Festivals – they’re quite a beast to be part of the core creative team of. I’m just off the back of my 3rd festival I’ve ever directed – New Wave: Sound for Vivid at Seymour 2014. This team develops plans about a year to 18 months in advance… for Bellingen Music Festival (an annual event taking place in September), we’re currently planning 2015 now… approximately 16 months advance. Some think this is too much advance, others think this is too little time to mount a decent event – well I say this depends on your experience and what you’re setting out to achieve.

You may wonder, what goes into planning the artistic content of a festival? I’m not sure what all the other festival directors in Australia do, but I’ll relate to how I approach it.

Like any project there has to be clear definitions of objectives, scope and resources from the outset. What is unclear, though, is exactly when the outset is. The artistic ideas may start germinating years in advance – I’d say decades but I’ve only been directing events for about 10 years; I’m sure as I get into my 30s, I’ll produce events from some of the sparks of ideas that I had once had in my early 20s. The ideas do not fall into place in a linear fashion – they all just sort of clump together like colliding asteroids… some of them stick together and the festival structure begins.

The initial components of the program form the conceptual point of origin for the rest of the events – they embody the values, objectives, scope, etc of the whole. These components could be, for example, a location (because there’s a venue partner), and a core ideal – like promoting new classical music. In the case of the Bellingen Music Festival this year the premise was tied to both the location as well as the idea of promoting music that stems from the western-classical tradition…. And a whole bunch of other values; giving opportunities to local young composers and performers, ensuring there is a workshop element for the youth orchestra, ensuring the local community feels involved. We are broadening the artistic scope next year to promote music stemming from the traditions of any culture. This idea originates from that there used to be a highly successful world music festival held in Bellingen every year. It was rained out 3 years in a row and hence discontinued. As I have very little experience in directing anything other than contemporary-classical/new-music/experimental, this development in artistic vision will be a welcomed challenge.

These core ideas form the foundation, and we can then structure the festival/event in more detail. This stage is based on components like audience capacity, expectations, our own capacity. The New Wave: Sound program at the Seymour has a professional team behind it, whilst the Bellingen Music Festival team are enthusiastic volunteers (with a lifetime of experience, though not focusing on events or festivals as their main occupation). The Aurora Festival (when I was directing it) had a mixture of these two models.

One of the biggest considerations is financial capacity, which could be inherent in the organization or in the core idea itself. An idea that resonates with all the funding bodies, audiences and potential sponsors as well is, I would argue, more valuable than historical reputation.

With your own capacity as a team (or individual), and the capacity of the idea in mind, the scope can be figured out. How big is this going to be? I approach this as more of an art than a science – all the formulae you could type into an excel spreadsheet will not be able to take into account every component of the event. There is guesswork involved. It helps to have some experience though – which I draw from both consciously and subconsciously. I’ll be on my 4th festival this year (as an Artistic Director or Curator), but close to my 60th event.

A limited capacity team/event will be able to produce, despite the odds. A festival that sells only 100 tickets, can only attract one grant and perhaps one donor still has that income to play with. You’re looking at chamber music – nothing of a grand scale – emerging artists, non-professional venues, stereo sound system (if you’re using electronics). These events are the toughest because it also means there aren’t many people involved in the back end working in a professional capacity. It could be just 1 person who organizes everything; conducts the music, sets up and runs the electronics, sets out the chairs, collates and prints programs etc. This is a mountain of work for literally no financial reward.

A higher capacity team/event can be easier to work with as responsibilities are distributed amongst paid professionals and you can afford to pull off bigger ideas. The trick to getting this sort of gig is to somehow align personal, funding body, audience, sponsor, donor, and main stakeholder objectives in one clean swoop of an idea. I’m yet to do this, but this year at New Wave: Sound we got pretty close.

This whole process begins well in advance, and for me it begins without incentive, without money, without a team – piecing together these floating mounds of ideas as they meander through the space in the artistic director’s mind – constantly changing and refining as life is experienced. They become manifested into the real world by writing them down and sharing them. They become events and festivals when they’ve inspired enough of the right people to invest in its creation.