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A Guitarist’s Guide to Playing Festival Gigs: Part 1

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You’ve been offered a festival gig. You picture a huge stage, a massive PA system and thousands of people revering you like the rock god you know you are.

If you’re a big headline act, this is true. If you’re an unknown band, however, this first festival experience may come as a shock.

Fear not, these tutorials will provide you with ways of being prepared and help you to enjoy it. In this tutorial, I'll show you what you need to consider before playing the event.

Playing a Festival

Whilst the idea seems attractive, you should moderate enthusiasm with practical considerations, such as:

Distance

Consider how far away the venue is. If it’s reasonably local to you, that’s fine. Remember, as the distance increases so does the cost.

Time

Consider the travel time versus time onstage. Following on from the previous point, if you’re going to spend many hours travelling just to play a 40 minute set, ask yourself whether it’s really worth it.

Travel

Consider the means of travel, together with any instruments and kit, in getting there. It's probably possible if you can drive. If you're travelling a long distance, or travelling abroad, this becomes and important consideration.

Cost

Consider whether you reasonably justify the expense of attending the venue. 

Getting Paid

Getting paid is one thing. Making it worthwhile is another. Consider whether its worthwhile and ensure that you can cover the costs otherwise it will be costing you and you'll be, effectively, financing the festival venue.

Pay to Play

Perhaps you've been asked to pay to play and are wondering about that. Ordinarily, you should never pay to play. The only exception would be if you know that this gig could change your life, such as a record label A&R person being in attendance.

Even so, be mindful and consider whether the exposure will offset the financial outlay. As per the previous comment the answer is that it rarely will. However, sometimes it can generate more work.

Festival Horrors

In terms of the day itself, at its worst, you can experience the following:

  • No soundcheck
  • Terrible monitoring
  • Awful sound
  • Cramped conditions
  • Technical difficulties
  • The shortest set you’ve ever played
  • Being hustled rapidly on and offstage

If you are still interested in taking the gig, suitably warned, check the details…

Need To Know

Having confirmed that you’re definitely playing the event, you should ask for:

  • Venue address
  • Date and time you need to arrive. Arrive a little earlier and factor time into the journey for unforeseen delays
  • To where you need report. Bigger events can have more than one entrance
  • For whom you should ask upon arrival
  • Should you bring your own gear, or is any provided, such as amps, mics, stands
  • If gear is being provided, find out what’s on offer; it may not suit your requirements
  • Are there complimentary tickets, for non-band members, or any other entitlements such as food and drink
  • How much you're being paid. If it’s a charity event, probably nothing, though some do, so it’s worth asking.

Get this all in writing, and have it with you upon arrival, just in case you’re challenged.

Travel

If you’re playing a local event, a little driving or catching a lift may be all that’s involved.

That changes, however, if it’s a significant distance. Suddenly, the entire day, or maybe even weekend, could revolve around this one event. You need therefore to plan accordingly.

If you’re driving, do the following:

  • Ensure your vehicle is both legally and mechanically in good order. It's a no-brainer, but it has to be said. Spare wheel, breakdown cover, these are all important considerations
  • Check your licence and insurance allows you to drive under these circumstances, especially important if you’re hiring a van
  • Check everything and everyone fits into the vehicle. Check before the day of departure
  • If it’s a long trip, fuel up before leaving. If you can’t make it on one tank of fuel, check where en route you can top up; don't leave it to chance
  • Check the route prior to leaving and don’t rely solely on sat-nav
  • Build extra time into the journey; you won’t win any fans by breezing in late
  • Have a contact telephone number; if you run into difficulties, you need to let the organisers know, as they may have to adjust their running order

If you’re flying to the gig:

  • Find out whether your travel costs are being covered by the organisers, unlikely if you’re a relatively unknown band
  • If staying overnight, book flights and accommodation once you’ve written confirmation that you’re definitely playing. There are any number of comparison websites for this. Try to find deals that allow you to make changes without further charge
  • Find out what the luggage allowance is, because most of it will be your gear
  • You’ll need flight cases for your gear; gig bags are only suitable for your carry-on luggage
  • Organise insurance for both yourself and your equipment
  • Check the validity of passports. If not, get onto that immediately, as most Passport Offices process applications with little urgency
  • Foreign currency; look into whether you’ll be better off organising it before you leave, or once you arrive
  • Have a budget which covers everything; remember, you have to eat
  • Check your mobile phone provider, that there is coverage where you’re going, and what the charges are

Conclusion

Taking on a festival gig takes a lot of preparation, and that’s before you’ve even arrived. To summarise, bear in mind:

  • the travel, the cost, the fee (if any), and your time
  • Only pay to play if it’s a life-changing opportunity
  • Check the event’s details in advance, such as address, date and arrival time, gear required and/or supplied, fee (if any), plus policies on guests and sustenance
  • If driving, checked you’re insured, your vehicle is legal and roadworthy, can accommodate people and gear, and that you know where you’re going
  • If flying, budget for flights, accommodation, insurance, food. Check your passport’s current, that your mobile will work and not cost you a fortune.

In the next tutorial I'll look at how a gigging rig may not be suitable for the festival experience.

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