Making the festival stage go round & round

The Rhinoceros Beetle stage from Echoes of Earth Bengaluru in 2023 produced by Siddhartha Kararwal and team.
The Rhinoceros Beetle stage from Echoes of Earth Bengaluru in 2023 produced by Siddhartha Kararwal and team.

Summary

From revolving stages to life-like backdrops, Indian music festival organisers are going all out to create tangible memories

Last month, you may have, on your Insta feed, chanced upon a scene that looked right out of the 1997 sci-fi comedy, Men in Black. A suited Will Smith was rapping to the movie’s eponymous title track, against a set propped with sci-fi elements, including a flying UFO and a gigantic alien face. This was Smith’s surprise performance as part of reggaetón star J. Balvin’s headlining act, on 14 April, during the first weekend of Coachella 2024. As lights flashed and dancers in alien suits danced, Balvin’s act gave audiences a larger-than-life experience that was more than just the music.

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Dial back to March and Indian fans got to experience a similar stadium style setup, during Ed Sheeran’s + - = ÷ x Tour. What was new about this concert, for Indian concert-goers, was that it had the English musician perform live on a one-of-a-kind 360-degree circular, revolving stage. As the outer ring of the stage, studded with the mathematical symbols, revolved at a slow pace, audiences got to see Sheeran wherever they stood. 

“The stage ensured that Ed was visible from all angles and every spot in the venue, ensuring that no view was a bad view," says Owen Roncon, chief of business – Live Entertainment at BookMyShow, the company which had brought down Sheeran’s tour this year. To give audiences a truly immersive experience, the stage set up, according to Roncon, was propped with “a state of the art sound system, visual displays orbiting the stage and a giant circular ‘halo screen’ positioned in the centre of the stage, to ensure a striking play of light, sound and visual aesthetic."

 

There may have been a time when all that a music festival needed to draw in the crowds was a lineup of artists and little else. Today, while the artist lineup still pulls in the crowds, elements like innovative stage set-ups, sound systems and even food pop-ups add to the overall experience. “Audiences today want micro experiences at these festivals, where they get to enjoy music along with good food, art and a bit of shopping too," says Ashish Jha, senior brand lead at Bacardi India. In January, festival goers got multiple micro experiences at the Lollapalooza music festival in Mumbai. If the street-inspired art, the Lollapalooza India inflatable and the Lolla Ferris Wheel, lent themselves perfectly to Insta selfies, the Lolla Food Park offered some 50 F&B brands for attendees to pick their grub from, not to mention a number of fashion pop-ups that were set up by leading brands. 

Roncon offers clear logic for the plethora of options a music festival offers today. “While artists might be the reason why consumers purchase tickets to the festival, what keeps them coming back is their on-ground experience. Stages, festival design, installations and activations are a big part of the experience and something that we never compromise on from a budgetary perspective." 

As far as offering an hyper immersive musical experience goes, the Magnetic Fields Festival, held in December every year at the Alsisar Mahal in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, has some aces up its sleeve. Celebrated within the 17th-century palace-turned-hotel, the festival is a fan favourite for the eclectic, edgy oeuvre of music, installation art, holistic wellness, storytelling and workshops that it offers. Kunal Lodhia, co-founder of Magnetic Fields, remembers the initial years, 2013 and 2014, when a dominant thought riding the team’s minds was how to make it a festival that offered its audiences more than music.

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“We’d envisioned it to be a music festival where our audience got a 360-degree experience that allowed them to eat, sleep, engage with art and get some R&R too," says Lodhia. Last year, the festival had seven stages spread across the palace— from its lawns to the Darbar Hall. Jha says that it is this insight into audiences wanting more personal experiences that has pushed Bacardi to create their own “concept-driven" spaces at festivals like NH7 Weekender. “The CASA BACARDÍ Container cocktail bar at Weekender was built like a (cargo) container. We had DJ sets for the bar and people could dance to music as they sipped on cocktails," Jha says.

