Festival Production 101 (Productive Live! Panel Recap)

230221 Pollstar Day1 MM 1462
Dave Frey, Paul Bassman, Sarah Coop, Erika Elliott and Molly Zidow appear at Production Live! Feb. 21, 2023, at the Beverly Hilton.

Dave Frey, President, Silent Partner Management

Paul Bassman Managing Director, Higginbotham Insurance

Sarah Coop, Promoter Representative | Volunteer Coordinator, First Fleet Concerts | Hinterland Music Festival

Erika Elliott Executive Artistic Director, SummerStage & Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

Molly Zidow, VP Operations, Danny Wimmer Presents

The “Festival Production 101” panel started off with some dark humor, with moderator Dave Frey of Silent Partner Management sharing a bit of a history lesson and reminding the audience that historically mass gatherings were centered around hangings and things like that but “fortunately things have changed, at least in this country.”

Noting that everyone who starts a festival hopes their event will become a longstanding, iconic event like New Orleans Jazz Fest, Glastonbury or Coachella, Frey added that what sets the great festivals apart often comes down to “locality, a scene and community – and superserving that scene and community.”

Asked for the advice he gives to those launching a new festival, Paul Bassman of Higginbotham Insurance quipped “You sure?” With new festivals, one of the major challenges is not having established name recognition yet. Bassman’s role is to play defense.

“Our job is to help keep as much money as they can through insurance – liability insurance, etc., managing the contracts between all of these different entities,” Bassman said. “With a first year festival a lot of people don’t think about stuff like that. Once they grow they start learning, oh we really gotta start buckling down.”

When it comes to planning, that can’t be overstated when it comes to outdoor festivals and the weather, especially with how climate change has brought more severe weather patterns in recent years.

“It’s preparing for when it happens, not if it happens,” Sarah Coop of First Fleet Concerts and Hinterland Music Festival stated about the need for emergency plans. “So if something like that comes up, we basically have everything in line for the plan of action.”

Erika Elliott added that weather patterns over the past 20 years have affected how New York’s SummerStage operates, including scheduling performances later in the afternoon and evening because it’s just too hot in New York City.

Communication, of course, is essential, especially with so many moving parts involved with putting on a festival and all that goes into implementation and the relationships involved.

Along with a focus on communication, Molly Zidow of Danny Wimmer Presents spoke about the importance of finding balance.

“Communication is key,” Zidow said. “So that goes back to safety as well, communicating with artists, fans, staff, making sure everything has what they need. So that’s what we’re trying to balance, putting on a great event where people have a great experience … but things are expensive, making sure there’s enough port-a-johns and lines are short. It’s really important to find that balance in the budget and make sure you can have a financially successful event – and impress your fans and have them come back again and again.”

When it comes to working with a community that’s playing host to one’s festival, the panel agreed that it’s all about making sure locals feel they have a voice as far as addressing complaints. As Zidow pointed out, just feeling heard goes a long way.

For a great example of a festival putting a scene front and center, SummerStage shines by highlighting the diversity New York is known for, from various cultures to genres including jazz, hip-hop and salsa.

“We exist to make arts and culture accessible but we’re really intentional about being diverse … What we present in the South Bronx is going to celebrate the culture in that community versus what we program in Bed–Stuy or Manhattan,” Elliott said.