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Performing Songwriter Cover

What's Wrong With Our Festivals?

Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issues #52-53, Jan-March 2001

When I was a 15-year-old performer desperate to find "my own kind", there were myriad ways to meet other artists. I could go to the airport early; few people traveled by plane, and many of them were performers anxious for a bit of small talk with a like soul. We'd stand together, an island of sanity against the throngs of "straight" business people who sneered at our brightly colored clothes from the safety of their monochrome suits. I spent time with Donovan, BB King, and a host of others this way. I could spend an evening in Greenwich Village, walking from club to club and talking with Cream or The Lovin' Spoonful. Subways were safe, and we saw nothing unusual in gathering on a train at midnight to ride back and forth, trading songs and gossip. Variety TV shows were live, so we'd be stranded together for several days of "hurry up and wait" rehearsals. I got to kick around with legends like Toots Thielman and Jimmy Durante, along with up-and-comers like Queen. Finally, there were group concerts; Bill Graham had decided early on to present a wide variety of artists on each bill, hoping people coming to see Joplin might also discover Junior Walker or The Doors. Performers arrived early and stayed late; we forming lasting friendships backstage.

Nowadays it's harder. Stars go to Special Services lounges, cut off from public view. Semi-stars hang at private airline clubs. Greenwich Village is a joke; a club owner keeping their venue open for three hours after closing so musicians can jam is economically unfeasible. We're all over the TV, but most people arrive in time for makeup and leave as quickly as possible. Group shows are an exercise in "Me first", "Me biggest", and "Me out of here when my part's done". So where do I go when I long for sane company now?

Festivals, the joy and bane of my summer existence. I love festivals, where I can spend several days watching other performers work out, learning licks and swapping gossip, and also walk around as an audience member, debating the merits of bad souvlaki versus questionable corn dogs. I wait for summer festivals to catch up with my friends and see new talent. I'm encouraged when new festivals survive, and thrilled when they go on for decades. The best-run, like Dranouter in Belgium, inspire a loyal audience who in turn bring their own children years later. They inspire performers to return year after year, because they're so much fun.

But festivals have become big business. Huge. Folk festivals are one of the few consistently successful music formats, maintaining longevity in the face of disastrous economic downturn in all other formats. When I first played the Philadelphia Folk Festival 33 years ago, there were around 1,000 people. The last time I played, there were over 10,000. Costs have risen and ticket prices followed, making weekends unaffordable for many. Performers want to make more money; we'd rather stay in motels than depend on the kindness of strangers whose "spare room" might be the garage. Audiences bred on MTV expect dazzle for their dollars; if not lasers and smoke-bombs, at least good lighting and sound, and giant video screens for the folks in back. Inbetween it all you still have the mainstays – unidentifiable food groups, port-a-potties, confusing camping and parking directions, and a wonderful audience who will literally sit in the rain to watch performers strut their stuff.

This article is closer to a "group article" than anything I've done. After polling over 100 artists, agents, managers, organizers, volunteers, crew and audience members for this article, I'm presenting a basic overview. Not included are specialized festivals (women's, cowboy poetry) or combinations (song camps that feel festive but are instructional in nature). The "tips" sections are a composite of opinions. My hope is that everyone reading this will take just a moment to understand the other person's point of view.

The Genreal Consensus

There's a lot right, there's a lot wrong. I heard everything from "Promoter's don't even ask us what workshop we'd like to do – I got stuck with Songs of Passion when I do children's music!" to "Artists show up late and run over, then we have to pay the township a penalty". From "Then the bathroom actually tipped over - with me in it!" to "It used to be such an honor to close. Now they all run so late that I won't take a closing slot." The biggest gripe performers had was the workshops; promoters were angry at what they perceived as a cavalier attitude by performers; audiences were angry because festivals seem to be about everything but what they want. Let's see if we can't get some perspective.

