Book Review: “The Festival Thrower’s Bible,” by Tucker Gumber
Tucker Gumber attends lots of very large festivals around the country. He considers a festival with 3,000 to 10,000 attendees to be a small festival. His ideal festival, worth an entire short chapter in his book, The Festival Thrower’s Bible, is Burning Man, in the desert of Nevada. And, as I looked at the festivals Gumber has attended in past years, I realized the lineups at many were completely strange to me and the music would likely not be to my taste. Nevertheless, The Festival Thrower’s Bible is worth any festival promoter’s time and money, whether their festival attracts fewer than 1,000 people or, like IBMA, can bring out over 170,000 for a five-day run.
In a 7 x 7-inch glossy format, filled with cartoons and photographs suggesting the realizations of what he’s writing about, Gumber considers many issues confronting every festival promoter regardless of the size or nature of their event. Often, the ideas and issues raised suggest websites where readers can go for further, more detailed information. He emphasizes the importance of creating a total experience. He covers significant issues every festival faces, whether the location is an open field, a campground, a fairground, or hundreds of acres of open desert land. He tackles a wide range of concerns facing festival promoters, such as access, provisions for water, camping, the environment, food, health, safety, and publicity. He doesn’t duck from writing about the use of drugs and alcohol at many festivals. His chapters on branding, the use of social media, bringing the arts into festivals, and many more topics are each worth much more than the price of this book, just in terms of providing good ideas and opening eyes to the possibilities.
Many bluegrassers approaching this book may think that Gumber’s approach is not for them. It’s very youth-oriented and hip, and if you’re a promoter of a small festival, you might find all this a bit overwhelming. Your worst choice would be to give up on it because it doesn’t apply to you. It does! You just don’t know that yet.
All you need to do, as you study this book, is make connections. You’ll find plenty of ideas to make the book worth reading. These ideas can be easily turned into a handbook for your festival and checklists for people who work with and for you.
An example: Bluegrass festivals — the ones we attend — often make rather stringent statements about alcohol use, such as no alcohol allowed in performance areas and no open carry, and they hardly ever mention drug usage. In adopting this policy, they seek to cover up and disguise an issue, rather than figure out how to deal with it. Merlefest, for instance, searches every backpack for spirits, to the point of not allowing unsealed bottles of water on the grounds. Since the advent of soft-packaged hard liquor, which can be carried in pockets, this has become an impossible stance to maintain. Gumber advocates, at several points in The Festival Thrower’s Bible, that festivals adopt a realistic view toward alcohol and drug use, trying to encourage moderation while providing adequate medical care for those overdosing and professional security for misbehavior. In so doing, he argues, the event can manage overuse and benefit from the revenue gained by having beer and wine sales onsite. Together, these approaches can moderate behavior, increase attendance by altering the demographics, and improve revenue. It can also replace hypocritical cover-ups with realistic and sensible policies.
Known as “The Festival Guy,” Gumber comes from Colorado, where he went to Colorado State University, majoring in resort management and business. His first festival proved to be a life-changing experience, as he began to see ways to improve and rationalize festival management. From 2011 to 2015, he attended 91 festivals, including five trips to Burning Man. He serves as a consultant to many festivals on audience development, health and safety issues, and green management. He is the founder and CEO of FestEvo.
Gumber emphasizes in every chapter how festival organizers should approaching this sensible book with an open mind, seeking to solidify branding, increase the accuracy of sales, and focus attention how to make an event the best it can possibly be. The layout is eye-catching, the ideas are well-highlighted, the organization is conducive to improving festival planning, and the whole book will provide a workable approach to development. All a promoter needs to do is to turn the concepts and approaches into a blueprint for his or her own particular event.
The single most glaring flaw in this otherwise extremely useful handbook is the absence of information about finding and assuring that your festival offers great sound. Sound production is a major cost factor for bluegrass festival promoters. Particularly with acoustic music, it’s difficult to provide good, accurate sound reproduction. In bluegrass, sound companies with wide experience in, for instance, rock music, often are found to be inadequate as they lack of understanding the requirements of the instruments involved. In addition, multi-stage events should be counseled in how to set stages to avoid sound overlapping and interfering with other stages. These two issues should be given further consideration in future editions of The Festival Thrower’s Bible.
While this book seems to emphasize large, multipurpose festivals catering to a youthful demographic, it would be a mistake to assume that its contents don’t apply to every venue wishing to attract strong audiences and build profits in presenting them. Reading and studying this book and the additional resources suggested in it can only help promoters to develop stronger, more responsible, better managed events.