Playing a festival is often high up on any young band’s agenda. In fact, scratch that, it is high up on any band’s agenda, because festivals are great. Whether you are trying to break a new audience, take the step up from O2 Academies to arena tours, or just want to play in a field, in the rain alongside other bands you love, the festival slot is a great prize.
But it is so damn hard to get the bookings. Having seen this from both sides, as artist and promoter, I maybe have a little insight into both the expectations / misconceptions of the bands and the business vs. passion conflicts of the organisers.
As I am currently programming Long Division for the third year, I am receiving bucketloads of applications and a lot of people seem to make the same mistakes time and time again. Here, I am compiling what I feel are useful guidelines if you are applying to a festival. Some of it will sound harsh, unfair and cruel. But from my experience, it is all true.
Because the truth is that the application you spend an age perfecting will probably be not even read. One word or phrase in there will instantly turn off the promoter. I do it everyday: delete. Or send it to an applications folder to ‘read later’ but is never seen again because I’m out there booking bands I already know and love.
It may seem incredibly arrogant that I would delete an application without even reading the whole thing. As someone who was (and is) in a band, I find it quite disgusting.
But most festivals will, though I would like to note that I am referring to ‘cold’ applications i.e. ones that just appear in my inbox with no preamble or explanation. Specific application processes, with requirements made clear, have an obligation to read submissions carefully, if not listen.
So now we’ve made clear what a shit I am, and what a fucked up industry this is, let’s see what we can do to improve your chances.
To put your application in perspective, Long Division receives on average 5 – 10 applications a day to play the event. These start appearing when we announce our dates (so maybe 9 months prior to the event) and continue well into the summer – they are not the result of us requesting applications. These hit their peak around the January to March window. If a band applies to us in that busy period, they are going to be one of maybe 1000 applications. And we are pretty low down on the festival circuit, let’s be fair, so imagine what bigger ones have to deal with?
This stems mainly from places like EFestival and The Unsigned Guide. A lot of bands come across The Unsigned Guide at some point, when it suddenly feels like all your problems have been solved. Instead of endlessly Googling for record labels to send demos to, venues to play at, or festival to apply to, it’s all there, in one handy guide.
Unfortunately, it's not just you that has this information. It’s now just easier for you to spam people. It’s a result of our connection to this that we now get applications from all over the place, including:
- The Only Way Is Essex ‘stars’
- Bands who have ‘played alongside’ One Direction, Busted, Snoop Dogg etc
- Tibetan Throat Singers
- House DJ’s who are legends in
- Status Quo Cover Bands
So you see why I have got into the habit of hitting ‘delete’. Your genuinely interesting and relevant application could be lost amongst the spam. So the key is, how do you make it stand out and increase your chances of playing a festival?
It’s Who You Know
The niggling suspicion I had a bassist in an under achieving
was true. The number one rule of playing festivals (and probably your entire
musical career) is that it completely depends on who you know.
But that doesn’t mean festival promoters only give slots to their mates. It means you need to try and build a relationship with the organisers. Who is behind the festival? If, as with Long Division, they are run by a zine or website, have you sent them records to review in the past? Have they covered a live show of yours? Have you made any effort to get your name known by them, or is this application the first time they will have come across you?
If you are an active band, you should already be building contacts with other bands, zines and venues. A recommendation will go along way. Think about that wall of 1000 applications sat in Long Division’s email account. If there is someone we know and trust who can point a big finger at your name, it can only help. If you have played with a band we have had on before, if you have released a record with a label we celebrate, if you once worked at McDonalds with the drummer from the band that so-and-so from Kaiser Chiefs used to play in… any connection to what the festival is about and its circle of friends will help. It’s not about cliques – it’s about your name being more than just another on a list.
Success with this element can make the rest of this posting irrelevant. Because if they know you, they will read it all and give it the time it deserves. I know from reviewing records; it is much harder to rate a record poorly if it is someone you have had a pint with. Likewise with festival applications.
The most common email that arrives in my inbox is one that is clearly sent out to every festival in the country. If you think this is the way to get a slot at a festival, you are severely misinformed.
