The 23 steps required to start a music festival

The 23 steps required to start a music festival

The unified, sweaty mass of 100,000 people moving and grooving as one unit to the artist on stage. This is the experience that fans eagerly anticipate all year, and artists dream of achieving.

Music festivals are more popular today than EVER before. In contrast to more materialistic boomers or gen-xers, millennial consumers place greater value on experiences over possessions. Trends like this have contributed to the rapid rise in popularity of festivals.

If you observe the current landscape of successful music festivals you will notice that they all tend to emphasize a certain “lifestyle” element. Coachella may have spawned the current term “festival wear” relating to the chic-hippie jean shorts, flowery hats and light tops worn by young female festival goers. Bonnaroo was rooted in the Jam Band community and created the best environment available for fans of that musical genre. Electric Daisy Carnaval launched a movement and popularized the look of EDM Kandi Ravers, neon and out-of-this-world light shows.

Start a music festival
Coachella Fashion

“Owning” a lifestyle brand is common among successful festivals. There are hundreds of lower to mid tier festivals with great talent line-ups, great fan engagement and other goodies that barely scrape by financially.

It is key to develop a cohesive lifestyle theme that speaks to fans at a deeper level.

What does it take to start a music festival? It takes passion, drive, money, energy, connections and resources. Here is at least a blueprint that will get you started in the right direction.

*** How to Start a Music Festival ***

1. Start with a hypothesis

What are you trying to achieve? Are you scratching an internal creative itch, or have you identified a trend in the marketplace not currently served by a music festival? Having a vision is more than important, it is essential. Write down ideas. Discuss them with everyone. Starting a festival takes heavy lifting, so don’t worry about anyone “stealing” your ideas. Once you’ve spent some time developing the idea, write a brief mission statement about the festival stating the theme, experience and goal of the festival.

2. Test your hypothesis

An inexpensive way of testing music fan reaction is to create a simple landing page with the name of your “festival” and “details coming soon.” Purchase a few Facebook ads targeted to your ideal consumer base and measure the clickthrough. You can do this a few times to see which perform better. You can even take it a step further and add an email capture for fans who want to learn more. That way you will already have a small database when you launch for real. You can use a service like Lead Pages to test the marketplace.

3. Find a unique location

In most major cities, current festival promoters have already evaluated the best possible locations. But that shouldn’t stop you. A festival doesn’t really need to be right in the city to thrive, but securing a location within a 2-3 hour drive from a major city is ideal. The local permits required are a very important factor in deciding on a location. As you evaluate locations, you will simultaneously want to start exploring the permitting process for that particular location. A few other factors to consider; easy access for tractor trailers and busses for artists and production, a substantial parking area with manageable entrance/exit roads, power consideration, relative distance from residential communities, insurable location, and reasonable rental or licensing fees.

Start a Music Festival
Tortuga Music Festival – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

4. Build a business plan

Significant financing is needed to start a music festival. The first step in that process is building a sound business plan. This is where you will want to invest in great creative to tell the story of the lifestyle theme of the festival. After that you will need to thoroughly describe your target market, demographic profile and marketing plan to reach that demographic. You will need to list some talent ideas along with fee ranges for each talent. Make sure you have a few conversations with music agent to ensure you have accurate quotes. Finally you will need to list your planned revenue streams, ticketing, VIP packages, vendors, sponsorship, parking, etc. Be conservative in estimating these numbers. Most festivals do not show a profit for at least three years. Make sure that you present a conservative and realistic picture for potential financiers. It would be idea to get the help of a financial modeler. You can even outsource these types of tasks on Once your business plan is put together, practice pitching it to friends and colleagues to make sure you have the kinks worked out and that you are comfortable with the presentation.

5. Pitch to financiers

A festival does not get off the ground without financing. Some headlining artists will require 100% payment in advance from new festivals. Make sure you anticipate this and plan accordingly. A festival cannot be financed from ticket sales in the first few years. You will likely need to get private financing as banks will not usually loan for a project like a festival, nor loan the amount of capital required.

6. Secure funding

Once you have an agreement on the financing from investors, you need to establish your festival as a business, secure the necessary tax documents and bank accounts.

7. Permits

Permitting is one of the biggest hurdles for a new festival promoter. Relationships with city officials and local business owners is crucial. You should be cultivating these relationships in advance of the actual permit application process. Local businesses will need to be on your side as they typically support local politicians and their support is essential. Also, you should figure out how to make the case that your festival will increase local business revenues.

8. Insurance

The city and artists performing at the festival will all require the festival promoter to carry a substantial insurance policy. This is a requirement and cost that should be evaluated in advance of the fundraising process so that it is accounted for accurately. Accidents happen, you will want to reassure the city and artists taking a risk on your new festival that you are covered in this area.

9. Ticketing partner

The execution of the ticketing process is always harder than expected. A new festival cannot risk a bad fan experience in the ticketing process. Choose your partner carefully and make sure you walk through all the possible scenarios to address and problems in advance.

10. VIP packages

Properly structured VIP packages contribute significantly to festival revenue. You will want to build a nice mix of premium access, premium food & beverage, parking, shuttles, hospitality, dedicated VIP sections, merchandise and collectables. A new festival promoter should diligently research other festival VIP packages and pricing to help inform these decisions.

11. Approach artists

MAKE SURE your plan is buttoned up before approaching artists. Nothing can derail a new festival faster than a negative impression spread throughout the talent industry. When first approaching artists, I’d recommend a few key face to face meetings with the festival departments at top booking agencies. You will want to present a new version of the business plan, mostly focused on the theme and lifestyle elements of the festival. Agents will want to know FIRST that you have committed funding for multiple years and that you are prepared to pay 100% or close to 100% deposits for headliner talent. Only after you’ve had that conversation can you comfortably discuss the creative elements of your festival. You should be prepared to produce permits, insurance and even proof of funding at these meetings. With the vast proliferation of new festivals, artists and representatives are very cautious to attach their name unless they are completely comfortable in the structure and set up of the new festival.

