Feature Article - January 2006
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Festival Fundamentals

Six habits of highly effective special events

By Stacy St. Clair

Let the music play

Music makes the people come together.

Madonna says it, and we know she's true blue.

But while the Material Girl isn't hitting the festival circuit just yet, big-name acts help make any community event sing.

The Last Fling—a farewell to summer also thrown each year in Naperville—understands the importance of a musical lineup. For years, organizers have had great success mixing national names and local bands.

The key, organizers say, is doing your homework.

First, you must figure out your budget and what bands you want to go after, says Marie deGroh, who helped secure the popular festival's acts for 10 years.

The Fling has historically tapped rock and country acts because of their broad appeal in the Chicago area. Other genres like bluegrass or classical, while popular among some segments, may not lure the typical suburban crowd.

In 2005, for example, the festival hosted Collective Soul, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Cowboy Mouth and Kansas on the main stage. The acts appealed to festival-goers in their late-20s and early-30s, the organizers' target audience.

"Anything '80s right now seems to do well," deGroh says.

It's also important to remember you're not picking a band to play your personal private party. Many times, festival organizers make the mistake of selecting an act they like, rather than one that will pull in crowds.

DeGroh, for example, often finds that national acts with strong Internet sites are solid candidates. Bands with a Web presence can reach out to fans more easily and help draw patrons who might not otherwise attend the Fling.

"It's not about picking what you like," deGroh says. "It's about picking what the crowd will like. We go after bands we think the people in Naperville want to see."

To aid in her search for the perfect band, deGroh attends other festivals and scouts acts. She sees first-hand what boosts attendance, what turns crowds off and what gets them going.

She also relies upon Pollstar, a concert database on the Internet that she describes as an invaluable tool. DeGroh uses the site to see which bands are in the Midwest around Labor Day, making it easier—and sometimes cheaper—for them to play the Last Fling.

She then gives her wish list to a production company, another important resource for anyone overseeing a festival's entertainment. Such companies help with a multitude of tasks, including negotiating contracts and publicizing the event.

"You want to find a good production company that has its own light and sound equipment," deGroh says. "And you want to build a good relationship with the company."

Some companies also can line up radio stations to promote and co-sponsor the show. Last summer, Fling organizers had a station tied to every big-name act.

This meant the station was pushing the festival in commercials, mentioning its name between songs and generally making it a must-do Labor Day event.

"You have to pick the right station and format," deGroh says. "But, again, that's something the production company can help you with."

The production company also will help negotiate contract riders, the special requests acts make before agreeing to perform. Some stars' demands have been notoriously listed on The Smoking Gun Web site. (One American Idol runner-up, for example, reportedly demands his drinks be served in "thin paper cups" and cannot be served anything with nuts, mushrooms, coffee, mint, chocolate or shellfish in it.)

Aiken has never performed at the Fling, but organizers have hosted a few high-maintenance stars in the past. Most of the demands are addressed before the contract is signed.

Occasionally, however, problems arise on the day of the show. DeGroh—who's not naming any names—says it's best to appease the picky performer rather than put the concert in jeopardy.

"Obviously if they want a private jet to take them to their next show, that's not going to happen," she says. "But if it's something you can take care of quickly by just running to the store—like they want Evian water instead of Dasani—just do it."

Big-name acts, however, often come with big price tags. DeGroh helps defray the cost by tapping local vendors and hotels to provide services.

She often asks festival vendors to provide the artists' meals and solicits hotels for reduced room rates. The businesses almost always agree.

"They like the prestige of having the bands stay at their hotel," deGroh says. "It works out well for everybody."