up … to change clothes!” There is nothing particularly wrong with pulling a flatbed trailer out into the middle of a field and using it as a stage. But, there seems to be a loss of magic when you watch the performers walk from their van to the trailer. Your performers need to be able to “take” the stage. Not having a hidden backstage area robs the audience of that. If you can’t afford to build a grand music hall, or rent a coliseum, at least make sure you (the festival promoter) have some form of backdrop that your artists can get behind before coming out on stage.

While rock and roll performance contracts are legendary for the absurd, and can include everything from imported lobster to pink M&Ms back stage as a requirement, bluegrass contracts are much more simplified and usually state nothing in the way of back stage accommodations or luxuries. So providing something to drink for your artists at the most minimal level shows performers that some thought went into their being there. “Many places, where we have performed, offer meat/veggie trays along with water/cokes for their artists back stage. This means more than folks know.” was a comment we heard more than once in the responses. Most times, performers do not have time to grab a meal. They are busy building rapport with fans, networking with other performers, warming up, changing strings, etc. Sometimes, a quick snack backstage is the only food they’ll have the opportunity to get all day. It will be appreciated, trust me.

Festival goers, let’s hear your thoughts. After all, without you, there wouldn’t be a festival. Your opinion, above all, is the most important. Be sure and let the promoter know your likes and dislikes as well. Ask your promoter where you can pick up comment cards. If he says, “they are not available,” just ask for a business card and send a letter or email after you get home. Let your promoter know which bands you like. Let them know which bands you wouldn’t care to see back at the festival. Tell them who you would like to see perform. Advise them on what would make their festival more enjoyable to you and your family. Most importantly, tell the festival promoter what will influence you to return next year and what will stop you from coming again.

What thoughts do you have about the many volunteers who work at both the commercial festivals as well as those put on by non-profit groups? What do the volunteers encounter that could be valuable input? What does it mean to be at the front gate all day in the hot sun checking for gate passes or parking permits? What do they (those volunteers) learn from the spectators that may not get passed on? They are some of the most important goodwill ambassadors any festival has, and yet they often get no training in the duties they’re expected to perform and very little thanks when it’s all said and done. A free afternoon pass for a morning’s work is hardly compensation for someone who has the power to admit or not admit each individual walking up to the gate.

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