I. What Makes A Great Festival?

A sense of community. Whether for a day or a week, the best festivals become a neighborhood. A sense of excitement; discovering new talent, learning new skills, enjoying being outdoors. A sense of safety; the feeling that at this moment in time, no drunk is going to grope you, no mugger frighten you. A sense of continuity, of being part of something you can count on to be there again next year.

And the obvious. Decent camping facilities, adequate water and toilets, parking near the site or frequent shuttle buses. For family attendance, things for children to see and do, and plenty of space to run. A security presence that's comforting rather than intimidating. Affordable food and drink, schedules that run close to time, artists who mingle. Audiences that support unknowns by showing up at their workshops and performances. A sound system everyone can hear without being deafened, and a crowd that's not too large for the space. Playtime, for adults as well as children; room for spontaneous Frisbee games, areas where audience members can pull out instruments and jam, interesting crafts booths and demonstrations. To quote Steve Gillette: "Kerrville is the granddaddy of songwriter festivals, and it's the ultimate retreat - eighteen days camped out in a mesquite grove with some of the best writers on the planet. There's something terribly edifying about sitting in the amphitheater each night listening to great performers and great songs, and following it all up at the campfires."

In other words, the best festivals are interactive.

II. Let's Get Some Perspective

From A Promoter Perspective

festivals are back-breaking work for little financial return. Artists demand large fees, then refuse to do workshops and abuse their onstage time. Ginger Warder: "As someone who's organized many, the worst thing is prima donna artists who take too long to set up and soundcheck or won't quit when they're supposed to. Everyone knows the deal up front, and artists who don't honor it are being rude to the other performers as well as the audience." Promoters leasing land tackle ever-widening obstacles; in addition to paying massive deposits months before they can take in any cash, they face possible weather disasters, equipment and electrical failures, and crowd control problems. Every promoter over 40 remembers that the original Woodstock was supposed to be a paying festival – until crowds broke through the fences and surged in. Managers demand specific time slots, artists demand air-conditioned trailers, audiences demand high-dollar acts and low-dollar tickets, volunteers fail to show at critical times. And while many of the promoters I spoke with genuinely try to mix old artists with young, known with unknown, they're discouraged when the audience automatically gravitates toward the known quantity, leaving the new artist playing for six people.

Tips for promoters: Have your act together at least 6 months before the festival date. At a new festival three years ago, I watched a novice promoter (she'd begun planning the July event in April) who'd paid a deposit on the site without checking electricity or water (both had to be brought in, destroying the budget). There was no shade anywhere (in 95 degree weather), no nearby parking or handicapped access, no motel within 45 miles. She lost her shirt.

Remember that your attitude reflects downwards; everyone takes their cue from you. A well-organized promoter makes everyone feel safe. However long you've been doing it, there's always room for improvement! Dollars are tighter than they were ten years ago, and audiences have more choices. Vic Heyman: "Give some bang for the buck. Organize discounts with local retailers for attendees. If you want to encourage families, offer tickets to the zoo. Even movie theaters have been known to offer free passes." Find alternative ways to attract audiences, and artists.

From An Agent/Manager Perspective

One agent complained that "90% of festival producers know ten months ahead of time 90% of the artists they want, and that includes new artists. Yet artists are led to believe the door is always open." Many artists believe that if they can "just get a slot" at Telluride/Newport/Merlefest, it will make their career, and that "getting on" is just a question of pitching hard. Not true. Space is tighter now. As niche marketing becomes more attractive, niche artists become more the norm. Many festivals have become dulled in their search for the newest sensation (who'll draw a younger crowd) and the big headliner (who'll draw big numbers). European and Canadian festivals still mix styles, featuring blues, Celtic music, acoustic folk, and a variety of others on the same stage. They bring in unknowns and expose audiences to Indian and Afghanistani music because they believe in cultural cross-education. Sadly, most American festivals have decided to forgo this, doubly shameful because our country has such wide variety of musical styles and talent. Artie Traum:, "Mance Lipscomb, Roscoe Holcomb, The Watson Family used to be mixed with Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, and Janis Joplin. It worked because it represented the old and the new." Another agent griped "The growth of 'new artist' showcases at festivals is a mixed blessing – my acts pay their own way to Kerrville to sing 2 songs in the blazing sun with just a remote chance of being invited back the following week for another 20 minute gig. The feeding frenzy is still such that 200-300 performers compete for 20 or so spots and keep coming back for another chance. Judges at showcases usually have the worst sound – one out-of-date, badly abused floor monitor isn't unusual. How can I do that to my acts, even if they are new?"

