A Return to Festivals with North Coast Music Festival’s Ashley Brown

North Coast Music Festival is one of Chicago’s favorite events during the summer, featuring electronic music, hip-hop, and rocks acts, while also displaying a wide variety of performance and installation artists. The festival didn’t take place in its normal form in 2020, due to the pandemic, but it made its official return last month. We spoke to Festival Director and Columbia alum Ashley Brown about her role and about the process of managing the festival.

Congratulations on this year’s festival! How did it feel to be back?

Thanks! It feels great to be back, we were lucky enough to run a car park series in 2020 into early 2021 at the same location (SeatGeek Stadium) so it was an easy transition into the larger festival with a venue we have spent quite a bit of time at recently. This was the first year North Coast took place in Bridgeview (previously in Union Park and then one year at Northerly Island) but it ended up being the perfect location for the festival to expand and offer a larger capacity than previous years. The stadium infrastructure & soccer fields really increased the fan experience.

Can you tell us a bit about your role at North Coast? How did you come to be Festival Director, and what does your job entail? 

This was actually my first year as the Festival Director of North Coast (NCMF), but I’ve been running and managing music festivals for the past ten years. I started as the Festival Director for React Presents which ran Spring Awakening, Mamby on the Beach, Summer Set Music & Camping Festival, Freaky Deaky, and REACTION NYE in Chicago for a little over 5 years before the company was sold to new ownership. I worked on KAABOO Del Mar in California for a few years before the pandemic, then I connected with guys from Collectiv Presents (ownership of NCMF) during our drive-in series and was brought on in 2021.

The job is an all-encompassing position where you have a small hand in every part of the festival. The majority of the departments run through my supervision including ticketing, artist relations, production, site, medical, security, guest relations, etc. It definitely requires some multitasking and being completely over-the-top organized to keep it all straight. I look at it as a large puzzle that needs to be put together – I also tend to enjoy the paperwork side more than most, which is a huge part of the role, keeping track of permits, contracts, and risk documents that are crucial to the success of the festival.

I started back in 2011 when a close friend of mine asked me to be the Artist Relations Director for a new festival at Soldier Field, that ended up turning into Spring Awakening. I had a pretty intensive events background by the time I graduated from Columbia, I was lucky enough to be a part of the Student Programming Board and spent my final two years at Columbia as the President of SPB booking shows and running their large scale events with a small team of my fellow college students.

What sort of work went into adapting this year’s festival to be Covid-safe?

That was one of the biggest challenges this year, pulling off a safe festival and implementing additional items to keep the patrons safer and “cleaner” than we ever had to consider before. The biggest change for attendees this year was presenting their vaccination card or a negative COVID test within 72-hours from the date of the festival they were attending. We also offered on-site COVID testing through our medical team for anyone who didn’t come prepared and needed the clearance to enter the festival. We stepped up our guest services team that included extra positions of cleaners that sanitized high-touch locations such as porto door handles, restroom trailers, and refilled hand sanitizer stations that were located around the entire festival. We also provided over 10,000 disposable masks to attendees upon request for anyone who didn’t bring a mask with them, and required masks in any indoor locations (like our soccer dome or other indoor art installation locations).

What do you see for the future of the North Coast Music Festival?

NCMF just hit their 11th year anniversary in 2021, and it’s proven that it’s a namesake in the Chicagoland area.  It’s a strong brand, and the venue change in 2021 only helped increase the fan experience and introduced many new fans North Coast with the expansion. We’re already off and running planning for 2022 and can’t wait to show everyone what’s in store.

What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in events management?

Get as much experience as you can in all different departments and fields. I knew quite a few other graduates that were extremely frustrated when they didn’t get their dream job from day 1 and would only apply to specific companies or job titles.

My first full-time job out of college was with an action sports company (skateboarding, BMX, skiing, snowboarding) working on the Dew Tour. I had a music business degree but was able to use my events’ experience to transition into action sports. Once they found out I had experience in live music events, they let me start working on the concerts that took place in each market in addition to the sports competitions, and all of a sudden I was working at a sports company but putting on one-off shows with artists such as N.E.R.D, 50 Cent, and Ice Cube for the Dew Tour. That transitioned me quickly into my artist relations role on the festival side, and it’s all fallen into place from that opportunity.