My Rehearsal Room: Michael MacManus

My Rehearsal Room: Michael MacManus

On creating a festival from the ground up. 

Michael MacManus
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Michael MacManus

On creating a festival from the ground up. 

How did this festival come to exist? The TLDR answer is through a lot of hard work. But don’t let that discourage you from creating your own festival! The benefits far outweigh all the hard work. Plus, you get to call yourself “Director of…” which is pretty cool! Hopefully, this piece will give you an insight into the motivation behind creating the Melbourne International Guitar Festival with my colleague and friend Evan Hopkins, and some of the things we have learnt along the way. 

We had been disheartened by small attendance at guitar recitals over the years - a problem most likely familiar to many kinds of classical and non-classical musicians - but the real catalyst for us came in 2014 when a duo we loved were visiting Australia but bypassing Melbourne due to the poor concert attendance they experienced last time they were in town. Something needed to be done, so we took it upon ourselves to organise our own concert series, to avoid other guitarists skipping Melbourne in the future.

We became a registered partnership, created a website, got insurance, and took a risk. We guaranteed fees for our invited artists and knew that it was our money on the line if things fell through. We were actually friends with many of the artists we booked and didn't want to let them down, which was a huge motivation to make the event a success. We had no intention of making money for ourselves, we just wanted to support fellow artists and hear some awesome concerts. Evan had recently returned from guitar study in Spain, and he was super pumped after attending a heap of guitar festivals throughout Europe. With this enthusiasm, we decided to start our own classical guitar festival and competition in Melbourne. Building on our concert series, this felt like a natural progression for us.

One thing that has helped generate a lot of interest in our festival has been incorporating a competition component. This has helped involve a lot of young guitar students and their families, as well as more established students and professionals, and since our first festival in 2015, the competition has attracted over 50 competitors each year. This feels like a huge milestone considering many other local eisteddfods routinely cancel their guitar categories due to insufficient applications. How did we do this? Phone calls….and lots of phone calls! We personally reach out to all the guitar teachers we know and encourage their student involvement. 

What about sponsorship? Starting out, it’s a lot about who you know, and the best way to meet interesting (and interested!) people is by attending concerts and related music events. You must be involved in your instruments "scene" if you plan to create a career in that area. Our sponsors include people we have met at music events, people I worked with through my “Career Preparation in Music” subject at uni, previous high school music teachers (Old Skool Audio, run by Evan’s ex-music teacher kindly do the sound engineering and recordings for our concerts), local guitar shops and string suppliers, and of course the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music where we both studied. As university students, it's important to keep in mind is that you are on show from day one of your music degree, and good impressions count!

We have cash prizes for all categories in our festival, but since the beginning, we were thinking about ways to add value to the prize package. The feedback we received from artists is that they would get so much out of a concert tour, so our prize package planning began. We are now supported by large venues such as the Darwin Entertainment Centre, Araluen Arts Centre (Alice Springs), a number of regional NSW conservatoriums, and other concert providers throughout Australia. This year, the winner will walk away have a 9 concert Australian tour and a cash prize, with a value of $10,000. So we have our sponsors, stall holders, and prizes sorted, and we've invited and booked our artists. 

What’s next? Learning how to sell! This is a crucial skill that is unfortunately not being taught in any music departments yet. In terms of importance, however, I would consider it to be as vital as learning how to play your instrument! To make a career as a musician, you need to be comfortable with selling, because it's something you do every day in one form or another, whether it be acquiring students, booking gigs, selling recordings/compositions, persuading someone to sponsor your event or getting people to buy tickets to your concert or event. How do you get good at this? The same way as you get good at your instrument: by practicing.

So, if you are thinking about starting your own festival, my best advice is to just jump in! It’s a hugely rewarding experience, you will make lifelong friends and perhaps most importantly, you will get to create your dream concerts.

The third Melbourne International Guitar Festival is happening this weekend, Sept 22-24 at Melba Hall, Melbourne University. This is now the Southern Hemisphere’s largest annual classical guitar festival and competition.