Name: James Shinault
Job: Director of Event Engagements at AC Entertainment
There’s more to a music festival than just music. While the bands may be the main draw, once you’re there, there’s so much more to do than watch who’s performing. James Shinault‘s job at Knoxville, Tennessee-based AC Entertainment is dedicated to just that – as Director of Event Engagements, he’s responsible for organizing and managing everything that happens at a festival beyond what’s happening on stage.
AC Entertainment is best known for Bonnaroo, the annual festival that draws more than 100,000 music fans to a farm in Manchester, Tennessee, but they also organize Big Ears (in Knoxville), Mountain Oasis (in Asheville, North Carolina), Forecastle (in Louisville, Kentucky), and dozens of other special events throughout the year.
“Essentially, I’m responsible for the creation and execution of fan interaction at music festivals,” says James. “Ultimately we’re trying to create an experience that will get people to want to come back. The lineup gets the attention, but it’s the experience they have beyond the bands that keeps them coming back year after year.”
The ideas for events and activities to engage the fans with come from everywhere, including pitches from sponsors (like a hair washing station at Bonnaroo sponsored by a major company), cool things James has seen at other festivals, and random videos he’s stumbled across on YouTube. During a recent presentation to Music Business students at Full Sail, James talked about how he’s setting up an inflatable horse racing track for an upcoming festival.
“No idea is a dumb idea,” says James. “We do a lot of brainstorming sessions – half of our conference room is just a giant whiteboard.”
Coming up with ideas for various festivals is a year-round job. Once one festival ends, James and his team are immediately thinking of how they can make next year’s event better. The other main responsibility that keeps James busy throughout the year is organizing and managing the team of volunteers that help make these festivals run smoothly. For Bonnaroo, James oversees a team of around 3,000 volunteers.
He starts processing volunteer applications for Bonnaroo – which takes place in June – in March. Each volunteer is assigned to a specific crew and they’re responsible for working 18 hours total, which is typically divided into three six-hour shifts. In exchange, volunteers get free camping and entry at the festival. During the festival, James is onsite 24 hours a day, making sure everything goes as planned – or as close to planned as possible.
It was actually volunteering at a music festival himself that got James his start in the industry, and how he recommends students interested in a job like this get their feet in the door too. He started out as a volunteer at South by Southwest in 2006. During that festival, he noticed the people wearing yellow lanyards were South by Southwest staff members, so he started chatting them up, which led to an internship in 2007, and a full-time staff position shortly after that. He worked for South by Southwest in various positions until he joined the staff at AC Entertainment in 2012.
“I look for people that are going above and beyond and are taking time to actually learn the job and find a leadership role,” says James. “People with outgoing personalities who can also identify the right people they’re working with to find more opportunities. We see it all the time, somebody starts out simply painting a wall, and before they know it, they’re standing next to the guy who does the artwork for the entire festival.”
James is a great example of someone who started in the music industry on the bottom floor and has successfully worked his way up since. “I’ve always wanted to work in live events,” he says. “In high school I always wanted to help out and organize everything. That continued through college and it’s only getting worse as I get older.”