There are so many different venues where you could offer your art, so how do you decide which ones are best for what you do?
If you create something that is easy to carry around, and have at least some pieces priced in a way that are impulse-buy friendly, you just may find success selling your art at festivals! But with so many festivals out there, how do you choose the right ones? There are basically two steps – find out about as many festivals as you can, and then choose wisely!
First, let’s talk about how to find the festivals.
1. Ask Family, Friends, and Customers Which Festivals They Think You Should Set Up At
Your family, friends, and customers know what you do. They have some sense of where you might fit in, and wish for your success. So just ask them! With family and friends, you can ask them what their top five favorite festivals are. This will get their wheels turning, and will probably inspire them to also justify to you why these particular festivals deserve to be in their (and your) top 5. Be sure to have your handy-dandy business idea notebook in hand, so that you’ve got a nice list written to reference for later. The business idea notebook doesn’t have to be anything fancy – it could just be the edges around your calendar if you’re oldschool, or you could use a notebook app on your phone.
Asking customers doesn’t have to be any harder. When you’re feeling like you’ve got rapport with your customer, and perhaps conversation has gone to how great the venue you’re at right then is, or how your business is going, or what they like to do, that’s the perfect time to ask. Here are some lines that can work, depending on the situation:
- “Wow, this is a great festival! I’m really loving the music/people/art/whatever. Do you know of any others this awesome?”
- (after customer comments that the wait was a little long) “I know, right!?! Do you know any other festivals where I might also have a line this long???”
- (after they’re talking to you about how much they love your henna and they wish they could get it all the time) “I set up at festivals pretty often – do any great ones near you come to mind?”
- •(after they tell you what they like to do – and it’s something related to things you like or events you might want to do) “Wow, cool! Do you know of any events where that sort of thing is popular?”
2. Vend at Events You Already Know About
- Your hometown agricultural fair
- The big annual local art show
- That one time every year where people hang out on the town green or at this one park
- Your favorite local music event
- That ridiculous, quirky thing that, for some reason, everyone in your area just LOVES
These are all things you should do at least once, to see how you do there. If you live where you grew up, you already know all of these things. If you’re new to an area and don’t know these things yet, that’s where #1, 3, 4, and 5 on this how to find festivals list come in – especially #1 (just ask people).
3. Pay Attention to the World Around You
Is there a sign over the road proclaiming that some fair is coming up soon? Guess what – that fair has its marketing game on point, and has a high likelihood of getting a decent turnout! Did you see a prominent flyer at your local coffee shop about some upcoming festival? Good – they are motivated and actively trying to get people there!
Another great place to look is your local paper, if you are lucky enough still have one (and if you are, go get a subscription! its continued existence is important to your business!). In the community and/or arts and culture sections, there is probably information about local events. If it was a big enough deal and/or the organizers had their stuff together well enough to get featured, it’s probably something worth checking out.
The one bad thing about this way of finding out about things is that it is almost always too late to get in on the action for this year. You will probably have to wait until next year. But it never hurts to ask, and in the worst case scenario, you just added another festival to your list of things to apply to next year.
4. Talk to Other Vendors
Other vendors like to commiserate, and they like to brag. Usually it’s some combination of both. The best time to talk to your fellow vendors is when it is slooooow. That’s when everyone’s actually got time to talk. The most common time for everything to be slow and kinda boring is after people are done setting up their booth, but before the crowds start to arrive.
The easiest vendor to justify talking to is whoever is your booth neighbor. Offer to help them set up if you notice that they’re struggling (putting a an “EZ” up tent alone is not always so easy). When they’re settled in, ask them to tell you more about what they’re selling. Perhaps ask them if they’ve ever done this event before, and how it compares to others they’ve done. Tell them about how you’ve done at this event in the past, if you’ve done it before, or which event you are hoping it might be as busy as, or how your most recent event went. You definitely need to have a good amount of give and take here. Don’t just grill them and pick their brains without giving something back. Perhaps offer to do a trade of whatever you’re selling for whatever they’re selling, and let conversation flow from their as you are perusing each other’s wares.
If you ever find another vendor who is really especially into talking about this sort of thing, who has a similar target market to you but does something very different, who is as open and friendly as you are, and who seems to be as motivated and clever as well, definitely see if there is a way you can meet with them regularly to talk about your event plans. Some of the actual best leads you’ll get will be from your vendor friends who you freely share information with. These vendor friends can also help you stay on the ball, and remind you when important applications are due and things like that as well.
5. Research Festivals Using Just Google
Even though ways 1-4 are definitely the best for finding great festivals that are a bit pre-vetted and a little more likely to be decent, it never hurts to just start Googling things. But what do you start Googling? You can thank my parents for this little clever tidbit. You start Googling the names of the richest, most populated towns in your area, plus any of these words:
- town day
How do you figure out which towns are the richest and most populated? The internet will tell you this, too.
