How Festival Stages Work
Today’s music festivals are technological feats, with themed light shows and infrastructure that is precisely engineered to delight and surprise festival-goers. Long gone are the days of Woodstock, of festivals with little to no buildings of any kind, reliant on industrial speakers and artist talent to bring in swaths of people. Unlike the first large music gatherings that took place in the 60s, today’s events and music shows are meticulously equipped and perfectly designed to accommodate an event’s theme and the vast number of visitors. Stages are the heart of an event—they must be flexible enough so that they may be customizable for an entire day or multiple days and versatile enough for a range of artists spanning different genres and styles of music.
Event organizers know how to navigate the world of festival stage design to provide immersive, euphoric visual and auditory experiences for crowds of people. In addition to booking an attractive line-up, their mission is to create a unique stage design concept that can set their event apart from other competitors.
In 1952, the Newport Jazz Festival, the US’ first music festival was founded in Rhode Island. 13,000 people attended the festival to hear Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald perform jazz, gospel, and blues on open stages. A decade later, the first Monterey Pop Festival opened up to a crowd of an estimated 25,000 to 90,000 music lovers in California.
Courtesy of Newport Festivals Foundation/Courtesy of Newport Festivals Foundation
The three-day west coast event was hosted at the Monterey County Fairgrounds boasted an on-site first aid clinic, four scaffolding towers that were 40 feet high and secured by planks, and featured an innovative sound system for the times. The system was designed and built by audio engineer Abe Jacob, who previously coordinated live sound for local bands and following the successful event, became a sound designer for the American theater. Woodstock followed Monterey Pop in 1969 and demonstrated to corporate interests how festivals could be monetized. In 1990, Burning Man was founded to promote “a free-form expression of community and creativity manifested through music, art, installations, social experiments, and good ol’ fashioned revelry.”
Sometime in between a burgeoning Berlin techno scene and the growing house music scenes in New York and Chicago in the 80s, rave culture and festival culture collided. The result brought technologically advanced aspects of the rave scene, like laser lights and artificial fog, to traditional festival culture.
“We’re able to impress upon larger and larger audiences these dramatic experiences as we never were before able to as a result of technology advancing, and now you’re seeing a lot more, pun intended, shine get put on the lighting and visual design world,” said Mike Herkimer.
Herkimer has worked in over 100 countries on 5 continents as a lighting designer. His design work pre-pandemic was based in Europe and his business currently operates internationally.
“Lately, we’re seeing a lot more talent buyers, artists, and promoters much more willing to spend more money because they are realizing the value in lighting design,” said Herkimer.
The commercialization of festivals increased revenue streams for events and thus allowed event organizers to spend more on supplemental experiences that brought in crowds. Companies were established to specifically transform music events into unforgettable themed experiences.
An integral component of the festival experience is stage design.
Darrius Medina founded Lit Creative four years ago after working in lighting design, production, and media for years at the House of Blues and the Observatory in Southern California. Medina ran lights, learned the fundamentals of all aspects of lighting and stage design by working four to five shows a week for four years for different types of artists and productions. After being approached for too many projects and faced with the possibility of having to turn clients away, Medina established Lit Creative media and production company.
Event contractors like Lit Creative provide music festivals with temporary infrastructure such as stages, grandstands, light and sound towers, camera structures, and platforms.
“Festival designs are difficult to produce because you have less than an hour to structure everything together soundly and roll it out to the stage, and you’re dealing with a pre-made template,” said Medina.
The most adept stage designers are able to transform existing sites into brand new worlds regardless of whether a festival is built on a man-made structure or a natural landscape. Complex stages have become the norm in stage design in recent years—with contractors building superstructures that house massive lights that weigh thousands of pounds and even heavier audio equipment.
Herkimer shared that while Europeans have excelled at these complex yet efficient stage designs for years, the North American festival circuit is finally catching on.
