Festival season - it's not all love and peace!

Crowd at festival with hands raised cheering in front of stage tent on sunny day

How using MSP can help organize a successful music festival

It’s the time of year when it seems everyone is getting excited about music festivals. But what is it like behind the scenes?

Do organizers think of Woodstock in 1969? Love peace, and “everywhere was a song and a celebration“, to quote Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Or do they consider this to be a complex programme of interdependent projects and activities…?

There have been some huge failures, some of which have been very expensive and damaging to reputations and brand image. Indeed, Woodstock itself ended over $1million in debt and facing 70 lawsuits. And think of the disastrous attempt to organize Fyre Festival in 2017. Perfectly promoted as a luxury music festival through Instagram and a number of high-profile “influencers”, it turned into a terrible experience for everybody who paid for tickets. Last year, one of the organizers was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to forfeit 26 million USD. If you want to know how not to do it, there are two documentaries about Fyre Festival.

Common causes of festival failure

Research has shown that there are some common causes of festival failure. Apart from the obvious one of bad weather, they provide a fascinating link to the best practices that a programme management approach like MSP® can give us. They include:

  1. Lack of strategic planning
  2. Not incorporating organizational learning
  3. Low quality event and service
  4. Lack of attention to the threats facing the event.

How can programme management help?

  1. Festivals are complex undertakings, with many diverse yet inter-related, inter-dependent activities – catering, security, health and safety, accommodation, marketing and of course the actual musicians and entertainment. A strategic mindset and approach are vital aspects, and a programme management approach gives you just that.Each of the individual activities can be quite complex and detailed and will require experienced project management skills. But without the ability to take a step back and see the entire event from a strategic viewpoint it will be impossible to deliver a complete and coherent festival – things will be missed.
  2. It is 50 years since the original Woodstock. In fact, there are plans for an anniversary event in August, yet this is also facing a funding crisis. Since then there have been many hundreds of festivals, resulting in many thousands of lessons. Programme management using MSP has a principle that we should always learn from experience. But it seems that this just does not happen enough.
  3. A quick internet search of ‘festival failures’ will reveal some amazing stories of poor quality events. The now infamous Fyre Festival provided disaster relief tents masquerading as luxury accommodation, bread and cheese as gourmet food, hardly any toilets and a gravel pit as the festival site. And amazingly, tickets were priced at up to 250,000 USD.
    Programme management would have provided a clear focus on how we might deliver benefits and an appreciation of good stakeholder engagement. After all, it is stakeholders who determine the value of benefits, and it is a focus on benefits that gives meaning and purpose to any programme. This is what it means to really ‘deliver quality’.
  4. Managing the risks is a fundamental part of best practice programme management, and festival organization has a huge list of potential risks. Once again, we need only to look back over the last 50 years of festivals to see some of the things that have happened and realize that so many of them could have easily been predicted…or prevented.

Programme management principles and practices are relevant in so many situations. And that clearly includes the organization and management of festivals. So, using the MSP framework should bring a range of benefits to our summer festivals of love, peace and music!

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