For example, when you just search for “list of richest towns”, you’ll get all sorts of leads, and ideas for how to word your future searches. The best of these phrases is “your-state-abbreviation-here towns by per capita income”. Wikipedia keeps these lists.
You can also find the most populated towns by searching for “your-state-abbreviation-here towns by population”.
Compare the lists. Places that are high on both lists – that’s what you’re going for.
Am I saying that only richest, most populated towns are worth doing festivals in? Absolutely not. But they do have the highest percentage chance of having both enough people, and enough people with some extra cash to spare… so why not start there?
6. Research Using Festival Listing Websites
This is actually my least favorite way of finding festivals, but I know that a lot of people love them, so I’ll put them here. The problem is that the festivals are very often listed on these sites by their promoters, so there’s quite a bit of wishful thinking going on when it comes to the attendance numbers they put down. They maybe had one really beautiful, perfect sunny day six years ago, that one year where their festival didn’t conflict with anything else going on in town, so they put down their attendance number for that year. However, every other year, the event conflicts with the biggest event in the neighboring town… or something like that… so really, the real-world average attendance number is much lower, but now you’ve got this high number in your head so you’re all hopeful. Yes, yes, there are places for users to leave comments… but as you read the comments critically, you’ll start to notice that the people who bother to leave comments are pretty strongly motivated to do so. Either they hated the event and want to warn people against it (perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do with anything that would affect you or how well you’d do there if you gave it a try), or they are a bff/cousin/etc of the organizer and want to help raise the event’s profile. There are some people who honestly just want to share information, but as you go through these lists, consider the degree to which you’re personally using them to find stuff vs leaving helpful, objective comments on a wide range of events you’ve attended. Most other vendors are probably doing the same.
It’s good to use these to find festivals on dates that are looking empty in your calendar, as you can often search by date within a certain geographic radius. But sometimes, as this writer has learned the hard way dozens upon dozens of times but still has trouble living by, it is better to leave a date in your calendar open rather than fill it with something lame. So even in the times when it would be most useful to use this sort of resource, it is arguably not the best course of action.
Okay… You’ve found a bunch of festivals. Now how do you critically decide if they are actually worth doing???
1. Are you being asked by the organizer to do this festival?
This is a giant red flag. Sorry, but it is. I know that it’s so exciting to have done such a good marketing job that now people are finally contacting you – so congrats on that part! But festivals that are big and fabulous and worth doing have waitlists of people waiting to get into them. The sooner the event gets full, the longer the waitlist, the better you can guess that event probably is. So if the event isn’t full the quarter/month/week before the event, and the organizer is grasping at straws and trying to fill up their spaces at the last minute… well, it’s just not a promising situation.
There are of course exceptions to this rule, as there are to any rule. Sometimes the organizer meets you in person at an event and just loves what you’re doing, and happens to run an event that is actually good. When someone comes to your booth and says how great what you’re doing is and how they’d really love to have you at their event, here’s what you do:
- Take their card / flyer / whatever.
- Thank them.
- Ask them what makes their event special.
- Tell them how cool that is.
- Ask them about how many people attend, and how long they’ve been doing it.
- Ask them if they have anyone else there doing anything like what you do.
- Promise NOTHING.
- Thank them again.
- Put their card in your file of “organizers who gave me their card” (which you should have) and write their festival on your list of “festivals to research”
If the organizer then reaches out to you again after their first contact, and keeps trying to ask you if you’d do the event, you know that either they’ve failed to get anyone doing something like you do to come to their event, or they are just trying to fill up space and don’t care if there is a lot of overlap between vendors/artists. Both of these indicate that it is not a particularly good show that you strongly want to do. But the fact that they’re reaching out again does mean that they want you there pretty bad, for whatever reason. So if you do want to do their event, because it is local and easy, or it fills a gaping hole in your calendar, or it just sounds like fun, or better, some combination of these… you are now in the position to negotiate that booth fee way down – probably to zero. We’ll talk about the art of negotiation in a future article.
2. Look at Crowd Photos
Search for the event online. Skip straight to the images search. What is the visual image this festival is projecting? Are there photos of giant crowd shots? Is there a glaring lack of crowd shots? Are these “crowd” shots actually fairly close in on a single booth or row of a few booths, to show just a handful of engaged shoppers? Are they wide shots of entire streets filled to the brim with people? Are they somewhere in between? Does the crowd look like the sort of people who would want what you’re offering?
3. Try to Find Attendance Numbers
Finding true attendance numbers is tricky. A lot of the numbers online will lie to you. But there will be a kernel of truth in there somewhere, and it’s better to at least have some sort of clue about how many people you might expect. Try to see if the event has a dedicated Facebook page, Instagram, or other social media thing where you can just see the number of likes/attendees/followers/etc. It’s not always the case that a low number means a bad event, but strong numbers can be a decent indicator of a good one. If you are the fifth person to ever “like” the event’s facebook page or say they’re “going” to the event, though….they may have a marketing problem, which ultimately means a getting-people-to-show-up problem.
