11 (Nearly) Foolproof Rules for Sneaking Into a FestivalHere, a veteran of the music industry offers insight into how one can scarf on the forbidden fruits of live music. Why 11 rules? Music business math.
Getting “backstage” has been the holy grail of the concert experience since the heyday of arena rock. Contests and VIP experiences boasting “backstage passes” virtually always offer a sanitized version of the real deal, which is actually mostly just hairy dudes pushing around road cases and yelling at each other. That said, there is much to be found and enjoyed behind the scenes at the live music experience, as well as suites, VIP areas, private parties, on tour buses and in other areas that most ticketholders never get to see. But there are ways, oh, yes, there are ways.
1. Look Like You Know What You’re Doing
Wherever you go, whatever you do, whether it’s chowing down at catering, watching the show from a backstage viewing area, or just checking out the lay of the backstage land, act like you’re supposed to be there and that you are completely accustomed to being in such an environment. Walk with authority, like you’ve got somewhere to be, or, if you’re watching the show, check out the lighting rig, act like you’re making mental notes. If you make eye contact at all, nod at the roadies or suits, give them that “I’m one of you” sign of recognition.
The absolute best way to look like you know what you’re doing is to score a laminate—any laminate, or better yet, a half dozen laminates. They don’t have to be from the specific show or tour you’re currently scarfing, but a few laminates hanging on a lanyard around your neck (best placed so the artwork can’t be clearly seen) works surprisingly well. Giggling, fist-pumping, high-fives, inability to handle one’s intoxicants, selfies, and general unprofessional behavior will blow it for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time; though it’s hard work, the music business is a blast, and the pros are thrilled to be part of it. Just act like you’ve been there before.
2. Find Your Access Point
You don’t want to get stopped before you get started. If you can manage it, find the secondary entrance to any venue, where the professionals go in. If you get stopped by a guard, state some bogus name, “I’m Jack Frost with Poorly Kept Records, Bob Bobbington said I should be on the parking list.” Better yet, find out who runs the venue, GM or Director of Operations. Act extremely perturbed when the guard doesn’t find you (“I’ma KILL Bobbington!), push back to a degree, and if that doesn’t work, enter with the punters. A fake placard on the dash (“Bus Parking,” for example) can work wonders.
Another option: come early. Security doesn’t get super tight until a couple of hours before doors. Loading docks, concessions areas, administrative offices can all be effective, as can information from any friend or acquaintance that works at the venue or for the promoter. However you gain access, always adhere to Rule No. 1 (above).
3. Pair Up
A loner gets noticed. Never be a lurker. Always have a wing person, frequently engage that person in conversation, be overheard talking business, “I love that rig, Clair Brothers has the best audio,” or “Jesus, that guy was out with Kravitz in ’98, he’s still around?”. Breeze past security while in deep conversation, preferably about travel woes or “the business.” The idea is you came here from somewhere else (think Nashville, New York or L.A.), but you’re both completely at ease in the backstage environment. Just as important: never be in groups larger than two, that becomes unmanageable and you’ll get busted. If you are forced to be alone, stay engaged on your mobile device, chatting or texting, but never act like you’re recording any content or posting to social media.
4. Ignore Security
The overwhelming majority of those working T-shirt security at live events are hourly (low-wage) employees who could really give two shits about the gig. On the flip side, the actual players rarely interact with security workers, who are actually in awe of said players. First try walking right past security while engaged in deep, professional conversation with your partner in scarfdom, a tactic that works a surprising number of times. Never willingly engage security, that just opens you up to scrutiny. Especially avoid security equipped with radios, or anyone with a radio, for that matter. That’s a sure sign of a player that’s higher in the hierarchy, and those are the people who will bust you.
5. Stay the F**k Out of the Way
This ain’t no disco. Backstage is a working environment, and those working the shows are under extreme stress. If you hamper their job in any way, you’ll be noticed and subsequently tossed. Keep a close eye on all that is going on around you, don’t trip over wires, bump into road cases, or stumble in front of a roadie rolling a road case. Never pick up any gear. The fastest way to get one’s ass thrown out is to gum up the works. That said, if a roadie or other worker engages you, asks to bum a smoke, or any question, be friendly and accommodate if possible. Just adhere to Rule No. 1.
6. Keep Moving (Until You Hit The Magic Spot)
Those who loiter get busted. If you come upon something interesting, or a place you want to be, stop and chat with your wingperson, pointing at this, commenting on that, just overall giving the appearance of being in a professional capacity and, again, completely at ease in your surroundings. Never be an “Arena Wallhugger,” those that get backstage, don’t know what to do or where to go, hang on the wall with a “deer-in-the-headlights expression,” and appear hopelessly out of their element. Keep moving and walk like you’ve got somewhere to go. If you see catering, a party, a dressing room, a tour bus, and find your moment, go for it, all the while engaged in conversation. Don’t act like you’re trying to get away with something, and don’t draw attention to yourself. You may find yourself watching your favorite act perform from 10 feet away.
7. Fake It
Once again, the idea is to look like you’re supposed to be wherever you are or want to be. Beyond the laminates, a walkie talkie is a nice touch, but it has to be the real deal (a small police scanner does the trick). If you can’t score those type decoys, carry a pizza box and walk right in. Or a FedEx hat or big bag of White Castles. Vendors and service people come and go constantly backstage, as do various service workers; most any uniform can work (including, if not especially, security) in that environment as long as you adhere to Rule No. 1. Props are good, be they notepads, credentials or tablets, as long as they’re used to your advantage.
8. Never, Ever Gherm
“Gherming” is an industry term (believed to have originated in Nashville) for taking advantage of artist or music biz executive access by pitching one’s own work. A gherm (noun) is looked upon with scorn, and those in the music industry avoid them at all costs. Never approach an artist or music biz professional and try to hand them a cassette, CD, business card, notepad or paper napkin with your phone number or latest “work.” It’s just not done.
9. Never Be a Fan
Similarly to gherms, fans belong front-of-house, not back-of-house. Artists, of course, love their fans, but backstage is their private area, not the place to engage with fans. Never, under any circumstances, ask for an autograph or a picture, a move that will likely be followed by a “what the f**k is he (or she) doing back here?!” and a quick ejection. It should also be noted that fan club meet-and-greets should only be visited in your faked “professional capacity,” don’t line up with the chumps. That said, while meet-and-greets are virtual cattle calls, today’s VIP offerings are extensive and often quite worth attending, though access is difficult to achieve. The food and drink can be very upscale, as can sponsor tents, suites, or private rooms. Play it by ear and see Rule No. 1.
10. Have a Backup Plan
Look, chances are you won’t get away with it. Have a ticket so you can at least enjoy the show, and don’t give up. There are many ways to skin a cat. Bear in mind that if the same security guy catches you more than once, you’ll most likely be gone.
Once you’re where you want to be, there are many fruits of your labors to be enjoyed. Catering is usually pretty fine grub these days, and band members frequently pop in. Unless it’s a show by a contemporary Christian act or a post-rehab rocker, there’s most always ample booze backstage, and, though the legendary “sex, drugs & rock and roll” decadence of yore is largely kept beyond reach, one never knows what one might get into. At festivals, sponsors areas, press tents, VIP parties, and other coolness abounds, and as long as you stick to Rule No. 1, can be freely enjoyed. Be friendly, keep your eyes open for opportunities (especially in regard to after-parties), be ready to act quickly and you may have an unforgettable experience.