The dates have been clearly marked in the calendar and, for many, it’s the best time of the year: the festival season. As the dates draw closer, the excitement of finally seeing lots of your favourite bands in one place also grows. Stepping away from civilisation for a few days and just being; spending time with friends on the campsite or completely absorbed in the music blaring from the stage. People like Andreas Zemke play an important role in bringing you that special festival atmosphere. For over ten years. he has been the organiser of the ”Rock For Animal Rights” festival (RFAR). We caught up with Andreas and asked him what it takes to get a festival off the ground.
“For the RFAR, we completely transform the site from A to Z. That involves 4 to 5 weeks of hardcore work before the festival and 3 to 4 weeks of dismantling afterwards. Some people sacrifice their entire annual leave for this.“
When we ask him how he became a festival organiser, Andreas smiles and leans back, relaxed. He’s been playing in his own metal band for years. Rock musicians organising concerts among themselves have played a huge role. In addition, he has his own rock show on the radio and also organises other festivals. The most important thing: contacts, contacts, contacts. With his wealth of experience from bookings to promotion, it seemed an obvious chose to at some point establish his own festival: the “Rock For Animal Rights” (RFAR).
Let’s be clear, Andreas is an “old hand” at organising the RFAR. He strikes us as being busy, confident and yet, at the same time, very much at peace with himself. Remarkable. He has no concrete plan as to how he’s going to proceed. He tends to follow his hunches, but he does name us some important key points:
The festival date: The RFAR is scheduled for a fixed date specifically picked between other big festivals in the region, simply, “so that you we don’t steal each other’s fans.”
The line-up: As soon as the last festival ends, the first thing Andreas does is to make sure that at least 60% of the line-up for the coming year is in place. This involves keeping in touch with management and booking agencies. The line-up has to be planned that far in advance to accommodate the target bands’ touring or recording-sessions schedules.
“It takes patience. Years of digging will eventually yield another good headliner somewhere three or four years down the line.”
Over the course of the next few months, Andreas will gradually complete the line-up. He places value on a balanced mix of rock and metal as well as national and international musicians.
Call for regional bands: RFAR also awards slots to regional acts. The team goes and listens to the various submissions to select the right bands.
Sponsors: This part also happens soon after the last festival. The idea is to get as many sponsors as possible to support the festival again the following year.
Festival site: The prices for construction fences and portable toilets have now tripled to quadrupled. Short-term ordering is virtually impossible. That’s why Andreas already makes enquiries to the suppliers for the following RFAR even before the last one has taken place. He also makes sure that the German Life Saving Association (DLRG) paramedics are also present.
“If we don’t book now for next year, we may not be able to get certain things. Before COVID it wasn’t a problem, but now there are a lot of events going on again, so capacity is tight.“
- Stage: Andreas also has to make sure that the 9 x 7 metre stage is available again 365 days later. This gives him one less thing to worry about because a major element of the coming festival has been secured.
“During dismantling, I tell the stage crew, ’Great! That went well. Right. Same again next year? Same date, same time. The same beautiful stage. OK? See you then!’”
A few months and weeks before the festival, Andreas and his team start beating the drums to attract new interested or undecided people to the RFAR. This involves:
Promotion: Unlike digital music promotion, everything here is done manually: from designing the posters through to sticking them up with volunteers in various cities within a 60-km radius. The same applies to the 50,000 flyers that are printed and handed out (mostly after local concerts). And what about RFAR merchandise? Shirts are also designed and printed for this purpose.
Price calculation: Notwithstanding cost hikes for the festival infrastructure, RFAR is reluctant to pass them on to the visitors and therefore aims to keep its ticket prices stable. Generally speaking, it’s important to know that from a certain point in time before the start of the event, the organiser needs reliable visitor numbers for calculating costs. He needs to know how many people will show up at the festival, how many toilets they will need and so on. In some cases, he might make the festival smaller and report it as sold out, even if there’s still capacity. This approach ensures that there will be enough of everything to cater for the number of visitors and that he can offer the usual service.
Setting up the festival site: As the site is normally a farm of some sort with fields, a certain amount of conversion work is needed to get it ready for three days of music-making. Volunteers work hard to ensure that everything is in place in time for the start of the event and that everything runs smoothly.
“As the date gets closer, you’ll have to come to terms with the truth: festival organisation is simply a full-time job. You can’t fit anything else in; it’s 24/7.”
As things start heating up for the festival, Andreas also picks up a pen and a piece of paper. He has to, because he prefers phone calls to e-mails. Lists are the best way for him to keep track of everything just before the start, when everything is in full swing:
Backstage: Throughout the entire festival, around 150 guests and musicians are present there. Catering has to be coordinated and organised in advance so that everybody is taken care of.
