How to Land a Music Festival Gig

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From Bonaroo to High Sierra and the Warped Tour, it seems that more and more music festivals are popping up all over the world. But for emerging artists, landing a slot at a festival, even as an opening band, may seem out of reach – a goal for “later” in your career.

To find out just how feasible it is to try to land a spot on a festival stage, we spoke with a talent booker from San Francisco’s 18-year-old Noise Pop festival as well as a local SF band, Geographer, who got its first big break at last year’s Noise Pop. Geographer used that to build visibility, help land a national tour with an established act, and continue to build their following. They also returned to this year’s Noise Pop, but as a headliner instead of a support act.

Noise Pop is a well-respected (and well attended) music festival, that focuses exclusively on all things indie: music, art, and culture. Noise Pop takes place every February in San Francisco, with fans traveling from all over the world to attend, drawn by its eclectic mix of music and culture, not to mention the intimate venues around San Francisco that play host for the week’s shows.

Well-known acts such as The Shins, Modest Mouse, The White Stripes, and Death Cab for Cutie, got early career boosts at Noise Pop in previous years. The February 2011 line up carried on the all-things-indie tradition with headline performances by Best Coast, Yo La Tengo, Ted Leo and a solo set by Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard.

The Talent Booker’s Perspective
Talent booker Dan Strachota is on the team responsible for booking emerging artists at Noise Pop. To attract the attention of festival programmers, Dan says the key is to set yourself apart from the rest of the indie bands in your area. “Try to stand out from the pack in some way, either in your performance style, through the use of costumes, your musical style, by playing free shows, or even your marketing style.”

As an example, Dan mentioned Chow Nasty, a San Francisco band that “would flyer like mad whenever they had an upcoming show. They combined their unique name with a distinctive font and after six months of seeing their flyers everywhere, I thought, ‘OK, what is this band – who are they?’ They had generated enough interest through repetition for me to want to check them out.”

For any up-and-coming local band, landing a headlining slot at a festival may be fairly impossible, so the best-case scenario is to get a supporting gig for a more established band. When looking for possible openers, Dan says he “prefers bands that bring an element of fun to their music. It’s good to have high-energy bands that will bring a party vibe to that night’s show.”

When asked if there’s one piece of advice he would offer to an artist trying to land a festival gig, Dan stated that there is no silver bullet to achieve that goal. Instead, bands just have to do the hard work required – have a web presence, play lots of shows, and relentlessly work each day to build a following. “One of the most important things I look for is that the band works hard, they promote their own gigs, and they try to get more people in every time; they don’t just sit back and hope. I want to see bands that are actively involved and invested in their music careers.”

Tips From a (Now) Veteran Festival Band
San Francisco-based trio Geographer epitomizes many of the attributes that Dan outlines. The electro-influenced indie pop trio is comprised of vocalist/instrumentalist Mike Deni, cellist Nathan Blaz, and drummer Brian Ostreicher. The group has worked hard the last few years to play as many gigs as possible around the SF area, and by doing so, came to the attention of the Noise Pop booking team. Their hard work and growing fan base helped land Geographer a coveted opening spot for the 2010 festival in support of Atlas Sound at the historic Great American Music Hall. So just how did they land this breakthrough festival gig?

First, Deni says, they spent a lot of time getting to know everyone involved in the local music scene. It sounds obvious, but many musicians spend a great deal of time hidden away writing, rehearsing, and recording their music. According to Deni, it pays to get out and schmooze with your peers. Getting to know other bands, managers, booking agents, and club owners helped Geographer become part of the fabric of the San Francisco music scene.

This lead to sharing bills with other notable bands, and can also lead to musical collaborations or even partnering on a joint mini-tour. Deni said they would work “desperately to convince a band further along than us to headline a show so that we could then get a booker behind the bill.” Geographer’s payoff would then be as the support band to open the show. He suggested doing this repeatedly “until enough people in your hometown have seen you, so that you can eventually move up to support national touring acts” that come through your town with their correspondingly larger audiences.

Another key was Geographer’s dedicated efforts to keep up with self-promotion. “Promotion didn’t come naturally to us,” Deni admits. “Spending more time emailing than writing music can be demoralizing. But the benefits were worth the effort. We worked our asses off on promotion, and now that we have management, we can channel all that energy into our music.”

