[Above: a pictorial metaphor for my gratitude and respect for those festival production crews who treat artists and their crew with courtesy and respect]
I’ve a habit of voicing my frustations about small UK venues. I don’t do it for fun. It’s based on twenty-six years of visiting them, contrasted with twenty-six years of visiting those on the mainland, and hearing the experiences of countless bands when they visited a venue I used to run. The UK’s festivals don’t compare so well to the mainland’s either, in pretty much every respect, but I’ll focus on the production side for now, because I’m not such a fan of festivals as an enjoyable way to pass the time, and only really interact with them behind the scenes. Far too many people bowling around in fancy dress for me. Or wearing colostomy bags full of lager, drinking it through the catheter. Or offering me heroin at half past ten in the morning. All reasons I haven’t been to T-In The Park since 2004, if the line-ups weren’t reason enough.
East India Youth is playing a few festivals this summer and it’s my job to ‘advance’ them; collect all the information we’ll need from the festival in order to ensure a smooth day for artist and production staff. Bands tend to not get soundchecks at festivals, unless they’re headlining, in which case they’ll maybe have the opportunity to do it in the morning before the public arrives. Everyone else gets a line-check, which is just a process of making sure everything that’s plugged in works and is making the sound it’s supposed to make. This is why a band sometimes sounds bad for the first couple of songs: it’s the first time their sound engineer has heard them play on this stage, so they have to start from scratch, and battle through it until, during song three, hopefully, the band don’t sound like they’re playing through a barrel of treacle.
Every artist has different technical requirements but regardless, a long soundcheck is appreciated by all, just in case of difficulties which can arise when the venue you’re playing in, in a field, didn’t exist until five days ago. I’ve noticed that UK festivals tend to give us very little time to line-check. Bear in mind this includes waiting for the previous band to get off stage with their gear, which can take up to ten minutes. We can set up on the side of stage sometimes (there’s not always space to do that) then just drag our gear on, but the plugging in and line-checking still needs to be done. And getting the monitor levels right, which takes more time.
I looked back through some of the festivals we’ve played or are about to play, and here’s the list of line-check times we were given, in order of boneheaded stupidity on the stage programmer’s behalf. Note that Body & Soul is in Ireland, so I should be referring to the UK and Ireland, but Irish festivals tend to behave like UK festivals in this respect anyway:
UK & Ireland
Body & Soul 15
Field Day 20
Glastonbury Williams Green 20
Glastonbury Silver Hayes 25
Standon Calling 30
End of The Road 30
= 21.6 minutes average
= 42 minutes average
Now, East India Youth is a still a new artist, and quite far down the pecking order, and any artist can expect their situation to improve in many respects when they get bigger, but he’s still a new artist on the mainland (and less well known) yet here he is, getting twice the length of time to set up. I’ve listed more UK and Irish festivals than mainland ones, but you can still see the point. I could also bang on about the production standards being generally better, and the hospitality provisions being far better, but we’ve not got all day. I should say, though, that UK hospitality staff tend to be very good.
We discussed it recently; Will (East India Youth himself), me and George, our Front of House engineer, whose job it is to keep his head when faced with fifteen minutes to set up and line-check, assisted by stage crew who may be tired after two days of moody bands and rude Tour Managers, then make Will sound good very quickly, so that those who haven’t heard him before don’t think “this sound terrible, I’m going to go get a beer instead.”
We thought that maybe it’s because UK festivals are in such great opposition with each other that they feel the need to cram as many bands on as they possibly can, cutting down on the length of time each has to set up. We really can’t think of another reason. Perhaps someone can tell us. European festivals are in the same boat though: stiff competition in a very tough economic climate. But they consider the needs of the artists better.
Now, while giving a band twenty minutes to set up is stupid, I bear in mind that, unless you’ve been in a band it’s not always obvious what a band needs and similarly, unless you’ve been a promoter it’s not always obvious what the trials and stresses of a promoter are. I’ve programmed a 110-band festival; I understand what festival programmers do, appreciate their constraints.
So, let me speak directly to the programmers of all those UK festivals up there – certainly the ones to toward the top of the list – and tell you that, if you’re giving your artists twenty minutes to line-check, it’s not enough. You need to double it, at least. If you hadn’t thought about it from the artists’ point of view before, perhaps you might consider it now. If you know it’s not enough time and still plan on doing the same next year then you’re not just an idiot, you’re a disrespectful idiot.
Give an artist time to relax and set up and you’ll get a better show, and the audience will get a better show, and your festival will be better thought of, and the artist will hopefully be able to avoid the situation that we walked into on the WOW Stage in Glastonbury’s Silver Hayes area last month, which was the low point of my entire live career. It was, for a number of reasons, an unmitigated disaster, an absolute shambles, which might have been avoided if we’d had a bit more time.
It’s not always hell though. Sometimes you get away with such little time to get ready. Like the next day at Glastonbury’s Williams Green Stage, which had the finest production team I’ve ever worked with, named The Live Firm. They were so good, so professional, so friendly, I thought they might have been Dutch in disguise (the Dutch are the finest production staff on the face of God’s Earth). We all got a little emotional as we said goodbye to them, such was the impact they made on us.
Which either disproves my point, or shows that miracles can happen.
Either way, UK Festivals need to start showing their smaller bands a bit more respect and if they don’t, then artist managers and their booking agents need to start demanding it.
And while I’m at it, please sort your provision for WiFi backstage out. If every South American festival I visited at the start of the year can offer usable WiFi to artists and crew, why can’t you? Your backstage is our office for our time there. Switch your own internet connection off for a day then see how easy it is for you to work.