Starting and Managing a Music (Autoharp) Festival

 Starting and Managing a Music Festival

By Cathy Britell

Seattle, WA

Music festivals are great fun, and a wonderful way to create interest, disseminate information, and promote specific kids of music and types of instruments.    So, you think you might want to have a festival, you’ve got a date with few if any conflicts…and now what?

The first step is to gather a team of like-minded individuals, whom you can count on to work as a team and follow through and get all the jobs done that need to be done.    Next, you might want to start small. For starters, it might be good to host a concert/workshop with your favorite performer/teacher (see the menu above) and see how that works.  This will be a good way to gauge interest.  Another option is to attend a festival that you love in the area of music/instruments you’re interested in, see what you like/don’t like about it, pick the brains of the organizers, and start networking with others from your community at the festival.   This is how the Willamette Valley Autoharp Gathering started.  Les Gustafson-Zook and I met in Pennsylvania at the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering, and we spent some time brainstorming about how we could do a festival in the Northwest.   We enlisted John Arthur, a recently-retired University department chair with a kind heart, great energy  and amazing management skills, and built a festival which was successful for 20 years.

Here are some questions you might want to ask when considering a festival:

1. Should we create a corporation? If so, what kind?
2. Do we need liability insurance? And if so, what kind, and how much?
3. What do we need to consider in finding a venue for the event?
4. How about publicity? What kind is best, and how much does that cost?
5.  How should we choose and hire performer/teachers?
6.  How do we go about figuring out the program?
7. How much does it cost to put on an autoharp festival like WVAG?
8. Can we offset some costs by selling t-shirts or other festival apparel or goodies?
9. What did you charge vendors for being at the festival?
10. How many volunteers/employees/consultants do we need to pull off a festival like WVAG?
11. Wow! This a LOT of stuff! Can’t we make this simpler?


Now, here’s how we answered these questions when we put together the Willamette Valley Autoharp Gathering.  Note that what is described below was how we operated by YEAR 20 of the festival, after starting small and slowly expanding in size and complexity over the years! 

 1. Should we create a corporation? If so, what kind?

The second year of the Gathering, when we started providing overnight accommodations and food and had actual paid performers and a formal schedule, we decided that we wanted to have a state non-profit corporation, with its own separate bank account, federal tax ID number, and officers. The advantages included clarification and separation of financial arrangements, simplification and clarification of tax requirements, and clarification of liability issues.  Information on creating an Oregon nonprofit corporation is here:  The rules about disbursement of assets there are important to note. We decided not to become a federally tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization because we felt in our situation the benefit didn’t outweigh the costs in time and money. Information about tax-exempt organizations can be found here:   Another reason to create a nonprofit corporation is that many venues require this status for tenants.


2. Do we need liability insurance? And if so, what kind, and how much?

This is always a difficult question to answer. In most cases, this is simply required by the hosting venue, and you don’t have a choice. If you do have a choice, you need to realize that as festival organizers, you may be held responsible for adverse events that happen at your event. We decided to carry insurance for the event only. It is important to shop around for policies. We found that  minimum liability policy for the duration of the festival that covered our needs  cost about $500/event.   Another question that you will need to answer is whether you feel that you need Officers’ and Directors’ Liability Insurance. This will be fairly costly even for a small corporation.

3. What do we need to consider in finding a venue for the event?

In our experience, finding a venue that provided adequate resources, yet was affordable was our biggest challenge. We found that it was never possible to find a venue that perfectly met all of our requirements. Here are some of the things we considered necessary or important:

a. Location: preferably less than a day’s drive for most participants. As close as possible to a major airport.

b. Lodging: inexpensive beds and camping/RV parking available on-site. Our participants are aging, and tent camping or driving late at night is often less than optimal for them; so this is becoming increasingly important. Adequate toilets/showers also important.

c. Teaching spaces: (at least 2 comfortable and quiet teaching spaces with chairs and adequate lighting, plus some informal gathering spaces.

d. Performance space: a gathering space with good lighting and seating for 100-150 is necessary. Can double as teaching space.

e. Vendor space: A place for vendors/technicians to be located convenient to teaching/performance spaces but acoustically separate.

f. Food: A comfortable dining area, preferably separate from performance/teaching space, with reasonably priced food, or catering facilities.

g. Parking: Adequate parking near lodging/camping areas.

h. Price: Some venues will include teaching/performance/vendor spaces in the costs of room and board for participants. Others will require rental per hour or day for each space used for the event. We kept reminding ourselves that many of our participants are retired and living on fixed incomes.

i. Contract: It will often require a lead time of 1-2 (or more) years to secure a venue for a gathering of significant size. Usually, you can reserve a time period initially, with a significant deposit required/contract signed at some later date, usually a year prior to the event. Between a verbal agreement and signed contract, it is optimal to have a signed “Letter of Agreement” as to the dates and terms of the planned contract so that both parties are clear as to expectations.