12. Build lineup

The artist lineup is the backbone of a festival. This is the holy grail. Spend time thinking through every scenario and imagining yourself as a fan moving through the lineup. What feelings are you trying to create in fans? How do you want to channel the flow of energy? Do you want to add surprises? Insert newer artists around well-known talent to bring an element of curation and discovery? Chances are you had a vision for the lineup before you even started this process. Just remember that as the backbone, the lineup must support the overall lifestyle “body.”

13. Festival trailer

One of the best marketing tools for a festival is a video trailer. Usually this is created with footage from past festivals. For the first-time festival, partner with a small creative agency to come up with something unique. Think about the lifestyle. What are you trying to create? Who are you trying to reach? What will speak to them? Get creative and possibly license a song from a headlining artist who represents the theme of the festival for the music bed of the trailer.

14. Experiences

Successful music festivals are about more than music. Just look at Burning Man! Go back to the original “lifestyle” you are trying to create or perpetuate. What are experiences natural to that lifestyle? What is already being done by other festivals that you can do better? What isn’t being done? Festival owners want fans leaving with the experience of a lifetime. Think this through and create an environment fans will never forget.

15. Production

Festival production includes staging, sound and lights, and also the extras like elaborate stage pieces or art installations. Plan your budget to include top of the line staging, sound and lights. Rely on the inspiration of your lifestyle design for extra production. Contract with a reputable production company to execute this entire piece and MAKE SURE they have past experience with festivals.

16. Food/Drink vendors

Festivals have moved beyond the boring burgers and hot dogs of the past to now feature gourmet food trucks, specialty chefs, BBQ’s, themed bars, etc. Some festivals curate the food as carefully as the musical talent. Think about the what food and drink represent to the lifestyle brand you are creating. Are you trying to cultivate an Island/endless-vacation vibe? What foods and beverages would you drink in the Caribbean? Think through each option to its logical conclusion. Once you’ve identified your goals, contact the best vendors in the food space to create that environment. Beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic may lead to a sponsorship opportunity. Typically a sponsoring beverage brand will seek “category exclusivity” and “pouring rights” to prevent a festival from pouring competitors. The food and beverage experience are crucial to a great festival.

17. Sponsorship

Music festival sponsorships are a ballooning category of sponsorships. How can you secure brands to sponsor your new festival? It comes down to numbers and demographics. How many attendees are you expecting? What are the demographics of the ticket buyers and planned attendees? Brands are looking for reach, experience and content. Make sure you address all three factors when pitching brands. Also be sure to know your limitations with the music talent. Just because an artist is performing at the festival does not give a sponsor the right to use that artist’s music or video content.

18. Marketing plan

A well crafted festival video trailer will help spread buzz about the festival. As you build a marketing plan be sure to take into consideration local press opportunities as chances are most of the first year’s attendees will be local. Could you pull off a stunt to generate awareness? Most festivals build into their artist deals the requirement to announce the festival to the artist’s fanbase. By this point you will already have an established target demographic. You should know as much as possible about their recreation habits and media consumption. These insights will guide your marketing strategy.

19. Announcement

Do something unique. Issuing a press release and hoping for the best isn’t likely to get you very far. Again, think about what will resonate locally. Can you do something in conjunction with the mayor of the closest city or town? This will always bring out local press. Even Jay-Z did this with the launch of Budweiser’s Made in American festival in Los Angeles.

20. Onsale

Typically the onsale is within a week of the announcement. Before you announce, make sure that everything is set up with your ticketing and VIP partners. You do NOT want hiccups during your first onsale. As part of some brands’ sponsorship deals they will ask for the right to an exclusive pre-sale. This can be a way to leverage a brand’s database to sell tickets and build awareness for the festival.

21. More marketing

Depending on your ticket sales, it is generally recommended to increase marketing the final two weeks prior to the festival to appeal to last-minute decision makers. Plan the advertising budget accordingly. If sales are poor, you may explore discount ticket offers in the week leading up to the festival to make sure there is at least a crowd on he festival grounds.

22. Festival day!

Complete insanity. It is essential to have an amazing production team managing the stages and talent. Make sure that the security is adequate and prepped as to how to handle various emergency situations. As the festival owner/creator, you ideally want to make yourself available to tend to the artists and be able to deal with any issues that should arise. You also should spend as much time as possible out with the fans. Experience the festival as they do. Take notes. Learn from the experience and what you can do better the next year. The key is to have a great team around you that allows you the time to spend with the talent and fans.

23. Wrap Up

It’s over! Months and possibly years of planning. All culminating in one, big, exhausting and completely amazing experience. Why not send a short poll to the artist’ agents? You want a positive vibe in the music community about the festival. Learn for the artists’ perspective. Send a thank you email to ticket buyers. Create a hashtag that allows fans to share their experiences and build community around the lifestyle brand you created. Some festivals will even create a “Recap” video trailer with footage from the festival.

After a short break, it’s time to plan for next year. Meet with the financiers. Hopefully you can provide them a partial return after year one. Start talking with booking agents about the possibilities for next year. The music business will focus on the “feeling” coming out of the festival and as the owner, you need that feeling to be positive.

start a music festival
The Flaming Lips at the T-Mobile Inmusic Festival


Cover photo: Eva Rinaldi
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk
Photo credit: Tortuga Music Festival
Photo credit: Pieter Morlion



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