In March this year, I volunteered at Kolour in the Park, a two-day house and techno festival held in Thai Wake Park, a wakeboarding complex 40 minutes outside of Bangkok’s city centre.
Exchanging a few hours of labour for a free pass (which would’ve otherwise cost me 2000THB/$77) seemed like a pretty good deal, although I had to put in a deposit of 2500THB ($100) to secure my spot.
I met the festival’s volunteer manager, Marshall Hackett, when I registered myself at the volunteer booth on the first day of the festival. Prior to meeting him, we had been corresponding via emails and Whatsapp calls while he got the volunteer program details sorted in the months leading up to the festival. Nonetheless, I was still surprised that he recognised me immediately, having only had my Facebook profile photo for reference.
Originally from the UK, Marshall brought with him 11 years of expertise to the fledgling festival scene in Asia, having worked with Thailand’s Wonderfruit Festival, and recently, Kolour in the Park. As volunteer manager, Marshall’s role was to ensure that all volunteers show up for their duties, look after us, stay in constant contact with us, answer all of our questions pre-and-post festival, and get our deposit returned to us at the end of it all. Besides that, he was also one of the DJs on the lineup.
While my volunteer experience was a pleasant one (I was lucky––what was supposed to be an eight-hour shift became a two-hour one where my job was simply to sell shuttle bus tickets back to the city centre, and I got to enjoy the rest of the two-day festival), I did get to witness that being a hired crew member is not all fun and games. Not only did they barely get to enjoy the music, every crew member had to be multitasking ninjas, running around solving various issues (broken ATM, lack of small notes for change, and more) as they crop up, at any time.
Post-festival, I get Marshall – who’s worked at 180 festivals – to lift the lid on the harsh reality of festival management.
How did you become a festival volunteer manager?
Actually, I had been avoiding the role for years believe it or not! For me, one of the most unpredictable factors in any event is people. If you run out of wood/fabric/fencing etc, you can buy/rent more. If a person drops out, disappears or does a bad job, you can’t just go out and get another one, so I always imagined the role making my life unnecessarily difficult compared to all the other areas I could be of use.
After being asked back for a second year at Wonderfruit, the only role they could offer me was ‘volunteer manager’ due to being a last minute addition. I took it on with only two weeks to go until the event, an impossible mission (which I was quick to point out), but a challenge I was willing to accept.
Long story short, against all odds I managed to just scrape through. It was hellish, but the people I was able to rely on the most were the volunteers. They went above and beyond the call of duty and were there when I needed them, mostly as a result of me doing everything I possibly could to make them feel appreciated and looked after (a key part of the role in my opinion).
Why did you pick this career path?
I would say that it chose me. It was never my intention to go down this route, but after starting out at the bottom (as a volunteer actually) and increasing my involvement and the number of festivals I was involved in each year; it dawned on me that I might just be able to do it full time (or about as full time as I’m comfortable with).
It also coincided quite nicely with my intention of never having an office job. Still one of the best decisions I ever made, despite the difficulties that go with it.
What was the first festival you worked?
Although it certainly wasn’t the first, the festival I remember the most from the early days was the first Bloom festival in 2006. Although being much the same as any other fledgling festival, (but with a stellar electronic line up that spurred my interest) there was a group of friends that met there that have remained good friends and respected peers ever since. We’ve all witnessed each other progress in events in a variety of directions and our paths still cross regularly. We’ve grown together and some I would class as my best friends.
How has the experience changed since you started?
From my perspective, it’s become much more competitive and cut throat in recent years (and dare I say it, soulless) for the most part. There’s a lot more people trying to get into the industry and it regularly cheapens the value of those with experience (experience which is hard to obtain given that a festival lasts three days on average and not many people can afford the time it takes to build a legitimate portfolio of achievements, especially when having to work for little to no money during the first couple of years to get a foot in the door). There are too many fresh faces willing to work for free and too many festivals seeing this as a viable way to save money, often costing more in the end due to paying higher costs last minute to fix mistakes rather than get it right earlier on. From the outside in, it’s a very desirable industry to be part of, but it’s extremely tough and not what a lot of people expect. Sadly many new crew and events find that out the hard way and ultimately everyone suffers as a result.
Luckily the right festivals recognise the importance of experience and put a lot of energy into making the crew feel valued. At its best, my workplace is somewhere I work with and for people I would consider to be good, true friends; people I can 100% rely on. It brings a certain type of people together and that’s what makes it work so well. When things go wrong (and they usually do in some way or another), I’m used to the ‘we’re in it together’ approach. I see a lot of the new crew bring the ‘blame’ element into it. There’s a lot more finger pointing happening as a knee jerk reaction as opposed to everyone jumping in to help each other, regardless of fault. It’s starting to feel more like an office without walls, I really hope it’s not a sign of things to come…
At its best, my workplace is somewhere I work with and for people I would consider to be good, true friends; people I can 100% rely on. It brings a certain type of people together and that’s what makes it work so well.
What are some of the roles you’ve taken on besides festival volunteer manager?
I’ve done most roles on the average festival site, from artists, stages, bars, decor and site work to sitting in a portacabin (mobile office) and making sure everything is running smoothly.
My personal favourites are:
Event Control (known under many guises) – This is the core of everything that’s going on during an event. Anything bad that happens gets called through to here and has to be fed out to the right channel(s) to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible. This can be anything from a naked person who won’t put their clothes back on (not really a problem in my book but by depends on the event) to someone found unconscious or not breathing. It’s about as silly and as serious as it gets, but ideally more silly for everyone’s sake. This is the most useful I’ve ever felt at a festival, but it’s a real test of my experience, quick thinking and keeping cool under pressure.
