Caustic's Ten Tips for Putting on a Music Festival
July 19, 2013, 04:57:pm
Booking and planning a music festival is both massively stressful and even more massively rewarding if you pull it off. Seeing a ton of people show up to something you put together is an amazing feeling that I was fortunate enough to have for the seven years I put on the Reverence Festival here in Madison, WI. Here are some tips to think about when planning your fests:
1) STACK THE DECKS WITH GOOD LOCAL/REGIONAL ACTS
This is imperative for a few reasons. One is because it’ll allow you to give exposure to deserving bands in the area who will also play cheaply (meaning “free” or “for gas money”. Another is because they’ll spread the word (and don’t book bands that won’t promote their own shows—everyone has to pitch in) and get their fans and friends to come out. Also, try and book bands with different enough styles that you’ll get a wider variety of people coming out that can hopefully appreciate more than one of the acts.
When ordering the line-up worry more about flow than who's most popular and if they'll be mad if they play before some other band. ALWAYS put any bands not from the area on later though, as they're travelling and ideally bigger than most of the local bands. I also generally tried to book a band that had only played a few shows to open the fest, as it was a great chance for them to prove themselves and more established artists wouldn't feel like they were "the effin' OPENING opening band". This is for the audience, not to cater to egos. It's not a competition.
2) ORGANIZE A LINE-UP THAT GETS ALONG
Nobody has time for drama or other bullshit. If two bands can’t get along you simply book the one that’ll get along with the rest of the line-up best. If the fest goes well you’ll book the other band next year. Flip a coin, if anything, and if the other band gets butthurt tell them that you want this event fun, not tense. And it’s not personal—you have an entire day (or few days) to think about. Maybe everyone should grow up a little.
More importantly, the better the energy of the entire event the better for everyone. Nobody’s going to get rich off of a small festival, but you want to make sure that it’s a party worth remembering, so bring the people that can make that happen.
3) BE UPFRONT ON PAYMENT/MINIMIZE TO MAXIMIZE
Festivals aren’t a cheap endeavor, so budget accordingly. Most importantly though, let people know if they are or aren’t going to be paid. My deal with local and regional bands was that they’d get food, booze, gas money, and have a ton of fun when they played, and if I ended up making money they’d be the first people to get some. I always divided it up evenly so we all got the same amount, not worrying about where people were in the line-up.
4) TRY AND GET SPONSORS
Know a friend that has a pizza place? See if they’ll sponsor the fest by donating 10 pizzas and make sure there are posters for their restaurant around the venue and on all the ads for the fest. Know a local business that might donate fifty to a hundred bucks to be on the posters? Get it! It’s not about paying for the fest with some massive sponsorship, but about knocking down the overall expenses bit by bit. Working with local businesses that cater to your crowd is also a good thing—I ended up working with gaming stores, comic shops, and tattoo places when I did my fest, and I never asked for a ridiculous amount of money so it would be a win-win situation and take a bit off my bottom line while promoting their businesses.
And there’s nothing better than a local microbrewery donating a few kegs to show off some local tastiness and cover your booze requirements for the bands. Just sayin’.
5) MAKE A LIST. CHECK IT TWICE.
This is where the most problems happen—you need to make sure that you have literally EVERYTHING in place before your festival starts. That means reliable sound and lighting people, hospitality (ie food/drink) for the bands, hotel reservations or other accommodations, and backlined equipment if the band isn’t, say, bringing their drum kit on the plane. You have to have know who will be DJing between sets. You need to know if the sound system is adequate or if more needs to be brought in. Is security needed? You need to know if sound checks or line checks are even feasible and if the venue will open early enough for you to even get stuff set up.
So make a list. Show it to people to make sure you didn’t miss anything. And make sure you have it covered.
Oh, and be VERY clear with the venue/venues about everything going on. You don’t want any miscommunications that may bite you in the butt later on and make the venue cancel out on you last minute.
6) SPACE OUT THE FESTIVAL CORRECTLY
One time Caustic played a one day festival where the organizer literally had no time for bands to change over. The line-up read (literally) like this: “SCREAMING MECHANICAL BRAIN 11:14-12:00, GOD PROJECT 12-12:45, CAUSTIC 12:45-1:30” Not allowing for adequate time for bands to change over, especially when they may have drumkits (and getting bands to agree to share a kit saves mucho time), means everything will run late. Because of this you should do two things: 1) Ask bands how much time they need, and 2) Make sure you have at least a half an hour of time at the end of the night as padding. Fifteen minutes is usually adequate between bands, but make sure you know what you're getting into.
