Getting Backstage: What It's Like to Volunteer for a Music Festival

Sunset at Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2016.

Sunset at Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2016.

Aside from performing, my favorite way to experience live music is behind the scenes. You’ve seen those people: slapping wristbands down the cattle lines at the Fox and Boulder theatres, standing cross-armed at festival gates, running cables across the stage. More often than not, those individuals aren’t being paid to be there, especially in festival settings. So what’s the glory in all of this? Much more than meets the eye. Despite many of the volunteer jobs being menial labor and requiring long periods of standing in one place (or, worse yet, running gear through throngs of leisurely festival-goers), there are definite perks to the job.

Emmylou Harris.

Emmylou Harris.

Admittedly, my initial interest in volunteering at festivals was fairly self-serving: I’m broke, and I get to see really incredible music for free. However, my experiences as a volunteer have offered me so much more than just a free pass.

Lil' Smokies.

Lil' Smokies.

Last weekend was the second year I volunteered for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The festival is internationally recognized as a staple bluegrass festival, and yet part of what I love about it is that it’s not exclusively bluegrass. As a volunteer for the Nightgrass staff, I got into the festival for free (and early) and free camping (collectively a $340 value). Aside from that, I got a staff wristband giving me access to backstage and a meal card to get one free meal backstage per day. Altogether, this is approximately a $500 value to volunteer for five hours each night, which is a pretty sweet deal.

Punch Brothers.

Punch Brothers.

The five-hour shifts can be pretty lighthearted (generally really good people are drawn to volunteer positions), but they can also be brutal. You might have to deal with a belligerent drunk guy claiming he ordered a ticket in advance with no record of it; meanwhile his girlfriend has already slipped past security (a theoretical situation, of course… ). Or you might have to be the responsible adult telling people old enough to be your parents that, no, they can’t bring in their own alcohol (yeah, it’s awkward). Or worse yet, you might have to supervise a backstage door, in a dark hallway where nobody walks and you have to resist falling asleep at 2 AM after having been in the sun all day festivaling. As a volunteer, your position still requires the integrity to show up on time and do your job (and sometimes deal with people who bring out the worst parts of your humanity). With all this, you’re probably questioning if it’s really worth it. For me, absolutely.

Houndmouth.

Houndmouth.

The best part of volunteering is being part of this team, this community that puts on such an immense ordeal. Backstage, I walked past some of my musical idols (making an effort to be casual and contain the inner fangirl, ecstatic to be walking right behind Chris Thile). I ate in the same tent as the Stringdusters as if we were colleagues. I stepped out of a Porta Potti and told the fiddler from Mandolin Orange that I really liked their set as she was stepping in the one next to me. I sat in the VIP section for nearly every show on the main stage, including the front row for Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris, and I sat alongside the artists’ friends and family members (and sometimes the artists themselves), watching country legends like John Prine and emerging pop stars like Houndmouth and The Oh Hellos. I was part of it all.

Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange.

Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange.

If you’re interested in volunteering, do it, but only if it’s because you want to be part of the team. It’s gratifying to be a part of something so immense; something far more valuable than merely a free ticket. A lot of venues and festivals depend on volunteers and unpaid interns for success, so look into the events that interest you, research what volunteer positions are available, and figure out how to apply. It’s an incredible experience for those with their heart in it, and it will always be the second best way to experience live music for me.

Sara Watkins singing with John Prine.

Sara Watkins singing with John Prine.

Learn more about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival here.

-Riley

Find out more about me on my blog.

All photos per the author. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.