So you want to do crazy arts stuff at festivals?
So you want to make venues/art/perform at festivals?
I’ve built a lot of big and crazy things at festivals over the years and i’ve also made a load of mistakes, writing this i’ve thought about the advice I wish I could have given myself 5 or 6 years ago. I hope its helpful to all you crazy creatives out there, get me drunk and i’ll tell you some hilarious fuck-up stories to go with this. Despite some crazy times I’m so so glad i’ve built the things i’ve built and done the work i’ve done its been an incredible learning curve and i’d recommend it to anyone mad and brave enough to give it a go.
Festivals are a really good place to learn about making large scale art. they are great for getting yourself out there and pushing boundaries, both practical and artistic.
Lots of artists and set designers have started off working at festivals because its a fantastic space to try concepts and ideas out.
Festivals are great because they will on occasion sponsor unknown artists to make crazy ideas, and are more likely to take artistic risks than arts companies or ACE funding. However they need to know that your idea is actually going to be realised, something which you need to be able to persuade them of in the outset.
Where to start
A good place to start in getting into festival work is to volunteer for one of the build or event teams at a couple of festivals over the summer. If you have a half decent arts CV and you do a bit of digging on the website you can generally get yourself voluntary build work. Be sure to pick a festival that really goes all out on the decor front - Boomtown is an ideal example. If you are struggling to find someone to send your CV too, approach some of the venues - they might need an extra pair of hands. Alternately try approaching a smaller festi or a newer one, you are more likely to be able to get hold of an actual person who can send you in the direction of the arts team.
Be prepared to work like an absolute bastard for nothing. If you're getting fed you're really winning. This unfortunately is the nature of festival work, especially at the start.
If you're a talented carpenter, welder or scenic painter you have a better chance of being paid, but as a stranger you are likely to need to volunteer on a build or two before money is offered. - I know this is rubbish but its worth thinking of it as a short internship in a really really competitive industry.
Frankly if you're going into the festival industry to make money JUST STOP NOW. Festivals do not turn over the masses of cash people think they do, vast sums go to local councils, policing and licensing and the arts budget is generally the smallest bit of the festival’s budget.
The plus side of volunteering is that you’ll meet masses of truly truly fabulous people and learn an absolute shed ton about big builds that would take ten years in a normal job to discover. If you do it right volunteering at a festival is one of the best creative internships out there.
So anyway you’ve done a bit of volunteering and you’ve come up with a genius idea you want to pitch. Firstly you need to look at the timing.
Festivals set budgets and book stuff super early and a good rule of thumb is that the bigger and more expensive the thing you want to make is the sooner you need to approach the festival in question. Also the bigger the Festival the sooner they lock down the budget.
When approaching festivals I tend to start thinking about ideas and talking to the festivals in October-they've probably already got ideas about what they want for next year so you really want to get on the radar as soon as possible. I normally send off bids in January. You can get smaller stuff in later than this but normally by March/April time most things are booked up.
Approaching the Festivals
Check the websites of the festivals you are interested in, some of them will have competitions and dates for submitting ideas. Secret Garden Party is particularly good for this but Shambala, Boomtown and Latitude to name a few do look for submissions from new artists.
Some festivals (like Kendal Calling) have Arts Council funding for builds - check out the dates for these, because they will probably be able to grant you more budget than your average festival.
Which leads us to - How to pick where to pitch.
Firstly its absolutely vital that you make your proposal specific for the festival you are approaching. Nobody likes getting an email that is obviously badly copied and pasted with no cover letter or explanation as to why the idea is suitable for the festival in question. A festivals income is dependent on its unique features so they are only going to book things which will fit their theme and atmosphere and are not going to be at every single festival that summer. This particularly applies to venues and large scale art and is less important with performers or smaller art pieces.
This isn't to say you shouldn't send ideas off to a range of places but it is super important you make the ideas fit the theme, style and feel of the festival. do a little research or apply to festivals you’ve been too.
If the festival is running a competition or has a form to fill out to develop bids make sure you answer all the questions! And preferably in the order they are listed in. It's amazing how few people do this! And if you are the poor miserable fuck wading through hundreds of peoples stupid ideas with a checklist that you need to tick off having to read through stuff a dozen times to see if they give the info you have asked for is ultimately soul destroying. Think of the person on the other side.
