Over the past few weeks, your hip friends have been excitedly clogging up your social-media feed with chatter about the bands that will be playing over three days in some remote location you've never even heard of. Meanwhile, the first weekend of Coachella 2015 has ended, and the second weekend is still to come. So here we are again: music-festival season.
Music is like politics—everyone has an opinion, and none of them is right. Taste is obviously subjective, if not outright fraught. So how does one person decide what bands will best form a Voltron of marketing power that will cause a wide swath of society to willingly shell out their hard-earned dollars for a wristband that promises them only bad sound, overpriced beer, and incredibly long lines for a bathroom?
For larger festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, or Austin City Limits, lineups are essentially predetermined by their giant corporate owners, who also control the overwhelming majority of music venues across the country. More often than not, these festivals tend to have similar lineups built around prestige acts on the top, well-known names below that, and a bevy of up-and-comers the corporations are using as test subjects. It's all very safe, and very familiar. And hey, it sells wristbands.
But what about the smaller upstart festivals? What about the ones that pop up out of nowhere and have a lineup of bands you've sorta heard of, but not really? How are those booked? I spent three years working as a booker for a music festival called 35Denton in North Texas, and while it was no Woodstock, during my tenure, we had some pretty great lineups, including artists like the Flaming Lips, Big Boi, the Raincoats, Dr. Dog, the Walkmen, the Black Angels, Bun B, Built to Spill, Mavis Staples, Reggie Watts, the Mountain Goats, Danny Brown, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
But it's not all big names and glitz. There's also the niggling little task of finding support for all these acts, not to mention drawing crowds to fill out individual venues that paid to have us take over booking their stages for a four-day period. It was an exhausting task accomplished by just three people who all came to the festival with little or no experience in booking shows, much less handling an entire four-day festival that featured two outdoor stages and 10 venue stages. Here's how we did it.
At the beginning of our booking season, we'd pull a variety of the previous year's critical best-of lists, along with Metacritic's Upcoming Album list. We'd use these lists to focus on bands that would be either entering or leaving the album-PR cycle. We'd then decide which bands to target based on reviews of released records and the perceived anticipation for upcoming ones. Once that list was assembled, one of us would data-mine the industry website Pollstar Pro for previous tour information: average size of venue, average ticket sales, and whether the bands served as the headliner or main support during their last stop through the area.
A variety of inquiries would be sent to various booking entities requesting information on the bands we were interested in and asking for submissions of bands who would be available during our dates. This was a long and arduous process, and often weeks were spent just bandying about names that would wind up being unavailable. It's all very frustrating.
In the meantime, we were operating 35Denton's Sonicbids page. Sonicbids is used by festivals to find bands that don't have booking agents but want to play. You find the meat of the festival by sifting through a pool of hundreds of bands who want to play your festival and who can plug holes you have in your schedule. You also listen to a lot of bad music during this process.
From there, it boils down to voting on those bands that can play your festival and bickering over contracts. It's a lot less glamorous than what you might think, and so, to save you from the frustration that is discussing what items on a band's rider you're willing to fulfill (one group wanted puppies; we did not get them puppies) and from the inanity of negotiating meal buyouts, I'll just give you a list of dos and don'ts.
DON'T: Book just to your taste, or your friends' taste. Yes, you all like that one band, but if no one else knows who they are, you're going to be standing in an empty venue.
DO: Buy into the hype. If a band is getting a ton of press, you should book them. Why? Not because they're good, but because music fans are easily swayed by good reviews. A band getting a lot of publicity will triple its fan base off a single Pitchfork score that's over 7. This is called the Future Islands Theorem.
DON'T: Buy into all the hype. My first year on the festival, we booked a band who had seen nothing but glowing reviews for their albums. Their momentum was murdered by one bad Pitchfork review: They went from indie darling to indie afterthought almost overnight.
DO: Give the TV star the $10,000 he asks for to appear. We had an opportunity to book Donald Glover for that price when Childish Gambino was just becoming a thing, and it was voted down. Within five months of our not-booking him, he was selling out 3,000-seat venues. I'm still pissed off about this. It's been four years.
DON'T: Pass on Mumford & Sons because you think your festival is too cool for them. Mumford & Sons sell tickets, and you're in the business of selling tickets, so don't be an idiot. Oh, and don't repeat this mistake two years later with Of Monsters & Men.
DO: Take risks. We booked indie-folk group the Civil Wars for a mere $400, having heard very little of their work. Two weeks after we signed their contract, Taylor Swift started Tweeting about their album, and we saw a spike in ticket sales.
DON'T: Throw money at a band just because you think they're going to break big because of a couple of TV appearances. This is how we gave Local Natives $20,000, which is about $18,000 too much.
DO: Listen to your interns. Interns are generally college students who are vastly more plugged into what the kids are listening to today. Case in point: We were told repeatedly that we should book a band named Portugal. The Man. We weren't exactly thrilled by what they wanted money-wise, so we asked our interns what they thought. They said to do it, and so we did it, and the band ended up drawing one of the biggest crowds of our festival that year.
DO: Book the certified music legend. We had the opportunity to book Mavis Staples right after she made an album with Jeff Tweedy, and we smartly jumped. Mavis and her band were the consummate professionals, and put on the best show I witnessed in my three years on the job. She also had some very interesting opinions on Tony Romo, and made the best Bloody Marys any of us had ever tasted.
DON'T: Put one person in charge of the booking team. The trouble is twofold: First, there will be friction resulting in one person's taste suddenly being the dominant force in the room. Moreover, that stress will take its toll on everyone else's job. Egos rage in the music industry, and power often goes straight to people's heads.
DO: Remember that your legendary headliner from England will need visas to come play your festival. If you forget this, you'll be forced put on a free show two days after the festival closes to make good on your promise of having the band play.
DON'T: Decide that three years of working on a festival has crushed your soul and that you're going to quit by chugging whiskey, trying to crowd-surf, and throwing empty liquor bottles at famous English bands who may or may not have refused to take the stage if their drug demands weren't met.
DO: Spend $300,000 dollars of someone else's money on a music festival if you're given the opportunity. Opportunities like that don't just come around everyday, and you have to jump at everyone you're offered.
DON'T: Forget to get paid.
Jaime-Paul Falcón is a writer living in Texas. You can find his work occasionally at Playboy and the Dallas Observer. He also Tweets too much.
Photo by Getty.
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