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August/September 2016

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Street Fairs & Festivals – Stage Trek 3

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Street Fairs & Festivals – Stage Trek 3

The last stop in our quest was the unpredictable but often quite fun planet of All-Ages & School Gigs. Now let’s journey to the stage at street fairs or festivals. That’s not just another world, it’s a whole different reality.

If you’ve already done your share of busking you will know just how strange it can be to play your best song over and over all day to a constant stream of passersby. Those people who do stop to listen make you understand just how hard it is to cultivate an audience one stranger at a time.

Now amplify that cold reality. Instead of a few people per minute walking by, you’ve got dozens milling past every few seconds.

Street fairs can be immense fun, if you know how to play the game. Treat the opportunity as a lark and your set is likely to be one you’ll wish you’d never played. But if you go into the experience with the right attitude (plus groundwork), then it can be an epic gig worth repeating many times.

‘Musician, know thyself!’

That’s the first commandment. Are you the type of player who can keep up good energy and continue to reach out to a faceless crowd? Are you able to ignore the grimaces? Can you maintain your sense of humour in the face of power failures, dodgy cables, and bad weather? Then this gig is for you.

But once again, remember Goss’s Rule of Gigging: Undertake no type of gig unless you know what it’s like to be in the audience!

Do your research

If you want to play a street  fair (or schools), go to one first. If possible, visit the actual fair you’d like to play one day. Observe what’s happening from multiple perspectives.

How does the location sound as an open-air venue. Is the tech any good? If the fair runs after dark does the stage have decent lighting? How does the audience respond to different styles of music, and is your’s likely to go over well? Do they stay away from the area during performances or continue to walk past? And how are the acts you see performing?

If you learn to think critically about these factors, then you can tell whether the fair will be a good fit for your band. Truth to tell, even the best fairs can feel a bit disorganised; but if the energy is good, the crowd large and friendly, and the sound good then it’s definitely worth a try.

Who you gonna call?

Quite often, the manager of the event has direct responsibility for booking acts. They may also keep an eye on the stage, co-ordinating announcements etc. If you’re attending for research this might be the area where you’d be most likely to run into them if you want to introduce yourself as a potential performer.

These fairs tend to run once a year per location in towns like Wellington – but sometimes the managers run others in different locations throughout the year. An introduction today might lead to a gig the next month. Just make sure that next location isn’t in the town of Nowheresville.

Travel light

Take my advice and cut out as much complexity as possible. You want a lean, mean act. Make a set list of songs that are entertaining, positive and energising. Make sure they don’t rely on intricate pedal boards, stacks of keyboards, or a 20-piece drum kit.

You may have to walk your equipment a few blocks through teeming crowds from the closest parking to the stage. Save an amp or two by running bass and keys through the mains, if the monitors are good.

Then roll the dice. What makes fairs so exciting is their unpredictability. Since this is an ongoing string of acts sharing the same stage, you may well go on an hour early if a few people don’t show, or an hour or two late if the previous acts dawdled over set up/teardown.

Add to this whole equation the issue of the weather. At least 20% of the street fairs I’ve booked have been rained out or put on standby.

What a sense of humour is for

Through all that happens you’ve got to balance your attitude. Take your time up there as a great opportunity. Never lose your cool, and give the audience something right from the heart, even if it looks like no one is listening.

Be ready for all kinds of challenges to your self-image, like heckling, yawning and ear-plugging as you play your best tune. If the organiser asks you to announce a missing child or give away tickets, then go to it with a will – see it as a way to work on your audience skills instead of an indignity.

Greener pastures – literally!

That’s the direction you go with a festival. This could be a simple thing like a weekly market that features live music, all the way up to WOMAD or the likes. A lot of the parameters are the same.

Crowds tend to be a great deal more sympathetic to unknown live acts at festivals, so long as the music is compatible with the vibe. Once again, do your research.

Forgot to ask – what’s it pay?

Nothing. Forget it. Street fairs are for exposure only. You’d be likely to make more busking. Some markets have a small (like around $50) budget for live music – but you can pass the hat or open the guitar case at these gigs with a much better take than you might think. The definition of what constitutes a festival is just as complicated as to whether there’s any money involved whatsoever. But if you just want to get out and play, all of these open-air gigs are worth a shot.

So what kind of gig does pay? For the answer to that puzzler, don’t miss our next instalment, Stage Trek, Episode 4: In Search of Parties & Events. See you then!

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.