I’ve been playing in a band since I was 15 years old. Even back then, we knew that we wanted to be playing festivals every summer. There is literally no better way to spend a summer than playing music outside with a bunch of other bands and people who are there to listen and party. And getting paid for it.
Festivals also provide important exposure and networking opportunities. But mostly, they are just really fun! For my band, part of the fun is seeing all the hard work we’ve put in booking the festivals pay off. Of course, that part's a lot easier because of platforms like Sonicbids, which makes applying to play festivals like SXSW and ONE Musicfest in Atlanta a breeze.
Many of you probably want to play summer festivals, but aren't sure where to start. It can be overwhelming, especially your first time. My band has developed a strategy for independently booking our summer festival circuit, and I’m going to share that with you today.
1. Start early
We start applying for certain festivals in September. Specifically with larger festivals, we’ll start pitching very early. Otherwise, we usually start pitching in late October. We’re often pleasantly surprised with the response we’ll get from our first round of pitches. Whether it’s a yes, a no, or a "follow up later," we’re happy to narrow down our work.
Most festivals probably won’t get back to you until January, but if you don’t start applying in October, you’ll end up getting a few “we’re fully booked” responses.
2. Research a bunch of festivals
We break the workload up into pieces for each band member.
This year, one band member pitched Eastern Canadian festivals (mostly in Toronto) and the other did Western Canadian festivals. Also, if anyone had been in contact with a festival in years past, they would continue to be the contact for that festival.
We find out about most festivals online. If you go to a state/provincial tourism website, you’ll almost certainly be able to find a list of all the summer festivals in the area. It’s as simple as a Google search or a Sonicbids search.
It’s also worth looking at the past summer dates for bands of a similar size and style to your own. If you’re comfortable with it, ask another artist for an intro email.
Make sure to focus on festivals that are booking acts of a similar size/genre to your own. There’s no point in applying to a bluegrass festival if you’re an '80s metal band.
3. Apply to or pitch the festival
If there's an application form for the festival, start there. Fill it out to the best of your abilities. If there's a Sonicbids application, that’s where you’ll want to start.
Whether it’s a Sonicbids application or a website form, make sure your electronic press kit (EPK) is complete and up to date. You need live video, photos, a good bio, and press.
If you happen to find an email for the artistic director or basically anyone affiliated with the festival, send them an email. Make sure to fill out the application as well, but getting in the ears of people involved with the festival is always a good idea.
If there is a phone number, don’t be afraid to call. The worst thing you’ll hear is “apply online” or “email this person.” Sometimes, by calling, you can get an email address that was not on the website.
My only warning is to have respect when festivals specifically tell you not to do something. If it says no phone calls, don’t call. If it says no pitches to a certain email address, respect that. Otherwise, all your professionalism is thrown out the window.
4. Follow up… then follow up again
Sadly, your work doesn't end at the application stage. Following up is the key to our success when independently booking festivals. After we apply, we're usually following up once every two or three weeks throughout October to December. Sometimes, you won’t get a single email back, but again, that’s okay.
Once January rolls around, we’re following up every two weeks. Following up can be as simple as this:
Hey, [Name of Artistic Director],
Liam Duncan from the Middle Coast here. Just following up on the possibility of playing your festival! Our EPK is attached.
Thanks for your time,
Also, making a phone call every once and a while doesn’t hurt.
5. Keep track of your pitches
As you go through this process, you should be keeping track of every single festival you email. We have a Google Drive spreadsheet with the following information on it:
- festival name and location
- contact name, email, and phone number
- followed up
- band contact
This way, we keep track of which festivals we’re applying to each year, who the contact is at the festival, when we last followed up, which band member was applying, and the results.
What we write in the results box is basically whatever reply we received. For example: "Follow up with me in January," "We like your music, try us again next year," "We aren't a festival anymore," "Your music isn't the right fit."
This is incredibly useful for future years, and for making sure that you're maintaining contact with festivals that are interested. It’s so easy to forget if a festival says "follow up in January," but if you write it down, you’ll see it and follow up.
Putting in this extra effort has made our process much more organized and ultimately more effective.
6. Have patience
If you’re in a band, patience is important in many respects. When it comes to booking festivals, you definitely require healthy dose of patience.
You have to have patience when you’re applying and following up. Every year around March, we’re freaking out because we don’t have many festivals booked. By May, we’ve booked every single weekend.
You’ll also need patience over the course of years. There are some festivals we’ve been trying to get into for four years. And this year we’re finally doing it. And for the ones we're not, we’ll try again next year.
Sometimes, you’re genuinely not ready to play a certain caliber of festival, and you have to develop for another couple of years. Trust me when I say that putting in this work is worth it. A summer full of festivals is the highlight of my whole year.
How is your summer looking? Do you have a tip I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments!
Liam Duncan is a full-time musician from Winnipeg, Canada. He likes to record music with friends and tour with The Middle Coast.