Production Live! Coverage 2020: Experts Outline How To Pull Off A Successful Fest

– The Best Fests
Panelists at “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: How To Build The Perfect Festival and Not Get Fyre’d” discuss staging successful festivals. From left: Timothy Epstein, Paul Bassman, James Hathaway, Charlie Jennings, Ken MacDonald, Tim “Tuba” Smith.

Festivals might be a dime a dozen these days, but staging them – and particularly ones of any quality – is a monumental logistical undertaking. It’s little surprise that multi-day music events continue to suffer setbacks, from Fyre Festival’s catastrophic flameout in 2017, to hiccups big and small last summer that included Woodstock 50’s permit-related collapse and Governors Ball’s rain-marred final day.

Some of the sectors’ leading minds gathered Tuesday at Production Live! to discuss how festival organizers can stave off problems of all stripes – and what they can do when things inevitably deviate from the plan.

“It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: How To Build The Perfect Festival and Not Get Fyre’d” was intuitively structured to mimic the stages of planning a festival, progressing from insurance, permits and ticketing to security, weather and day-of liabilities.

The panel first tackled talent buying, which is more complicated than simply parceling out a talent budget to build a fan-pleasing lineup.

“Certain acts are a different level to try to deal with both on production and safety,” said Tim “Tuba” Smith, C3 Presents’ Direction of Festivals & Strategic Initiatives. “When you’ve got a Travis Scott that’s going to come in, you’re going to get a ton of energy in the crowd that’s a lot different than Norah Jones.”

“It’s not just the buyer has a certain budget for buying, because that may impact your budget on things like security,” moderator Timothy Epstein, partner at Duggan Bertsch, LLC, responded.

Permitting is also a major hurdle for festivals – it was a major contributing factor to Woodstock 50’s implosion and has single-handedly brought down other events in the past.

“A lot of these municipalities or states will not hesitate to come in and tell you that you haven’t done something and shut your event down,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter to them, especially in today’s environment, with structure safety, public safety, everything. They’re not going to hesitate to make sure they’ve got their paperwork in hand.”

Successful festivals have dedicated permitting staff and frequently employ local permit expediters versed in the idiosyncrasies of specific jurisdictions, panelists explained. They also save their work.

“One thing I’ve learned with different municipalities requiring different types of permits is to aggregate what you’ve had to go through in any scenario and be prepared to provide that information, even if it’s not being asked of you,” said Grey Street Events co-founder Charlie Jennings.

The topic of cancellation insurance pervaded most of the panel’s discussion.  It’s highly risky for festivals to go without it, and events need skilled legal teams to get in the weeds of insurance policies. Doing so could save festivals from liability.

At Duggan Bertsch, Epstein represents several major festivals, including Pitchfork, Life Is Beautiful and Riot Fest, and a key part of his job is identifying what qualifies as force majeure – unforseen circumstances that prevent the execution of a contract.

“If you think about it in terms of a Venn diagram, you’ve got two circles: one circle is going to be force majeure and the other one’s going to be cancellation coverage,” Epstein said. “If you’re a promoter, you want those to completely overlap.”

The distinction might lead to some uncomfortable conversations with outside parties, Epstein explained, but those conversations are worth it so festivals can cover their bases.

“When I fight back against an agency or someone else, where they throw in a term that’s not really force majeure, I’m not doing that to be difficult,” he said. “I’m doing that because I know there’s going to be a gap in coverage.”

Epstein noted that, in Fyre Fest’s case, though non-force majeure reasons were behind its collapse, counsel could have theoretically argued that inclement weather in the days prior was the deciding factor – which could have protected it from liability.

Plenty can go wrong on the day of the event, too. Security plays a huge role, both in ensuring things don’t go wrong and in assuring local authorities that the event is under control. Successful organizers work with municipal, state and even federal law enforcement and first responders for months prior to events to make sure contingency plans are in order.

“There is an inherent responsibility in bring together or congregating a large number of people,” said James Hathaway, Director of The 5280 Group. “You have to consider your integration with governmental agencies, law enforcement, EMS, fire, all of those areas come together and the larger the event, the more complex that gets.

“One of the quickest ways to get shut down is to not be on your game from a public safety standpoint and have the police come in and say, ‘We’re done,'” he continued. “There is really no way to override that once that happens, so you really have to get in front and recognize it’s a complex process, it’s not just hiring your brother’s friends from the football team to stand on a position.”

Another huge obstacle is perhaps the most visible: weather, which has prominently interfered with festivals from Woodstock in 1969 to Governors Ball a half-century later.

Even the best prepared organizers can’t control Mother Nature, so it comes down to effective planning, efficient responding and smart insurance policies.

“If you cancel and you have the cancellation policy, that’s great,” Epstein said. “But what if it’s bad weather and then the talent refuses to play? What if it’s bad weather and then the vendor says, ‘No, I don’t want you using my equipment to get this done?’ Those wrinkles are something where there is exposure. But that’s also a point where you should have a good lawyer looking at what’s going on.”

One audience question addressed weather-related operations for events held at New York City’s Randall’s Island such as Governors Ball – and panelists explained that the venue is among the priciest to insure.

“We’ve done shows at Randall’s Island before,” said IMGoing president and Red Light Management vice president Ken MacDonald. “Randall’s Island is unique because a huge part of the audience comes by ferry and it’s not in walking distance to anything – the subway, buses. It’s a logistical issue getting people in and out.”

The site’s relative isolation means it has a complicated, less-generous re-entry policy than other festivals.

“It’s extraordinarily expensive to insure events at Randall’s Island because of the re-entry policy,” said Paul Bassman, president and CEO of Ascend Insurance Brokerage. “In the cancellation market, it has become ridiculous.”