Fun

Music Makes the People Come Together

A guide to attending a music festival.

Illustration by Ruby A.

Outdoor music festivals are simultaneously my favorite and my least favorite thing in the world. On one hand, being in a huge unruly crowd during the hottest months of the year sounds like a pretty accurate description of Hell. On the other hand, it’s a great way to see a ton of bands for really cheap! I usually can’t afford to see the bigger bands when they tour, but I can rationalize investing my vacation savings or birthday money if a few good acts are playing.

Over the years, I’ve been to a few festivals around Canada, like my hometown Ottawa Bluesfest and Montreal’s Osheaga. I’ve learned a few valuable tips. (Sadly, my expertise has yet to extend to overnight/camping festivals, which generally involve more preparation.) I also consulted some fest-savvy friends to compile a few things that I think you should know.

1. Get in for free.

Most festivals require a lot of work, which needs to be done in a short period of time, and thus they depend on volunteers. Depending on how old you are, jobs tend to range from working at refreshment stands to picking up trash. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but volunteers usually get to attend the rest of the event for free. Check the festival in question’s website for more information.

Sometimes long-term volunteers get even better perks. A friend of mine volunteered at Bluesfest for several years and eventually gained enough seniority to work backstage. I asked if she had any good stories. “I met Snoop Dogg,” she said. And? “Snoop Dogg was pretty cool.” There you have it.

You can also look into acquiring a press pass. If your school has a paper or radio station, or if you have a blog, contact the press person through the band’s or the festival’s website and ask about getting in for free in exchange for covering the event. You can also look for music websites and publications in your area and offer to write for them—smaller sites might not be able to pay, but they probably will have access to festival passes.

2. Find the perfect festival buddy.

I have ended friendships because we both wanted to see different shows at the same time! OK, it never went that far. But I have gotten into heated debates with friends about the merits of skipping Metric for Devo. Figure out the schedule ahead of time: how far apart are the stages, what times are your favorite bands playing, and do they conflict with the acts your friends want to see? Are you willing to compromise or split up and meet again later? These are important questions to ask beforehand.

It’s good to go to a festival with someone for safety reasons (well, and for fun). Decide on a meeting spot with your friends when you arrive, as in, “If we get split up, meet back at the information tent near the entrance after the final act.” This way you won’t have to worry about wandering through crowds in the dark trying to find each other while deciphering cryptic text messages: “Where r u?” “By tree nar stage text 2 kidd blue shrt.” (Also, service can be an issue in packed areas where everyone is using their cellphones.) And keep an eye out for one another. Stay aware of your surroundings, and trust your instincts.

3. Be careful in the crowd.

Sadly, there’s no foolproof way to avoid creeps. If you feel like somebody is using the crowd as an excuse to touch or take advantage of you, move. If there’s no loud music playing, yell “HEY WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING MY BUTT” at the offender, the move. If you can’t or you don’t want to move (because this is YOUR spot that you’ve been saving for hours, and you have every right to be there), stand your ground and resist. My friends’ tactics included descriptions like “flailing your arms like an octopus” or “standing with your elbows out as if starting the chicken dance.” This allows you to protect your body and push back if you need to, which can also help you navigate out of a crowd. Make a fuss. Loudly tell the asshole to “Back off!” so people take notice of them.

Of course, if you hate crowds in general, or if the crowd gets rowdy and you’re worried about being smooshed, just push your way out and hang out near the sides instead of the center. Should there be any persistent issue, either with another concert-goer or with crowd control, seek the help of the security team along the barricades or on-site personnel.

4. Bring earplugs.

A few years ago, my absolute favorite band, the Pixies, was headlining a festival. I wanted to be as close to the stage as possible, so I got there at 11 AM even though they weren’t set to take the stage until NINE that night. (My friends and I covered each other for bathroom and food breaks—again, the importance of going with like-minded people.) I was right by the speakers for the half-dozen bands who played beforehand, and the loud music they blasted in between sets. For several days after the show, my ears kept ringing, and I could barely hear a thing.

The moral of the story: hearing loss is no joke! If you are planning to stay near the speakers, invest in earplugs. Don’t worry about looking like a dork, most experienced concert-goers wear them (so there). You can get earplugs at the drugstore for, like, two bucks. Some venues sell them at the bar or at the merch booths. And the music will still be loud enough that you can hear.

