Posted on April 25, 2017


Festival season is upon us! If I’d always been awash in cash that I could spend willy-nilly on cultural events like festivals, would I ever have started volunteering at them? If I were rich, I’d buy the best seats and have a blast. However, sadly, I can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets for expensive shows and festivals. My reason for starting out volunteering was, on reflection, a bit immature. I just thought, ‘hmmm, here’s a way I can enjoy a show without having to part with any hard-earned cash’. Since then, I’ve gone on to volunteer at over 20 different music-related shows and events.

In this article I plan to tell you a little more about the kinds of hellish experiences I have had during my time volunteering for various organisations. It’s a story most people don’t really get to hear. In addition to telling you about my own personal experiences, I’ll tell some stories from informants, acquaintances, and friends (who will remain anonymous) whom I spoke to over the first few months of this year.

Before we get into all of that, I thought it might be nice to list some things I think people may be curious about regarding volunteering at festivals in Korea. Before you read any further, here’s a hint about what I’m going to be talking about. The whole image of volunteering, in which you get to meet and hang out with artists, watch shows for free, gain real life work experience, make important connections, etc … is mainly just a bullshit pipe dream.

1. Supporter? Volunteer? Planning Team? What’s the difference?

I think really the only thing that differs between the three is the title. The work you will be doing is pretty much the same for each position. Of the three of them, the only one that feels a little different perhaps is being part of the planning team. In this case you would be directly involved in things linked to the running of the festival; things like planning, promotion, public relations, and so on. Of course, there are lots of cases where you never get to execute any of the stuff you’ve planned. Like I said before, there’s not really a lot of difference between the three positions. Regardless of what title they give you, you’ll usually end up doing the same old odd jobs during the festival weekend.

2. How does one become a supporter at a festival?

Depending on the length of the volunteering period, recruitment announcements will usually be posted around one or two months before the actual event. For the most part, organisations tend to recruit by posting positions on their official websites or their SNS channels, but sometimes they use external message boards or websites to recruit volunteers too. So, the best way to get to be a volunteer at your favorite festival or event is to keep an eye on their official channels. Since the schedule is usually similar every year, the period for applying to each festival is usually similar as well. In most cases, applicants are selected on the basis of their application form alone; however, sometimes you may be required to do a short interview as well.

3. Ok. So what now? What kind of work will one be expected to do?

There are a wide range of tasks you might be expected to do. Up to now, these are the things I personally have been asked to do: oversee gate entry, shoot footage around the grounds, guide people to their seats, get people lining up in the right places, help with backstage catering, control artist parking, take care of VIPs, do bracelet exchanges, manage hot air balloon events, manage volunteers (as a team leader), take shorthand notes, operate booths, do on- and offline promotion work, and more. In addition to this, you might be asked to work in various areas such as press management, entry management, merchandise sales, luggage storage, information desks, tent zone management, or other various tasks.

4. How long do I have to work for?

The working periods can vary wildly. The shorter jobs might involve just one or two days of your time--the day of the show and perhaps a bit of training the night before. If you’re more involved in the event’s planning or promotion, then it might be much longer--anywhere from one to six months. It really depends on the nature of the job.

5. Right, got it. Do I at least get to see the shows for free?

Well …. that depends. It goes without saying that it varies from festival to festival and depending on what tasks you’re given. If you’re unlucky enough find yourself in the artist parking area miles away from the stage and encumbered with a shitty taskmaster for a boss who doesn’t give you any breaks, then … well, you might just about be able to hear the distant sound of singing from a faraway stage, and that’s about it. If you’re lucky enough to end up being one of the stage hands or if your position is nice and close to the stage, then you’ll get to see the shows while you work. Of course, because you’re there in a working capacity, you won’t get to enjoy bouncing around with the rest of the paying customers, but still, you do at least get to see the show.

6. What’s that? I might not get to see any of the shows or meet any cool people? What’s the point? What do I get out of it?

The most basic things you might receive are things like official name tags, t-shirts, certificates and something to eat. As a volunteer at the festival, you wear your name tag and staff t-shirt as a badge of pride during the festival. They will help you stand out and somehow make you feel a little different (more special?) than the rest of the audience. It may seem a little strange, but you do get a real sense of pride. You also get a sense of belonging and a feeling of happiness from working with the other supporters. Hopefully you’ll also come away with some new friends and a cool group photo with the rest of the team. Once the event is finished, you can use that staff t-shirt as your new pajamas! The certificates? Well... they’re pretty useless, really. It’s usually a piece of paper that says something like ‘this person did a good job’. Apart from that, you might get a little bit of pocket money, some free merchandise or even some free tickets to the next festival. Of course, there are lots of places that give you nothing at all!