Said one manager "Some festivals won't even book a mainstage act until I agree they can use that performance for a festival CD. I can't always convince the record company, and besides, I'm not so thrilled about my artist, who does 40-45 festivals a year, being on 40 CD's, particularly if he's got a new one of his own coming out."

Most agents/managers felt that festivals should be a part of any performer's touring mix. Tim Drake: "They provide the opportunity to win over & develop a new audience, en masse. There are several instances where I can point to a clients' performance at a festival being responsible for their popularity in that market today. It can shave years off development time there. However, not all festivals or soft ticket events have impact on the marketplace." Sean LaRoche: "You have to research each festival; they're all different. Strawberry does 'tweeners', giving less-well-known acts 15-20 minutes between the mainstage set-ups. The Friday afternoon mainstage at Philadelphia features eight brand-new artists every year--who also get 2-3 workshops!"

Tips for agents & managers: Don't lie, to artists or promoters. Explain to an artist that there's no way they'll play mainstage, or that dollars will be lower than they want. Don't tell a promoter for Chattanooga's Riverfest that your act has a huge local following when they've never played there. Do your research; make the artist understand that visibility is sometimes more worthwhile than dollars, but don't mistake a festival appearance for a slot on The Tonight Show.

From A Volunteer Perspective

most work festivals because they want to see the acts. They work hard, long hours, often in the rain and mud, driving to and from airports, hauling equipment over soggy ground, serving food on short notice, wrapping cables, and doing everything they can to keep the festival going. In return, artists ignore them, audiences demand they "fix the hamburger stand, there's no ketchup!", and they're generally treated like peons. Good festivals treat volunteers well, providing decent food and reasonable hours. I know volunteers at Falcon Ridge who've come back every year since the festival's inception. That's how it should be. Every festival should have easily identifiable colored T-shirts for every volunteer, with something clever like Staff in large letters on both sides. Walkie talkies should be provided; drivers' licenses should be checked, and sense used in choosing them! (For instance, the 74-year-old who drove me to a site 60 miles from the airport one evening, doing 15 all the way and complaining that he had no night vision).

Tips for volunteers: If you don't mean it, don't volunteer. Don't show up thinking you're going to spend all your time watching shows; you'll spend most of it washing dishes and hauling equipment. Keep a happy face; no one likes seeing grumpy volunteers. This may seem petty, but hey, you asked for the job!

From A Crew Perspective

they've already been on site two days, working double shifts to get the equipment up in time. Now they've got five days of hauling, engineering, setting and maintaining lights, all complicated by artists who demand that their stage monitors work as well as in a theater, or running overtime. "Okay, so Performer A had 30 minutes and did 40. Performer B figures he can do 40 too, only he does 45. Performer C competes by also doing 45. Now we're 40 minutes late, and we're only on the third act. That night we ran two hours over, which meant the crew worked from 9 am right through to 2 am. And we didn't even get a lunch break because all the workshops ran over. Three days of that and you're psychotic!" Without the crew, there is no show, so performers and promoters need to be fair.

Tips for crew: For many artists, this festival is the largest audience they've ever faced. When artists are nervous, they get fussy. Monitor people should work out hand signals with performers before they go on for "More vocal" or "More instrument". Try not to be mean; we're all struggling to do our jobs. Klondike sound's John Klondike is the perfect person to emulate. Never in a bad mood (at least, not where anyone can see), able to repair anything, always prepared for everything. Completely unflappable.