5. Pack smart.

Remember: you are going to be outside, and these events take place rain or shine. Check the weather before you go, and keep in mind that you’ll be out late. Throw a small bottle of sunscreen, sunglasses, a rain poncho, and a light sweater in your bag, and you’ve got all your bases covered. Unless you plan on sitting far away from the stage all day, avoid big, bulky baskets or purses. I personally prefer bags that zip, like backpacks or zippered totes, so you don’t have to worry about things falling out in the crowd.

For some bands, you’re going to want to be right by the stage. For others, you might just want to mellow out and enjoy the music. When you need to take a break from the crowds, there is nothing like finding a shady spot far away from everything else and having a li’l picnic while the band plays in the background. (OK, full disclosure: I’ve never actually brought a blanket, but I always envied the people who did.)

It’s also wise to carry some cash. Even if there is an ATM where you’re going to (and don’t count on it), you can expect long lines and huge fees. If you can, bring between $40 and $60 for concession stands, merch booths, and emergency cab fare, even if you don’t plan on spending anything.

6. Don’t forget to eat.

Food at festivals tends to be ridiculously overpriced, and you probably don’t want to be ingesting corn dogs and chili fries in the hot sun all day. You will be a hero among your friends if you bring sandwiches and granola bars. You may not be able to bring liquids into the venue (check the website), but bring an empty water bottle and fill it up on the inside.

So here’s another anecdote: a few years ago, I was seeing the Flaming Lips on the hottest day of the summer. I didn’t bring any food with me and had less money than I realized to buy anything. I tried to beat the system by getting a small order of fries and then smothering it with loads of free ketchup from the condiment stand. Didn’t work, that was just gross. I overheated and passed out right in the middle of the action, and my sister had to drag me out through the crowds while I was wearing a short skirt and flip-flops. We had to go to the paramedic’s booth, which at first seemed great, because they had a great view of the stage, but then they blocked my view to take my blood pressure as I loopily tried to sing along with “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2.” Concerned, my sister called our brother to pick us up, and once she realized I was actually OK, she never let me forget the fact that I made her miss the end of the set.

WHAT I’M GETTING AT: make sure you eat right and stay hydrated. You’re going to be outside in warm weather for long periods of time, jammed among sweaty bodies and probably breathing in cigarette (and other) smoke. Do you really want to spend the night puking in the bushes?

Keep in mind, if you are planning to ingest other substances, which we don’t recommend, you might react differently than you expect because you are in an unfamiliar place, possibly one that’s hot and crowded. I’ve seen folks miss their favorite acts because they were inebriated or otherwise indisposed. I’ve also seen messed-up people make it to certain acts only to pelt Stephen Malkmus in the head with beer. (Please don’t be that person.) Anyway, know the risks, find the chillout tent, and stay safe.

7. Be organized…

This is crucial: figure out the bathroom situation as soon as you get there. This is probably the most valuable advice I can give you. There is nothing worse than realizing you really need to pee five minutes before your favorite band is about to take the stage only to wander around a giant venue only to get in line behind 50 people. Look for the bathrooms in the least crowded areas of the venue (like near the smaller stages). Those tend to be significantly cleaner. And consider bringing a travel pack of tissues—the toilet paper goes fast.

If the music fest happens to be in another city, make sure you know your travel plans (bus schedules, fares, and whatnot) beforehand. This is good advice for every time you travel, but especially when you leave a big event. Thousands of people will be heading for the exits at the same time, so you want to know where you’re going.

8. …but not that organized.

Part of the fun of music festivals is finding out about new acts that you wouldn’t have otherwise listened to, or meeting people with similar tastes. Go explore! Have an adventure! I mean, obviously you should stay safe (if some random guy tells you he can introduce you to the band if you go with him in his van, DO NOT GO). But as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus used to say: take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. ♦

37 Comments

  • Anna F. July 9th, 2012 11:24 PM

    ack, i only realised now that the Flaming Lips I tried to sing along to was Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots part 1, not part 2. Part 2 is really hard to sing along to.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzlMeTxVdH8

    Sorry, Rookies. I promise the rest of the article is pretty accurate.