Things won’t always run on time. In fact, they pretty much never will, but if the bands know they only have a 30 minute set make sure they know to end on time (hell, I asked bands how long EXACTLY their sets were to the minute to make sure), and make sure that people are ready to go to flip the stage so the next band can set up.
7) IF YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE PEOPLE HELP YOU, TRUST THEM WITH AT *LEAST* YOUR LIFE
When it came to my festival I handled the majority of the duties myself. When it came to my sound person I had a guy (or a few guys, as my fest turned into 4 days over the years) I knew I could depend on, a lighting person I knew I could depend on, a woman who could organize and sell all the band’s merchandise, and I also had a person helping shuttle bands to the hotel and back and running errands for me that I knew I could depend on.
Don’t work with anyone you can’t depend on. If one person bails or doesn’t show up it could screw everything up, so keep your crew tight and trustworthy. It’s better than having 15 people volunteer to help out and 8 decide they can’t be bothered and get high in the bathroom with the bands. (NOTE: DO NOT LET THE BANDS GET HIGH IN THE VENUE BATHROOM).
8) BUILD IT SLOWLY
If you do a respectably sized festival the first year, don’t lose money, and everyone had a good time know this: You have succeeded where most festivals have failed. With that said, don’t say “Hey, that was easy!” and expand the festival from a small club to an arena and and make the festival 3 full days. Know what you and your crowd can handle and work slowly every year to build the festival accordingly. I believe the first year of my fest we only did one day, and the next year we did a pre-party with DJs the night before, and then the next year had two days of bands. Doing this incrementally is key, because when you build it slowly you’ll understand the pitfalls and problems you’ll face a bit better. More importantly you don’t want to upgrade the festival to an extent that, quite simply, the crowds won’t accommodate.
9) PRICE THE FEST ACCORDINGLY
If you put on a festival, make sure you budget it so you won’t break even on it with a sellout crowd. I generally budgeted my festival modestly where I’d hit breakeven at 100 people. I gave people who preordered tickets a couple bucks off so I’d have more cash on hand to cover plane tickets and other expenses I had to buy on my credit card, and I made damn sure I had plenty of time to market and promote the show so the maximum amount of people would know about it. For the record, my festival was a small one and generally drew 250-300 people on the big night, so when I budgeted for 100 people I knew it was a smart calculated risk. I also knew that I’d have to call in favors and cut corners as much as I could to cover everything. And outside of one year I never lost money on the fest. Good planning equals less overall risk. And don’t get in over your head—if a band wants a ridiculous amount try and talk them down to something reasonable or offer a backend percentage after your expenses are covered. Most bands will take it since they’ll know they already have a built in audience to see their show and, more importantly, buy their merchandise.
10) IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
Yes, you’re in charge. Yes, you’re doing a ton of work. Yes, you’re awesome if you pull it off. Guess what though? It’s not about you. It’s about the festival and the bands and the crowd and the party. You’re throwing it and should get a lot of credit, but don’t make AWESOMEFEST turn into LARRYFEST (assuming your name is Larry). You should be a gracious host and be cool to everyone, and I mean everyone, involved. Be appreciative, even if someone else isn’t, and very importantly know that this is a party for EVERYONE ELSE and a BUSINESS for you.
What does this mean? Simple—don’t celebrate like everyone else is. Don’t get hammered and pass out so someone else has to deal with the venue and the money for the bands at the end of the night. And why am I saying this? Because I was that person. And it was a bad night because of it. Be smarter than that. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a drink or two, but don’t have fifteen shots and a twelve foot line of coke. Be professional. Always be professional.
Recovery and "The Scene": Getting Through The Weirdness
May 07, 2013, 11:41:am
First, a big disclaimer. I don’t know everything about addiction. I don’t pretend to know what motivates each individual person to make bad calls and dive headfirst into the abyss. I just know what I went through and go through on a daily basis. I’m no expert, but I get asked about it a lot so I thought I’d share some of my experience doing this music stuff as a recovering alcoholic.
Also, I don’t give a shit if you get hammered, high, or jerk off while choking yourself. It’s your life to live. This isn’t an advertisement for recovery or a judgment on anyone else’s behavior. I wish I could still get screwed up, but I suck at it so I had to stop. Still, get help if you think you have a problem, whether that be a therapist or a detox or a program. It’s really hard to do it on your own.