Pay attention to safety. If it's pouring rain, everyone gets nervous – anyone who's taken an electrical "zap" is afraid to walk onto a wet stage. Be prepared for weather problems; it's not only your equipment you're safe-guarding, it's our lives!

From An Artist Perspective

we do festivals for two reasons – they increase audience base, and they're fun. Promoters can do a lot to entice us, and most of it is cost-effective. At Celtic Connections in Glasgow, the festival provides rooms as part of the deal, and books a ballroom at the same hotel for the duration. This space, open all night, is for performers and working festival people only. There's a paying bar, which covers the room rental, and enough space for groups to gather and sing until the wee hours. Some festivals have a great crafts presence, like luthiers we don't normally get to meet, with instruments we don't get to try. That all helps to make it fun.

Things that are not fun are:

  • Festivals that won't pay reasonable expenses (airfare/gas, hotel, food), but expect you to do them because you're a folksinger/feminist/jazz player/nice person. Festivals that try to beat your fee down after you've done your show.
  • Merchandise tents that promote festival merchandise and put ours at the back; sales people who are rude to purchasers; understaffed tents. Incompetent merchandising was a big gripe from everyone, particularly when it was considered "underhanded" (one artist took their unsold product back and discovered it was now packed in long plastic cases a la major record stores. Investigation revealed that the festival, while encouraging artists to bring their own merchandise, also ordered product from distributors – and sold that first.)
  • Festivals that give volunteers complete backstage access with no area set aside strictly for performers. I recently did a festival where there were so many volunteers in the backstage "performer's tent" that there was nowhere to sit and tune a guitar, let alone learn some licks!
  • Stages too close together. At one festival in Brooklyn, the Acoustic Stage was less than 200 yards from the Band Stage, and I found myself singing "At Seventeen" to the accompaniment of KC & the Sunshine Band.
  • Stage managers that pay no attention to the schedule, or let their favorites run over, forcing the rest of us to miss workshops or deal with audience anger at the lateness of the hour.

Tips for performers: Stop whining and start doing. If you don't like what's going on, and you have any clout at all, discuss it with the promoter. Arrive on time, be prepared, and understand that this isn't your show – it's a festival. While the audience may seem to like you better than anyone else that day, get off the stage when your time's up! We all know how to read a watch; there's no excuse for it.

From An Audience Perspective

"There's not enough information handout from most festivals. It's so easy to put up a website these days, yet attendees are usually left wondering 'What is the deal with camping? will there be water? toilets? a place for fires? showers?'"

Alissa Scipio: "I used to go to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but it's gotten too big for its britches and is overwhelming. The last time I went you couldn't even see the screens for the Saturday night performances, never mind the show itself. I think all festivals need to find their cut-off point, rather than get too big. That way it remains fun for everyone involved." People complained loudly about workshops where "performers were so busy showing off that there wasn't any time for questions", and overcrowding so intense that it felt unsafe. There was also much grumbling about schedule changes: "Why can't festivals have one or two big signs up at smart locations like the food area, warning people about changes in that day's line-up?" and lack of information. "I have no idea who any of these people are; why isn't there something about each one in the brochure?"

Tips for the audience: Bring gear for every weather eventuality. Find out well in advance what the facilities are, particularly if you're bringing children. Search for artist websites, which will have more information than any brochure. And don't be afraid to complain, in writing, after the festival is over. You'd be surprised how many promoters are anxious for audience feedback.

III. And Now, From Everyone's Perspective

Food

This is one area where everyone's in complete agreement. "About that festival food... don't get me started! I can only tell you that one festival backstage served macaroni & cheese with sauerkraut as the vegetable!" "Food. Barf. Expensive, with the festival taking a cut by selling food tickets. Backstage food is often a cut above (or below) a soup kitchen." Even promoters agree that festival food usually stinks.