    <3

  • Tyknos93 July 9th, 2012 11:31 PM

    I’ve wanted to go to Bonnaroo for the last two years. They have a volunteer program on the grounds and once you sign the mailing list they contact your every year for opportunities.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • katrinaexplainsitall July 9th, 2012 11:34 PM

    Aw, this really makes me want to go to a music festival now. The tips for getting in for free are really interesting. I’ll have to look into that! Oh and I love Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots :3

    http://www.katrinaspice.blogspot.com

  • Jacklyn July 9th, 2012 11:54 PM

    I had an unfortunate time seeing the Flaming Lips at a festival too! NXNE in Toronto this year was really crazy! I was the very back row. Oh well….

  • Adrienne July 9th, 2012 11:54 PM

    Thanks so much! This is really helpful. Oh I definitely have to look up volunteer opportunities in the Outside Lands Festival! Tickets are almost $300… :(

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • molly mazahs July 9th, 2012 11:59 PM

    this was great, I’m hoping to go to sasquatch next year! c:

  • PotatoPerson July 10th, 2012 12:00 AM

    Love your taste in music and your name (same as mine XD)

  • Muna July 10th, 2012 12:16 AM

    Awesome tips! :)
    And i can totally relate with the passing out thing because it happened to me on a U2 concert which really really sucked (moral: never go massively shop before a concert, get tired, not eat/drink enough and then not fully enjoy the concert)

  • lylsoy July 10th, 2012 12:18 AM

    I LOVE FESTIVALS! And my bf even made a course on creative events, so that he had some qualifications and basic knowledge to work as a volunteer. However, if you get the chance, be a volunteer! It can be useful for your CV, too! And the bathroom and food tips are really important :)
    another tip: don’t stress about what to wear, because my experience was that you can look good in a sweaty shirt with ketchup stains if you just have fun and enjoy yourself!
    http://gossipgonzesse.blogspot.com.au/

  • lylsoy July 10th, 2012 12:31 AM

    And for overnight festivals… there is a neverending list of tips… However, do not camp with someone you do not like, do not bring too many clothes, but bring gumboots, do not bring your full make-up bag, but don’t forget to bring tampons/pads/aspirin, do bring babywipes! they are always useful… I could write a whole article about it :)

  • talia anais July 10th, 2012 1:24 AM

    Great article. (Also – I’m from Ottawa too! Bluesfest and Osheaga are the two festivals I’ve been to! Ahhh!)
    I’ll be seeing Bon Iver at the Folk Festival here in Ottawa in September, and these tips are all so helpful to keep in mind. :)

  • Susann July 10th, 2012 3:45 AM

    Nice article! I’ve never been to a music festival before but this makes me want to go to one!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • plainjane July 10th, 2012 4:34 AM

    love this! ive only been to one festival but i totally cant wait to go to more :)

  • madeleine9 July 10th, 2012 5:30 AM

    such good advice! I am eternally in debt to one friend after a certain incident involving fleet foxes in sweden. moral of the story: only ever go to festivals with people who will miss their favourite band to look after you if you need it :)

  • moonflower July 10th, 2012 8:19 AM

    You saw the Pixies! I’m so jelous. Yeah, I second the part where it warns you to be cautious of creeps, a random guy started making out with my friend at y not festival last year and undid her bra. Freak!

    Also, some advice if you don’t have a lot of money to eat and didn’t bring food, is eat a crepe! At Womad festival last year me and my friend Sienna realised that a nutella crepe would actually last us the whole day, even though I eat loads

    http://ultravioletpixiedust.blogspot.com

  • wallflower152 July 10th, 2012 10:12 AM

    This article brings to mind Warped Tour. I have been a total of seven times, this article gives some pretty good tips. I have some others that might be helpful.

    -If you are in a huge, pushy crowd stand with your legs spread to where they form a sort of triangle. This gives you so much more balance and has saved me from getting pushed over many times.

    -To give yourself breathing room clasp your fists together and bring them near your chest, elbows at your side.

    -Do not, under any circumstances, wear flip flops, flats, or any kind of sandals. Your feet with get stepped on, sunburned and you might even lose your shoes during a show. I have seen it happen way too many times.

    -See a band you’ve never seen/heard of. Festivals are a great time to open your ears to new things.

