With Festival season just around the corner, I thought it would be the perfect time to talk some strategies into how to get your band onto that bill - AND address some realities within the industry. Festivals are an amazing way to connect with new fans. Plenty of festival goers say their festival experience facilitates some great musical discoveries. It’s easy to see how -- they are waiting for a big headliner, but kill time in front of an artist they might not know. As long as you can put on a killer show (of course you can), you just earned yourself a new fan. Festivals are all about THE SHOW. Catchy songs help, but fans want to feel the action and want to see you sweating along with the masses.
So how do you get to be a part of that coveted festival slot? Before we talk strategy, let’s go over some realities of the festival industry.
6 things to know before you start pitching for festivals
Most big festival promoters ONLY work through booking agents. Submitting on your own will likely not get a response.
You need buzz. Want to be on Bonnaroo or Governors Ball? You either need a killer agent or a shitttttt ton of buzzy press calling you the next big thing. Social media numbers will not cut it here. They may help, but they aren’t the thing that will get you booked.
There’s big money… but not for everyone. If you can manage to squeeze yourself onto a line up very early in your career, you might need to brace yourself for a low offer. After negotiating headliners, there isn’t a ton of cash to bring on baby bands.
Market history. If you don’t have real show history in the market, you’ll likely be passed over.
Baby bands get noon slots. Way to go, you made it onto the line up! Oh yeah, you play at the exact instant gates open. There isn’t much you can do about this, unfortunately. This is definitely a pay your dues type thing.
There are exceptions to every rule. I GET IT. That band that was added to the festival, has no press, no agent, and seems like they just formed a band yesterday. Who knows why they are on there, but shit happens.
7 Strategic Ways for Independent Artists to Play Festivals
Think smaller. Yes, we dream big here, but for festivals, let’s forget the Coachellas and Bonnaroos for a moment. Think about regional festivals that give up and comers a shot. Festivals like the East Nashville Tomato Fest and Atlanta Oyster Fest are not to be overlooked. They are heavily attended, sometimes free, and the boozers always end up in front of the music stage regardless of who’s playing. There are likely TONS within driving distance of your house. Indie on the Move has a great list sorted by state. Start there.
Work with local promoters. Have you been to a market and gained some good traction? Reach out to that promoter to see if she/he knows the situation with any festivals in the area. There’s a chance that they may even book one.
Contests. I’ll admit, this is somewhat of a long shot, however, you may as well give it a go for bigger festivals. We worked TRUETT onto the Sweetwater 420 Fest in Atlanta by going through the local alt station’s contest. In Nashville, Lightning 100 does the Road to Roo. If you have loyal fans, this could be your ticket to getting on a bigger festival.
Apply early. Festivals work on a very long lead time. Big summer festivals are booked the fall before! If you want to be on Shaky Knees next summer, best to figure out how to get in touch with the promoter by September. Once the line up has been announced they RARELY add new bands.
DO NOT PAY. Paying to play is not something we do here. You’ll get the worst slot, the crappiest stage, and no promotion.
Get honest with yourself. If your show ready for a festival setting? If you’ve mainly been playing your hometown and have only done a little touring, chances are you need some more time. You need to SLAY on a festival stage -- no room for “figuring it out”
Target strategically. Blanket pitching to every festival in America (and beyond) is not worth your time. If you might be the odd man out in terms of sound, pass over it! If you decide to go the Sonicbids route (which I will neither be for or against at this moment in time), those application fees add up quick. Pick festivals where you have market history, press to back it up, and that book bands of your genre.
Have a strong EPK. You can create this through Sonicbids or just have a landing page on your website (which is what we do). Keep it updated with new press, videos, music, and stats. Check Ron’s out here.
Before Ron had an agent, he mainly played some smaller regional festivals. He was able to score a slot on Summer Fest in Milwaukee (huge!) by working with some local promoters who had booked him on tour. I will not lie, he did not get any of the larger festivals - Music Midtown, Sweetwater 420 Fest, Rocky Mountain Folk's Fest, Bravalla (Sweden) - without an agent.
Bottom line - don’t get discouraged if you’re not getting festival offers early on. It’s a process and it takes lots of bands years (and lots of work) to get thrown an offer.
Bottom, bottom line - Remember that no one thing validates you as a band. If you’re not playing festivals, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing all of the right things. Stay on your path and stay focused!