Monday, October 9, 2006

What you need to know about playing a festival

I love stage managing festivals. But a lot of bands, even ones who have been playing in clubs for years, don't know how to prepare for festival shows, which are very different from regular nightclub gigs. With the Candler Park Fall Fest coming up, I thought it would be good to write an article on the subject of preparing to play for a festival.

Got stage plot?

I've already talked about the importance of stage plots, especially at festivals in a previous posting. The gist is this: stage plots help a lot so you should have one. Note: If your looking for some software to make a stageplot, I've added an entry about using something called omnigraffle to make stageplots on your mac.

The Schedule

Staying on schedule is the job of the stage manager, but it's your job to work with them to do so. If you are late, or take time getting setup on stage, or the stage manager expects trouble getting you off stage, or there was a problem earlier and the stage manager needs to makeup time, your set may be cut short. It may or may not be fair, but it's always important to get off the stage when asked. I have never had to force a band offstage, but I'm sorry to admit that I have had to ask them to cut their sets a bit short on a few occasions. This was usually because they arrived late, or without a stage plot (or both!), but it does happen that I accidentally gave one band too much time, and had to cut a little time from another band. If this happens to you, it sucks. It really sucks. But it happens, and it's good to be prepared. For example, if you've got a song or two you want to finnish with, it's a good idea to keep track of time yourself (or ask for updates while on stage) so that you can skip a less important song.

If you feel that you behaved professionally and the stage manager cut your set short unfairly, especially by more than five or ten minutes, bring it up with them another time after the show or tell the booking agent or event director. You might not get preferential treatment next time, or extra money, or even an apology, if the stage manager/event planner thinks they made the right decision, but at least they'll know how you feel and it will help them to do a better job next time.

Forget the sound check

Most festivals try to cram as much music in as possible. This, combined with other considerations (like neighborhood noise laws), typically means there's no time for sound checks, so it's important to do what you can to help your sound crew prepare. Most sound crews can do a fine job even without a sound check, and, as you play, they'll tweak things very quickly so that you'll be sounding great long before your first song is over. However, it's always good to check in with them before you go on so they know what to expect and can set things up for you from the get-go. The most important thing you can do is provide a stage plot, but talking to them and describing your sound and what's most important to you about your sound helps a great deal.

Meet your monitor mixer

The sound on stage can be quite good at a festival, especially outdoors, where the lack of walls and ceiling may help reduce feedback. But remember how you didn't get to do a sound check? That means it may not sound perfect on stage from the first song. At a well run festival with a large stage, you'll typically have separate engineers for FoH (Front of House, which is what the audience hears) and monitors (which is what you hear). Make sure to introduce yourself to your monitor engineer before the show, and tell them what each musician needs to hear onstage. Typically, they can guess some things, like that the vocalists need to hear themselves, but it's good to check in with them either way. If you get onstage and you're not hearing what you need to hear, alert the monitor mixer or stage manager. Most systems allow the monitor mixer to listen to what is going through each monitor speaker without having to go onstage to listen, but they might not know a problem exists on a certain monitor speaker without you telling them. Alerting them to the trouble really can make a difference (just be sure to tell them nicely, since the monitor mixer is your bands best friend while you're on stage).

As with performing in a venue, the sound onstage can vary drastically from the house sound. That's nothing to worry about but it may be disorienting. Many singers have a hard time hearing their vocals with little to no reverb, for example, but reverb can cause feedback problems, and the monitor mixer usually has fewer effects at his or her disposal, so it's best to do without if at all possible.

Share equipment

Many bands, especially those with younger members, are adamant about using their own equipment, even if the festival provides equipment for them. This is understandable, especially if the band has a very particular sound that requires special equipment. However consider this:

  • It is usually harder to get equipment in and out of a festival setting. Festivals often take place in settings that were not designed with large equipment in mind.

  • Any time you spend getting your equipment on or off stage is time taken away from your set. (especially if I'm stage managing the event)

Finally, I'll let you in a on a little secret: outdoor sound reenforcement sucks. Yes, you heard it here first: doing outdoor sound is hard. Doing a good job without a soud-check or an engineer who has heard your band before is hard. Setting up your equipment correctly while the previous band is striking and doing it all in 15 or 20 minutes (10 minutes on my stage) is hard. Even with the right equipment, the end result can be mediocre compared to virtually any indoor setting, and very often the right equipment is not available. So be sure to ask yourself this simple question: do you really want to spend all that time getting the "perfect sound" that no one's going to hear anyway, or do you want to have time to play an extra song or two?

I don't mean to say that there's never a good reason to use your own equipment, just that you may have to make a choice between hauling gear, and playing more songs. The choice is yours and for many bands getting the right sound is both legitimate and necessary. Just be sure not to make a decision that cuts into your set time unless you have to.

Expect the Unexpected

Things usually go well if everyone is prepared. Sometimes things go well even if someone is not prepared. But in a festival, it's not uncommon for things to go wrong. With much of the work being done by volunteers, and without the common luxuries of sound-checks and familiar stages and equipment, someone is bound to be caught off-guard at some point. With all the adrenalin and exhaustion of everyone there, it's easy to get in a tizzy about this and make more mistakes (maybe I could write another entry just about that), so it's especially important to remember that everyone is there to have fun, and most people, especially the audience, are quite forgiving.

With the right preparation, though, serious problems are almost always avoidable, so do your homework (make a stageplot!) and then relax and break a leg!