“They’re starting to do these dual-stage large formatted events and festivals where they have multiple sites throughout the country and they’re moving their productions around. This is allowing for a streamlined capability that we’ve never seen before… When anything is streamlined, it means your productivity is higher which gives you the ability to do more,” said Herkimer. “You want something that is very utilitarian in nature because you’re going to have a multitude of artists come through that are going to have a vast variety of needs.”
A utilitarian design is the preferred industry standard when it comes to festival stage designs. It allows the organizers to execute their creative visions at an event quickly and as safely as possible.
Over the last decade, safety regulations have been instituted to keep both organizers and fans safe. Previously, the outdoor concert business had been largely self-policed, and temporary stage collapses were rare, even as the number of outdoor concerts and festivals grew from the early 2000s.
Event structures presently are required to be built adhering to safety requirements and with a degree of flexibility so that each act during an event can properly captivate its audience and deliver a safe and dazzling performance.
“Truth be told, from a lighting designer’s perspective, festivals are not a place where you want to be overly creative,” said Herkimer. “Your designs should not be an extension of yourself—it’s a place to fill a need more than a place to express yourself.”
The industry does have some standards for constructing lighting and sound structures. The Performance Lighting and Sound Association, a trade group, requires that structures be engineered to withstand winds up to about 70 percent of what a permanent structure in the region is required to handle, but states that it may be less if a stage will be temporary. While stages saw little to no regulations in the early 80s and 90s, infrastructure regulations are now standard practice and vary from state to state in the US. Before a festival, structures are closely inspected and scrutinized by engineers, stage companies, and safety consultants before they get the green light to open an event to the public.
Not only have the days of unregulated stages disappeared, so have the days of seeing open festivals with little to no lighting and lackluster sound systems. Every year, millions of dollars are spent on providing high-quality sound and state-of-the-art lighting for event stages.
Festival sound systems have come a long way since Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Nowadays, festival-goers can expect to see towers of speakers, with sounds spilling across festival grounds with ease. Prior to an event, sound engineers work to limit noise spilling from one section of the festival to another—this is done by mapping the festival site months before to distinguish a sound plan that will provide sufficient coverage for the main stage, without drowning out performers on smaller surrounding stages.
Lighting experts like Herkimer, Medina, and their teams are brought in to handle the setup and execution of programming specially created weeks or months in advance, to augment a musical performance.
Medina’s latest production was in Chicago—his team executed the fiery visuals and innovative lighting for RL Grime’s b2b set with Baauer at the Spring Awakening Festival on October 3rd.
“This was our second time working with them for their back-to-back show. We first produced their HARD Summer visuals, which was their first debut show this year, and now we are working with RL Grime on his Halloween show on the 27th of this month to provide him with all new digitals and spooky Halloween-inspired stage design.”
The thousands of video tiles that are programmed by light experts to power strobe and LED lights, lasers, projectors, and any digital art to be utilized as backdrops, are all carefully planned by designers like Medina and Herkimer, who are experts in 3D rendering and visualization, programming, and operate at the highest level of organization to fulfill an event organizer and artists vision months later.
However, Medina shared that for a one-off show like RL Grime’s Halloween X, taking place in Los Angeles, the lengthy process is expedited. The planning will only take around a month to finalize, and then, for a seasoned pro like Medina, it will be gracefully executed by his team the day of the performance.
“We’re bringing out one of the biggest LED walls at the Palladium and we’re going full-on weird and ‘Thriller’ style, with a bit of a video game aesthetic as well,” he shared. “We’re going to film it live, and it’s going to be very cool.”
Between the installations that create the experience, and the existing sites that are expertly transformed over days of planning by designers, experts, and organizers, festivals will always remain a utopia in which people can experience worlds only previously imagined in their wildest dreams.
And with continuous technological advances, festival stage designs will only get better with time, said Herkimer. “I think that the live events industry is a measure of success which is based upon compound interests. If a show is planned well, advertised well, and if the show sounds good, and the lighting looks good as well, then what you get is a compound effect and it’s a beautiful synergy that takes place when it’s done right.”