Assign helpers: We have a core team of roughly 20 to 25 people who always help out at the RFAR. They help with everything from last-minute shopping to drivers, stagehands, PA runners, cooking and taking care of the animals on the grounds. However, those looking after the campsite or acting as stand-ins are also important. The festival team is always looking for volunteers who are motivated to help. That’s because a large festival team of 40 people makes it easier for everyone to take turns, have more frequent breaks and also enjoy the bands from time to time. Andreas coordinates who is best suited to working in which area.
“There are a few crazy people like that who keep raising their hands and helping every year. You grow together like a little family over the festival days. You get to know people in a completely different way and have great fun into the bargain.”
Andreas works for months towards the big event. Can he then, at some point, just stand and watch bands in peace? That’s extremely rare, he explains. His days mainly involve running around and phoning all the time because there’s always some little problem somewhere and he has to make sure that everything runs smoothly. Or he has to direct his team members accordingly.
This strain continues for the entire duration of the festival and he reports often being dead on his feet. While he was only able to sleep five hours a night a few days before the start of the event, it’s three at most during the festival.
Weather is arguably the biggest wildcard. Rain may suddenly start pouring down or a storm may be brewing on the horizon – that’s force majeure. Up to now, RFAR has always been lucky and only once did it get really muddy right in front of the stage. Farmers from the surrounding area then turned up on the spur of the moment with their excavators and brought sawdust so that people could walk around the grounds again.
However, reliable pipes are also very important for:
Water and sewage: Toilet trailers have been set up on the festival grounds and six kitchens with sinks are in operation at RFAR, which together use up an incredible amount of water. A good infrastructure with these two things is essential because, if necessary, the health department can shut down an entire festival if the kitchens, for instance, lack hand-washing facilities.
Power supply: Kitchen equipment, cooling units, lighting, the PA and two stages to ensure a proper live sound – everything needs electricity. Plus, fans are also added when it gets very hot.
“You have to work out what you need and make sure that it’s there in the right quantities. Because you can’t just spontaneously get a new water or electricity line out of nowhere.”
Tape and sound mixer failures: There is always a risk of these occurring and upsetting the schedule. In 2021, six bands were unable to perform due to COVID. Andreas used his contacts to find replacements in time, even though the actual line-up for Saturday was considerably disrupted. There’s only one thing that helps: get on the phone and ask who can fill in at the drop of a hat. Andreas has to pull out all the stops and calls managers, booking agencies, recording studios, friends and acquaintances. Or he contacts the bands directly and asks whether they themselves or musician friends have time. Andreas also has the contact details of sound mixers on his mobile phone and can access them quickly in an emergency.
“We’re quite crisis-proof at the RFAR thanks to our eleven years of experience, but we’re also well organised. We’ve already mastered many things as a team and have always ensured a smooth event. Experience breeds confidence. If you stay flexible, it all works out.”
Andreas sees virtually nothing of the festival itself. Everything goes by in a flash when he’s in his Orga tunnel. The adrenaline, the worries about whether everything will work out so that the visitors will enjoy the usual professional RFAR, as well as the lack of sleep do the rest. All the exertions are forgotten, however, when all the helpers sit together in a family atmosphere over dinner and look back over the festival days on Sunday evening. That’s where Andreas hears about all the stories that he missed during the past few days.
“Everyone then shares what happened over the two days. When I listen, I can switch off and that’s is the most beautiful time for me. I think you could write a fairly thick book about it every time and it would be very entertaining.”
Even as we arrange the meeting with Andreas for this article, he points out that we should call again shortly beforehand to make sure it can go ahead. After all, he and his crew from the “Tierrechtsbund Aktiv e.V.” might just be out rescuing an animal. Andreas was a member of the association even before Rock For Animal Rights even existed. The association’s farm in Sandstedt/Offenwarden is a large area with a huge pasture. At some point, the idea of the festival arose as a reliable source of income to enable the association’s work in the long term and cover the costs for animal food and care. The fact that this is a matter close to Andreas’ heart is apparent by his sparkling eyes when he talks about the association and the animals.
“We rely on our loyal friends and fans to keep coming back. It’s the only way we can hold the event just as well and professionally every time, without running the risk of being slain by the costs.”
The “Rock For Animal Rights” has been held in Sandstedt/Offenwarden, in the triangle between Bremerhaven, Bremen and Oldenburg, since 2012. For three days a year, the fields belonging to the “Tierrechtsbund Aktiv e.V.” association are turned into a festival area and camping site. The bands all play for free, and around 30 volunteers ensure that everything runs smoothly. The proceeds from the ticket prices all go to the association’s work and benefit the animals. The festival grounds offer vegan food with a “yum factor” along with information stands dedicated to the topic of animal welfare. Every year, he, the festival team, bands and visitors make lots of noise for animal rights, explains Andreas with a grin.
There’s a lot to learn from Andreas’ unwavering optimism and laid-back approach to life. When we take leave from him, he’s already off to his next project: a motorhome extension. Andreas is an active spirit and a real doer who approaches all his many projects with a great deal of passion and is no doubt already avidly preparing the next “Rock For Animal Rights”.
We thank RFAR for the use of the images