Cue the Music

Joe Heap helps us with the balancing act of festival programming.

The Shires performing at Towersey Festival
The Shires performing at Towersey Festival

The whole business of programming and building a line up seems to get harder year on year. I’ve been working in festivals for 20 years and programming for the last six or seven. You’d think that experience, good relationships with agents and the sheer amount of time I spend researching would mean that it’s a quick job these days.

So why is it getting harder? Well, the festival scene continues to grow. Competition is rife, and the bigger names and agents have more choice and therefore more power. Plus, there are no guarantees that what you thought was a nailed-on ticket seller is going to do it when it comes to festivals. Even those artists selling out decent size tours won’t necessarily sell your festival out. You have to dig deeper.

You can very quickly use up a huge chunk of your programme budget on a name or two and not have enough to build a great programme of surprises, adventures and new names. And in the end, that is what will make your festival stand out from the rest.

The festival experience is becoming as important as the headliner these days, so you have to get the balance of spending just right.

That said, we still rely on some heavy hitting headliners to shift those last few hundred tickets… and the agents know it. It’s supply and demand. Who needs who more, and at the moment we need them more than they need us.

But hopefully it’s a mutually beneficial relationship that supports live events and live music, finding new audiences for both artists and our festivals. And I think in the main it is.

Crowd at a busy festival


So how do you know you’re getting the deal that will work for you? Well you have to put the work in. Look at tours and how they sell. Look at geography; where’s their fan base? Social media stats are useful but not always truthful. Ask! Ask the agent, the manager, and the artist about where they are in their career. Then start negotiations. An agent won’t want to pitch a fee and you don’t want to make a silly offer. I try and get a ballpark figure from them first. A place to start. Are we talking about the same ballpark and if we are then the game is on. They will pitch a higher fee; you’ll say we only have half of that and in the end, you find a middle ground. The more I do it the more I know roughly where an artist’s fee should be from the off.

It’s always a higher fee for festivals and one-off events. It’s annoying, but you have to understand why. Tours are built to be progressive and geographically sensible. From one town to the next and in one short period. They are mostly done on door splits (percentages) so the artists and team can work out what the return is likely to be.

A festival might be at the other end of the country and they may have to travel just to do that one gig. They are sharing the stage with lots of other artists, so the ticket price calculation and split doesn’t work. They have to pay one off costs like rehearsals, drivers, sound and light techs.

On the flip side, the costs and risks of festivals are huge and occasionally artists and agents see them as a cash cow. In some cases, killing the festivals that might have booked them again if only the fees had been a bit more sensible.

A tough industry

And then there’s my biggest bugbare. We are constantly asked to book the same big names, the same top artists over and over again by their loving fans. These artists dominate the market and it becomes a catch 22. Developing artists end up playing for peanuts and we can’t book as many as we would like. So, the scene doesn’t produce, or the system doesn’t allow, enough new headliners to climb to the top.

It has always been like that I guess. The music scene is perhaps the toughest of tough industries and I can’t see that model changing anytime soon. It would be refreshing to hear a major headliner say, “I’ll knock a few thousand off my fee for you to book these great new artists that I’m supporting”. Maybe that’s something we can work on in the future?

But it can be magical, so no more doom and gloom. If you’re starting something new then first and foremost, know your audience and know your genre. Are you a blues, jazz, hip hop or something else festival? Do you know enough about that scene? Does the scene know enough about you to trust you? A lot of agents will want guaranteed fees up front or certainly deposits so look at your cash flow.

You need to work a long, long way ahead. I’m sometimes booking 18 months in advance. On the other hand, leave room for last minute exciting offers and deals. There is often a panic nearer the summer and you need to leave room for names that suddenly rise to the top and need a stage to promote the latest single.

Microphone on stage
Photo: Getty Images


When you start putting it all together, plan to a schedule. Know how many stage spots you have to fill and work on balancing them. Too many big bands one after another will be hard for the crew to manage and not leave room for the audience to take a breather. Think solos, duos, bands, acoustic spots. Get the balance right. And if you are working across multiple stages then make sure there’s time for the movement of audiences between them. Don’t programme them all to run at exactly the same time. Give people choice and make it a hard choice.


Now you’re into negotiations. Read the contracts. Check the cancellation clauses, the tech specs and see the riders before doing the deal. Think about exclusivity. Will they be playing 10 miles up the road on the next weekend? And something I have learnt the hard way this year… talk about marketing support. Will they push their own tour and ignore you? This should be a mutually supportive deal folks!

Keeping them happy

Now the festival is on. Look after all the artists. Not just the big names. Let them enjoy the festival. Put them at ease. You want a great show from them and they (including their crew) will be twitchy and nervous. But don’t get silly. Remember that they are doing a job for or with you. Spend too much on crazy riders and hospitality and a lot will end up in the bin and your budget will spiral out of control.

Make sure the stages are set, you have the right crew, copies of tech specs in all the right hands. Good sound and lights and great crew make all the difference. Don’t underspend on production. You’ll get a bad reputation fast. You want the artists to have a great gig and report back on a wonderful experience. It doesn’t always work like that but let’s aim high.

And finally (coming back to a point I made earlier) think beyond the main stages. Think about the experience. An artistic budget should be for more than just great bands. It should include site wide experiences – activities, discoveries, beautiful things to look at, learn and take home.

The festival boom is showing early signs of slowing I think. But it is still enormous. So give your audiences something special that they can’t see in the local gig venue. A gig ticket might be £30 or £40 for one headliner and a support. At a festival they can see 50 bands in a day, see amazing street theatre, learn to build a lantern or a woodland den. They can dress up, wear face paint, learn to juggle and dance till the early hours. So, consider all of that lot and then let the balancing act begin!



Joe HeapJoe Heap is the director and programmer of Towersey Festival, the oldest independent festival in the UK. Established in 1965, it continues to be one of the country’s leading festivals of acoustic, folk and roots music, attracting over 8,000 people annually. See the website to get involved as a supplier, concession or to book tickets.



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