With that said, at the time of this writing I got sober over three years ago. I hit bottom at a Caustic show (well, technically hours after when I woke up in the back of the club passed out) and realized shortly after that I couldn’t do this to myself and the people I loved any longer. So I decided to break up with alcohol and got help. For those who don’t know what Caustic used to be like and what Caustic’s like now, let’s put it this way: I drank on stage. And off. And anytime I could. Caustic was for all intents and purposes, at least to me, a party band where I got to be the life of the party. Honestly, it still is—I’m just not the passed out host at the end of the party any more.
Also, I’m not “cured”. I could still relapse. This is my thing for life. I just fortunately got it under control.
Being as known as I was for drinking I actually did have some trepidation stopping. It feels stupid now, but there was a small fear like I was letting people down by quitting, but when I realized I finally had to stop I simply didn’t care what the consequences were from people who weren’t my wife, family, or close friends. I hit the wall, and I needed to reassemble the pieces.
The main reason I’m writing this isn’t to toot my horn about sobriety (believe me, bragging feels stupid when life knocks you on your ass), but because I get asked a lot about how the hell I stay sober for shows and especially festivals. While it’s gotten easier over time, I won’t pretend that playing shows the first few times after I cleaned up was easy. Luckily I have a lot of good friends and fans who were extremely supportive of my decision. I also tried to keep a sense of humor about it, making a fake press release (linked below) announcing my newfound sobriety and for my first sober show getting a friend to be my “designated drinker” on stage (I subsequently have done this at other shows, including last year’s tour). I made a conscious effort to make what was a pretty uncomfortable situation as comfortable as possible by being open about it, but not whining publicly about all the crap I was going through (I did channel it into my Livejournal for a time, as well as lyrically for a few songs, notably White Knuckle Head Fuck).
After a few shows of just feeling weird having CONTROL again though, I felt better. Not only did I feel better, the shows got better too. I’m saying this based on what a lot of people have told me, and that feels great. I think the music got better too, simply because I actually started focusing 100% on it instead of splitting the focus with whatever I wanted to put into my system for “inspiration”…and generally ended up making the music sound like shit.
Back to the point. Here are some tips for your garden variety alcoholic/addict to get through shows, festivals, and dealing with lots of people having fun on various substances.
1) Just Say No…Thank You
I get offered shots and drinks all the time. I turn down shots and drinks all the time. I don’t get bent out of shape about it, because even though a lot of people know I don’t drink anymore I’m not so self-centered (okay, maybe a little) to think the whole effing planet knows. So I say no thanks. Sometimes people, especially those who are a bit more screwed up than they need to be, aren’t good at taking no for an answer. For that I simply channel Swayze in Road House and continue to be nice. I can’t think of a single time where anyone’s gotten angry at me or kept persisting, but if they did I’d just get the hell out of there. That’s their bullshit to deal with.
2) Move Around A Lot, Or Stay By The Booth
One of the beauties of being me is ADHD—I can’t focus for shit (and for the record a lot of people with distraction issues use and drink, as it allows them to focus better—it’s not a good excuse, but it’s true) and so I get fidgety staying in one place too long in general. This helps a lot at festivals as if I’m not watching the band on stage I’m generally bouncing from conversation to conversation and hanging out with people. If I don’t know many people there I tend to stay by the merchandise booth. While it’s nice to have someone handle your merch booth, it’s even nicer to be able to talk with people at the event. In my experience you also tend to sell more merch that way. You even get to sign it sometimes, which makes you feel like Bono…if Bono just sold a shirt referencing vaginas.
3) Know Your Sober Friends
Not everyone drinks or does drugs. Simple as that. Many people never have and still have a great time. Other people have stopped drinking or doing drugs and know what you’re going through. Know those people. I played the Kinetik Festival a few short months after quitting drinking and was determined to stay sober during the event, but staying sober for me wasn’t as much the hard part—it was being around so many (exceptionally nice) people who were waaaaaay hammered and/or otherwise altered. I wasn’t mad at them for it. I wasn’t even really all that bummed that I couldn’t do it. I just needed someone who understood what I was going through and could relate. Luckily I knew another artist that had also quit that would be there, and when he showed up I bee-lined it over to him and just knowing he went through the same shit made me feel a whole lot better. We talked about it some and hung out for a while and it recharged my batteries on dealing with the lovely drunken masses. In all honesty he saved my ass, as I drank for a lot of reasons, and one was because it made me more social. I’m far from introverted, but I was still getting my bearings at the time and was learning how to deal with people in a very drunk environment as a non-drunk.
