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Ruido Fest Organizer on Returning After a Year Away: ‘I Never Had Any Doubt That We’d Come Back’

The summer festival scene seems to be more optimistic than last year. Prior to Ruido Fest, Chicago’s Lollapalooza will also make its return in full capacity from July 29-Aug. 1 at Grant Park. It will mark one of the first major North American festivals to occur since the pandemic began in March 2020.  

While those attending Lollapalooza will have to produce full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results, for now, Ruido Fest producers say they will follow city, state and CDC guidelines but will not require proof of vaccination for entrance. 

“In terms of requiring people to do things, it’s tough in a society that praises freedom to enact things on people,” says Max Wagner, co-founder of Ruido Fest and owner of event production company Metronome. “One thing we’ll do is that if anybody purchases a ticket and they’re uncomfortable with the rules that we have in place, we’ll transfer it to 2022.”

In the Q&A below, Wagner expands on what festival-goers can expect at this year’s Ruido Fest.

Can you tell me about what this past year has been like for you and your team? From canceling Ruido to having those conversations about bringing it back in 2021 and what that would look like.

The work of putting a festival together is a year-round endeavor and we’re always sort of working on Ruido. Last year was tough and we’ve put a lot of time and energy although we didn’t have the actual event, which is kind of the payoff. We were able to do some streaming offering for our fans for free during the festival dates last year. It allowed us to connect with fans, but you know it’s also given us more time to reflect and to try and focus in on what’s important and what’s to be improved or what can be done better. I’m trying to focus on the silver linings out of the situation. Things are opening back up and most summer festivals in Chicago have announced they’re coming back. We’re excited to make our announcement.

How far in advance have you been securing these acts?

I confirmed the first act, which was Café Tacvba, back in March of 2020. And the rest of it has been booking more bands in the fall, then there was a long period in the winter when we just couldn’t really get much done because of the uncertainty of travel. Traditionally, a lot of the bands have come from overseas and it’s tough for anyone to sign on when they just don’t know. A lot of our conversations went like: “When do you think you’ll know, I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I do know something.” Some of that uncertainty has thankfully gone away in the last six to eight weeks, so I’ve been able to confirm a few more acts that are U.S. based. That’s a change in the artists that are performing in Ruido this year but I don’t think it’s limited us in terms of what the appeal will be to the fans and the types of artists that will be in the lineup, because they’re very much in line with what we’ve had in the past.

On that topic, will international artists travel early and get vaccinated in Chicago or will they already have to be vaccinated? How will that play out?

I think that’s up to each artist. I would imagine that all of them would be vaccinated. Here in the U.S., there’s plenty of vaccination opportunities and you can get it for free anytime you want, at least that’s how it is in Chicago. But that’s not the case in Venezuela or Mexico or Chile, so we’re assisting in the visa process with those that are coming from outside to expedite them and if they feel that in order to secure their performance, they need to get in two weeks earlier to either quarantine or get their vaccine, we’ll work with the schedule that makes them the most comfortable. But we’re going to provide as safe an environment for artists, the staff and then there’s the fans.

What can Ruido Fest goers expect? Will masks be required even if you’re vaccinated, will have to show proof of vaccination?

With fans we plan on following all state, city and CDC guidelines, which are ever-changing. There are HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws in this country so it’s technically illegal for me to ask you for your medical information. Some of the stuff we put out will say subject to change but the hope is that by late August things are somewhat back to normal. We will try to keep everyone safe. There will be more people cleaning and all of our staff will be required to have masks across the grounds. I don’t care if you got vaccinated or not, you’re wearing a mask. In terms of requiring people to do things, it’s tough in a society that praises freedom to enact things on people. One thing we’ll do is that if anybody purchases a ticket and they’re uncomfortable with the rules that we have in place, we’ll transfer it to 2022.

Will it be open to full capacity?

The current regulation is that there’s a formula using square footage (15 people for every 1,000 square feet). Thankfully our venue, which is Union Park, is really spacious. We’re messing with the layout to really make it so that folks who want to space out will have obvious options to do so. I’ve been involved with the management of 15 festivals in that park and I’m feeling pretty confident that we can make spaces that are safe and spots where you can go in and relax if you’re feeling some anxiety. We’re working on the layout to make sure everyone will feel comfortable.

Also, we’re hardly the first festival that’s going to happen Chicago. At Lollapalooza, there’s going to be 120,000 people going to a festival almost a month before us so we’re also going to adjust and be smart about what we see on the ground and how things are going there. And if we see something isn’t working for them, we can innovate on our end and I’m not afraid to do that.

Also, will those added COVID-19 protocols make the organizing the fest more costly? It’s added stuff that you didn’t have to think about before?

Yes, but I don’t see it as a burden in any way. It’s not just, “Oh we have to do this for COVID-19,” but how we run things going forward. We’re not looking it as this is something we have to do special for this year but moving forward because the health and safety of our workers, artists and fans is priority and it’s a new world we live in. There are a million preparations that go on to make these events happen so we’re taking it as, “OK, so we do this now.”

As a newer festival, is it hard to come back after a year of not having Ruido Fest? Does it really throw you off when you’re out for a year?

Everyone questions their existence in a pandemic but I never had any doubt that we’d come back. There’s a reason why we announced a band and dates for 2021 earlier last year — because we were relatively confident that things would come to this point. And thankfully the things that needed to happen happened in terms of the vaccine distribution and the numbers improving. If for some reason we didn’t do this year, we would just announce 2022 dates and come back then.