If the event brags about how many people attend each year in the main text / first paragraph on their website, that’s probably a good sign, if that number looks like a good one to you.
4. Look at Other Vendors’ Event Lists
Don’t look at the events for artists who do exactly what you do, or anything too close to it. That is a) pointless, because you know that market is already saturated and b) mean and evil and will make you enemies if people figure out that’s what you’re up to.
What you want to look at is vendors who target the same sort of crowd, but don’t do what you do. If you’re a jewelry vendor, and a clothing vendor with a similar style to yours has listed the events they’ll be at, that’s a great resource. A company that does nothing like what you do but is careful about only selecting the most profitable events can also be a good resource. Again, be critical of the source of the information you’re looking at. Is this a starry-eyed, ambitious new vendor who is just trying everything to see what might work? Or is it a seasoned festival veteran, who has cut all the crappy events out of their list, and doesn’t waste their time on events unless they see dollar signs? Is it a big corporate sort of company that just wants to have a presence at every festival regardless of the size, or is it a small business like yours that needs to choose wisely where to invest their time, energy, and money?
5. Look at the Event’s Web Presence Critically
Do an internet search for the name of the festival in question. If nothing comes up, that’s suspicious – you either didn’t use the right search terms and people call it something slightly different, or it’s a terrible event you don’t want to waste your time on. But chances are, their website comes up, as does their social media stuff, as does maybe a bunch of press about them. Seeing tons of different websites all mentioning this event is a good thing – the longer the list of places talking about this event, the more buzz, the better it’s probably going to be. The event’s web presence doesn’t always have to even have its own website as the #1 thing that comes up in the search – in fact, often, some of the events have been going on so long, and have such an entrenched staff running them, and are such a tradition in the town where they happen, that they don’t even need a strong website to be good. So in that case, you’d probably see a lot of articles about the festival in local newspapers and what’s-going-on-around-town sorts of websites.
Don’t be wowed by a beautiful website alone. A festival that happens to have a good connection to a graphic and/or web designer does not necessarily equal a festival that is good at getting people to show up. Sure, a nice website is good. But if that website is all glitz and glamour and promises, but no convincing photographic evidence of the actual crowd size, perhaps that isn’t actually the best event for you.
6. Show Up and/or Give it a Try
The best way to get a feel for the event and figure out if you’d be successful there is for you to actually be there. If you’ve got a good feeling about something, and you want to try it this year – go for it! You’ll have to kiss some toads to find the princes among all the potential festivals, but if you don’t try, how will you ever really know? If an event is great – awesome! If it isn’t, no problem – now you don’t have to wonder, and can cross it off your list!
If you’re vaguely interested to see if an event might be good, but are in no real hurry to try it, or can’t invest the amounts of money they’re asking for the booth fee without some more information to justify your decision, then just go and check it out as an attendee this year. If you’re unavailable to do that, send a spy – er, I mean friend or family member. Have them take photos of the crowd, and report back about how many other people there are there already doing something like what you do.
7. Just Ask
You can reach out to festival organizers and just straight up ask them if they think you’d be a good fit for their festival. Sometimes they won’t answer, and that’s okay. Sometimes they’ll be overly enthusiastic about what a great fit you’d be and how you should reeeeally come because OMG they need you – that’s either super super awesome and you just found the best fit ever or a clue that they’re desperate and their event isn’t currently thriving, and without knowing the details, I can’t tell you which. Sometimes there’s a jury fee in order to even get them to look at your stuff – but at least if you get rejected, you’ll know that, most likely, the crowd is not right for you or what you’re offering is already over-represented.
Mostly, though, you’ll at least get more information about the festival than you could find online. A nice inquiry message says who you are and what you do, provides a link to your website, asks about how many people might be at the event, and asks about what sort of crowd size they expect.
Go Forth and Enjoy Your Festival Season!
There will be ups and downs. You’ll do a bunch of festivals that are awesome and amazing and you’re so glad you did. You’ll do a bunch of festivals where you could twiddle your thumbs and make no money and wonder how the heck you got into wasting your day like this. Life is amazing and unpredictable, especially the festival artist’s life! Hopefully with all of this information in mind, and, especially, all of your followthrough to actually make good on it, you’ll be in a great position to have a much more excellent season at some super festivals!
Want to stay in the Thriving Artist loop? Join our email list!
Coming soon: How to Make the Best of Even the Worst Festival
Coming soon: Keeping All Your Festival Leads Organized
Coming soon: Negotiating for Artists and Creatives
Coming soon: Why Artists Definitely Need a Web Site
Coming soon: Why I’m Oversharing Even Though My Husband Says It’s Crazy
Coming soon: How to Deal with Seasonality in Your Arts-Based Business