Are you surprised? It’s a bit different from what you imagined, isn’t it? Here are some true stories from people who have had experiences working at some of the biggest festivals in Korea:

‘What happened to that video we made? (Festival ‘C’) - Miss A (20-something, Seoul)

Around two years ago I was part of the ‘planning team’ for ‘C’ festival. I was really excited to have been given the opportunity; the people involved seemed really nice, the festival had a good reputation in the industry and the staff t-shirts they were giving us were really pretty. We were split into groups and each group had to present a promotional idea for the festival. Ours was chosen as one of the best ideas, to be used to promote the festival! We worked really hard on the project for three weeks and we were all really proud of what we made. We did everything, from scouting out the locations to shooting the video ourselves. We spent so much time on it we would end up just standing at the subway station eating a bit of kimbap and juice for lunch. A few weeks before the festival they told us it would be used as the main promotional video for the event. That was back in May of 2015, and I have still seen nothing of that video. It’s been over two years! What’s that, you say? Did I ask why it wasn’t used? Yeah, for sure! Countless times. First, they told us that they didn’t have the budget to get it edited. Then they told us they couldn’t find the files, and then later on, they said they would use it for the next festival, for sure. They just kept feeding us bullshit excuses. If it was no good, fair enough, they could have just said so. It would have been better if they had never made the promise to us in the first place. In the end we gave up and asked if we could have the source files, not the edited version … just the original files we had shot. We had worked so hard on it and we were curious to see how the shots had turned out. Also, seeing as we had put so much effort into it, we kind of wanted to see it through and make an edited version for our own entertainment. Aarrgh, thinking about it makes me mad! I want to let you know exactly what festival it was. If I gave you the website you could go and search for the missing video yourselves! Honestly, I could write a whole story on just this one festival. But I will save that for another time.

‘The day I fell in love with festivals’ (P Festival) - Mr C (20-something, from Dongjak-Gu, Seoul)

After I had completed my military service, I found that I didn’t really have anything to do, so, to help pass the time and get back in the swing of things, I decided to try volunteering at a festival. The festival was far from my house, and the round trip was to be around three hours by subway. I debated whether to apply or not, but in the end I just decided to do it. The managers  gave me lots of encouragement and compliments while I was working and the security people were really kind to me as well. During break times we were allowed to go and check out some of the shows. I mean, it wasn’t super amazing or anything, but it was okay. The best thing was that once our agreed working period was done, they just gave us a standard festival pass and we were allowed to enjoy the rest of the festival. Even though I had worked hard and used all my energy in the daytime, I still got to play hard during the evening! I got to mosh and dance with the rest of the fans. I got all sweaty and ended up smelling like a wet mop. I did get bitten by a ton of mosquitos, and it was really hard work, but I have a lot of good memories from that festival. Ever since then, I’ve been looking for festivals to volunteer at.

‘I heard it was a family-like atmosphere, but …. ’ (J Festival) - Mr P (20-something from Gyeongju, Gyeongbukdo)

I have a friend who has volunteered at a lot of festivals in his time. He told me that this particular festival was one of the best places to work. He said it had a nice atmosphere, and most importantly, that they treated the supporters really well. ‘A family-like atmosphere’, he said. However, what I experienced was a bit different. Most of the supporters had worked this festival several times already, so they all knew each other really well. The organisers, the managers and the volunteers were super cliquey, but us newbies were pretty much left on the outside for the duration of the festival. My friend was one of the volunteer leaders this time around and he said that even he could feel that the new volunteers were being excluded. It seemed like the same people were getting chosen as volunteers time and time again just because they were friends with people there. Regardless of their experience or whether they were hard workers or not.  

Another funny thing is that some past supporters at the festival came as customers that year. They were hanging out and mucking around with current staff at the festival. I mean, that's okay, everyone is there to have fun. However, these guys seemed to have access to restricted areas like backstage, artist- or staff-only areas, baggage areas, etc. In my opinion, that is a pretty big no-no. Those areas are restricted for good reasons. Despite all this, my friend still says that it is one of the best festivals to work for. When I heard that, I decided that this would be my first and last experience volunteering for a festival.

