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‘Have a Thick Skin’ and Other Advice from 2 Music Festival Pros

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Music festivals have been on the rise around the world for years. There are at least 800 annual music festivals in the United States alone — with new ones popping up all the time — and countless more internationally. Such popular, visible events require seasoned live events industry professionals to pull off. Luckily, ILEA snagged two of them, Natasha Miller and Amy Dearth, CSEP, to give us a sense of what goes into the planning of music festivals and what other industry professionals should know.

How did you get involved with planning music festivals?

Natasha Miller (NM): I plan Oakland City Center, Kaiser Roof Garden and Jazz at Filoli, all of which you can see on my Entire Production website. I’m a classically trained violinist and jazz vocalist, which is how I started my business of providing entertainment to social and corporate events. I was lucky to start the Oakland City Center series 19 years ago, and I still have it today! My background in both classical and jazz lent itself to programming those genres, but I’m also a singer/songwriter and that grew into learning about and understanding many other genres.

Amy Dearth, CSEP (AD): I worked for a production company for years, so speaking technical is something I was familiar with. From there, I launched my corporate event management company, Consider It Done Special Events, where I was able to combine my technical sales skills and my planning skills to produce a music festival. Beyond that, I do have a passion for music, theater and entertainment, so all of this combined led me to a career where I get to plan fun music festivals with a focus on local artists.

What advice would you give to other live events professionals planning music festivals?

NM: You have to keep in mind the demographic and know that you won’t please everyone every time. One week when you have a cover band someone will complain, then the next week when you have gypsy jazz that same person will sing your praises. You have to have a thick skin but also be able to explain to your clients and attendees that you’re programming for a variety of listeners.

AD: Start early! Planning a music festival is not the same as planning a regular event. Sourcing acts, confirming vendors and working in an atypical event environment can create many opportunities for plans to go awry. So, start early and make sure to keep organized with a great event binder. With the annual festival I plan, it takes about 200 individuals to make the 8,000-person attendee event come to life across a one-mile street. As the lead planner, it’s important that I create systems for each vendor, participant, employee, entertainer and my client to follow. These systems have to function and guide all those involved with the event, despite possibly never seeing me on-site. It’s important to plan ahead, communicate the overall plan and ask each individual to sign off that they understand and will follow the rules in place.

Also, always lean on the side of caution. It’s hard to control 8,000 people who are drinking, dancing and ready to party. Have safeguards in place for how to handle situations that could go very wrong. Do not let your client pressure you into making wrong decisions as they are looking at the bottom line or, ultimately, making emotional decisions. Your job is to create a safe environment for guests to have a great time. It’s a very delicate balance between customer service and safety when you are in the throes of an event. My suggestion to have plans in writing with your client that outline specific weather conditions and what will/can happen.

What are the unique aspects and challenging of planning a music festival?

NM: If it’s outside and you need to secure the perimeter, bring in portable toilets, and include security, that’s another layer of responsibility and not as much “fun” as programming the talent. Also, rain and contingency plans should be recognized at the beginning of planning. Make sure your stage and sound gear are properly staked and supported for all weather (especially wind) conditions.

AD: The festival I work on is a city-hosted event with quite a few corporate sponsors to fund the event. The biggest challenge I face is to lead city officials, city electricians, police services and more! The city employees have systems in place already for how they handle their daily job, so it’s challenging to try and balance all of the different city departments’ styles with a large event.

What are some music festival trends you foresee coming to light in the next year?

NM: The experiential activations of the sponsors and vendors is really amping up and becoming another layer of experience and entertainment. I love this and encourage more of it.

AD: A trend I see a lot of right now is interactive art installations. Basically, attendees get to create a small piece of art that becomes part of a larger piece of art in an effort to create community. It’s really wonderful to see! We’ve seen some ILEA partners already who create photo mosaics from individual photos of attendees. How about the company that staged musical instruments that fueled a light show? I love seeing different people come together to create and celebrate art.

Can you describe a few successful elements that you have incorporated into music festivals in the past?

NM: Having pristine sound booth equipment and also engineering is crucial. It’s not “seen,” but when it’s bad, it ruins everything. When it’s excellent, it elevates the whole experience. Having great graphics and a marketing plan to support the event is another important aspect. You’re booking great talent; make sure there are plenty of people to appreciate them and your hard work. Working closely with the talent and their management to make sure things go smoothly is important. Relationships rule in this business.

AD: Logistics … The festival I have worked on is only five years old. Each year it has grown exponentially, which is incredible to see. My team has been responsible for creating the foundation that the future festivals will use. This includes applying to be part of the festival; we created a marketplace vendor application that captures all of the logistical details that each vendor would need, put a price on it and allowed the vendors to then sign up for what they need. The application also outlines all of the fees associated with applying. Sure, this is the boring stuff, but this process has made it so that we sell out our vendor spots each year in record time. This allows us to focus on other more interesting parts of the festival instead of spending billable hours searching for vendors.

Social media is another portion that I have leaned on an ILEA partner for each year to help build. We created a photo experience for attendees that we can use to help with promotion via a hashtag. Attendees have their photo taken at the event, they then post to their own social media with the hashtag and we have free advertising from locals. Year one through three, it took a lot of promoting to make sure attendees knew the event was happening. By year four, we created a social media page and started building our following. By year five, it’s been the easiest because we have a following, so a simple post and attendees share the event for us. It’s been a great way to increase awareness about the event.

Style is the last element that I love seeing in festivals. Our festival is focused on beer, food trucks and classic bands. It’s hard to create style for this event, but we finally found a way to create an atmosphere where guests can find a different or unique experience in all different corners of the event. We do this with music styles, lighting and food. By adding in a second stage, we’ve opened up the festival to an entirely new demographic by putting a different style of band on the second stage. It’s been great!

How specifically does your CSEP designation help you plan music festivals and advance your career?

AD: My CSEP has always said one thing: “I know how to talk about this.” When planning a festival, a lot of details are shared in a short amount of time. It’s important to be able to balance those details, make decisions and effectively lead a team of 200 through a successful event without ever meeting half of them. I believe that my CSEP has allowed me to have high-level conversations with all vendors involved in the event, especially the technical team, to produce a great event in a live environment. Beyond that, as a CSEP, I have trained in how to work in a safe environment. Sometimes, it’s a hard decision when you have to choose the “safe” route versus the route that the client wants. I believe my CSEP has allowed me to know the difference!

Natasha Miller sits at the helm of Entire Productions, but she isn’t your average CEO; she is a hyphenate entrepreneur who began her career in entertainment as a celebrated jazz artist with seven records released on her own label, Poignant Records. Having founded Entire Productions in 2000, when she was still performing, this single mother and Des Moines, Iowa, native single-handedly built a multimillion dollar company.


Amy Zediana Dearth, CSEP, joined the industry professionally in 2004 after completing her Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and French at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. She has managed more than 6,000 events working with clients as large as AT&T, Bank of America, Staples, the NCSL Legislative Summit, TripAdvisor, Kronos and many more. Consider It Done Special Events LLC (CID) was founded in 2009. Led by Dearth and a fantastic team of event professionals, CID provides event management, décor and production services. 

Tags: event planning , entertainment , CSEP