How to build a successful music festival using Pitchfork fest as the model
Photo by Erik Hess
An exceptional live music festival doesn't happen by accident. It takes months -- and often years -- of careful planning, some good fortune, and the right artists on board. Even with some rain, things ran pretty smoothly down in Chicago earlier this summer at the Pitchfork Music Festival. The event has been held in Union Park since 2006 (or '05 if you count the Intonation Festival the music website curated). Aside from a diverse 2013 lineup featuring Björk, Belle & Sebastian, R. Kelly, and dozens more, the three days proved inspiring because of how easy it was to enjoy the experience.
Festivals like Pitchfork get repeat customers and high critical marks because they're within easy access for the audience -- price-wise, schedule-wise, transportation-wise, and the length-of-the-average-line-wise. Call it the grumble factor. If you're too busy sipping a beer in the shade while METZ is banging out a noise-rock masterstroke to even consider a reason to grumble, you're at a well-run event.
Some strong mid-to-large-scale music events already exist in Minnesota -- Soundset and Rock the Garden are examples, and surely you can name more -- but we've also been to our share of back-straining, pocket-draining, head-scratching festivals where the grumbling took over when it could've been prevented. Here are a few observations from Pitchfork to pass along to make Twin Cities music events even stronger.
Choose an accessible location
Chicago is blessed with a wealth of suitable parkland for live concerts, but Union Park is right next to an L station. Knowing that its clientele is young and budget-conscious, picking a spot that is affordable and a quick trip to get to via public transportation -- from home, a downtown hotel, or an apartment where an out-of-towner is couch-surfing -- is essential. Pitchfork also equips the festival with a Biker Village for secure parking and repairs, and there were several nearby parking ramps/lots for those who still needed to drive in. By setting themselves up with so much easy access, Pitchfork dispels the worries of the transport-averse among us.
So, since "Minneapolis has the best parks in the nation and it isn't even close," just start following the transportation lines and see where you end up.
Photos by Erik Hess
Pay attention to layout and features
Sure, some of us would stand in a gravel pit in 120-degree heat for a chance to see Björk, but a lot of folks' knees give out and some level of comfort is necessary to get them to spend eight hours outside just to watch bands. Ample amounts of grass, shady trees, and benches make Union Park a welcoming environment whether it's rain or shine. Video screens next to the stages ensure that being in the back doesn't mean missing the action. A near-triangle polygon block of 13.46 acres with stages placed only a few hundred feet apart at most, the park is set up in a way that promotes leisurely walking past uncongested concessions, restrooms, and merch areas on the way to meet a friend at the other end of the space. No journey takes too long, nor is any an inefficient use of the attendee's time.
With its accessibility and size, the new downtown Minneapolis park that might be coming next to the new Vikings stadium has potential for many summer festival events.
Develop a staggered schedule
This is actually huge when you're dealing with a multi-stage festival with an audience geared towards seeing as many bands as possible. With only two of three stages running at any given time, and set times set apart by 15-30 minutes, it's theoretically possible to get a reasonable taste of every single act performing at the festival if the attendee wishes. No reason to grumble about glaring schedule conflicts when the aforementioned layout makes it not that hard to hop over to another stage.
Photo by Erik Hess
Although Harriet Island has much upside for music festivals, the Live Nation-run River's Edge fest last summer definitely suffered from a schedule and layout that made it damn-near impossible to catch a good percentage of the bands.
Provide guest services that actually service the guests
Free water. Food and drink at a reasonable price from quality local vendors -- including vegan, gluten-free, and a variety of specialties -- and an efficient layout for purchase. Enough places to buy beer to keep lines short during peak times. 130 recycling bins. A security team "cool" enough to keep people safe without excessive hassle. Enough portable bathrooms that were emptied daily. There's a festival app and a dedicated website. You know, stuff like that.
Photos by Erik Hess
Families were in abundance at Pitchfork because there were a lot of spots to set up with a blanket that weren't likely to be trampled. By most accounts, the VIP areas were set up in a way to provide additional comforts -- including free beer -- without creating a nuisance for the general admission guests. Even the foldable map and schedule is laid out in a way that's easy to read and includes the sponsors in an unobnoxious fashion. Skip any of these items, and risk a whole lot of grumbling.
