Music festivals aren’t just fringe events anymore. These days they are the number one way to party every summer season. Lots of us just go to the local music festivals in our home state, we drive four or five hours, we pay hundreds of dollars for our ticket, and then we have a wild time. There’s nothing wrong with doing it that way. I used to do it that way. I have lots of friends that still do it that way. But what if I told you that you could get in for free? That’s right, almost every music festival in the country has a backdoor that will let you in for free or close to it.
What is this secret door you ask? Well, you’ve probably heard about it before. All of these music festivals employ dozens or even hundreds of volunteers every year to help put on the show. Most people already know that, and they turn their noses up at the idea of having to work during their one weekend of partying. However, you may not have thought it all through.
Why volunteer at music festivals?
First off, the cost of tickets is big. If you do the math, most festivals require about three, six-hour shifts. That means around eighteen hours of work. For a full pass, let’s say it costs $320, and that’s on the cheaper end for some of these big events. Do some quick math, and you’re getting paid $20/hour for your volunteer time. That’s probably more than you’re making dunking fries at McDonald’s.
Even if you’re not crazy about saving money, just think about how much harder you can party with all that extra money. Most volunteer tickets cost about $20. In this example, that’s $300 extra dollars to spend on food, merchandise, and whatever else you like to find at festivals. Not only that, you can afford more festivals. This summer, I already have six festivals lined up. All told, it’s going to cost me less than $150 to attend all six of them, not counting gas and food.
Beyond the monetary value of volunteering at music festivals, you’ll get the inside scoop. You’ll get to go where other people can’t go, see what regular patrons don’t see, and meet the people who put on the show. I’ve met a handful of cool bands such as STS9 and Rising Appalachia, just for volunteering as backstage hospitality. Beyond meeting bands, you’ll be a part of putting it all on. You’ll feel like you were part of the team, and the festival will take on new meaning to you.
So what kinds of jobs can you expect to have at a music festival? Well, I’ve worked almost all of these jobs for various festivals over the years, and I’ve got some pointers. Some are worse than you’d think, and some can be surprisingly fun. Certain jobs really match one type of person, and some are great for anyone who doesn’t know.
Let’s start with the most dreaded post, the one that no one wants. Parking is the most common cause of volunteer desertion. No one wants to stand in a dusty parking lot directing traffic for hours on end while they hear their favorite artist come on to the main stage in the far-off distance. Believe me, I’ve been there, it can really suck.
But the surprising thing is that parking isn’t always as bad as people make it sound. If you enjoy dancing with glow wands, or telling people what to do, it can be a lot of fun. If you’re parking people as they enter, you’re sure to see some funny things fall out of the trunks of overstuffed cars. And you’ll definitely meet people that are pissed about how long the line was as well as people stoked beyond belief to be there. You’ll see it all.
The things that might signal a bad parking shift are as follows. A dusty place, like a festival in the desert. A midday shift that means the sun will be high overhead and you’ll be burning up. Or, if it’s a massive festival, chances are you’ll be way out in the middle of nowhere in a vast expanse of cars and, once again, dust.
A good parking shift would likely be at a small festival. In a greener place where cars are parking on grass. Or on evening shifts where the sun will be going down, and it won’t be so hot. If you’re really lucky, as I was last year, you might even get posted on a parking lot near one of the stages. I spent hours dancing with my shift partner as the headliners came on and the sun went down. Glow wands, as I mentioned before, do make excellent props. Just bring a good attitude and parking will be OK.
The Box office is a shift I tend to avoid. I don’t like lines of people coming at me over and over with questions, concerns, and repetitive needs. I also don’t like sitting at a computer my whole shift feeling like I’m doing nothing. Depending on the shift you get, box office is either insanely busy or completely dead.
However, I don’t mean to make it sound all bad. There are lots of people that love box office and work it at every festival they go to. First off, it’s basically the same no matter what festival you’re at. Secondly, you’re almost always sitting in an air-conditioned, or at least fan equipped space with comfortable chairs. That’s because you’re bound to have at least one of the higher-ups working alongside you, and they like to be comfy. You may also get special deliveries of treats and other perks from roaming ATVs.
If you like to pass your shifts in seated comfort and perform simple tasks that aren’t physical, box office is perfect. It depends on the festival, but it’s almost always going to be your jam. Take a water bottle and a lot of patience, and you’ll be just fine.
When most people think of first aid team, they think they’re going to be kneeling over a kid who’s overdosing and have to stab a needle in his heart or that they’re going to be helping kids calm down who are tripping too hard. In reality, first aid is almost always a lot tamer than that. Those are jobs for the professional paramedics on site, not for lowly volunteers.
Chances are, you’ll be sitting at a desk handing out band-aids and taking reports of problems. In the event of an emergency, you’ll dispatch one of the pros to deal with the problem. It sounds boring, but it often comes with some nice perks, depending on the festival. First off, almost every first aid tent will have an air-conditioned space. That’s because heat is a major danger at music festivals. Often, you can pop into the cool room and chill for a bit. Furthermore, first aid tents are usually stocked with cold water and snacks.
If you’re at a small, or a well-run festival, the chances are that you will need to do virtually nothing. Ideally, an entire festival would go off with only one or two serious incidents. That means most of your shift, you’ll just sit there, nursing your hangover with other cool volunteers taking turns in the cold room.
