HOT INDIO NIGHTS: Coachella was expecting upper-90s temperatures for its second weekend. (Getty Images)

Elements Are A Wild Card

Good weather and outdoor festivals go hand in hand. But with more than 800 music festivals across the country each year, the elements are a factor for the production companies who provide tour support for participating acts.

“Weather can set you back,” offered Randy Hutson, senior vice president music for Production Resource Group. “There is a lot of waiting. Long days and long nights.”

“Festivals happen,” said Scott Scovill, CEO and founder of video production company Moo TV, rehearsal space The Steel Mill and Moo Creative Media. “If the dollars are there you are going to do festivals, and fairs, in the middle of your touring season.”

The companies who provide lighting, video and other technology services have to adapt from setting up in predictable conditions at venues they routinely work in to festivals, where the infrastructure is shifting like the sands at Burning Man.

Hutson changed PRG’s North American festival strategy, leaving most production support to regional companies. “The carbon fiber footprint we create by moving gear across the states is not worth the risk, or the margin you make on these jobs,” said Hutson. “It’s a very competitive marketplace.”

Rather, Hutson found that supporting festival appearances by their artist customers was a better fit. PRG’s services include camera, audio, video, lighting, rigging and automation. In 2024, they are providing the technology behind festival appearances by Deftones, J Balvin and Victoria Monet at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (April 19-21); Post Malone and Rauw Alejandro at Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City (June 7-9); and System of a Down at Sick New World in Las Vegas, Nevada (April 27).

Preparation is key because a festival date can be dropped into an existing tour. The first step is to assess in advance where you can make gear adjustments.

“That pre-production work is sometimes six to eight months, sometimes a year depending on the size of the event,” Hutson said.

Festivals “pop up in the middle of our itineraries all over the place,” said Scovill. “You might be in an arena one night and a festival the next day. We look at what we need and we might shuffle it in the truck because there is limited space on stage and you don’t want to take stuff off the truck you are going to put back on the truck.”

Space for storage is also a recurring issue. “You need to deal with limited space that very often happens at festivals,” said Scovill. “It’s usually a stage sitting in the middle of a muddy field so there isn’t a lot of room to store extra stuff.”

Other inconsistencies are the roof load capacities but there are basic standards that most events follow. “You know what the limits are, but that might be less than what you are flying on a day-to-day basis,” Scovill explained.

The typical solution is to make the video screens smaller by removing a row or two from the bottom and sides, but that requires reformatting the show for that smaller screen, which can be done in advance.

Then there are the things you can’t prepare for like bad weather. “We don’t really own any gear that can’t be in the rain, but I know some companies that do and I’ve heard some horror stories,” said Scovill. “We don’t want to own it if it can’t get wet.”

PRG also uses gear that is approved for outdoor use and waterproof. “Things can be very dicey because you’ve got electrical current running to them,” explained Hutson.

Being under a roof doesn’t always protect video and lighting equipment that can cost anywhere from more than $1 million – especially when it rains sideways. When that occurs, screens shut on and off, among other interruptions.

Another issue is dust. “In the case of Coachella, you have the dust to deal with; and in its own right, it can be worse than the rain,” said Hutson. “Dust in the desert can be hard on the equipment and even harder on the staff because it is a constant. Rain will eventually stop.”

At the end of a festival or fair run, gear is disassembled and vacuumed to remove dust to keep the equipment from overheating.

“We’ve done state fairs, where you are on the inside of a dirt track and they are literally racing cars around the stage all day,” said Scovill. “That’s serious dust.”

In some cases, artist managers opt to leave video at home when they have a stretch of dates that include a lot of festivals where they can’t make use of their full video system. It doesn’t make financial sense to carry a lot of equipment that won’t get used.

“If you can’t always fly something, you have to think if you should spend money on it,” explained Scovill.

The days of showing up at a festival and using the available set up are mostly over. Artists want consistency in their show no matter where they perform, and video is a big part of the picture. It used to be commonplace for a festival to relight a scenic flat for each act. Today, video walls can create a fresh look for each performer.

“Festivals are designed with a base package. It has a base look. It follows a motif or genre of the music, the client or even the audience,” Hutson explained. “Each artist wants to put their own spin on their look so they stand out from the base package.”
When revenue streams moved from album sales and radio airplay to live, most festivals improved production, including stage size and roof capacity, to attract top-line artists who wanted to present their full creative show.

“In today’s world, the money is in live,” explained Scovill. “That’s their place to compete. And so, they are more likely to defend their turf by putting their very best foot forward in their live show, which means they want to carry production. They want to look different than the other guys.

“And they want the festival to have them back the next year. It’s where the money is, and that wasn’t the case in a pre-iTunes world.”

Since the 1960s when the Woodstock Music & Art Fair rocked the planet, festivals have grown and become big business with new events hopping on the band wagon each year, some catching on and others fading away.

“When I first started there were five or six festivals, and I thought that was huge,” said Scovill. “Today, there are 30 of them that size. Festivals have gotten bigger and have gotten to be more popular, too.”