Sell affordable tickets and set a reasonable capacity
Money's tight, so either make it free, or too cheap to ignore. $120 for a three-day weekend pass for 45 good bands is a steal. Given that all of these acts are talented enough to command a packed audience at the 7th Street Entry -- and in many cases, a large club, theater or stadium -- this is a smart price. Union Park's capacity is 19,000, and more than 55,000 fans experienced the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, but it never felt overcrowded. Growing the festival beyond this park or packing it too tight would defeat its purpose.
This part is particularly applicable to the Twin Cities. Trying to lure a ton more than 20,000 people to any event here is a risky proposition. Soundset got its biggest numbers yet for 2013's running (about 25,000), and it still held together at Canterbury Park. The size of River's Edge at Harriet Island last summer felt like it was trying too hard to go huge before the event could justify it -- and we'll just have to face that we have a smaller local population to draw from than Chicago does for Lollapalooza.
Seek out collaborations that extend the festival's message
With the Chirp Record Fair -- represented by top indie labels and music retailers -- the Book Fort, Coterie crafts fair, the Chicago Artists Coalition's Creative Lounge, and the Flatstock poster exhibition area, Pitchfork sets the bar high for the real estate on its grounds aside from the stages. Not only are these spots vocal support of like-minded creative businesses, but they are welcome distractions to the ticket-buying audience they cultivate.
Photos by Erik Hess
Add to that the Goose Island Collaboration Bar, where special casks were rotated throughout the day -- including a Run the Jewels beer designed by Killer Mike and El-P -- there's a feeling of connectedness with all of the choices here that has to come from a unified plan at the start. A brand sponsorship strategy that runs this deep increases the networking possibilities of the event, and diminishes the hollow, corporate feel of too many music festivals.
Don't slack on the lineup, stupid
Not every planning committee has the pockets and the cache of Pitchfork working for them. But everyone can hustle and do research to ensure that they're presenting artists that aren't old news and live up to their promise. Not only did R. Kelly signify a creative way to represent a hometown crowd, but more importantly he brought a powerful show that few entertainers could replicate anywhere. It's tough for most folks around the country to see a show from Solange, the Breeders, Joanna Newsom, M.I.A., and Björk at all, so all the more reason for Pitchfork to court them.
Photos by Erik Hess
Up-and-comers like Daughn Gibson, Savages, and Waxahatchee represent an attention to getting to acts that already have a strong live show before they're widely known. And, with quality hip-hop, punk, electro, R&B, garage rock, and more mixed into the diverse schedule, there are so many demographics that can find this fest attractive. Pity the festivals that bring back the same bands every year, and especially pity those who favor name recognition over quality of the live show a band can deliver.
Gear a music festival towards music fans
Okay, just get your music festival "hipster" griping out now. There are people who wear sneakers or eyeglasses that you can't afford who like the bands you like. Deal with it. More importantly, what quality music festivals also foster is a shared cultural experience in a safe environment. By minimizing the excessive spending, excessive lines, and excessive standing in a field feeling trapped, there's compelling evidence that binge-drinking and committing unspeakable acts are not the objectives of the experience.
By recruiting artists that are worth listening to and watching, it's an invitation to put the music as the first order of business, not as the soundtrack to a day of bleary-eyed bouncing between pools of puke and billboards. Not to say that everyone has to be on their best behavior, but certainly not their worst.
Photos by Erik Hess
Thus, growing a fest that already exists, or starting a new one has to be a labor of love, or it risks losing its momentum at any time. Let's say that these points all figure into our planning for the next 10 Thousand Sounds Festival, and we have high hopes that First Avenue's live festival has these points in mind. Especially in a music-hungry market like the Twin Cities, the financial rewards will come to the programmers who want the most rewards for their attendees too. A quality music festival becomes a community experience where everyone feels like they've been gathered together for the same reason -- the music, plain and simple.
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