How to Book a Festival Gig

With the warmer months coming up, everybody’s minds are on Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and the Governors Ball. But how do the artists actually end up on stage? Well, first, start small: look for local festivals and pay attention to the minutiae of your band’s music and presentation. Sounds easy, but how do you go about doing that?

It may be too late to apply for the gamut of this year’s summer festivals, but today we’re going to take a look at how musical acts get booked for festival gigs, and we’re hearing from some experts: bands and festival bookers who are doing the work to bring great music to festival audiences.

Of course, take all of this info with a grain of salt; every festival, and consequently festival booker, is different, and these rules aren’t hard and fast for anyone. But keeping this info in mind may be beneficial while booking home-grown festivals, as opposed to ones with $900 VIP tickets (we’re looking at you, Coachella).

1. Pick the Right Festival (and Be Yourself)

Something that was stressed again and again by each of our experts is that you have to maintain your authenticity. Know who you are as an artist, be yourself and don’t be shy about it; this will help you pick the right festival to apply to.

Crawford Philleo, a Reverb employee who also helped get the Denver-based DIY music fest GOLDRUSH off the ground in 2011, says, “Be confident and honest about your music and why you think it’d be a good match for an event. Bands should look for shows with bills that include bands they know and are fans of.”

Be confident and honest about your music and why you think it’d be a good match for an event. Bands should look for shows with bills that include bands they know and are fans of.”

If money is a concern for you, this step is particularly pertinent. You may have to pay for your own costs like travel, application and food, so finding the right fit in terms of financials is a must.

“The artist just needs to make sure they cover their costs and have a clear understanding of what a festival can or can’t do for them,” Philleo says. “In a perfect world, all festivals could pay whatever an artist wants to make, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

If you’re confident in both your sound and your vibe, finding a festival with which you’re musically compatible should be easy, but this step shouldn’t be overlooked; it’s the key to getting booked. A punk band from New York isn’t going to make the cut at a bluegrass festival in Chicago. What kind of music you play, what kind of crowd you draw, and how that lines up with the goals of the festival are likely the first considerations bookers make when cutting bands from a potential lineup.

Don’t know where to start? Music Festival Wizard is a great place to begin your hunt. It allows you to search by genre, region, month, and even festival type (music cruise, anyone?). From there, you can check out each festival’s individual website to get more info on their submission processes.

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2. Understand the Submission Process

The submissions process can vary wildly from festival to festival. Some newer fests may not even have applications. In instances like these, there is no submission process; festival bookers will instead reach out to you.

Take Philleo’s festival, GOLDRUSH Fest, for example. “In the beginning, the festival was 100% outreach, since no one really knew who we were or what we were doing,” he says.

However, as smaller festivals get their sea legs, they may begin to operate on a mixture of submissions from artists as well as outreach to musicians that pique their interest.

“As GOLDRUSH gained attention and notoriety over the years, that actually flipped to where we were getting a lot more people requesting to be added to the bill,” Philleo says.

Eric Gilbert, director of Boise’s Treefort Music Fest, had the same experiences: a burgeoning interest in the festival, growth in submissions, but still seeking out bands that represent their festival best.

“Our open submissions continue to grow significantly, and we definitely field more incoming interest than we could ever keep up with in inquiries we are sending,” he says. “It’s also fun to pursue acts we’re already excited about and want to invite to get to know Boise better.”

Open submissions tend to be a huge part of the application process; simply filling out the appropriate form or sending in your electronic press kit may be all you need to do. Take, for instance, Joshua Tree Music Festival. Although they aren’t taking applications currently, they invite artists to simply send them components of your EPK any time of year, and if they feel you fit the bill, they’ll let you know.

However, there are also some subtle intricacies required to understanding the full scope of the submission process, like potentially hiring a booking agent of your own or making and maintaining contacts within festival circuits, that we’ll address in step four.

Goodwill Smith performing at GOLDRUSH 2014 (Photo by Andrew Evan John)

3. Create or Craft Your Electronic Press Kit

It might be too late to get on the 2016 docket for some of your favorite festivals, but it’s never too early to start preparing for next year. Again, the most imperative thing is communicating who you are as a musician. One of the simplest ways to do that is by crafting an electronic press kit.

In some instances, going without an electronic press kit (EPK) is the best course of action, but not in all. For instance, festival veteran Phil Elverum, formerly of the Microphones and currently making music as Mount Eerie, says he’s never had an EPK, but Kyle Luck and Peter Danzig, respective guitarist and singer for rock band the Down and Outlaws, say that they tailor their EPK to the kind of aesthetic they want to portray.

We’ve tried to create some semblance of a visual aesthetic for our band that complements the music."

“We include our favorite press clippings, some good photos, links to our music and videos and a quick bio,” Luck says. “We’ve tried to create some semblance of a visual aesthetic for our band that complements the music. All of us have an appreciation for film, photography and fashion, so we try and make the visual element something that we enjoy.”

Gilbert adds that high-quality live videos are important to him when considering an artist’s EPK. “Show us your art in the best possible light,” he says. “Show us what the presentation of your art may look like in a live setting.”

Bang Play performing at GOLDRUSH 2015 (Photo by Andrew Evan John)

A standard EPK generally will consist of:

  • A short biography and discography
  • Contact information, including phone, e-mail and web address for your band or representatives
  • Press release
  • High-quality audio, video and photos
  • Press quotes or clippings
  • Social media info
  • Stats on fan demographics

There are other things you can add to beef up an EPK, and not all of these things are 100% required. In fact, some bands make a quick sheet with just the absolute basics to send out to bookers. Having good music, of course, is the most important part.