The Role of the Media & Press Kits
Attracting the attention of the press – which includes everyone from your local newspaper’s entertainment editor to music bloggers – will likely occur once you’ve built a local following and are playing larger shows. However, there is important work that can be done right now by any gigging band. Dan advises that once you land some shows, “Work your ass off to get people to those shows. Invite people who can help you, such as press, talent buyers, and local radio stations. Treat each show as special.” Send local music blogs and entertainment editors invitations to your gigs, keep the invites short and interesting, and only target outlets that tend to cover your style or genre of music.

You’ll also need a solid press kit. These days most bands rely heavily on Electronic Press Kits (or EPKs) as can be found on Sonicbids, a website that brings artists together with promoters/agents. Agents can access artist EPKs submitted for various events and festivals. In fact, Sonicbids is the exclusive method Noise Pop uses to screen and accept bands.

What goes into an effective EPK? Be sure to include a well-written, concise band bio, at least three songs, good photos (live and “press” photos if possible), press clippings (if you have them), upcoming show dates, band technical requirements, performance videos, and complete contact information. The Noise Pop team offered up four more key tips regarding your EPK:

1. The formatting of all text should be simple – keep it easy to read.
2. Put your best song first and make sure it has an interesting intro because this may be all the booker hears before deciding to move on.
3. Play to your strengths. For instance, if you are best known for powerful live shows, be sure to include a performance video clip and plenty of live photos of your band in packed venues.
4. Make sure all your links are active and that all songs, videos, and photos load when clicked. It’s frustrating and a potential deal killer when a booker interested in your band discovers your press kit elements cannot easily be accessed!

Applying to Festivals
The first step before applying to a festival is to find out which festivals present the type of music you perform. Take the time to really research which types of festivals have given artists in your genre their first break. (There’s a link to an extensive list of U.S. music festivals at the end of this story.)

Many festivals, including Noise Pop, favor local bands and artists, at least for support slots, so start in your own region. Reach out to musicians you know, managers, local bookers, and use the internet to research which opportunities seem to be the best fit. Once you narrow down the list to the best options, look closely at the festival website to see how they accept submissions, and more importantly, what their deadline is – most have submission deadlines at least one to two months before the festival takes place.

Once you’re ready, take the plunge and apply. It’s vital that you take care to tailor each submission to the specific festival. Write a short, engaging cover letter/email that shows you know who the festival caters to and if possible, give an example of a recent gig that demonstrates your suitability for the festival’s target audience.

If you don’t get selected, don’t get discouraged. Most festivals receive hundreds of submissions for just a handful of opening slots. If you weren’t in the top five, it doesn’t mean the bookers didn’t like your music. Keep in touch throughout the next year and ask to be informed of any upcoming opportunities. Festivals often sponsor other events, such as film screenings, benefits, and other activities throughout the year, so you never know when they might need an up-and-coming artist to fill a spot on short notice.

Geographer’s Mike Deni wraps up the story with what happened after the success of playing as a support act at Noise Pop ’10. “People really started coming out to our shows. Shortly afterwards, we were invited to go on an East Coast tour, and a bit later we were booked as support on our first national tour with Stars, which was a big jump for us.”

By the time Dan and his team were putting together the 2011 Noise Pop, the momentum that Geographer had been building since their breakthrough at the previous year’s festival led to being offered a slot as a headliner at San Francisco’s legendary club, The Independent. That sold-out show is evidence of Geographer’s continuing upward trajectory, which proves that talent, sweat equity, and landing a festival gig can be a path to success for an independent act.

Casey Newlin is a member of the team that produces two indie rock festivals based in San Francisco, Noise Pop and the Treasure Island Music Festival. Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Echoes and directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific. They co-authored a September 2010 Echoes story on Online Music Collaboration.

Guide to Gigging

Story Links
Geographer’s website
Noise Pop’s 2011 Schedule
List of U.S. Music Festivals
Tips on Building Your Press Kit

15 thoughts on “How to Land a Music Festival Gig

  1. It is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the industry and how it works…REALLY…from an industry player. Most articles paint a flowery picture that does not exist. Fortunately there is a formula for achieving success. Knowledge will get you there…not bulls#*%t. Enroll in a music business program…and LISTEN!

