The last three months have arguably been the most confusing time festival producers have ever faced. With no precedent for COVID-19, there hasn’t been a playbook for promoters to follow when postponing or cancelling their 2020 events — a ripple effect of dismantling that has affected thousands of artists, vendors, drivers, security personnel, technicians, performers, stage managers, creative designers and other assorted staff around the world.
Like so many others, the thousands of people who work at Michigan’s much-beloved electronic festival Electric Forest are out of a job this year. The event — which was set to celebrate its 10 year anniversary June 25-28 with a lineup featuring headliners Bassnectar, Flume, Major Lazer, Louis the Child, Big Gigantic, Diplo, the Disco Biscuits and The String Cheese Incident — announced its cancellation on April 21.
“We got a little lucky,” says Electric Forest founder Jeremy Stein. “The way the timeline played out, we were able to see quite a few other events who were postponing and the language they used and the difficulties faced. A lot of festivals were almost the beta testers for how to cancel a show during COVID-19, and some of those beta tests worked better than others. We were able to come forward on day one with very clear information with exactly what people’s options are, because ultimately, that’s what they want to know.”
In the weeks that have followed, Stein and his team at Madison House Presents, which produces Electric Forest along with partner Insomniac Events, have gotten a crash course on finding solid ground amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“These are devastating times,” Stein says. “I’m not downplaying that one bit, but I am saying we’ve got to kind of just get our scuba gear on and dive deep about what that new world’s going to look like before we come back up for air and a new world.”
Here, in his own words, Stein shares six tips on how event producers can most effectively handle — and even constructively use — this strange moment.
1. Personally Reach Out to Your Workforce
One of the things we did before we moved forward with the cancellation was divide and conquer a long list of people to call directly — or at least Zoom directly — and say, “Look, this is about to happen, and here’s what’s going on, and we love you and we’re all doing our best here.”
I think the personal approach really helps a lot in life, rather than another impersonal email in your inbox, because as much as we work on the festival, all the vendors, artists and everyone who really cares about something like Electric Forest, it means a lot to them just to hear directly from people. They put their heart and souls into it. They are part of the advance. They’re part of the creative soul of why it all works. If you put the love out to everyone, you get it back, so they all appreciated just hearing it straight from us. The sad part is there are no current solutions.
2. Instead of Wallowing, Use This Time to Innovate
There are a lot of folks looking at how these are dark times for the music industry and gatherings. I’m trying to look at it a bit more as a very rare moment to catch our breath and deep dive into some really creative ideas, not knowing where they’re going to go, but knowing we have a bit of time here to really think them through.
That time to innovate is what we don’t normally have because we’re all so busy in our daily lives. I guess the optimistic side is what a rare space this is to, as individuals or on Zoom meeting or whatever, just say, “What if?” and go down a rabbit hole.
3. If You’re Doing Online Content, Make It Pop
I think the way to stand out in terms of livestreams is found in production value. There’s the livestream where someone’s got one or two cameras, they’re playing an instrument, doing whatever they’re doing and it’s visually relatively boring to watch. Musically it might be great, but visually it’s hard to keep your attention. I think production value is going to become more and more important with these streams in general.
It also doesn’t always have to be live, it just has to be new. We’re seeing a lot of these rebroadcasts of older webcasts that are concerts from two years ago from a cool location, things like that. That’s great to an extent. A lot of people are getting a lot of views that way.
What a lot of people like to see is deeper content, more interviews, [information from] a historical perspective, funny stories. Artist-to-artist interviews are always great because there’s a barrier that’s not there. Stuff like that’s going to grab more attention, and production value is going to become more and more important, because with livestreams, we’re saturating to death.
4. Beyond Livestreams, Explore Ways to Stay Connected With Your Audience
I like to think of cultural and community festivals like Electric Forest as 365-day-a-year scenarios. These are real communities, and they don’t just last one weekend a year. There’s the live part of being connected to that community when you’re actually on site, and there’s a virtual part of being connected to that community virtually.
I think Electric Forest has done a very good job of that. It’s been a core part of what we do, which is not to support a community or market to a community … we’re part of the community as much as anyone else and looking for great ideas in an open source way from everyone involved. So now we have a scenario where that community is currently a hundred percent virtual. How do we keep people connected in an authentic and meaningful way? That’s a fun discussion for us.
5. Find the Silver Lining
The festival site itself is going get a nice breather this year. That’s always helpful for the grounds, the grass and the health of Sherwood Forest itself. There are elderly trees who need some loving care. We have an arborist who’s been working with us for years on the best way to maintain the health of trees over time. A lot of times you do something like this, and it might take six months or a year to tell if it really worked. Now, we have a bit of time to really maintain the land.
6. Make a Comeback Plan … ASAP
There could be a moment where medicine, science, vaccines, etc. actually turn the tables on this very quickly, and people are going to need to be prepared for that time, because when the day comes that there are really good solutions, there’s going to be an incredible amount of rapid movement towards the events. We have to be prepared for that, whether it comes 18 hours from now or 18 months from now.
I think people can do a lot better to spend their time preparing for that rather than just talking about the doomsday. We are going to get out of this in some way, at some point. What are you going to do when that happens, whether it’s tomorrow or a year and a half from now.