Building From the Bottom Up

Behind the production of a music festival

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scmusicfest
By Kelly Leung

Every year, millions of people attend music festivals around the world but are unaware of the logistics and labor that go into the production. Weeks and hours are spent setting up, and hundreds of volunteers devote time to cleaning up the mess when it’s all over. It often takes many walk throughs to visualize the festival and careful attention to timing — if one musical act is late, it disrupts the entire schedule of set times.

Massive festivals like Coachella weren’t just born into success. Although 99,000 attended the 2016 festival each day across both weekends, it took time to gain a following.

Santa Cruz Music Festival (SCMF), which takes place every fall, is a recent addition to the music scene in Santa Cruz. Going on its fourth year taking over downtown Santa Cruz, SCMF founder Thomas Dawson discussed obstacles like learning the local bureaucracy and getting venues like the Catalyst Club on board to participate in the festival. Dawson acknowledged that Santa Cruz business owners were weary of change at first and it took time to develop his relationships.

“It took us almost six months the first time we did this to get two of our bigger venues to just play along,” Dawson said.

SCMF consultant and “Eliquate” band member Elliot Wright said the venues want to know the event will be well received and is worth the investment because their reputations are on the line.

“The tricky part is developing a trust between the booker and the venue because it’s almost like you’re throwing a party at someone’s house,” Wright said. “They need to know its going to be worth it and that they’re going to be taken care of.”

Conglomerate citywide festivals like South by Southwest [SXSW] in Austin, Texas have inspired others, including SCMF, to begin a new type of festival. This entails booking multiple venues in the downtown area rather than just one, often making it a trickier process.

Venues at SCMF have their own capacity limits. Festival goers have to plan accordingly if they want to see an artist, but if a venue maxes out, attendees won’t be able to see bands that they bought tickets for, unlike open-air festivals like Coachella that allow everyone with a wristband access to a show.

“If people are looking forward to something, they know they have to get to a venue early which, in turn, increases exposure a lot to the openers –– people they might not otherwise prioritize seeing,” Wright said.

SXSW also has capacity restrictions which regulate the crowds and push people to see new acts. Both Dawson and Wright admired this element of the festival and modeled SCMF’s capacity limitation feature after it.

This feature allows for intimate shows and a closer look at local talent. Wright stressed the importance of honoring the local music scene and giving it a chance to share its music with a crowd that extends past its typical audience.

“Giving Santa Cruz artists a platform to be a part of a festival that represents their town and pays homage to the badass-ness that is Santa Cruz –– that’s a huge part of it,” said festival consultant and “Eliquate” band member Elliot Wright.

At festivals like SXSW that celebrate the artistic talents of Austin, bigger name bands, local bands and smaller ones play at various within the city’s downtown area. For a week straight, the city is crowded with people.

Isaac Treece, a Los Angeles musician and member of Red Bull Music Academy, attended and played at SXSW last year unofficially. Although he wasn’t booked by the festival to play, Treece’s friend asked him to play at a show he organized for the festival at a Tamale house turned club set up. Under the alias “Swisha,” he produces club music inspired by Chicago footwork, a genre with origins in the ’80s.

Genres like EDM and thrash are often scheduled at the same time to prevent overcrowding, allowing people to enjoy intimate shows. Staggering these different artists is key to crowd control.

“It’s important for venue selection to be really conscientious of who you’re putting where and at what time,” Wright said. “It’s cool because they have very different genres playing at the same time.”

Not only does the spread of genres help organization, but it also turns people on to new music. It’s not always an easy process for venues to house these genres though.

“Coming up with offers for an artist in a genre that may not be in your wheelhouse can be difficult,” said Catalyst Club talent buyer Cory Atkinson. “You have to do a lot of research.”

In addition to decisions in music, the setup for a festival is a lengthy process. Equipment needs to be transported and runthroughs need to happen in order for the event to begin. Many festivals do runthroughs and sounds checks days or even weeks in advance.

“Some loadins start at noon and load out is done at 1 a.m.,” Atkinson said. “[It] makes for a very long day for the house crew and touring crew.”

The setting up and breaking down of a festival is labor intensive. It takes many hours of hauling heavy equipment with big vehicles. At this year’s Midnight in Eden, a music festival in Apple Valley, located near San Bernardino, the production team struggled to tow a load of cinder blocks needed to build one of the stages and a generator up the two mile stretch of hill in order to get to the festival.

Although Midnight in Eden is a much smaller festival, the work required is still immense. On a larger scale, SCMF uses an application form to pick groups for the lineup, differing from other festivals that hand pick their performers.

“Having an application opens our eyes to a lot of new music in town and surrounding areas,” Dawson said. “We try our hardest to know what is going in the music scene but we are a few, and all have our own personal tastes.”

More than just the decisions that go into choosing a lineup, elements like drink vendors also add further complications. It can take years and thousands of dollars to acquire, depending on the type of license. For Dawson, obtaining an alcohol license wasn’t easy. Dawson once spoke in front of city council and got denied.

“It’s a building process,” Elliot Wright said. “The first couple of years are going to be an investment.”