For artists, particularly bands, one of the "perks" at low-paying festivals is 3 free meals a day backstage, which also encourages performers to stay on site. To be fair, festivals try to satisfy all dietary concerns while staying within their budget, and are too often told "But I'm a lacto-ovo-vegetarian and allergic to wheat and beans! You don't have anything for me?" Still, the backstage food is usually really disgusting, and the front of house food not much better. I don't think anyone at a festival expects gourmet dining, but it's nice to have some variety, with fresh fruit available too.

Tips on food: If you have serious dietary requirements bring your own food. Venues should provide enough stands and servers to keep lines below 15 people. It's awful to get hungry, walk to the food area, and realize you can't get anything for another hour. For those feeding performers, we can't maintain our energy if breakfast is a bowl of generic flakes, lunch a pimento cheese sandwich, and dinner a salad with no protein (this is an actual menu).

Accommodations

at many festivals don't meet the standards you set for your house pets. As a performer, I've stayed in "free" motel rooms so rundown and filthy that I slept in the car instead (my drummer, who did not, walked out with scabies). Summer campsites with no shade and lack of adequate water are just the tip of the iceberg for audience complaints. If festivals are going to offer camping, they need to be clear about lights-out and noise policies, and provide at least minimal support. "The campsite was 3 miles from the festival site, with over 200 of us there. They had a single 12-seater shuttle that ran once an hour." Promoter Mike McMillan: "Festivals should suggest nearby motels, then run a shuttle to them. This would help attendance and relieve traffic, since many middle-aged people with money to spend love music but don't want the hassle of camping and/or parking. If a festival can convince the motel to provide an 'audience-friendly' space, like an unused conference room, people can jam and make friends after hours. Also, that way the festival provides more for the local community." There are festivals that rent out entire facilities for a good price, then make rooms available at lower prices than otherwise obtainable.

Children

"There I was, doing a ballad in a workshop, with two screaming infants in the front row." "They told me it was child-friendly - what that meant was I'd have to spend $20 to buy them lunch." If a festival encourages family attendance, provisions need to be made for children. Renaissance Faires are a wonderful example, with separate children's stages and featuring puppet shows, magicians, hands-on activities like finger-painting. Some offer fenced-in day-care areas, with children checked in and out like coats; there are always plenty of volunteers to keep kids occupied with drawing, story-telling, and music. Petting zoos are a treat for children and adults; most local zoos will bring animals and attendants in for educational purposes. Kids are fascinated by uniforms; sometimes the local police or fire brigade will send people in to talk about their work and show off their shiny badges.

Tips for parents: Have a care for other participants; seat your family in an area you can get out of if a child begins caterwauling. Assume nothing, from food availability to diaper changing. If you're bringing babies to shows, remember that their ears aren't fully formed yet, and stay away from the front rows. You can do permanent hearing damage by exposing them to loud sounds!

Crafts

"Why spend all day wandering around a site when the crafts booths just feature things I can buy at the local mall? What about candle-making, soap-making, glass-blowing, saw playing? There are all sorts of things I'd like my children exposed to that they don't get in school. And I wouldn't mind learning how to quilt, or make a flute. There are always political booths, but I never see local groups like Big Brothers of America there.?" True - how many earring booths were there at the last festival you attended? How many ears can one festival fit? Active crafts booths are always more interesting than straight sales booths. Many communities have crafts people they would never think of drawing on – quilters, bee keepers, sausage makers and the like ... at one festival I attended, the best booth was the Ecologically Correct Cleaning Booth. At least now I know what to do with vinegar!