4) Drive Yourself, or Know When To Leave
While not always a possibility, it’s good to know that if things get uncomfortable you have an escape plan. Sometimes things get ugly- people get really hammered, people start fighting, people go into a sex frenzy and you wouldn’t touch the best looking one even at your formerly drunkest. Mostly, it might be because people are being drunk dicks and there’s no talking sense to them. So leave. Make sure anyone you came with has a safe way home and ditch the place. It’s better to remove yourself from a situation that threatens your sobriety or general well being than be some stupid hero and stick it out. There’s no honor lost in leaving a crappy party.
5) Don’t Be A Self-Righteous Dick
You’re clean and/or sober. Congratulations. You went through hell and are working your way to a better life. You’re awesome. Guess what though? You’re far from perfect, so don’t hop on the judgment train because you’ve addressed your problem and someone else maybe hasn’t…or they don’t even HAVE a problem and are just getting their party on. Remember that you used to enjoy doing that before you started ruining your life and blowing truckers for meth cash.
Self-righteousness is as ugly as it gets. You’re no better than anyone else. You’re just better than you used to be. Get over yourself and be kind to the other drunks. Everyone’s not out to destroy their lives—most just want to strap their drunkbag on and try to get laid. Know that the best way to represent sobriety is by showing you’re still along for the party and still having a good time without all the substances. Acting like everyone has to be that way just makes you look like you’re pissed that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. It doesn’t mean you have to stick around for every stupid idea people have—it just means that judging people for the same shit you did is completely hypocritical. If people see you being cool with stuff it might make someone else with issues realize it’s not the end of the world quitting drinking or doing drugs. Because it’s not. It just means you have more spending money and remember where your car is the next morning.
Quitting alcohol and drugs is never easy if you have a problem. By the time you realize how bad it is you feel weirder being straight than on your substance of choice and your perspective on everything is, for lack of a better term, completely fucked. Don’t make your life harder for yourself by quitting other things in your life that can be positive. While I associated my music with my addiction issues I was able to turn it into part of my rehabilitation by getting more creative to fill the (massive amount of) time I spent getting screwed up. If you can’t divorce hitting the clubs or making music without drugs or alcohol then don’t feel obligated to keep it up, but if you can ease yourself back into it know that things can still be fun or more rewarding if you can still find the kernel of passion and love that got you into doing it in the first place.
And if you’re reading this and can’t relate to anything I’ve said I applaud you. I hope you never have to understand it. But for those who are reading this and going through all the shit—it does get better, it’ll get less weird feeling, and things will suck significantly less as time goes on. You hopefully don’t have to start your whole life over to get better, so don’t give things up that make you happy whether you’re clean/sober OR drunk.
As a small side note, if you basically want to hear me hitting rock bottom listen to my album …And You Will Know Me By The Trail of Vomit. It went into mastering a little before I hit bottom and came out a month to the day after I quit. You can get the Caustic’s Detox podcast “commentary track” on iTunes as well. I talk about all this shit in more detail than most people probably want.
I’ll put this out there pretty simply: I don’t need a label to release my music. I don’t say that with any intended arrogance or as a middle finger to any label I am , or have been, on. I just don’t.
Neither do you, really. Neither does anyone these days.
I was listening to a podcast yesterday (Walking the Room, if you’re interested. You’re not? Oh well.) and they were discussing labels releasing albums for artists and if you’d make more money just doing it yourself if you’re already established and have a strong online presence, tour, etc. The conclusion they came to, which I agree with, is that you can probably make more money overall doing it yourself if you’re at that point, but you’ll get more exposure to more people if you go with a label.
If you’ve been doing this for any length of time where you’ve been fortunate to build a fanbase that will support you by seeing you live, buying your albums and/or merchandise, and more importantly spreading the word on your stuff, then you honestly might not need a label. Hell, it could “only” be a few thousand people. It’s the relationship that matters—bands with 100,000 “fans” may only sell marginally better than a band with a devoted cult of 10,000 fans that worship the ground they walk on. Think Insane Clown Posse (who have waaay more than 10k fans).
Either way you do it though, know you’re going to have to work your ass off.
So why be on a label at all? You might get a decent royalty rate but when it comes down to it if you can sell enough CDs and digital downloads one your own you can make a lot more than if you do it yourself. Making music is cheaper than ever to produce and get out to the masses, so that’s a huge help to small artists. Also, more and more people are purchasing music using digital sites, and artist friendly sites like Bandcamp have made it even easier for fans to directly support the artists they love.
Here’s why it’s good to be on a label…and for the record we’re talking a decent label that takes their job seriously. There are plenty of labels that just enjoy saying they’re a label and don’t do shit to promote their artists.