4. How about publicity? What kind is best, and how much does that cost?

a. Website: It’s a good idea to put up a website early on, because you need to enlist lots of help, let people know what’s happening, and have a readily available contact address. We were able to get Web development/maintenance and hosting donated by our Webmaster who is a board member; but if you need to purchase these services, here’s a ballpark figure of what you need to budget:

■         Domain Name – $10-15/year

■         Hosting – $25 to $200 a year (depending on traffic & hosting services)

■         Initial web design and development time – 60 hours and up @35-50/hr

■         Continued website Maintenance – $500 a year and up (depending on number/type of updates required)


b. Ads: Autoharp Quarterly yields good return. Other publications, probably not worth the trouble/expense.

c. Cyberpluckers & Other Online Channels: Monthly announcements, updates, reminders in Cyberpluckers often get the word out to people who would not otherwise find out about the event. Plus, most regions offer free listings in their online event calendars.

d. Facebook: It’s good to put up a Facebook page as soon as you have a name/organization/place/dates. But it’s not enough to count on Facebook for your major publicity; since many of our people don’t have Facebook accounts. Twitter is not functional for this population.

e. Brochures: Surprisingly, many people still depend on getting a mailed brochure/ registration form. Also, we put these in music stores and other venues in our main drawing area.

What we paid for all of these things is reflected in the budget below.

5.  How should we choose and hire performer/teachers?

That’s a fun and difficult job at the same time.  We kept a spreadsheet of the performers we had each year, and made every effort to hire a wide variety of people chosen from among the many great performers and teachers out there.  We decided early on that it was important to make this a GROUP process, done at the BOD meeting at the festival, to hire performers for the next year.  Because this is a small community and many of the available performers are our friends, the group process makes it much less an interpersonal issue.   A priority with us was always having people who would be out among the participants, jamming, being available for informal teaching, and being approachable.  Also, we wanted people who were very strong teachers as well as performers, but we wanted also to have at least one extremely strong performer  for each of the evening concerts.  We would also have a few alternate choices, in case our first choice was not available.   Also, it important to be clear at the time of contacting the performers what kinds of compensation are offered in terms of cash, room, board, airport pickup, spouse room and board, etc.  A followup letter or email was then done, which we felt was adequate in lieu of a formal contract. 

6.  How do we go about figuring out the program? 

First, the Program Director contacted each of the paid performers as well as a number of local people who are often willing to be volunteer teachers, and solicited workshop ideas.   We start with the evening concerts, then think about how to balance formal workshops, jams, open stages and free time, and choose workshops that we believe will appeal to our participants, trying to schedule beginner workshops opposite intermediate/advanced ones, and keeping the schedule manageable for the students as well as balancing out the “on” time for the instructors.   We have always found that offering a two-hour introductory workshop the first day is useful to our participants. 

7. How much does it cost to put on an autoharp festival like WVAG?

This was our budget for the 2013 Willamette Valley Autoharp Gathering.


WVAG 2013 Budget
OR Corporation Annual Fees $50.00
ASCAP Dues $230.00
Publicity $377.00
Performer Fees $4,900.00
Insurance $500.00
Income Taxes (OR & Federal) $165.00
Sound system rental $400.00
Office Supplies, Copying, Mailing $50.00
Brochure duplication & mailing $575.00
Syllabus duplication/binding $400.00
Badges, envelopes, etc $50.00
Performer Meals $743.00
Performer Lodging $675.00
Miscellaneous $50.00
WMS costs
– Dining Hall $520.00
– Classrooms+Student Center $960.00
– Chapel $1,100.00
Total $11,745.00


From this we could see that we needed to take in $11,745 to cover our budgeted expenses. We estimated the number of participants who would likely attend and from that we calculated the registration fees, meal, room, camping, and t-shirt revenue to cover that with a margin for unexpected costs. For most festivals we had a small positive balance; however in some years we did end up dipping into our reserve to meet expenses. Our goal was always to deliver the richest program we could while keeping the cost to participants as low as possible.

 8. Can we offset some costs by selling t-shirts or other festival apparel or goodies?

Generally this stuff is pretty much “cash-flow neutral” in our experience. Our goal has been to give people a nice memento of the experience. Occasionally, we will come out a bit ahead on t-shirt sales but with the small volume, that’s with a lot of volunteer work on design and manufacture.

9. What did you charge vendors for being at the festival?

We decided that the luthiers and other people who were selling useful autoharp items were an asset to the gathering, and so gave them space for free, only asking them to register as participants.  

10. How many volunteers/employees/consultants do we need to pull off a festival like WVAG?

This will, of course, depend on the size and scope of your event. There are some skill sets that will come in handy. We have had the benefit of some people on our team who are experienced business managers with accounting skills. If you don’t have access to that, you may need to hire an accountant to manage your finances and taxes. At the outset, we also had pro bono help from an attorney. You may need some legal help in setting up your structure, and may have to hire an attorney for that. And of course, graphic design, word processing, spreadsheets, and website design and maintenance skills are always helpful.