Having organised Magnetic Fields for close to 10 years, setting up stages has become less complicated, says Lodhia. The design decisions, he says, are largely determined by three factors: how the audience is going to experience the music, the genre of music being played, and the theme of the stage itself. “Our sundowner stage that is set on the lawns is an organic bamboo structure with minimal lighting and a sheer cloth shade. The stage close to the palace garage, which is the heavy metal stage, is made from materials you’d find at any garage like galvanised steel or burnished metal," Lodhia explains. Without going into exact figures, Lodhia shares that 12 to 15 per cent of the festival’s production budget is spent on stage production. 

The VerTech stage at Lollapalooza India 2024
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The VerTech stage at Lollapalooza India 2024

At Lollapalooza, Roncon says that the BUDX main stage, where the festival headliners Jonas Brothers and Sting performed, was an all-steel stage called a VerTech (Versatile Technology) stage. “Unlike traditional stages that are aluminium structures, the VerTech stage is made from galvanised steel, which is durable and ideal for India’s largely tropical climate," he says. This new stage was transported to Mumbai from the UK in 16 large 40ft containers.

In the offices of Swordfish Events and Entertainment, Bengaluru, it is sustainability and creativity that drive the team’s decisions related to stage design for the company’s flagship festival, Echoes of Earth. Since its inception in 2016 in Bengaluru, ‘India’s greenest music festival’ has attempted to create a visual identity with its nature-based themes and art installations. Over the past six editions, the backdrops at the festival have gotten bigger and wilder. The festival kicked off its Goa edition in February with the Giant Pacific Octopus, the Horned Ghost Crab and the Great Indian Hornbill as the stage backdrops. Choosing to remain tightlipped about the money spent, founder and festival director Roshan Netalkar says that 15-18% of the festival’s total budget is apportioned towards the stage setup and other art installations.  

Audience POV
“In festivals like Tomorrowland in Belgium and Untold in Romania, the attention to detail to the theme of the year is insane, right from the design of the invitation to the wristband, the stages and even the kind of food that is served," says Parabjeet Singh, a Bengaluru-based photographer who has attended these festivals to officially cover them for Revel Travel, the official India travel partner for Tomorrowland. In India, festivals are just waking up to the idea, Singh feels. “Here, festivals do follow themes but they are not as thorough," he says.

For music festival regular Neetha (she prefers a mononym) the visual aspects add colour to the overall experience. “The lineup matters but when a festival has a theme, like Echoes of Earth does in every edition, it feels good to see different elements like the stage set-up, installations and the general décor blend well," says the Bengalurean. They lend a distinct visual identity to the fest, which Neetha believes will work greatly in retrospect. “When you’ll look at pictures years later, it’s the distinctive background or art that will remind you where they were taken," says Neetha.

Lodhia believes that it’s imperative for a music festival to have an individual visual identity today. “I don’t necessarily think a theme is important but I do think that a visual language that represents the brand of the festival is essential," he says. The language, he notes, needs to be visible to the attendee at every touch point—from the tickets and Instagram page to the festival’s on-ground collaterals. “This design language is important because it brings somebody into your world and then keeps them there," says Lodhia.

Creature Creations
Jaipur-based sculptor and artist Siddhartha Kararwal, 40, is the creative mind behind the towering creature-themed stage backdrops for Echoes of Earth music festival. Associated with the festival since 2016, Kararwal has crafted installations of both four-legged and winged beings including the Himalayan ibex, the Indian elephant and the great hornbill. What’s noteworthy, in addition to their size—the hornbill, for instance, spanned 100ft in width and 50ft in height—is that these works are crafted out of reusable material such as metal scrap, used carpets, bamboo and cardboard boxes. “We want to get the message out that you don’t need to make art installations with only fibreglass and plastic," says Kararwal, who works with a seven-member team to create these pieces. It takes them a month to create each. As for expenses, “With materials like tons of metal involved and salaries to be paid, we spend around 30-40 lakh to create all of them," he says.

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