A good label…
-fronts the cash for the release and/or maybe even an advance to use for recording and touring (which will come out of your royalties). They take the hit financially if it doesn’t succeed.
-handles distribution. They package the albums. They do the shit work that most of us hate dealing with.
-promotes the release with DJs, magazines, radio, and maybe even pitch it for inclusion on TV and film.
-gives you some credibility in the marketplace, aka “This band must be good—they’re on Butt-Butt Records!”
-provides a potential family of other artists to work and be associated with.
-represents you to the best of their ability, using their collective skills and expertise to market you and help get your name out there.
Here’s why DIY can be better—when you do it yourself you…
-don’t have to answer to anyone ever. You represent yourself and never have to worry about someone misrepresenting what you do. You “get” you like nobody else.
-can keep whatever money you bring in. This could backfire and you could lose your ass if you don’t budget right or don’t sell enough, however. Still, you could potentially make more. A lot more.
-have a better connection with your fanbase. They can’t use the “well I bet you’re getting screwed by your label so I’m happy to torrent everything you’re trying to sell” excuse without, well, looking like a dick.
-can release what you want when you want how you want. That means everything can be free. Your call.
-are forced to learn about the business of music, even on a small level. This makes it harder for people to screw you over. It makes you smarter and more confident.
I’ve had the privilege of being on labels as well as self-releasing, I honestly don’t know what’s best for me these days. While it’s nice to be on a label with as much name recognition and clout as Metropolis I receive no advances (nor have ever asked for one- I don’t feel like owing people money) and with Kickstarter and other crowd funding sources out there it’s easier than ever if you’re established enough to finance your art without having to get into massive financial debt, plus keep that strong connection with the people that support you. Truth be told if I self-released my last album I would have made significantly more money (or significant for me—even a couple hundred bucks is a big deal to me a lot of the time), as I bought my album wholesale from Metropolis to fulfill my promises to Kickstarter backers. No regrets, but thems the facts. And even more truthfully, I’m not a cash cow for Metropolis, but I sell well enough to hold my own. I’m not a Covenant, Combichrist, or other more popular “C” band. I’m a critically acclaimed (which usually means squat, sales-wise), smallish to middle-sized fish in a big pond. Therefore they need me about as much as I need them: Not much at all, when it comes down to it. Again, thems the facts.
So what do I recommend?
Honestly, I think it’s vital for an artist to understand how to self-release, and since most of us don’t start making music and get signed before we have music out. Because of this I wouldn’t rely on anyone to handle your music for you at first, so I definitely encourage anyone out there who wants to take the next step and release their own music, whether it be dealing with getting a CD out and/or releasing music digitally. The trial and error knowledge I’ve learned from that process has given me a confidence to know that I can just walk away from whatever label situation I’m in (and I’ve never been in a bad one, fortunately) and keep going. Eventually a label may come calling and you decide it’d be interesting to see what else they can offer. With all the experiences you’ve had self-releasing you can ideally better figure out if the label you’re talking to is actually going to be beneficial to what you’re trying to do musically or if they’re, for lack of a better term, full of crap.
Being on a label is overall a good thing. I wouldn’t have connected with a lot of fans if I didn’t have the “Metropolis Brand” (and formerly the “Crunch Pod Brand”) behind me. Let’s face it—some people still assume you’ve “made it” if you’re on Metropolis, so they’ll check you out because of it. How far that will actually help you is more on you than the label however, because as much as a label can promote you it’s on your shoulders to do the lion’s share of the work. They can bring the crowd to you, but you have to impress them enough to stay.
It’s all a matter of preference. Personally I’m still debating whether I want to be on any label at all these days, as I’ve been fortunate to work my way up the ladder enough to be self-sufficient and, frankly, I think I could potentially do better alone. I know a lot of other artists who would get lost in the process of self-releasing and still think the validation of a label is more important than potentially getting screwed on a deal. For example, know that there are labels out there currently that you will never get the rights back to your music when you sign with them. Metropolis isn’t one of those, and I would never have signed with them if that was required.
In closing, making amazing art and putting in the time to get your name out there can be done alone or with a label’s helpful push. Just know that there isn’t any one way to do it, especially nowadays, and if you’ve got the determination and motivation you can succeed either way. You just need to decide what’s best for you and what sacrifices you’re willing to make for either side. Either way you’re going to put in a lot of work to succeed, so get ready for the long haul, and make it worth it.
(This blog was inspired by a suggestion from Ben Schicker on Facebook)
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Caustic's new album THE MAN WHO COULDN'T STOP is out NOW on Metropolis Records: www.industrial-music.com