Want to get into concerts for free? Meet new people? Be part of something good? Give something back to the community?
Last summer, I managed all of these at the same time when I signed up as a volunteer (bénévole) for one of the best music festivals in France.
It was my 19-year-old son who got me into it. He is a passionate volunteer because it gets him backstage to meet his favourite performers.
That was fine for me, I thought, but I was worried I might be giving up my holiday time to be an unpaid slave.
Two weeks later, I knew exactly why he had encouraged me. I had just had the best time of my life. It was such an intense, exhilarating time that I am still digesting the experience.
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Bypass the box office and give your time
Jazz in Marciac (Gers) has been taking place for the last 40 years and draws a massive international crowd.
The programme now goes far beyond jazz to include artistes such as Sting, Joan Baez, Santana, Jeff Beck, Johnny Depp, Roberto Fonseca, Gregory Porter and Buena Vista Social Club.
Ticket prices even for non-headline acts are not cheap, but fortunately there is an alternative: bypass the box office by giving your time.
Most festivals in France would not function without an army of people who are willing to do what needs to be done for no pay.
Daily tasks fall to enthusiastic volunteers
At Marciac, someone has to sell the tickets, check them at the entrance to the concerts, serve food, drinks and ice creams, sell programmes, help visitors with special needs, pick up rubbish, clean the toilets, and make sure people generally behave themselves.
After paying the artists (and their accommodation and travel expenses), the festival’s income is only enough to pay salaries for a handful of employees, who mostly do the administration.
A lot of the daily grind during the two or three weeks that the festival lasts falls to an enthusiastic bunch of students, retirees and working people who give up their holidays to join in.
What you are asked to do depends partly on what needs doing and partly on what you want to or can do.
When you sign up, you are asked about your preferences and special skills and, if you are lucky, allocated a role accordingly.
Most new volunteers, however, only get a limited choice.
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Best thing about volunteering is the camaraderie
At Marciac, there are regulars who have been volunteering for years. They know the ropes and take the plum jobs because of their seniority.
Some of them act as line managers to those of us who are learning how things work.
I was assigned to a team in charge of seating people in their right places in the concert marquee.
It meant being there before the concert started and staying on my feet until everyone had arrived. I also had to do a limited amount of crowd control.
This mainly involved tapping people on the shoulder and asking them not to dance in the aisles or stand on the chairs.
Or waiting until each song had finished to walk around or go to the bar or the toilets, or asking them not to smoke inside the marquee.
I could not have managed alone, but the best thing about volunteering is the camaraderie: being thrown together with strangers and, between you, finding the best way to do the task in hand.
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Everyone’s motivation was different
You soon form informal gangs based on a shared language or interest.
I made new friends each day. I met an enormous number of people I would never otherwise bump into.
Some of them had come from the other side of France and even from Spain, England and Germany to be there.
Dominique, a man in my team, lives in Normandy but came to Marciac after doing a volunteering stint at the Cinema Festival in Foix, Ariège.
A couple from Barcelona were breaking their journey on the way to a Celtic music festival in Brittany.
Other people told me they hopped from festival to festival all summer, endlessly entertained while spending little money.
Everyone’s motivation for being there was different. Some of us just wanted to get out of the house, some were music-lovers, others were divorced or widowed and in need of company.
What we had in common was that we were extremely happy to be together for a brief time doing something useful.
It felt like a special moment out of reality, as if time had been suspended and all we had to think about was the common good – enabling music-lovers to enjoy themselves.
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It is fun, but hard work too
You are placed in a team and given orders by a boss. The hours are fixed but flexible, in the sense that if a concert goes on longer than planned, you are expected to stay on too.
I was always conscious that I was there to help, not to think too much about my own needs.
As I was wearing an official waistcoat and had a badge around my neck, people would often approach me with their questions and problems.
I quickly learned to direct them around the festival site or give them information.
I had orders to follow but I was also expected to use my initiative.
One day, I had to find the fire brigade because a smoker had set a dustbin alight. On another occasion, I had to take a young woman to the medical tent because she wasn’t feeling well. Then there is that classic of the lost child separated from his mother.
I might not have been on the payroll but I was still the face of authority and responsibility.
When I was tired and grumpy, I had to put on a smile and be obliging, even if someone launched into a complaint that I could nothing about.
I always had to remember that the organisation runs on goodwill and I could not expect everyone else to be efficient or responsive.
Would I do it again? You bet
An arts festival depends on patience and give and take.
The demands of volunteering are huge but there are benefits. We were able to attend all the evening concerts – saving the entrance price of upwards of €30.
It is not quite the same as sitting down and concentrating on the music without having to be on duty, but it is the next best thing.
The festival also compensates its volunteers in kind. We were given decent meals in a self-service restaurant, so at least there were no food costs.
I travelled into Marciac each day by car but those staying on site could take advantage of a subsidised campsite too.
Be under no illusion: volunteering is time-consuming, exhausting, sometimes irritating and usually thankless.
Would I do it again? You bet.
I cannot wait for summer to arrive. Just show me where to sign.
How to volunteer
Most festivals have volunteer spaces on their websites (sometimes in English) where you can find more information about what is involved, including the tasks that need doing and the help you can expect to get.
Organisations also put out calls for applications on social media networks.
Don’t leave it to the last minute. Recruitment starts around March/April for the summer festivals.
While festivals depend on volunteers, they also have to be a little discriminating.
You do not need experience but you do need to be motivated and know what you are letting yourself in for.
Organisers do not want you to drop out halfway through because it was not what you expected.
You will be asked to fill in an application form giving personal information, mentioning any special skills and stating your preferences for work.
Speaking English or another language can be a huge asset. Many of the artists visiting Marciac, for instance, do not speak French.
The minimum age for volunteering is normally 18.
Where to volunteer
Jazz in Marciac, Gers, July/August
Festival Interceltique, Lorient, Brittany, August
Jazz sous les pommiers, Coutances, Manche, May
Nancy Jazz Pulsations, Nancy, October
Musilac, Aix-les-Bains, Savoie, July
Art Rock, Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, May
Jazz à Vienne, near Lyon, Isère, June/July
Delta Festival, Marseille, August
Les Déferlantes, Argelès-sur-Mer, Occitanie, July
Le Printemps du Rire, Toulouse, March/April
Festival Cinéma d’Alès Itinérances, Alès, Gard, March/April
Festivals Connexion, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, various dates and sites
Festival international du film d’animation, Annecy, Haute-Savoie, June
Festival Resistances, Foix, Ariège, July
Festival Cinema d’animation, Rennes, April
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