    -Watch out for crowd surfers. And if you weigh over 150, stay on the ground to avoid getting dropped.

    -Mosh pit etiquette states: if someone falls down in the crowd pick them up!

    -Do not high-pitch scream like a fangirl.

    -If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen is what I say. Do not get into the crowd if you cannot stand being sweaty/sweated on by others, covered in beer and smoke.

    -It is better to go alone than to go with a friend who can’t handle it and have to babysit them and miss the show.

    -If you can’t handle it, let your friends watch the show and you stand in the back.

    -Have a list of the bands you wanna see and when you get there write the settimes down.

    -Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. If you sweat enough you won’t even have to pee all day.

    -Refill in the bathrooms, save $.

  • wallflower152 July 10th, 2012 10:18 AM

    Oh and one of the most important things is: do not worry about what you look like, you are gonna get sweaty and gross. Just have fun and listen to the music! Baby wipes and tie your hair up. I don’t even wear makeup to concerts I know are going to be crazy. Wear a simple tee and shorts with pockets, avoid layering. Don’t wear jewelry that might get caught on something. Don’t wear anything you care too much about. Never know what could happen. Wear light colors. Hope these comments have helped someone haha.

  • alanna July 10th, 2012 10:50 AM

    I’m from Ottawa too and am actually going to Bluesfest this Thursday! Very good article, but here’s one more tip I had to learn the hard way: don’t eat a huge meal and then go mosh like a crazy fool. You WILL puke and it WILL be disgusting. *shudder*

  • starsinyourheart July 10th, 2012 11:27 AM

    DRINK WATER! haha it’s so boring but so true. i went to Wireless two days ago at Hyde Park and i saw about 9 young girls throughout the day totally passed out, surrounded by paramedics, needing breathing equipment and resuscitating because they hadn’t drunk enough water and had either taken E or got drunk and deydrated. i had to help a 14 year old to one of the many ambulances on the way out because she’d taken something, not rehydrated and kept throwing up. scary shit how some people don’t look after themselves.

  • sunshine July 10th, 2012 12:16 PM

    this is perfect! i made a huge mistake once and stood right next to the stage for a few hours – i couldn’t hear for a week!

    http://www.batmanisreal.blogspot.com

  • hazeleyedgirl July 10th, 2012 12:17 PM

    I just got back from T in the Park yesterday, after four days of living in a tent. As this is Britain and it’s a typical summer here, naturally a MONTHS worth of rain fell in that period- that’s hell of a lot of rain. Everywhere was muddy. Thousands of tents were flooded (seriously, google the pictures, they are pretty terrifying).

    And you know what? No one cared! At least, the ones whose tents weren’t flooded :) We just had mud fights with strangers and paid a little extra to use the VIP showers and bathrooms.

    Another tip: The price of drinks are usually exkortianate, so if you want to get drunk while there, just fill up a bunch of plain old water bottles with your favorite sort of drink (they don’t let you bring in glass bottles).

    If you haven’t been to a music festival, go! T in the Park was my third and it was amazing :)

    • hazeleyedgirl July 10th, 2012 12:19 PM

      *extortionate

    • starsinyourheart July 10th, 2012 12:34 PM

      oh god i made the mistake of queuing for like 20 minutes to get some drinks — £4.50. EACH bottle. and it’s a tiny bottle!! i was so outraged but i’d qued so long i was just like ugh. fine. haha, i’m so bringing my own next year.

  • kimberleighrc July 10th, 2012 12:57 PM

    I decided LITERALLY a few hours before this article was posted that I would be traveling from NY to Chicago for Lollapalooza this August. I’m so excitedddd because I’ve never been to a music festival OR to Chicago, and this article is the best coincidence ever!

