Small town music festivals : you’re doing it wrong

Putting on a music festival in a small town can be rewarding, but it’s also a lot harder than it looks. Trying to emulate the big fests but on a shoestring budget, with volunteers who have day jobs and family commitments, and little or no experience to draw on might all be good reasons why your festival didn’t do as well as you’d hoped.

In truth, these are hardships that every small town festival deals with, yet some are more successful than others. So what are these others doing wrong?

Do your weather research

It’s easy to get the weather history for any area and date. It’s surprising how often these weather patterns repeat, but what if the weather decides to ignore history — will you refund ticket prices? Have a bad weather date? How will you get the word out if the festival is postponed due to weather?

Plan ahead…far, far ahead

Trying to throw something together in a month or two is a recipe for disaster. A small festival with plenty of volunteers should start planning four to six months in advance. The early months will be busy with securing location, talent and a staff or committee. Once those are secured, you will hopefully have a few months left to work on the event itself.

Learn from the success or failures of others

Find successful festivals of similar size and flavor and study them well — you’ll likely find that they have excellent PP (Planning and Promotion), but you might learn something important that you hadn’t even considered.

Advertise six to eight weeks prior to the event

Have you ever been frustrated by learning of an event you really wanted to attend, but couldn’t because of conflicting plans? Get on everyone’s radar early, before other plans are made.

Help the talent promote the event

Most entertainers will promote their own events anyway, but some just aren’t good at it so help them out. You can get a lot of good free advertising just by providing the talent with web banners (in several sizes) and PDFs of fliers and posters that they can print and distribute.

Put the talent front and center

There is no music festival without musicians and bands, yet I’ve seen sponsors take center stage in promotions while the bands were barely mentioned, if at all. One was so bad I started referring to it as the Mazda-fest because the local car dealership was featured prominently in every promotional piece I could find, but finding a list of the performers was nearly impossible.

Get a real website

You need a website set up as early as possible. Information can be added or changed as needed. Facebook is good too, but should not replace the website. A Facebook presence makes it easier for people to share the information, but should not be the primary source of information. Make sure that everything you post on Facebook links back to the event’s website.

Hire your own crew

Imagine you’re at a festival, all set for some good music, then the first band starts playing and blows all the electrical circuits. You wait a while for them to fix it before giving up and going home unsatisfied. Now imagine returning to that same festival the next year. You can’t, can you? That’s why you must have an experienced sound crew and licensed electricians to ensure everything is set up correctly to begin with, and they should be on location during the event in case anything goes wrong.

One rule : C.Y.A

Insurance may be crucial — a festival-goer in Texas recently sued after tripping on an extension cord. Taking necessary precautions, such as using licensed electricians and clearly marking or barricading dangerous areas and items might help protect you from claims of negligence.

Start small

If this is your first festival, don’t try to do too much. My first festival was five bands playing on my back porch, which is probably smaller than what you’re looking to do, but it was a valuable learning experience and everyone had a great time, and that is the very definition of a successful small town festival.

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