Health & Safety

No one wants trouble, but everyone wants someone there to handle it when trouble arises. Security people need to be easily identifiable. It's kind of fun when police or security take a relaxed view (e.g. wearing shorts with their uniforms), but they must be trained. I saw audience members break up an on-site fist fight last year - between two security guards! If the festival's serving liquor, servers should be instructed to withhold sales from anyone who's had too much (their call, not the drinker's), and security should enforce it. Signs should be posted at beer stalls warning audience members that intoxicated people will be escorted from the grounds.

Ditto the festival "hospital area", which needs to be clearly marked, with signs directing audience members there. When temperatures are high, there should be periodic announcements from all stages about the dangers of dehydration –warning signals, and what people can do to avoid it. Free water needs to be available; most people can't afford 8 glasses a day at $2.50 a bottle.

Merchandise

It's discouraging to spend money and time shipping merchandise, then discover there are no racks or display tables. Worse yet, when sales people have no idea how to run a cash register, let alone answer questions, we all suffer financially. From the performer perspective, kicking back 20%-40% when a festival doesn't even provide adequate table space is unfair. For the audience, it's annoying when festivals order 15 CD's by the same artist from a distributor, then can't tell them which CD "that song I just heard about guns" is on. Of course it's impossible for sales people to know all the CD's, but a few of the stronger suggestions were:

  • Don't order too many different pieces of product for one performer. If an act has a new CD out, feature that along with two others, and stop there. When people have too many choices, they often don't bother buying.
  • Encourage artists to visit the booth once a day, for theirs and the audience's sake.
  • Post prices clearly, and keep them consistent. "All CD's $15. All T-shirts $20." Post whether it includes tax.
  • Stop overwhelming the audience with shoddy "festival goods". I've seen $20 T-shirts with running print and tears in the collars. I've heard festival CD's that were just a collection of cassette tapes made by audience members through the years. If a festival is doing its own CD's, they should be well-mastered, with information about each artist in the liner notes.
  • The "merch booth" should be part of the festival, instead of just a shop. Many artists try to coordinate it so that after their show, the audience can purchase their goods and have them signed. At a good festival, there's usually a table outside the main selling area devoted solely to this. A small area off to the side of a tent can become an "acoustic performance" area, with artists doing a song before signing. Be creative!

Timing

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is tired of shows running over. Festivals should have the equivalent of "three lights on stage". (Green light means you're fine, yellow means you have 5 minutes, and red means your sound will be cut off in two minutes.) Stage managers need to get vicious about this, and performers have to understand that 40 minutes means 40 including encores.

Workshops

What makes a great workshop? The feeling, on the audience's part, that they've walked out with more than they came in with. That they've learned something they can take home, be it guitar-stringing and maintenance, or what to do when you have laryngitis. A major complaint from everyone is the lack of true workshops at festivals.

Artie Traum: "If it's going to be a bunch of singer-songwriters performing, they ought to call it a mini-concert. A workshop is an interaction between the artist and the audience, in a learning, relaxed, informative environment." Speaking specifically of folk festivals, he adds "Without a true workshop environment, a festival turns into a performers-only atmosphere, and loses the deeper sense and historical perspective of the folk tradition. It leaves the audience behind the barricade, without access to information and traditions that seem to get lost every day." A lot of that tradition is the passing on of knowledge, be it through songs like "Anne Boleyn" and "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" or old-time fiddlers teaching us to make an instrument with a cigar box. Without that walkway, we lose our sense of history, and the next generation has to invent the wheel all over again.

One of my best memories is my first Philadelphia Folk Festival, where I watched Bonnie Raitt sit at the feet of Mississippi John Hurt during his guitar workshop. I'll never forget the look of concentration on her face, or the look of joy on his as he passed his knowledge on to someone who truly cared. I've seen two young banjo players show Earl Scruggs that they could play Foggy Mountain Breakdown "faster than you", observed the Georgia Sea Island Singers teaching complicated hand-clapping routines, and looked on as Jim D'Aquisto illustrated how he chose the wood for his guitars.