For one, it sticks out like a sore thumb (especially if you forget to change the name of the festival in the main text before sending). The main failing, however, is that there isn’t an application that will suit every festival, because every festival is different. By trying to please them all with this perfectly constructed email, you will likely please none of them.
You need to reduce your targets. There is no point applying for a festival that doesn’t suit who you are and what you want. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste mine. Spend more time on finding the right events and then personalise. When I open an email and it begins ‘Dear Sir / Madam’ I am already hovering over the delete button. Whereas, if the band has taken the time to figure out my name, or at least title with the festival's name, I am at least still interested.
It takes longer, but don’t spam. Maybe the best intro is to say you have actually attended the festival as a punter in previous years – assuming you have, don’t lie. We love to hear from people that took the effort to attend. Flattery goes miles. A personal opening that is clearly addressed to that one festival only will do wonders, and will at least get the reader to the second paragraph.
Another big mistake is to make an application too long. The story of how your band formed is, to you, unique and endlessly interesting. No-one else gives a fuck. Simple as.
“My band formed in 2006 through a shared love of The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. We played at many local venues and developed a reputation for an exciting and energetic live show. We then recorded a demo at Blah Blah Blah Studios with a producer you don’t know and released it to wild acclaim (though we have no reviews to prove it). Sadly, in 2009 Jimmy left for university and after a long search we found Jonny who replaced him on guitar, giving the band a harder edge…”
That’ll make great copy in your autobiography one day, I’m sure, but this isn’t the time or place. I’ve done the very same thing when I was posting things out for my band. Now I know that organisers don’t have the time for it. Worse, they carry around the idea that they have seen it all before, and the above will only reinforce that idea.
You need to focus on what you are doing now. A chronological explanation of the band always means the interesting stuff is at the end. Maybe the above story ends with:
“Then, after completing the tour support with Sonic Youth, we signed to
But I probably wouldn’t even get that far. What have you achieved in the last six months (tops)? What are you doing right now, and what is coming up between now and the festival? Try and avoid what ‘might’ be happening or what you ‘plan’ to be doing. Give me facts, a snapshot of who the band is right now. The application as a whole should be no more than three paragraphs.
Do Your Research
What is the festival looking for in a band? For Long Division, I am looking for a shared understanding of what music is, the purpose it serves and how you operate as an artist. I want examples of a DIY ethos, connections to underground / alternative culture. Some festivals are looking for a specific genre. Others aren’t overly bothered if your brand of pub-rock is slightly predictable; it’s about how good you are at entertaining a crowd of people. Some are just interested in how many YouTube hits you’ve had.
There is no right or wrong thing. But you need to understand what the festival wants. It’s not about a great riff. It’s a bigger package than that. It’s the ethos. It’s like when I get an application and the main selling point is that Nissan used one of the band’s songs on an advert. Or that they were finalists for Live & Unsigned. I just feel like saying; don’t you read the zine? Which, of course, they don’t.
By doing your research and knowing what a festival wants, you can send different types of application to different festivals; some focussing on the great reviews you’ve had from Traditional English Folk Weekly whilst others focussing on how you recorded and released your debut record, whilst self funding a UK tour. Tailoring your applications will greatly increase the odds of being noticed. It will also inadvertently force you to assess yourself and your goals; a very positive thing.
Make It Scanable
So, thus far, you have managed to send your application to the right people, have personalised it to their requirements and kept it short and to the point. That may well have got you to the exciting point where the entire email will be read.
Harsh, but probably true. Any festival that claims to read then listen to every artist that sends an application is either a liar, suffering a severe crisis of identity, has too much time on it’s hands, which leads to the idea it is likely to not be a very good festival – unless they have a specific application process, as mentioned previously.
At this point, you need to once again think about what this specific festival is looking for. I will only scan through first of all. Especially now, with emails on phones, I may receive yours whilst I am at work. Or waiting for the bus. Will I still remember it when I log on to the laptop that evening?
Think of the application as the written part of a job application. You need to talk about your achievements. It’s about hard facts, as well as ideals and intentions. Only a good written application will get you through to the face to face interview, by which I mean download your music or watch a YouTube clip.