Green team is a common name for the garbage collectors. It doesn’t sound very appealing, but it might be surprisingly fun, actually. First off, you’ll always have tasks, and your shift will pass quickly. Secondly, people at most festivals absolutely love the green team. They’ll shout at you when you drive past, they’ll give you party favors when you walk by their camp picking up litter, and they’ll generally shower you with praise. At least, that’s how it is at many music festivals.
The other perk is that many green team shifts consist primarily of what’s called micro-trashing. That means walking around with trash bags and picking up small pieces of litter off the ground. In reality, that means you can wander the grounds and camping areas. You can go take a breather with your buddies, you can check out the stages, and all you have to do is bend over to pick up cigarette butts.
Don’t join the green team if you don’t actually want to do the work. Then you’ll just be a waste of space, and you’ll leave the festival dirtier than you found it. More than one festival has been canceled or had to relocate because the site they rented was decimated afterward. Green team is an important job, and it’s for people who want to clean up.
In my experience, info booth is pretty boring. Sure, you get a chair and don’t have to do much. But usually, you spend your shift answering questions you don’t know the answer to and socializing with other volunteers. For me, it’s almost always just boring and not my thing. But if you like to take it easy and chit chat your way through your shifts then this may be the place for you.
At some festivals, info booth has additional duties like selling ice or coffee. Or in some cases, you’ll be doing other, more complicated tasks too.
Some festivals have their own festival food vending booths or coffee stands. If they do, it’s probably mainly staffed by volunteers, and consequently will often pump out sub-par food for cheaper than the other vendors.
If you have experience in kitchens or coffee shops, then this might be the spot for you. You’ll be doing familiar work, and you’ll stay busy. Furthermore, you’ll get to see haggard and hungry people smile the biggest smiles in the world.
Personally, having worked in lots of kitchens, I take every opportunity to work food vending I can. However, most festivals have limited space or no volunteer spaces at all in food. One year, working catering actually got me backstage where I hung out with musicians, event organizers, and ate cheese, expensive meat and fruit all day. That was the life.
These days, most festivals are too big to take volunteer security crew. For the most part, it’s a legal thing. Furthermore, most volunteers suck at security and feel more affinity with other festival goers than they do with their employers. That’s lame, because then they just don’t do their job and security gets farmed out to big outfits of angry tempered, underpaid people who don’t like you.
I haven’t been to a festival where security was a volunteer option in a long time. But the last time I worked festival security, my job was essential to patrol (dance) around the main stage and tell people they couldn’t have open containers. Basically, I would tell them, you need to chug that before I get back in ten seconds or I’m taking it. Then, all their friends would gather around and yell “Chug! Chug! Chug!” as they triumphantly finished their beer and threw it in an appropriate recycling bin. Basically, it was the best job ever, and I made a lot of people very happy while still doing my job.
Unfortunately, security is usually standing guard at a gate in the middle of nowhere or checking ID’s at a bar entrance. Pretty hit or miss.
Setup and takedown are perfect for those who like to party during their party without having to wake up for an 8 am shift. That’s because you’ll get all of your shifts done before or after the event. Not only that, but setup often knows how everything goes together and sees areas of the grounds that no one else does. And takedown usually gets carloads of free stuff that people have just left behind. It’s really unbelievable how many valuable things just get left because people are too haggard to pack their cars well.
The downside to setup and takedown crew is that they almost always involve longer shifts with more hours required in total. Not only that, but setup and takedown is not easy. Setup is usually heavy loads, hard tasks, and full eight hour (at least) work days. Takedown may not always be as hard but you’re not likely to be feeling your best. Not to mention, you need to be able to take an extra day or three on either end of the festival. If you’re requesting time off of your day job, that might be a deal breaker.
Flex crew means you’ll be doing whatever is needed most. To some people, it sounds really exciting and interesting. They have the romantic idea that they’ll be doing a different job every shift or every hour. Or perhaps they’ll be gallivanting around on an ATV with a walkie-talkie, saving the day all over the festival.
In reality, 90% of the time you’ll get put on parking. Remember how I said that parking was the most deserted shift at every festival. That’s basically what flex crew is for, especially on the first and last days of the festival. That’s when parking crew is needed most. On the days in between, it’s hard to say where you’ll get posted. Maybe you really will get to ride around on an ATV with a megaphone? Who knows?
At some festivals, backstage hospitality is relegated to a select group of volunteers. Usually, it’s not. That’s because keeping the artists happy is basically the number one job at a music festival. The only other jobs that come close are keeping the police happy, and keeping people from sneaking in.
If you do make it onto the hospitality team, you’re likely going to be hanging out backstage, serving high-quality snacks, keeping pitchers of water and lemonade full and the mini fridges stocked. You may very well meet your favorite band. Just try not to swoon or barf on their shoes. You won’t be invited back.
The most important part of landing a good music festival volunteer position is applying early. So, pick your festivals now, or even three months ago, and watch their websites closely. Better yet, sign up for their newsletters so that you get updated as soon as volunteer applications go live.
That’s when you’ll get the first pick of the best positions and shifts. If you wait until the day before the deadline, then you’re likely to get stuck on parking during the best sets.
If I haven’t convinced you of why you should volunteer at your next music festival by now, then you can buy your tickets this year like all the rest of them.
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