Festivals For The Rest Of Us: An Industry Roundtable About Festival Life, Part One

March 5, 2012 by Matthew Colwell

Festivals For The Rest Of Us: An Industry Roundtable About Festival Life, Part One

What goes into finding out where you’re going to have the festival?

[Nate Dorough, Bled Fest]
We’ve done it [at the Hartland Performing Arts Center] the last five years. It used to be a high school—the high school I graduated from 14 years ago now. So, it’s an old high school building. You have that fantasy when you’re sitting in class or the lunchroom looking around and just having a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Nirvana video breaking out at your school, and it never actually happens. It was just cool to be able to make that kind of visualization into a reality.

It’s a very alternative location. Bands walk in and kind of roll their eyes like, “Seriously? This is where Bled Fest is?” and then by the end [they’ve changed their minds]. Like last year, you have all these bands—Every Time I Die, Norma Jean, the Chariot—and all these bands that have been touring for 10 years or more tweeting that “This was the best show we’ve ever played” or “One of the greatest shows of our lives—thank you” kind of thing. It’s cool to have that at the end where they come back to you and say, “You were right; this was sweet.”

[Mike Ziemer, South By So What?!]
The first two we did at the Plano Center. Then they told us, basically, that we outgrew their venue and didn’t want all these kids running around. We moved to Dr. Pepper Arena for one year and kids didn’t like it because once the arena floor was sold out, you had to sit in a seat. Kids don’t want to watch Asking Alexandria or Attack Attack! from a seat. From there we went to Palladium Ballroom. It was cool to sell out that venue, but through trial and error, we realized this venue isn’t big enough and not a good fan experience.
This year we got approached by the baseball stadium [QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie] who said, “Look, we can fit up to 10,000 people—maybe push 12,000—if you guys don’t want to have to worry about capacity. We can do the show here, and we’ll figure it out from there.” We started planning that in December, and we just had one of our final production meetings. I couldn’t be more excited about a venue. It really is the entire band and fan experience.

[Kevin Lyman, Vans Warped Tour]
We’re kind of in shifting mode—we’re probably going to have six or seven new venues on Warped Tour this year—trying out new places. A lot of it comes down to how to make the deals work so we can charge the kids the least possible [amount] for the tickets. The interesting thing with Warped Tour we figured out: Warped Tour is only profitable on about six to eight shows a summer—the rest of it is subsidized by sponsorship. If you’re coming to a show, your ticket price is being subsidized by sponsors and we need, like, 13 or 14 thousand people a show to break even on the day.

[Gary Spivak, Rock On The Range]
We took out a map six years ago and we were like, “Let’s put it right in the center of America.” And so we thought about several ideas right in the middle of America, but then the idea quickly shifted with our partners at AEG and Crew Stadium to Columbus Crew. Columbus is the home for Rock On The Range.

What permits or safety measures are necessary to make sure the festival is legally on the up-and-up?

[Nate Dorough, Bled Fest]
We have a really cool relationship with the school district, so a lot of the stuff is handled internally. Obviously, you have to work with the local authorities to make sure they understand these kind of things are going on inside the school. But the nice thing about it being in a school building is that it was built for high traffic. The doorways are wide, the hallways are wide—it was created for thousands of high-school-age people. It’s a pretty functional space.

[Mike Ziemer, South By So What?!]
We have to have multiple EMTs there that can take care of anything from a kid being dehydrated to someone getting seriously injured and needing to go to the hospital. We have professional, licensed security, volunteers to help and police officers. It’s a culmination that’s determined in advance by the city or the fire marshal, of what they say you need.
There’s always an ambulance on site; there’s always hydration stations in front of the EMT room. There’s just always a way for people to quickly get to anyone that’s having an issue. There’s always a plan. A lot of it is up to the city and the venue, but working with an outdoor ballpark has given us so many advantages of where we can have things and easy access to pick up a kid if something goes wrong.

[Kevin Lyman, Vans Warped Tour]
We count on local promoters. We work with everyone in the business, from Live Nation to AEG to a lot of independents. They have a production manager that coordinates with our production manager, and those are the things that you count on your local promoter to have. In all the years of doing this, I’ve had one show in Las Vegas where the promoter didn’t have the permits and I had to cancel the show—that sucked.

[Joe Litvag, Rock On The Range]
Because we do this at the Crew Stadium, the Stadium has a great working relationship with the city of Columbus. There are definitely a couple of event permits that need to get pulled and they need to be aware of what the security plans are. Typically, we put that in the hands of the venue because they often do large-scale events—mainly soccer games.

What sort of expenses does the festival require that a fan might not be aware of?

[Nate Dorough, Bled Fest]
Obviously, we have to a pay a flat rental to the school district itself to let us use the building. They don’t really have a stake in it—there’s not ancillary income. It’s less of a worry about additional costs as it is that we don’t have a bar or any alcohol sales, though we have some light food and drink sales, but nothing to write home about.

Our biggest thing is that, basically, we have the tickets to make money off of and very little ancillary income. We don’t use corporate sponsors. I’m not going out to get Monster Energy Drink to give me a huge sponsorship to pay for this.

[Mike Ziemer, South By So What?!]
I think a lot of people think you pay for the band and the venue and that’s it. They don’t understand that a venue is just a room—you then have to fill that room. You have to build the stage, pay for the sound, the labor, feed all those people—every single security guard, volunteer, sound person—every single fence and barricade that doesn’t belong there you have to pay for, and every bit of promotional material and advertising.

[Kevin Lyman, Vans Warped Tour]
You’ll have a first aid [tent], security, fences, toilets, clean-up, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (royalties), local taxes, stage hands—which could be union or non-union—runner vehicles, runners, production assistant, box office staff. Some of these shows you have to go through 15 or 20 lines—even 30 lines—of expenses.

What happens is that the promoter gives you a pre-expense sheet, and you sign off on expenses and then you have to settle the show that night. We’ve got advertising, artist production, artist marketing, catering, electricians, forklift rentals, ground transportation, generators—we bring all our own generators with us—permits, production managers, telephones. Even down to towels you use for the day.

[Gary Spivak, Rock On The Range]
The production value an artist like Rob Zombie will bring to a festival like Rock On The Range and not out on tour and what we put into the experience of Rock On The Range—our vendor village, our sponsor village, we’re going to have an art gallery this year showing great photos from our past and live art being created. Aside from the three stages of continuous rock and roll, we want to also create an experience so it’s not just another show where you just kind of get your beer and watch bands. We have a whole vibe.

(Stay tuned next Monday to read part two of our roundtable discussion, which covers how bands are chosen for festivals—and what exactly these acts require when they’re at the festival.)

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