The Dirt: How To Score A Spot On A Festival Bill
Rosie Chats to Aidan McLaren, Co-Director of festivals The Hills Are Alive and NYE On The Hill.
Aidan can you tell me your background history career-wise?
I grew up on a 5th generation farm in Regional Victoria and had a farther who was very much into music. He was so into music that he actually converted an old dairy on the farm into a rehearsal room where all the local bands would come and practice there. My brothers and I pretty much grew up jamming in that shed. Throughout my teen years I played in bands and ran events through the local Freeza committee. I Left school and moved to Melbourne where I studied to be a teacher (working part time in live music venues to pay the bills) and went on to taught English and Drama in Secondary schools. Throughout the whole time I was playing in bands and one of these bands decided to move to Germany where I lived for almost three years playing music and working in adult education. Upon returning to Australia my brother and I decided to host a two-day welcome home ‘party’ on the family farm. We arranged for 12 friends’ bands to play and had approx. 350 people come and camp for two days and that’s basically how The Hills Are Alive Festival was born. Over the next five years the event continued to grow in size and reputation and in 2013 we added our sister event “NYE on the Hill” and also took on management of REMI.
Why did you decide to create your own festivals?
1) We wanted to create an alternative to the massive impersonal nature of many festival we had been to. 2) We had so many talented friends writing and playing amazing music (many to full rooms) that weren’t getting recognised by the ‘industry’ or getting slots on the more established festivals so we thought we’d create a place for them to perform. 3) We loved the family farm and didn’t want to lose it but couldn’t imagine ourselves only being farmers. It’s an incredibly picturesque site and we really wanted to share the magic of the place with good people.
Your festivals are very small boutique festivals, why do you like to keep your festivals small and intimate?
As mentioned above we wanted to create an alternative to the massive crowds and impersonal nature of some of the bigger festivals. We really do it right and nail all aspects of the event and let it evolve naturally, rather than trying to sell as many tickets as possible. The Hills Are Alive also operates on pretty unique ‘friends of friends’ policy whereby the only way someone can attend is if they have been invited by someone who has been before. This helps ensure a great audience and a great vibe. NYE on the Hill is open to the public but even then 50% of NYE attendees come from the Hills Are Alive ‘friends of friends’ crowd. Further to that, in my opinion nothing beats seeing an amazing love band in an intimate setting. That’s what we strive to create on the hill.
Booking acts would be quite different to bigger festivals like Falls or even Splendour In The Grass do you like to give acts under the radar a go?
Absolutely. For around 90% of acts that have played The Hills Are Alive it was their first festival. We have an amazingly receptive audience and most of them probably haven’t heard of the acts that are on the bill when they buy their tickets but know they are going to walk away with at least 5 or 6 favourite new bands.
What do you look for in an artist to book them for a festival bill?
An amazing live show first and foremost. We’ve booked so many bands that we’ve watched perform to a room of under 50 people but just seen something in them that we believe is really special. We often joke about the ‘goose-bump’ effect. If we get goose-bumps at any time during the set we’ll usually book the act. Equally important to that is that they’re good people. We like to meet and have a chat with the majority of acts and know that they’ll fit the vibe on the hill and get what it’s all about. Finally we’re often taken by something unique that sets that artist apart from the majority. It’s hard to define exactly what this is but you know it when you see it.
Do you look around at other festivals to see what they are booking to inspire your choices?
Not really to be honest. We like to be a little ahead of the game and pick up acts before they get to the other bigger festivals. We really trust in our judgement and the incredible amount of talented acts that are up-and-coming and think we’re doing okay… people are often shocked to look back at past line-ups ad see how many acts that have performed hills have gone on to bigger things.
Does the band need performance hours experience?
Not necessarily. Some acts can cave an amazing live vibe even after only playing half a dozen shows. That said we do require the live show to be pretty tight before we’ll book an act for hills. Sometimes we’ll see an act and plan to put them on the following year when they’ve had a bit longer to perfect what they’re doing.
What steps can acts take to help their chances of getting on a festival lineup? should that aim be a priority for a young band?
Writing great music and building a solid live following in your town or city is definitely a great start and one of the best ways to capture promoters’ attention. Beyond that finding ways to get your music into the ears and eyes of booking agents, promoters and festival bookers is really important. Avenues like triple j Unearthed are really great for that and also contacting the festivals/booking agents directly can be worth the effort. If you do contact these people directly I’d highly recommend keeping the correspondence short and friendly and simply send a link to one or two of your best tracks (no attachments!) and invite them to your next show in the city in which they are based. If you don’t hear back from them immediately, don’t feel disheartened as they most likely get hundreds of these emails every week. Simply send them a friendly reminder a couple of weeks later. If they are into your music they will get in touch. If this all fails go back to point one above!