  2. Your style is so unique in comparison to other folks I’ve read stuff from.

    I appreciate you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this web site.

  3. I’ve performed my music live for several years now, and I have played at many music festivals.  To be honest, I have found that most music festivals are extremely overrated.  I have had negative or downright awful experiences at almost every festival I have played.  People claim it is a great way to get your music out there and make contacts, but I did not find this at all.  From my experience, unless you are a headlining act (and realistically, most of us cannot claim that) most of the crowds of people are going to be just mildly interested or downright indifferent towards the more unknown acts.  I always got a much better reaction to my music in bars, college shows and private gigs.  At almost every festival I played, I got paid little or nothing, I felt very disrespected by the organizers, and because there tends to be so many bands playing at a fest (actually, too many), it’s hard to really get noticed in the crowd.  I find that the connection with the crowd is just not there.  The artist is just one in a revolving door of acts.  Anyway, I’m sure many bands and musicians out there have had great experiences at festivals, and if that’s the case for you, that’s great.  But for me, I don’t care if I ever play another festival.  Something to think about before you invest so much time and money into applying to a fest.

  4. Festivals are a good thing….but only if you research them. There are some killer festivals that you should definitely try to get into for some massive exposure, but watch out for the festivals that are lesser known. They won’t pay you anything, they will stick you on a stage that you can’t even stand on by yourself, they will have lousy contacts for the organizers, and they will barely promote them and you won’t get anything out of them except lost time and a headache.

    Search the internet for reputable festivals, like Red Gorrilla, SXSW, etc. Those festivals have a massive following and you can truly be discovered there. Simple local festivals only want drink revenues and money, and could care less about what is in it for the bands.

    Also, a HUGE note of warning….if you are a 1-person band, festivals will think you are a DJ and try to schedule you for a DJ booth. Imagine trying to set up keyboard and drums inside a DJ booth….nightmare and a half…..beware, research, and find the good ones…..and run from the bad ones.

    Also, check on search engines for reviews of the festivals. Sometimes they may sound awesome, but the people running the events may be total air-heads.

    NOTE: Get everything in writing, or else you may get to the festival and find out your stage schedule has another band in your slot. Be prepared, and it could be an amazing night for your band.

  5. Look, I’m a old, retired Postal worker that likes to play a helluva variety of tunes, and to top things off, I live in a small town in southeast South Dakota. My sound is a rich, full sound that incorporates good phrasing and good diction and I have an ability to tell stories about the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery journey of 1804-06.

    Plant me close to God, boys, in this land we chose to roam.
    Plant me close to God, boys, I’m a long, long ways from home.
    High upon some river bluff, so my spirit roams the sky,
    But plant me close to God, boys, for I know I’m gonna die.

    (Chorus to The Lament of Charles Floyd)

    In the July of 1804 the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery met up with the Otoe and Missouri Indians near modern day Council Bluffs IA/Omaha NE. While they “parlayed” with the Otoe and Missouri people, the Corps of Discovery were told stories of a band of “little devils” or little people who guarded a sacred mound a few miles north of the mouth of the Vermillion River in the Dakota territory. Legend had it that these little people were armed with bow and arrow and could kill from afar. When the Corps of Discovery arrived at the mouth of the Vermillion River in mid-August of 1804, a contingent of their company traveled up the Vermillion River to see if they might come across these little people. Why?

    When one considers that a good portion of the Corps of Discovery were of Irish and Scotch-Irish descent, could it be that men like Paddy Gass, Charles Floyd, and George Shannon had heard some of the old Irish legends from their local seanachees, the story-tellers of their particular region, when they were boys? Had they heard of the stories of Finn MacCool and his Fianna — how the warrior-poet, Oisin, had crossed the western waters to a land of grapes and plums — to Faelynn, the land of the ever young? Could it be that the stories of their youth combined with the Indian campfire stories they were now hearing along the Missouri River, with its banks infested with wild grapes and plums in the last days of summer — might the men of the Corps of Discovery have been looking for something as frivolous as leprechauns and pots of gold? Such speculation must have generated stories that were nothing more than some damn fine lies amongst the men of the Corps of Discovery — lies that propagated and entertained them for the duration of their long and arduous journey.