“I think a band’s best tool is their music, and being honest about who they are, and what it is they’re doing,” says Philleo, emphasizing what we all know to be true: a musician’s greatest weapon is their music. Elverum concludes, “I just make my records and hope that’s enough.”

If you need help putting together an EPK or would like to get a more comprehensive look at what you can do to stand out, there are plenty of sites around the web, both paid and unpaid, that will help you put one together. Well-known sites like ReverbNation and Sonicbids have templates that can be filled out, and there are also smaller sites dedicated entirely to helping you craft an EPK, like WixMusic and ArtistEcard.

4. Reaching Out and Applying

There are a few more things to consider when it comes to actually attempting to get booked for a festival gig. Whether or not you decide to hire a booking agent from companies like independent firm The Windish Agency is one consideration; reaching out to contacts you have within the festival’s organization is another.

For some, a booking agent may be the right call, particularly if you have no idea where to start or are trying to book larger festivals or overseas gigs. However, the presence of a booking agent may turn some more grassroots fests off, and for artists like Elverum, booking his own shows is a crucial part of the experience.

“It’s important to me to book my own shows, and I think when bands give up that responsibility to agents, it is symbolic of a shift in a general attitude and the philosophy behind making a life in music,” Elverum says.

Philleo backs up Elverum’s sentiments. “I always liked working directly with bands as opposed to booking agents,” Philleo explains. “With a middle man not really in the picture, I felt like I had more of a direct idea of what a certain artist really needed.”

Sometimes, though, as long as you’re organized and treat those around you with courtesy and respect, it doesn’t matter who the festival booker interacts with. “I prefer interacting with humans, ideally semi-organized and somewhat reasonable and nice ones. There are booking agents and bands that fit this description, and there are booking agents and bands that don’t,” Gilbert says.

Remember that there’s not a computer on the other end; your submissions are being transmitted to actual humans. Put some effort into understanding who you're talking to and try to speak to them directly.”

Looking into who exactly you’ll be communicating with is an important link in the chain as well. After researching the festival, check out who you’ll be booking with to demonstrate your interest in playing and in getting to know the people you’ll be working with directly.

Gilbert’s advice? “Remember that there’s not a computer on the other end; your submissions are being transmitted to actual humans. Put some effort into understanding who you're talking to and try to speak to them directly.”

If you know someone doing the booking, though, sometimes direct communication is your best bet, offers Jon Carr, drummer for the Down and Outlaws. “If we can communicate with someone directly, that’s always better. But if that’s not possible, we keep some version of our EPK generally up to date so we can send it quickly without having to redo it every time.”

But if you decide to undertake the booking process on your own, there is some groundwork that can be laid by just hanging out at music festivals. “It’s a fairly small community, and if you hang around long enough, go to a lot of shows, eventually people start to remember your name and return your emails,” says Chris Danzig, bassist of the Down and Outlaws.

Sometimes it’s all about who you know when it comes to booking shows.

Giant Claw performing at GOLDRUSH 2013 (Photo by Zach Roif)

5. Submit Your Festival Application

Finally, the time has come to submit your application. You’ve made some awesome music, picked the right festival for you, hit up any contacts you might have that can help you get a leg up, crafted a masterful EPK, filled out a profile on Sonicbids or ReverbNation, hired a booking agent if necessary, and now you’re prepared to apply.

First, you need to find out where you’re sending your application or EPK and when it needs to be received. For festivals that take place in the spring, booking typically begins in autumn, Gilbert says. They start booking about eight to nine months out and receive their applications in the fall. By Christmas, they have the bulk of their show booked.

Naturally, not all festivals run on the same schedule. While most festivals take place in the spring and summer months, there are fall and winter festivals that are taking applications right now, like the National Folk Festival in September or, if you’re internationally inclined, Iceland Airwaves in Reykjavik in November.

There are also festivals that don’t plan as far in advance. For instance, festivals like NXNE in Ontario were taking applications through mid-April, even though the festival takes place in June. Be warned, however; many festival applications, no matter what time they’re due, have an app fee.

“All festivals have their own timeline based on where they land in the calendar year and the nature of their lineup,” Gilbert adds, so make sure you’re aware of what that timeline is, and that you get all of your submission information in before the deadline.

If you’re already signed up with Sonicbids or are someone who doesn’t mind paying a monthly fee, a whole world of submission timelines opens up through their search function.

6. Be Ready for Anything

Be ready for wins and losses. Be ready to find out that you’re playing far in advance, to find out shortly before the gig, or to find out that you won’t be playing. But whatever happens, don’t take it personally.

We’ve been rejected by way more festivals than we’ve been accepted. I think we’ve found it important not to take stuff personally if it doesn’t work out."

“Don’t hold your breath! We’ve been rejected by way more festivals than we’ve been accepted,” Chris Danzig says. “I think we’ve found it important not to take stuff personally if it doesn’t work out. Sometimes the bookers have reasons for filling slots that have nothing to do with your band.”

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Jon Carr backs up his bandmate, saying, “We try to think that way not just for festivals, but with pretty much everything. It’s kind of like baseball. For every super cool thing we’ve been able to do, we’ve struck out a dozen times. And there are really no shortcuts that we know of.”

With no shortcuts and a wide and diverse variety of booking methods, it’s obvious that getting a festival gig, or any gig for that matter, is an art, not a science. What it really takes is knowledge of the festival or booker you’re conversing with, good music that speaks for itself, courtesy and compassion, and more than a little luck. So with all of your favorite festivals just around the corner and application time just after that, keep these tips in mind to lay the best groundwork you can for booking a festival gig.

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