Tips for running your own music festival

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The Australian music festival climate has evolved dramatically over the past two decades. Massive festivals like Big Day Out have made way for a number of boutique events catering to Australia’s niche genre tastes, making it more realistic for everyday music buffs to start their own enterprises. Think you’ve got what it takes to start your own? We spoke to industry experts – Beyond the Valley director Nicholas Greco and Deakin University arts and cultural management program lecturer Anne Kershaw – about the realities of running a music festival.

Nail the concept and execution
You need a good idea that’s well executed to ensure your festival resonates with the audience.

Beyond the Valley was conceived when Greco saw an opportunity to launch a unique New Year’s Eve festival. Falls Festival in Lorne is a huge success, but there was no equivalent for people looking for an event on the east coast. ‘It’s about creating your own world. You need to offer a great experience. New Years is such a special time, and everyone wants to do something different. We put something together to attract that audience,’ Greco explains.

Kershaw adds that the key to a great festival is to be different and put time into the finer details. ‘The most critical thing about any festival or event is that it’s well designed, unique and gives the audience that wow moment.’

Look beyond big headliners
Exclusive lineups are a way to differentiate your festival, but they’re not the be all and end all. ‘There’s a shift away from the mammoth-sized festival. Lineups are so expensive to put together, it’s not sustainable to keep upping the lineup,’ Greco points out.

There are challenges associated with bringing big bands out for a festival, too. ‘Sideshows are a risk for many music festivals. It means what’s on offer at the festival is not unique. It can be easier, cheaper and more convenient to see acts elsewhere,’ Kershaw explains. But there are ways the festival organiser can get around this. The line up might include first time collaborations, bands getting back together for one off performances or playing iconic albums in full. This ensures that although the band might do other gigs, the festival performances are distinctive.

Consider where the party’s at
From metal festivals at medieval castles to raves on trains, the location can be one of the biggest hooks and a sure fire way of creating an enjoyable atmosphere. However, you need to think about the logistics of staging an event. Beyond the Valley is moving from the old Pyramid Rock site on Phillip Island to a more contained inland site for practical reasons, after 100kmp/h winds hit the festival site last year. ‘When you put so much time, effort and money in to an event, you can’t risk being at the mercy of the weather,’ Greco explains and adds, ‘This new site is more suited to hosting a festival.’

Get the word out
Social media has become an integral part of letting people know about your festival. According to Greco, most of the marketing for Beyond the Valley is done through social media. ‘We also have our ticket selling networks, promoters and street posters,’ he says. It’s important to ensure you’re promoting the event where your target audience is listening.

Minimise line-up time
When the festival day arrives, processes are key. You need to manage all your resources efficiently and ensure the crowd isn’t waiting in long lines for the bar, food or toilets. Technology is helping to streamline some of these processes. Greco says they’re looking into RFID wristband technology, which allows people to load the wristband with money and use it as a bankcard. ‘You don’t need to worry about cash or cards, you’re able to keep track of everything through the wristband.’

Play it safe
When you’re excited about getting a festival up and running, risk management and safety might not be top priority. But where there’s a public party, there’s potential for serious injury so getting insurance and knowing what to do in an emergency is critical. ‘If you are running an event and inviting lots of people you have a duty of care to make sure what you’re offering is safe. There’s also a legal responsibility,’ Kershaw cautions.

'If you are running an event and inviting lots of people you have a duty of care to make sure what you’re offering is safe.'

Anne Kershaw,
Arts and cultural management program lecturer, Deakin University

Go fund yourself
If you want to run a festival for fun, you could be eligible for government funding if you don’t aim to profit. If you want to make a profit you can get sponsors on board and create an agreement for money in exchange for something like exposure. Other traditional ways of making money are sales from tickets, food, drink and merchandise. A newer way of raising funds is crowdfunding, which is great if you’ve got a committed niche audience. ‘Getting people to donate money to set up your venture is very common,’ Kershaw says.

Start out small
Starting out with a smaller, more manageable venture will increase the opportunity for success and future growth. Kershaw has the following tips for anyone who’d like to try to get into the festival industry. ‘Get an inexpensive, novel but appropriate venue, run the event for half a day, find an unusual band and start small.’ Don’t expect thousands to show up on a whim. You’re better off attracting a small group of like-minded people to start with and, in time, you could be in charge of your own Meredith or Bluesfest.

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Anne Kershaw
Anne Kershaw

Lecturer, Deakin Business School, Deakin University
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