So when I am scanning, I want to see things that set off light bulbs in my head. Bands you have played with. Festivals you have performed at. Records you have released. Are we on the same wavelength?
As many little lighbulb moments as you can fit in. Press quotes are excellent, though I always scan over where the press quote has come from rather than the quote itself. If Steve Lamacq has been talking about you, it tells me something different to if it came from The Sun newspaper.
This scanning may seem unnecessarily unfair. If I had time to look at them all I would. But this method means I can chuck out stuff that is really obviously not what my festival is all about. And if your application isn’t hitting these points, it may get thrown out with the rest of the rubbish, despite you actually being pretty decent.
You’ve made it. You’ve not been deleted out of principal, they’ve not hated your band name and it sounds like you are up to some really interesting stuff.
It’s time to link to your music. This is, to be fair, pretty easy. Things to avoid are linking to videos of low quality live shows. Avoid out of date sites (I still get people linking to Myspace, for example) and choose your most immediate, accessible work.
I feel especially wrong about that last point because a lot of music that I love is quite slow burning. I don’t want knuckle dragging indie anthems at Long Division. If your music is less accessible, you really need to work on building those relationships before hand. Or getting some great quotes that will get the listener through that three minute organ drone that opens your masterpiece album.
But if you can, keep it to one music link, one video link. If you link to a Bandcamp or a YouTube channel, it gives us the opportunity to easily seek out more if we like what we see / hear.
Don’t pester the promoter. But it isn’t a crime to follow up an application. It is incredibly difficult to judge because you don’t know the timescales they are working to. Before I began doing Long Division, I wouldn’t have dreamed of not replying to someone’s email, ever. The first year I tried to, and that’s when I gave up. I’m sorry, I don’t have the time to try and be polite and say why I don’t want your band to play at my festival.
But sometimes we forget things. There is so much going on that we might have forgotten to note your band down two months ago, even though we really loved what we heard.
I’d say you get one chance at a follow-up. Keep it brief. Don’t be upset if you hear nothing. Paying an interest to the festival through social media might give you that chance. We’ve had bands pull out relatively last minute, resulting in some local soul getting a shot. It can happen. But otherwise, you may have to accept defeat. And one more thing; don’t ask for feedback.
Is It Worth It?
There are a million bands out there. I could create a line-up in an afternoon if I wanted. Amazingly, some festivals run like this. They are clearly organised by people who want a big event, either for a quick buck (fools) or to make something happen in their local area, but have almost no understanding of how live music or events work. They have no connections. They just need noise to fill space.
Is that worth your time? Playing a festival, if you are an unsigned band, will cost you money. But will you get to play to a new, attentive audience? Will you get paid? Are free tickets to the event enough?
Your time as a band should be precious. Picking and choosing doesn’t just help the festivals, it helps you too. I know festivals that refuse to pay bands, even ones that have travelled from other countries. I question why those bands agreed to it. Is it to put the festival on their band CV? Because that isn’t the kind of festival you want on there.
Finally: You Are Not Special
I’m sorry, but that is likely to be true. You might be still finding your feet as a band. You aren’t the finished article, or the festival would be chasing you. The festival doesn’t need you as much as you need them. It is their livelihood on the line, so why should they take a risk on you?
Everyone has a Facebook and a Twitter and a Bandcamp and the rest. For unsigned bands, a YouTube video can help. High Quality photography, even if just live shots. Your own web domain, even if it just links back to the bandcamp. Anything to suggest that you are busy and active.
Promoters are an odd breed, in that they are incredibly enthusiastic and inquisitive, but also incredibly jaded and cynical. This festival is their baby; every element needs to be perfect and beautiful. You need to stand out, find that little thing that shows you are special and should be given a chance to prove it. The jaded side of the promoter, sick to death of ridiculous applications is waiting for that special band to pop up in their inbox that makes their heart jump, to reinvigorate their excitement.
Above all, the festival should simply be another part of your overall attitude of making friends and contacts, having confidence in what you do and enjoying it. It’s not something that needs special care or attention. If you are doing everything else right, it will all come together naturally.