Runner – This one might also be because of the festival I do it at (Shambala in the UK, my number one bar none), but I love this job. I basically shop for the festival (I don’t even like shopping usually). It’s very fast paced leading up to and on show days (the actual live days of the event). I often need to be in three places at once (all of which could be totally separate towns/cities) and sometimes you can’t finish for the day until all the essential items have been sourced and purchased, but I love it. You get to meet nearly everyone on site (rare in most festival roles) and make them happy by bringing them things they really need, even if that’s cigarettes and booze.
Has your job affected your enjoyment of music festivals?
Sadly yes, it’s very difficult to leave your work head behind even when you’re off duty. I habitually pick things apart at events as that’s the only way to improve things in my book. I find the only way to switch off completely is to have a (strong) drink, then the fun times soon come back to me, although I’m always painfully aware of my commitments the next day…
What’s the most memorable festival you’ve ever been to as a punter?
I haven’t been to a festival as a punter in years, but I guess it would be the first few years I would go to Glastonbury. That place can only be described as another world and I truly believe everyone should experience it at least once in their lifetime.
Glastonbury really defines what a festival should be. Most people think going to a festival means working through a list of famous musicians/DJs and ticking off as many as they can see. You should be able to go to a real festival and even if you don’t see a single musical act, come away feeling it was the best weekend of the year and one of the best of your life. A festival is more than its line up, it’s about new experiences, friendships, enlightenment, enrichment and learning. You should leave with a whole new perspective on life. With 6 days and 5 nights at Glastonbury, the sheer size of it forces you into some of these things, with a world class soundtrack to boot.
And the camping! It’s not a festival without camping as far as I’m concerned.
What’s the best one you’ve ever worked?
It’s always Shambala in the UK. I would fly across the globe just to be there. Everything about it is just right. It’s the most forward thinking festival I’ve seen. They are constantly trying to improve every aspect, despite selling out almost every year. It’s very musically diverse and I would call it a world music festival rather than trying to follow the rest with who’s big currently or within a certain sound. Despite that it still has ‘the party’ (it wouldn’t be a festival without it). I describe it as the most family oriented festival I go to, but when the kids go to bed, the freaks come out. It’s also the most unified crew I’m part of, they’re my festival family and there is no ‘us and them’ within the hierarchy, a difficult thing to achieve by any standard. I’ve never witnessed such loyalty and teamwork on any other festival I’m part of. That resonates throughout everyone that comes along.
What’s the worst festival you’ve ever been to and/or worked?
The worst festival as an event would probably be Jelly Festival around 2010 (the only year I’ve been). It was just a bit too formulaic and bland. I also remember the power cutting out on the main stage at least twice, this is a BIG no no. Once is bad enough, any more is unforgivable. I’m not sure how they progressed with things after that year, but I’m fairly sure it’s no long running.
As far as worst job goes, I don’t want to name it in case anyone involved reads this! But it was in Thailand and it wasn’t Kolour In The Park (which was GREAT I’d like to add, despite the set backs).
How long more do you see yourself doing this for?
A question I often ask myself; it’s really hard to say. I love my work, but it can be quite nomadic and extremely tiring. Sometimes, the events just aren’t worth the extremities I put myself through to make things work. In recent times I’ve branched out into other types of events, specifically corporate (something I’d always avoided) and have been pleasantly surprised at how fun it can be, not to mention better organised and with better crew welfare. I’m also looking at utilising my knowledge in other related ventures that I could hopefully rely on financially when I eventually step away from festival management.
What would you be doing if you weren’t working festivals?
I dread to think, but it does cross my mind from time to time. I honestly don’t know, but I’m fairly sure I would have found another way to avoid the ‘rat race’. I have a lot of friends who have nine to five office jobs and there’s very little they have to say about it that would ever make me consider it to be an option. Happiness is much more important to me than financial gain, and they are in no way mutually exclusive.
What other festivals are in the pipeline for you?
The usual suspects in the UK such as Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party, Boomtown, Shambala along with a string of others old and new. In the past I’ve been involved with some Australian festivals but unsure of my future with them. My next endeavours are to explore more of Southeast Asia’s burgeoning festival scene and check out some independent festivals over in the USA. I’ve met a lot of people who are involved in festivals over there and it’s the people I’ve met that has made me want to check out the festivals they work on. They’re such good souls!
Where do you see the festival scene in Bangkok going?
I would like to see more camping events happen in Thailand. Bangkok is good for parties and concerts, but anything beyond that needs more space and a sense of ‘getting away from it all’. Camping is still a bit of a foreign concept in Southeast Asia, so I’d like to see that idea be embraced as a norm. That should allow more festivals to blossom as it’s the camping part that a lot of locals struggle with.
And lastly, how does one go about getting a job like yours?
I find that most people who specifically want to work in festivals are often in it for the wrong reasons (it’s most definitely not glamorous and more like an endurance test). For me, it doesn’t come down to what you studied or where you want to go with said qualifications (although I’m only speaking of the hands on ‘field work’). It’s more about how you fare up working 20 hours a day for four days straight (this happens more often than you’d expect), how much self control you have on and off duty when you’re in the middle of an excellent party, and how you handle the pressure when things start to go seriously wrong and the only time you have to fix it is NOW.
In short, get involved, start at the bottom and prove yourself. If you’ve got what it takes, time will teach you everything else you need to know and it’s the kind of industry where everyone learns most things the hard way, or at least from someone else’s mistakes.