A workshop is not a show. It is not a collection of artists in-the-round. A workshop is just that – a shop where work is taught. Lydia Hutchinson: "The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest has great workshops during the day. I caught a terrific one with Cassandra Wilson, who answered questions from an interviewer on stage, then took questions from the audience... but at another festival, where song workshops were supposed to be an intensive study course, they were very uneven. One teacher had written out lesson plans and handouts, while another played a few tunes, told the group to go write something, then went fishing for the rest of the day." In many cases festivals hire "teachers" to conduct workshops with no regard to whether they can or even want to teach. Artists end up teaching the workshop because that's the price of playing the festival.

A major problem is workshops competing with one another, both for time and space. I got up at 8 am last year to see Patty Larkin's 9 am workshop on guitar playing, which turned into a fabulous discussion about the nature of acoustic guitars, covering everything from how to break in a new one to stringing techniques. Audience members pulled out their own instruments and discussed them. We all learned a lot, but we couldn't have if there'd been a band playing next door. Regarding timing, at most festivals there are three or four workshops I really want to attend, but somehow they're always booked at the same time. It would be nice if organizers managed to put children's' shows on one stage, hands-on workshops on another, "industry" on another, and then kept those same stages defined as such through the festival.

Tips on workshops: It's the responsibility of organizers to outline what needs to be done in a workshop, because most artists go into them with no direction. If the artist isn't particularly articulate, an interviewer helps to keep things going. The jazz world is much more used to conducting "educational" workshops than the folk or pop world, perhaps because it's a more studied application. Producers need to keep that in mind. It would be nice to have dance workshops, wood-carving, whistle-cutting. One of the best I ever attended was on making instruments out of nature and things you find around the house. Now I know how to whistle with a piece of grass.

Artists can do a lot to turn the tide toward "working" workshops. Nowadays when I'm asked to appear at a festival, I offer to do a master class the next day if they'll pay for an extra night's hotel. My workshop covers everything from the history of songwriting to what songwriter/performers usually encounter on the business end. I mix in a couple of performance songs to illustrate my points, and leave plenty of time for an open Q&A at the end. Hopefully, they are educational and uplifting for performers and lay people alike, and I have big fun doing them. If other performers insisted that "workshops" be real, hands-on classes or demonstrations, everyone would benefit. Performers need to insist on an interactive model, and then model it!

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, TOILETS

I have actually seen portable flush toilets at festivals, so I know it's possible. At the very least, there should be enough toilets to keep lines at a minimum. And they need to be monitored for paper, folks!

III. A Few Humble Suggestions From The Crowd

For promoters:

  • Know what you're getting into. Exhibit some bravery – it won't kill you. At Dranouter, Ani Difranco, Cassandra Wilson, myself, a Celtic band and a Lithuanian dance troupe shared the same stage one afternoon. That's great for the audience. America has huge diversity; bring back Delta blues players, mountain music and the like! Educate your audience.
  • Involve artists in planning workshops whenever possible, and keep the hands-on small. Those of us who enjoy teaching can't possibly connect with 500 guitarists at once.
  • Have performer tents that are truly for performers, giving us a place to congregate and share things. This often leads to artists sitting in on one another's sets; the audience loves it, but we can't do it if there's no place to talk or rehearse.
  • Think about using facilities you may not have considered – Bloomington and Clearwater have used college campuses to good effect, with the added benefit of free advertising among the student body. Offer incentives, like discounts at local stores and movie theaters.
  • Don't make unknown performers compete with well-known. Stagger shows and workshops so audiences are encouraged to see new talent. Put them in workshops with each other; we all enjoy meeting new performers at festivals!
  • Leave a chance for performers and non-performers to congregate, to share knowledge & dreams. That means leaving room for workshops to spill over into an empty area of the site, or performers to stay after and answer a few questions while the next workshop sets up.
  • Have a website, and keep it up to date. Many festivals don't want to announce the lineup until after people arrive, hoping to get someone who might only come Friday to see X to come all weekend. That's not fair.