    This is just a sample of the story-telling and music you would receive if you should choose to hire me to perform my program, “Travels of the Corps – 1804”. My program is pretty much a “straight-talking” affair with a mix of stories and tunes (guitar and vocals) that I have written about the Corps of Discovery coming up the Missouri River in 1804. Should your organization be in need of entertainment for a state or regional convention, customer appreciation supper, festival, banquet or corporate event, please consider contacting me. My contact information is listed below. Thanks very much for your trouble!


    Michael F (MAC) McDonald
    Roisin Dubh Productions
    2609 Mulligan Drive
    Yankton SD 57078-5306
    605 664 7672 (after 6PM Central Time)

    P. S. My program is a part of the Nebraska Humanities Council Speakers’ Bureau program. I am a Vietnam-era veteran, serving with VAQ-136 aboard the carrier USS KITTY HAWK during the first half of my enlistment and finishing my enlistment as a bass/baritone vocalist with the US Navy Band Sea Chanters in Washington DC.

    Have your experts line ME up a gig — I bust my butt trying, but obviously, I’m just too ignorant in making my attempts.

  6. I’ll agree ReverbNation Press Kits are about a thousand times better than SonicBids and without the rip-off factor but I think this article fails to address one important point. Know who to talk to, and then pick up the phone and actually find out what they need. No two calls have ever been alike for me. One place just wanted my Myspace URL, another wanted a physical PressKit, another asked for an EPK, the other just wanted you to e-mail them an MP3, another asked me to mail a CD. It’s all about catering to their needs. Quite frankly, they don’t have a whole lot of time to figure out who you are, what you’re all about. Anecdotal stories about seeing a band’s flyers all over town, causing curiosity are fun to read about but it’s hardly practical to developing a plan for getting into a festival.

    Because that’s precisely the point. IF you’re not a solo artist who has to pay hired musicians but you have a real band willing to pool time and money to churn out flyers, invite everyone they ever knew at school or work–you can just play club gigs, and so long as you’re remotely decent, you can ride that all the way to the top venues in Hollywood–and not even have to do pay for play. But if you’re NOT and you do have to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week, and you DO have to hire a band, then you have no time for any of that, or the smoozing with other bands at clubs around town. This is why you would want to be in a festival.

    Definitely don’t expect to headline right away, and don’t just settle for obvious picks. The Los Angeles Festival of Books had live music–that’s a good gig to play in the middle of a weekend afternoon. That’s easily 50, 75, or 100 people seeing you that you could have NEVER flyered your way into drawing into a club on your own. Anything with a stage, a decent PA and a built-in crowd of 100+ is a gold mine. Burn up the phones, follow-up and focus on sounding GOOD when you get to play.

  7. Awesome post! Other thoughts are to..
    1. shoot for art festivals in your region where your name is more likely to be recognized. In turn if you end up getting billed for the festival, you’ve just strengthened your draw for future shows in that metro area.
    2. do your research! Don’t submit press kits blindly! Know who you are addressing them to. Do they even want a press kit? Maybe they just want information through email. and just like Dan said, the online press kit is without fail your most important tool.
    3. Read, Watch, Listen Go! Know WHEN you need to submit by. Knowing what’s happening and when its happening is 90 % of the task. Follow through and make sure you’re not trying to get on the bill 1 month before the event. It just wont happen. More in this post: READ, WATCH, LISTEN, GO – A MUSICIAN’S GUIDE TO

  8. I wasn’t to impressed with Sonic bids either. It was to much money for a membership, and sending the press kit itself was a pain A#@. Never really got any good gigs out of it!

  9. “Spending more time emailing than writing music can be demoralizing. But the benefits were worth the effort.” and it’s better than handing out flyers on a rainy day…talking of which,

    “find out which festivals present the type of music you perform” is very important. It’s important not to promote to just anyone but to your (potential) tribe/crowd. Go to the places where they go.

    I highly recommend Ariel Hyatt’s products, including 9 Weeks to Music Success for those new to on-line promotion. I believe her company, CyberPR, have just brought out a guide for musicians to using Facebook & Twitter.

    Good luck!

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