The Art of Festival Applications


If there’s one thing Ottawa has no shortage of, it’s festivals. Tons of festivals. Festivals, everywhere. Here in the capital, we love to celebrate pretty much everything. Festivals are a major part of Ottawa’s tourism and provide lots of opportunities for local musicians. But how does one navigate the mysterious, and often daunting, festival application process?

It isn’t as hard as you think. Well, not if you are prepared. Festival applications are generally straightforward, but there is a degree a vagueness with respect to what exactly the organizers want from artists. In this article, I attempt to clear up the process and highlight certain aspects that may make or break your application.

Do your research

Festivals come in all shapes and sizes, and draw in certain audiences. Doing some research into who’s organizing the festival and what kind of music they’re programming can go a long way to increasing your chances of success. Do a bit of digging and learn what the event is all about, what kind of music they’ve booked in the past, and how your music would fit in. Do not assume the gender or identity of the organizers, and learn their names if you can.

Think of it like applying for a job with an organization. Would you go in to an interview blind, without learning anything about the company? Chances are, no. The same goes for festivals, and if you’re a solo singer-songwriter, you’re probably not going to fit into the lineup at a punk festival like Ottawa Explosion. If you’re a metal band, CityFolk probably won’t be calling you back. And that’s okay, but save yourself some time and target festivals that can accommodate your sound.

Bio: Less is more

Band bios are tricky. What do you include? How much is too much? For music festivals, less is certainly more. In almost all cases, festivals will ask you to include a band bio in order to get a better idea of what you’re all about. This is where preparation is key. Think about it—do you think organizers want to hear about how you, Steve, Carrie, and Dan met? No, they do not. What they want is a short and succinct explanation of who you are, where you’re from, and some of your top achievements. It shouldn’t read like a detailed history, but more like the synopsis on a book flap. Organizers are short on time and want to know all the good stuff in as little time as possible. So, if you have a long bio on your website, take some time to cut and condense it into under 150 words.

I.D.A.L.G. at Megaphono 2017 (Photo by Els Durnford)

Live videos: The Key

A good quality live video can go a long way. Why? Because it gives organizers an accurate picture of what you’re like on stage, in the flesh. There is nothing worse than vetting bands and having to scour YouTube for poor quality fan-shot videos. They are like nails on a chalkboard.

A well-shot, well-produced live performance or session video can be the deciding factor in accepting one act over another. It’s a worthy investment to hire a videographer or participate in live sessions that are being professionally recorded, as these videos can be put in your back pocket and used as your golden ticket.

Don’t act like you’re famous

Please do not act like you are famous. Please. There are few things less attractive to organizers than a band that over-hypes itself. Organizers are not dummies—in fact, they are usually music industry veterans that have been around bands their whole careers. So, you’re not fooling anyone. Saying that you are “the next Arcade Fire” or “the best thing to happen to Canada since The Hip” will do nothing to help your application. It comes off as pretentious and unbecoming. In many cases—especially in Ottawa—festival organizers want to find new bands and give them an opportunity to play in front of larger audiences. Talking about your achievements in an honest and sincere way can go a long way.

Try, try again

Lastly, don’t be discouraged if your band doesn’t get chosen for a given festival. There are thousands of applicants that attempt to play festivals in Ottawa. The best thing you can do is learn how to improve your chances next time. Festivals aren’t going anywhere, trust me. Before next festival season, do that video shootHire a good photographer for band shotsTry to get some positive reviews in local music publications and blogsGo to shows, meet people, find bands that have had success and try to get on a bill with them. The music industry can be a tough one, but if your band can weather the bad times, then you’ll eventually get an opportunity to showcase your music on a bigger stage. Hard work always pays off . . . just make sure you’re working hard on the right things.

This article appears in the February edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint in the OSBX column.