For artists:

Be prompt. Be Prepared. Be flexible. This is not your show; you're just a cog in the wheel.

Christine Lavin: "Just like a good performer will think of his/her set as a whole with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with interwoven threads that run through a set to connect it all up, I think that the perfect festival has some kind of rhythm and connection. I love it when a performer makes mention of something done by a previous performer (even if it's an hour or two earlier) - that shows that performer is watching, too, not just sitting in an isolation booth waiting for his/her moment of glory. On a recent 'Mountain Stage' (a radio version of a two-hour folk festival), I was first up and Arlo Guthrie was last. There are no breaks in the show -- they steamroll through and everyone has to be on their toes, on time. Arlo Guthrie sat in the wings, out of the audience line of vision, and watched every single performer who went on before him... When it came time for Arlo's set, even though he made no reference to those who preceded him, he knew the audience, he knew the rhythm of the show, he was on the same page as everyone there because he experienced everything the audience did leading up to his set. As usual, he was brilliant. Would he have been as brilliant if he had waited in his dressing room? Maybe...But I was impressed by the fact that by sitting in the wings and watching the show, he showed support for all the other performers as well as totally getting in synch with the audience." That about sums it up. Being part of a festival is taking part in the festival – not just as a performer, but as a listener.

For agents & managers:

Encourage artists to be real participants. Do your research, and remember that smaller festivals have a lot going for them. I did brand-new Little Yough in Oakland, MD last year – the town had decided "There's not much to do here in the summer, let's hold a festival!" The dressing room was a town office building, stage and sound were minimal – and they'd baked a surprise birthday cake for one of my crew!

Festivals like Canmore in Canada are small enough to allow every performer a mainstage appearance, and with ticket prices around $35 for the whole weekend, anyone can go. The hotel is within walking distance of the site, they have flush toilets, there's a pancake breakfast on the last day for performers and audience – all those things make a festival worth doing for most of us, even at reduced fees.

For stage crew:

A request from every single performer: insect repellent. Steve Gillette: "My first big festival was Philadelphia in 1966. I remember standing alone on the high stage in the middle of a steamy meadow with thousands of people out there in the dark...the stage lights were the hottest, brightest thing around for miles and every flying thing came buzzing in to see what was happening. In the middle of one song, something flew into my mouth... I couldn't stop, but sang on until by the end of the song, only pieces of whatever it had been were left in my mouth." That's happened to me, too. There's just so much you can do, but bug repellent helps!

For audiences:

Don't settle. You don't have to. If something bothered you, write a letter. And don't get crazy. A festival is supposed to be "festive", not a beer brawl. Most artists like to walk around the site, and most don't mind your approaching them to ask a question, or say you like their music. But remember that we're there to enjoy ourselves too! Keep an eye on your kids. Pay attention to new performers; in a few years they may be the closing act.

IV. Last But Not Least, A Nice Story...

Dick Boak, who met his wife at The Philadelphia Folk Festival, says "I've attended the festival as a representative for The Martin Guitar Company almost every year for the last few decades, so it would be natural to experience an occasional bout of torrential rain. One such year it poured on opening night, rendering the entire property one gigantic mud wrestling pit. There's a pathway in the parking lot near the front entrance that connects the camping area with the stage. The path is on about a forty degree incline and after the rain, it became quite soupy and slippery, especially with all of the foot traffic. At one point, a festival volunteer slipped and fell, landed on his rear end, and went slithering down the hill (about a 50 yard run) at highly accelerated speed on his back. Other soaked spectators (myself included) saw this, thought it had redeeming value, and followed suit. For the next several hours, the amazing Philadelphia Folkfest Bobsled Mudslide Competition transpired, until the safety crew decided it was a potential liability and shut it down... That's the most incredible fun I've ever had at any festival. And you thought festivals were for music?"

Thanks to everyone who participated in this article; we don't have room to list you all!

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