Writing up your project
So it's really important to make your project sound AMAZING! Take time on the write-up but keep it short - ideally under 500 words for the main concept. Separate out each section (concept, practicalities, budget etc) and give them clear headings so the reader can scan through your brief quickly and easily. If it's really long and wordy they wont read it!
USE IMAGES! - Good ones! You are doing an arts project - its all about the visuals. Without good visuals they are not going to see how amazing your idea is. If you can't draw try and persuade someone to do it or use sketch-up for you. CAD makes you look super professional too.
make a mood board to explain style and as inspiration if you can. it’s a really good way of getting across your style and the feel of your work.
If you can give as much of an explanation of how your piece will be constructed and what it needs. they clearer you are the more they are going to trust that you can actually pull this crazy shit off.
A really good proposal contains a thorough budget, timescale for completion , power, siting and sound requirements. If you need the festival to provide kit, make that clear at this point. If the thing has obvious Health and Safety or engineering concerns, talk about how your going to overcome them in the design or what you are doing.
if you are using sound or lighting kit specify what, how loud it will be and the power outage. they need this information to be able to site you.
obviously you cant always provide this kind of info straight away, if this is the case give a timeline with dates for info to come through.
Setting a Budget
This is a tricky one. If your lucky you’ll know how much the festival has to spend in which case its just a matter of making your idea stay in budget.
If not you need to cost it up really carefully and ideally come up with a few different prices - for the full extravaganza to a slim-line version. - this is for you as much as the festival, its worth waiting until they make you an offer before you tell them a set price (because they WILL haggle you down) its also worth thinking about crowd-funding or applying for Arts Council funding to joint fund your project - If you really really want to do it that is!
Festivals can rarely afford to spend much on the arts because it doesn't sell tickets in the same way that the big bands do. What they will often offer is a lot of tickets. If you are feeling really sly you can sell some of these to up your budget but whilst some festi’s will turn a blind eye to this others will completely blast you for it (NEVER do it for Glastonbury). Wether you are willing to joint fund or not get paid for your work should depend on the ownership of the work (see below)
Make your budget realistic and add at least 10-20% contingency. It will always cost more than you think it will. Getting a budget right is an art form (one i’ve frequently fucked up on!)
Who owns the work?
If you are working on commission check with the festival as to who owns the work you are creating. The general rule is that if you're getting paid ok and you're creating something the festival has asked for its probably not yours.
This can be good because;
you have no responsibility to store it
you’ll probably get paid to come and rebuild it next year
you should be getting paid for your time
it's a really good opportunity to create something massive for your CV
But if you're not getting paid, it's your concept or the budgets crap you really want to know that you're taking home the work you’ve made. This is where you are more likely to be needing to joint fund your project. In the long run its better to own your own work or venue and rent it out. Just don't forget the storage.
Talk to the Festival at the earliest stages to try and get this bit clear.
Good production - here are some things that stop production teams wanting to murder you (as i’ve learnt to my cost!)
Keep to your timescale and be on time with the requested paperwork. Especially your Health and Safety and Engineering stuff.
Write a method statement for creating your venue/piece as early as possible and try your best to stick to it.
Turn up on site when you say you will.
Be sure too ask for the right tickets and vehicle passes.
Try to respond to emails quickly and be friendly.
If you're getting food tickets, sort that out really early and try and get the numbers right.
it's ok to make mistakes - you cant always have all the info as early as production would like but let the production team know of any changes as early as possible. And apologise!
The production team are the only people able to save your arse if things go tits up. bring them cake and chocolate, they have a long and horrible job and if your shitty with them you won’t be coming back
If your are struggling to get on with the production team just try to leave them well alone. The less they see you they happier you will all be. Not all production teams are a pleasure to work with, but as long as your project is happening, they will leave you be.
Before you leave site check in and make sure they've got everything they need from you and they are happy with your pack down.
If things have worked out beautifully - send them some photos and a big thanks for having us. If you're feeling brave ask for feedback, you can use this as a reference for next year.
If you’ve had issues or things have gone tits up just get home and have a couple of weeks off before you deal with it, then pull your team together and work out why and how things fucked up. Be honest with yourself, if it's your fault, apologise. If you feel that the festival made it harder for you work out how and why and when feeding back write up the issues you have had. Try not to make it a blame game. Sometimes its impossible to get stuff right on a super tight budget. Sometimes things go tits up. Try to keep a good relationship with the festival and remember that fuck-ups are how you learn (trust me on this!)
If you still feel like making work after all of this go for it! And good luck to you. The world needs more crazy and successful artists!