Attending a festival is not just about the music. It’s about the overall experience. You can field the best lineup in any given genre or scene, but if you don’t fill the field with the right mix of people and introduce the right vibe, the experience can still fall flat. With so many festival options out there these days, from the long-standing local fruit festivals whose infields get filled up with old folks in lawn chairs by 9:30 a.m., to the more regional festivals catering to car campers and tailgaters, to destination festivals that attempt to draw attendees from coast to coast and other countries with ultra-curated VIP experiences, things such as amenities, atmosphere, food and crafters, and ticket options are more important than ever to making your festival experience a success, whether you’re a promoter or attendee.
You want the festival experience to be right for you. The annual festival may be the only weekend you get all year to truly unwind while listening to some of your favorite bands, so it better count. Some people like to spring for VIP experiences. For others general admission is just fine. Some show up to camp all weekend, while others day trip it. It’s a great time to let go of responsibility, perhaps partake in a little too many libations or psychoactive substances, and not worry about putting all the pieces back together until Monday comes.
But it’s also worth focusing upon those individuals who choose a bit of a different adventure when it comes to the festival experience, and it’s that of the volunteer. For a 3-hour to maybe 8-hour penance of your time, you can earn a free pass for the day or weekend, or a deep discount on tickets, which is certainly one way to help open the festival experience up to those on a shoestring budget. For students and other young persons, for certain patrons who want to experience festivals whose price tags are just out of their discretionary budgets, volunteering is a very smart option. But this isn’t just about the money.
For some, they couldn’t imagine participating in a grassroots event without also participating in the production of it in some capacity. The time they donate to their music community is just as fulfilling as the music itself, if not not more. It’s a way they give back what the music has given to them. And though on the surface, the idea of missing certain performances to work a shift out in the hot, dusty parking lot, or schlepp beer kegs to and from concession stands seems like the worst idea of how to spend a portion of what is supposed to be your relaxing festival weekend, often the reward far outweighs the sacrifice. The sense of ownership in a production that volunteering bestows often lasts much longer than the enjoyment of the music itself.
Right now the music festival space is more crowded than ever, and as LiveNation continues to gobble up small production companies and corporatize the festival landscape, the need for grassroots festivals to present sustainable models has never been more important. Offering volunteer opportunities, and having music fans take advantage of them is one way to build sustainability into the process. And it’s not just about figuring out how to take advantage of free labor, it’s about staffing a festival with people who want to be there, and care about the music.
Outsourced security staff, parking attendees, and ticket handlers in their florescent orange shirts can feel out-of-place, and can present an eyesore to an otherwise perfectly-curated festival experience. Sure, you need trained professionals and staffers at the ready just in case something goes wrong, but often non-paid volunteers will take more ownership in their work helping to make a festival experience the best it can be as opposed to a minimum-waged day laborers who could care less who’s playing that weekend or what kind of music it is.
And this speaks nothing to the perks volunteering can have. Beyond cheap or free access to the festival, free food and drink is sometimes provided, and early access to better camping spots is often given. If you work backstage, perhaps it puts you closer to your favorite artists. Often volunteering allows you to meet new friends in your music community. And if a festival does their job right, the time that cuts into watching your favorite bands play is minimal. A festival bill is never going to appeal to you fully, so you figure out when there’s a lull in your listening schedule, and plug it with a few hours helping out. Some of the best festivals to volunteer at are the ones who offer multiple performances by most or all of the performers, so if you miss one set, you can pick up another the next day.
Many festivals also allow volunteer hours to be turned in before or after the festival for setup or tear down, not taking away from the time spent enjoying the music. And depending on where you are or what you’re doing during your volunteer shift, if you’re within earshot and eyeshot of a stage, sometimes you get to enjoy performances while on your volunteer shift.
And don’t think volunteering is not an option if kids are involved. Often volunteer-centric festivals also put an extra emphasis on the kid experience as well by offering workshops and camps, day care opportunities and entertainment options specifically for younger music fans, allowing mom and dad to scurry away on their own for a few hours, or perhaps work a few volunteer hours, instilling the idea that helping to make a festival happen is just part of the experience in the next generation.
Not only is volunteering something that patrons should consider for their next festival experience, it’s something festival promoters should consider building into their experiences as a way to offer more sustainable and fulfilling options for everyone involved, staff their events with better people who care about the experience their fellow patrons are having, as well as offering a cheap or free alternative to fans who can’t afford a ticket.
On the surface, perhaps taking hours of your time to help park cars or pick up trash seems like about the worst idea for your music festival weekend. And it’s certainly not right for everyone, and maybe not right for every festival you attend. But when you talk to people who’ve volunteered their time at festivals, they will tell you it resulted in one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling festival experiences they’ve ever encountered.
Because ultimately, attending a festival isn’t just about the music. It’s about the overall experience and the memories you make. And sometimes making a little time to give back to your music community while some of your favorite artists make the soundtrack results in a more valuable and memorable experience.