The 7 Critical Steps of Planning Music Festivals

Broken promises and conditions at Fyre Festival led to bad press and a pending lawsuit. Cities can avoid problematic music festivals with this checklist.

After reading about the Fyre Festival debacle that took place last month on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, I couldn’t help but surmise hubris and poor planning were the main culprits in the multimillion-dollar failure that fell on the shoulders of musician/producer Ja Rule and his business partner, 26-year-old entrepreneur Billy McFarland. There are critical planning steps vital to executing a multi-day music festival that organizers take to avoid incidents.

Read the Warning Signs

Promotional materials touted the Fyre Festival – expected to take place over two weekends, April 28-30 and May 5-7 -- as “the cultural experience of the decade,” featuring performances from Blink-182, Migos, Major Lazer, Disclosure and others.

With tickets starting at $1,200, the designer event was to include luxury transportation and accommodations, and gourmet food prepared by celebrity chefs. A tent city, cheese sandwiches and long lines at airports were the reality as a bands and vendors backed away from the festival.

Even basic due diligence would have revealed that the Fyre Festival could not possibly live up to the hype, as basic infrastructure was not even in place,” reads a complaint in a $5 million lawsuit recently filed in the Southern District of Florida by Emily and Kenneth Reel, two festival guests.

The warning signs that the event would be a disaster were there months ago, according to one former staffer who blamed the failure on “incompetence on an almost inconceivable scale,” citing a lack of infrastructure, an overly optimistic timeline and rampant disorganization.

Citizens Desire Festivals

There are many benefits in cities partnering with organizers of music festivals. Festivals foster economic and cultural development and pay communities many other dividends.

According to a 2015 study by Nielsen, 32 million people attend at least one of the 800 music festivals held in the U.S. each year, say nothing of additional festivals that focus on film, theater, dance, food, international culture and beer and wine.

With 90 percent of festivals taking place in public, plazas, parks, outdoor theaters and on streets, according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, overburdened municipalities are faced with the daunting task of approving events, from applicants with years of professional experience as well as green, well-meaning community organizers.

The following checklist of seven critical steps can help cities ensure music festivals are being properly planned.

#1 Understand the Timeline

Inquire about an event organizer’s approach to the festival production timeline. Successful music festivals take at least eight months to a year to plan, as I learned early on as former executive director and board president of Salem Jazz and Soul Festival.

If an applicant expects to pull off a music festival in August but applies in March, that’s too tight. Advise they go back to the drawing board and wait until next year.

#2 Get to Know the Team

Who are the members of the organizing team that intend to put on a festival in the community you are responsible for? What are their names and occupations? Do they live in the city or town in which the festival is proposed?

Ask for short biographies of the main players.

#3 Ensure Corporate Structure

For music festivals to be insured -- which they must be if being held on city property -- organizers should have already registered as corporations or nonprofits, or be under the umbrella of one.

Request organizations' Employment Identification Numbers (EINs).

#4 Question Funding Sources

Putting on music festivals is expensive, and if a corporation is requesting use of city property, it’s the city’s responsibility to inquire if that corporation is sound.

Ask how music festivals are to be funded -- through ticket sales, corporate sponsorship or other means?

#5 Insist on Proper Planning

Did an organization come to the table with a business plan or, in the case of a nonprofit music festival, a strategic plan?

If not, question further if they have a mission statement and a projected timeline of events. If the team approaches with a plan to hold a multi-day event, and they seem a little underprepared, suggest they start small. They can provide proof of concept by organizing a one-day music festival, initially.

#6 Analyze Risk

Each community will have its own risk factors, but be sure to ask for the following baseline details:

  • Do applicants have proof of insurance?
  • Are they working with a bonded, insured sound and production company?
  • What security measures have they researched in advance of the event?
  • Do they intend to serve alcohol, and do they have the proper insurance to do so?
  • Do they have an Emergency Response Plan?

#7 Work Together

I found that the city of Salem, Mass., was happy to field organizers' requests for services and equipment for the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival, which produces numerous free concerts annually and donates funding for local music education.

If event planners have their planning and logistics in order, and are ready to put on a festival, be an active partner in making the event as successful and safe as possible.

Additional Resources:

Access advice on planning EMS at mass gatherings.

Get a detailed medical supply list for special events.

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