What you need to do is decide what jobs need to be done for your event, and then find people to do them. First, here’s a timeline of when and what we did/will do for the 2013 WVAG (behind the scenes):

July 2012
  • Decide on paid staff for 2013 and budget for fees
  • Contact paid staff; negotiate fees
  • Contract with venue for 2013
August 2012
  • Sort and format photos from 2012 WVAG, post slide show on website
  • Take down 2012 performer and registration information
  • Get pictures and sound samples from 2013 performers
  • Make preliminary 2013 website with performer info
November 2012
  • Re-visit budget and calculate registration, room, camping & meal fees based on projected costs
  • Design registration form
  • Design and draft brochure
  • •Contact motels for discount during venue
  • •Allocate rooms for performers and determine rooms available for participants
    • Produce ads for Autoharp Quarterly February & May issues
    • Start work on t-shirt design
December 2012
  • Modify website with 2013 registration information
  • Contact paid performers for workshop proposals
  • Finalize t-shirt design, make prototype for Web.
January/February 2013
  • Print & mail brochure/registration form to mailing list, with extras for performers & luthiers
  • Solicit volunteer workshop proposals
  • Take registrations, mail receipts, keep updated spreadsheet for lodging, meals, t-shirts
March 2013
  • Choose workshops and create program
  • Contact performers with program information and solicit handouts
  • •finalize menu and meal times with caterer
    • Take registrations, mail receipts, keep updated spreadsheet for lodging, meals, t-shirts
April 2013
  • Modify website with 2013 schedule; check links
  • •Update board on registration numbers and do additional publicity as needed
    • Take registrations, mail receipts, keep updated spreadsheet for lodging, meals, t-shirts
May 2013
  • Take registrations, mail receipts, keep updated spreadsheet for lodging, meals, t-shirts
  • Confirm the room layout with venue
  • Get brochures/registration forms to CAG
June 2013
  • Make arrangements for airport pickup/housing of performers before and after festival
  • Get brochures/registration forms to MLAG
  • Get handouts from performers
  • • Take registrations, mail receipts, keep updated spreadsheet for lodging, meals, t-shirts
July 2013
  • Get final t-shirt order information; manufacture t-shirts
  • Print name tags and packet labels
  • Print signs, schedules
  • Print handouts
  • Recruit volunteers
  • •Purchase performer snacks and water
  • •Prepare cash box and determine $ security during event
  • •Confirm emergency facility contact during event
  • •Ensure rooms are ready for participants/staff and make any last minute adjustments
  • •Organize & orient volunteers for assignments
  • •Appoint a go-to person(s) for event troubleshooting
  • •Appoint lock-up person(s) after late-night jamming
    • Update mailing list with USPS returns from brochure mailings
August 2013
  • •Take down 2013 website information
  • •Sort and post photos on website
  • •(prev years) Review evaluations and apply to future event planning
December 2013
  • •Send 1099s to performers and other staff paid more than $600
January 2014
  • •Do Federal and State tax returns; pay taxes.
  • •Do state NP corporation registration


Now, here are the volunteer jobs that we found needed to be done during the gathering to make sure everything ran smoothly:

Greeter/campground organizer: Greet arrivals on Thursday, tell them where to park, where to camp, where to register.

Registration: Check people in, give them registration packets, take money, answer questions.

T-Shirts: Get people the shirts they have ordered, sell others.

Site management: Make sure all litter is picked up, toilets function, doors are unlocked or locked at the right times, put up and take down signs, clocks, any banners.

Sound reinforcement: (Paid position for main stage) rent and bring sound equipment, manage sound for workshops and concerts, tear down and return. Volunteer for second stage…donate sound equipment, transport, set up, educate in management, tear down.

Stage management: Set up stage, work lighting.

Photography: be ever-present, document workshops, concerts, jams, ambience.

Hospitality: Pick up performers and other out-of-towners at airport, provide housing/support to those who need it.

Performer Linens:  Take sheets, quilts, pillows, and towel sets for each performer/spouse to the festival, make beds, take linens to laundromat and wash after festival, and store until next event.

11. Wow! This a LOT of stuff! Can’t we make this simpler?

Yes, indeed, you can! There are a lot of choices to make, and it’s probably a good idea to start much more simply, make it just a concert/workshop or a  picnic/jam to start with, and slowly build from there as you gather a team of people to do the various jobs you decide are important or necessary. Got questions?  Feel free to direct them to and I will answer them or forward them to the person who can.


This document was compiled with loving care and warm good wishes from the WVAG Board of Directors:


John Arthur
Cathy Britell
Laura Gregg
Les Gustafson-Zook
Fuey Herring
Judy Hricko
Sharman Smith