Music Festivals: What musicians ought to look out for

Playing at a music festival translates into a lot of work for any musician. Organizing your music, the band’s travel, accommodation, expenses and publicity – these are just a few of the innumerable things you have to consider. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and stress of playing at a festival, and sometimes overlook a few basic yet important things. Just to get you thinking, here are a few basic legal pointers to safeguard your professional and aesthetic concerns as an artist playing at a music festival. These pointers are not exhaustive, nor are they mandatory or necessary to be expressed in complicated legal jargon – instead you could use these pointers as a check-list or guide. The purpose is to ensure that you, the musician have the chance to take informed decisions and make the most of your festival experience.

Getting it in writing?

Getting invited to play at a festival is exciting and prestigious, but do not forget to get written confirmation of your participation in the festival line-up. As a matter of fact, make sure that most, if not all your correspondence with the festival organizers is in a format that can be referred to in the future. While orally agreeing on terms is perfectly valid and not entirely unexpected, especially if you know the organizers really well, remember that it’s always better to get things in writing – it’s just a nice and relatively simple professional precaution that’s worth taking.

In most cases though, festival organizers will send you some kind of agreement or release that will stipulate their expectations, terms and conditions. Amongst other things, make sure that you go over the clauses or sections of the agreement that deal with the subjects of:

Remuneration (How much will you be getting paid, and does this exclude or include expenses that you incur at the festival?)
Payment schedules (Will you be receiving an advance amount and the rest a few months later, or will you be receiving payment all in one go?)
Conditions with respect to arrangements such as travel, accommodation, food and beverages
Intellectual Property (How much of each other’s branding are you and the organizers using and what about the rights/licensing of your music?)
Performance Rights and Recording your performance (Whether you’re okay with the organizers using the recording of your performance for promotional and other uses?)
Cancellation and Termination

Genworth Stage: India Jazz Suites

This photo has been shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Taber Andrew Bain’s flickr photo stream.

Play or Pay?

So you’ve agreed to the terms proposed by the festival organizers. You’ve blocked your dates, booked your musicians, packed up your gear and asked your best friend to come watch you play. With one week left to go before you hit the road, you receive that dreaded phone call from the festival organizers telling you that the festival’s been cancelled. So now what? Now is probably when you would have wished you had discussed some kind of ‘Play or Pay’ arrangement with the organizers.

‘Play or Pay’ is industry jargon for getting paid, even if the show doesn’t happen owing to a fault of the organizers – something like a cancellation fee. In other words, it’s a guarantee of some form of payment that you get from the organizers in exchange for having invested time, energy and resources to rehearse and show up to play the gig. Festivals can be cancelled and rescheduled for a number of reasons, but you don’t want to be caught in the crossfire between organizers and their problems. Instead, it’s good to discuss an arrangement with the organizers wherein, so long as you adhere to your responsibilities and show up ready to play the gig, the organizers owe you for your performance. The amount is negotiable – you can agree to payment in full or a cancellation fee of say 50%. The idea behind this is that you are not at a total loss in case of a cancelled festival gig.

What’s covered and not? And when do I get paid?

As mentioned earlier, it’s important to negotiate and clarify how much and when the organizers will pay you for your performance. Will there be an advance payment and a cancellation fee? Will the amount reach you via a bank transfer or a cheque the day after the festival finishes or a month later? These are some of the questions that ought to be cleared up, discussed in writing and agreed to in the form of a contract. In the event of non-payment, you can refer to the written agreement (even if it is semi-formal) and send out a legal notice.

Another very important question related to payments is to figure out what expenses will be covered by the organizers and what comes out of your pocket. For instance, you don’t want to be in the embarrassing position of finding out that the expensive beverage you gulped down after the show, wasn’t on the list of beverage expenses as approved by the organizers. The truth is that while band hospitality is a priority for many organizers, it’s equally important for you to understand what counts and doesn’t count as their hospitality. A lot of organizers will also prescribe in their agreements, a monetary limit to the food and beverages you can have as a part of artist hospitality – don’t misread or abuse the limit. Ignoring the number often leads to a bunch of ugly disputes between musicians and organizers – not to mention, bad karma.

Tech riders and equipment?

Do take care to mention clearly, your technical requirements. Organizers will ask, and it is your responsibility to provide them with a clear picture of what you need and when. Be prepared, there will be questions – sometimes the organizer’s representative that has contacted you will not be as technically sound as you; please be patient. Getting angry will get you nowhere, and once again, follow up your verbal communication with a neat, concise and simple description in an email. In the contract you sign, make sure there’s a clause that says that the organizers undertake to adhere to your technical requirements and that they will provide you with the proper equipment and facilities needed for your performance.

Meshuggah #15

This photo has been shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Parth Joshi’s flickr photo stream.

Safety and Insurance?

Taking care of your equipment and instruments is important, but taking care of yourself ought to be a priority too. Sadly, occupational safety and health is not much of a concern in India, let alone in the context of musicians playing at a festival, but don’t let that stop you. Make sure that you get the organizers to sign or agree to some kind of undertaking that obliges them to make sure all the technical and electrical equipment you will be exposed to, have been properly insulated and protected. Additionally, organizers ought to take all necessary precautions against physical harm that might come to you through faulty and poor stage construction. This is optional, but maybe you can work out some kind of insurance with the organizers in the event of damage done to you or your equipment – of course, the damage must have been foreseeable, no point in trying to get an organizer to promise to safeguard you from unforeseeable accidents likely caused by tumultuous forces of nature like an impromptu bout of acid rain for instance.

Protecting your music and performance rights?

Before heading out to a festival, I recommend understanding two legal basics – the first, that you can actually protect your music through copyright and the second, that you can protect your live performance through performance rights. Playing at a festival allows a greater number of people access to your music – which is what you want. At the same time, it’s important for you to understand how the music can be legally yours through copyright. A lot of people who come to festivals record performances – be clear whether this is something that you’re ok with. In addition, if the festival organizers want to make a recording of your performance, discuss with them the purpose of this recording – will it be for non-commercial purposes or will it become a part of recordings they can later sell to a third party for a price? Legally speaking, you do have the right to refuse someone the option to record your performance.

Publicity and Merchandise?

Last of all, check with the organizers whether you can sell your own merchandise at the festival. Playing at a festival can give your act the platform it needs, to step up to the next level of professionalism and creativity – it also gives you the perfect chance to connect with fans and listeners, and what better way to do that then by providing them access to CDs, t-shirts and other merchandising paraphernalia. Prior to making any sales, discuss with the organizers whether you have the option to conduct your sales directly or whether it’s something the festival organizers want to take care of. Also, make sure that your branding, including your image is used by the organizers for any publicity purposes with your consent only, and limited to the specified event.

So that just about wraps up this supposedly long list of basic legal pointers – now while a lot of these seem simple and may have occurred to you already, the purpose behind mentioning them here is to make sure that you clearly articulate these points (and more) in your discussions with festival folk, and get them in writing (either taking up the form of a semi-formal or formal agreement). Remember though, that you always have the option to express all of this stuff in a way that can be legally binding. Hope this helps and safe travels to all of you heading out to festivals this season.

Manojna Yeluri

Manojna Yeluri is an independent legal consultant advising artists and startups on issues related to IPR and entertainment law. She also founded and runs Artistik License – a legal education initiative for artists working in India that’s meant to empower artists through simplified legal knowledge. When she's not talking to artists, you can find her drinking tea and trying her hand at all kinds of DIY craft projects. You can read more about her work with Artistik License at

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