  • Shanman July 10th, 2012 1:26 PM

    I went to bonnaroo in 2010 in 2011. I cried because I couldn’t go this year and see phish and radiohead. In 2010 I saw the flaming lips and it was THE BEST SHOW EVER. They covered dark side of the moon as well as originals and i was really close to the front. It felt surreal, there was so much confetti and giant balloons and of course wayne crowd surfing in a giant inflatable balloon! I went with a huge group both years which was great because you could always find someone to watch something with you.

    hereshannonrambles.blogspot.com

  • half-jack July 10th, 2012 8:22 PM

    I wish I had read it before going to lollapalooza. I was feeling so bad during arctic monkeys’s concert :(

  • Whatsername July 10th, 2012 10:27 PM

    Quite an informative post but WHY WOULD YOU SKIP METRIC FOR DEVO

    Either way, I’ll be sure to check back here if I ever do get festival tickets {since every time I try something gets fucked up and I end up sitting at home watching the live stream on youtube eating ice cream and spazzing when the screen froze up}

    • Anna F. July 11th, 2012 1:52 PM

      Because when you live in Ontario you see Metric all the time! They play so many festivals! I had never seen Devo before (and no disrespect to Metric, but I prefer Devo’s music way more. To each their own!)

  • rachelsea July 11th, 2012 12:32 AM

    RIFFLANDIA 2012!!!

  • elyon61 July 11th, 2012 12:51 AM

    Spent all of today at Warped Tour, and I have an important point to make.

    Don’t get fucking dressed up for an all day festival. Don’t do your hair or tons of makeup, and for god’s sake, DON’T WEAR HEELS. No one cares what you look like, everyone’s there for the music. Wear practical clothes and don’t worry if you look like shit at the end of the day. Everyone does.

    • uaresoawesome July 21st, 2012 8:22 AM

      Exactly! The thing is, Warped IS NOT something like Coachella. If you dress fancy, it REALLY doesn’t help.

  • hollz July 12th, 2012 5:47 PM

    i really wish i had read this before i went and had the most horiffic and traumitising weekends of my life that was T in the Park. it’s not fun being called a cunt and leaving after one night and falling out with all your pals.

  • Leanne July 13th, 2012 11:54 AM

    Now this is ironic. I’m from Ottawa too and I’ve been going to Bluesfest all this past week, and I read your article yesterday before heading down. Anyway, long story short, I ended up passing out right before Sam Roberts came on (so heartbroken) and proceeded to have vertigo and throw up randomly throughout the night (attractive, eh?). Luckily my boyfriend was there to look out for me, but I felt sooo bad for making him miss the show too. He was really good about it though, haha. We stayed around for the Sheepdogs, so I guess that made up for it. But yeah, that was the first time I’ve ever fainted, it’s scary! Good advice though, it really is super important to eat well and stay hydrated (which I obviously didn’t do last night…) Oh well, at least it makes a good story ;).

  • battezvous July 16th, 2012 2:05 PM

    I just came back from optimus alive where i saw radiohead and it was a sold out concert, meaning there was so much people there you couldn’t move (almost), and in the middle of the previous concert i started feeling so bad i thought i was going to pass out and the concert i was there for hadn’t even begun! Why i started feeling like that? First, there were so many people around me that i couldn’t breathe decently and the heat was incredibly intense, like, 45º F or more! Second, i can assure you that if you are going to a festival, the first thing you need to pack is WATER BOTTLES! IT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU’LL PROBABLY NEED! I had drank about 2 water bottles and that didn’t do anything to me, i was dancing all evening to previous concerts and i was experiencing some intense back pain because i had been standing up for almost 6 hours without sitting down, and then i started feeling my throat so dry that my saliva was turning into this thick paste in my mouth and it was horrible.
    No one around me had water bottles and i have no idea how i handled 4 hours of intense heat and not having any water going down my throat! Plus the back pains!
    Festivals are great to meet new people with similar music taste to yours, and who knows what can happen! You should always pay attention to your bag pack or whatever you’re bringing/carrying to the festival, you never know who is behind you and what their intentions are. For this, i think it’s quite good to buy a locker and put it on your bag, that way you won’t have to care about it for the rest of the concerts! Yeah! Festivals!!

    • battezvous July 16th, 2012 2:10 PM

      *not a locker, a lock!

  • runningfilm July 16th, 2012 10:14 PM

    I LIVE for the local music scene in my home state, but still hit up bigger fests occassionally. I wish I’d had lists like these when I first started going, though.

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini August 18th, 2012 6:21 AM

    Not allowed to bring food or drinks into a music festival which I’m only attending (alone) to see First Aid Kit. I’m thinking of smuggling it in in a jacket pocket or something (it’s very much cold enough to wear a jacket in August here). REBEL.