‘Apple Juice’ (W Festival) - Miss L (20-something from Jeonju, western Korea)

It was crazy hot and really hard work. I haven't volunteered at too many festivals, but I do have a little bit of experience. I don’t know if I’d just been lucky each time, but the work had never really been all that hard. This time around though, I ‘d been assigned a position on the gate. I was to check wristbands and look through people's bags to make sure they were not bringing in any banned items. Most of the time, if I told people certain things were not permitted they would just drink or eat said item or throw it away. There were, however, the jerks who would kick up a stink about it. “Show me your wristband please!” “Show me your wristband please!”

Standing up all day under the intense daytime sun saying, “show me your wristband, please! Thanks!” is incredibly taxing. Dealing with the odd wanker here and there throughout the day can drive you mad. The paid staff at the festival and the management were always super impolite to me as well. The waiting line was getting longer and longer, so I went out to try and manage it and apologise to people for the wait. At that point, some very kind lady gave me her frozen apple juice as a gift. I was really thankful for it. I think it is the most memorable thing I have taken from any of my volunteering experiences. More so than any of the live shows I have seen.

‘The Worst Festival I Have Ever Been To In My Life’ (K Festival) - Ms P (20-something from Seongdong, Seoul)

If there is anyone reading this who is thinking about being a supporter at a festival, I would strongly advise against it. I don’t have all that much experience in the field, but this was the worst of the experiences I’ve had, by far. It didn’t start off well. At pre-training, we were all quickly assigned our tasks, but on arrival at the site the next day we were all given different tasks to those we had received training for.  The head guy pretty much strutted around the place the whole time with his hands in his pockets. When he did take his hands out out of his pockets, it was to pick up his phone and shout swear words down it to some poor sod on the other end. Other staff at the festival were not much better; they would address us not by name, but by calling us ‘part timer’. It was all a bit of a mess, really. No one seemed to know what was going on. When I asked about certain rules of the festival, like whether outside food was allowed on site, I would get different answers from different people. The tickets were originally 50,000 won per person, but on the day of the festival they hadn’t sold many tickets and so they ordered us to go out and sell a ‘special packet’ of 4 tickets for 20,000 won. I was actually asked to go downtown and sell tickets to people on the street. A bit crappy for those people who had spent 50,000 per ticket online. To top it all off, after it was all done on the last day we had the staff ‘party’. The volunteers were left to sit around on plastic chairs eating the leftover stone cold chicken skewers, sausages and warm beer in the dark (for some reason they had turned off all the lights). Even the organizers said how bad it had been. They weren’t joking, it really had been terrible. I have never in my life been to a festival with so few people. Even the view from the back (where you would not usually be able to see anything) was great.

It is a bit different to what you imagined, isn’t it? However, the reason I’ve been a supporter at more than a dozen festivals is because despite all the negative things, it does have a certain charm to it. I got little gifts such as oranges or bread from people who appreciated my hard work, and it is always nice to share a smile with people or hear them thank you for your work. It is always nice to get compliments for hard work and professionalism from festival staff, and of course compliments from the people behind the festival are always great to receive as well. One of the best things is the people you get to meet and the friendships that can be forged through such an experience. Although the reality can sometimes be different to what you expect, I think the experience of being at a festival in the capacity of a volunteer as opposed to a customer is a really valuable one to have.

However, that being said, if you do decide to try out being a volunteer at a festival, please don’t expect too much of it. You don’t become a volunteer to go and enjoy the festival in the same way as you would as a paying customer. You are there to make sure those paying customers have a good time themselves. It can be a both physically and mentally tiring experience.

I hope that people working in the industry and recruiting volunteers for their festivals at least remember to be courteous to those who are helping them. Volunteers are there to work for the festival, of course; however ,they should be treated with the respect they deserve and not just ordered around willy nilly. If the organizers make a promise to the volunteers, the should make sure to keep to their word and of course make sure they give their respect to the people who are working hard to do their part to make the festival a success. Also, I would say this: when recruiting the volunteers it would be good to make sure you don’t “over-promise” what you can give them and don’t tell them that they will be involved in the planning of the festival if they are not really going to be doing anything like that. Volunteers are not your lapdogs. They are indispensable people who are vital to the success of your festival.

It’s now festival season and the volunteers are already hard at work. If you’re a volunteer, make sure you do a good job on the tasks you are assigned and that you do your best for the artists and the customers. Managers, make sure you treat the volunteers in your care well and with respect. You may be wondering why I keep making those obvious points? Well, it seems that there are plenty of people around who still don’t understand these basic points.

Written by : Hansol Kim
English Translation : Patrick Connor & Doyeon Lim
Edited by : Rock 'N' Rose


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