The worldwide festival market is booming – and so is the roll-call of casualties.
Look at The Big Chill, Sonisphere, Underage Festival, Hit Festival – all major events that stumbled into trouble last year (and that’s leaving out a certain aborted festival you’ll have read a lot about around these parts). It’s been a similar story in 2013: Sonar Sao Paolo hit the dirt in March due to “instability in the Brazilian entertainment market”, and All Tomorrow’s Parties are winding down UK festival operations for good. When big hitters are struggling to sustain their model or are choosing to plough their resources elsewhere, what hope for the self-starter?
As festivals continue to breed and diversify, finding a place in the market has become an increasingly daunting task. These days, festivals take place on local fields and foreign beaches, in city centres and converted castles. A few run over an afternoon, others last many days. Some organisers opt for a plunderbund of big-name acts; some, by accident or design, stick to lesser-known artists. In short, there’s a more choice than ever, and with more variables come more risks. Location, line-up, design, acts of God – the process is less a walk through the park than a moonlit dash through a minefield. Nail it, and kudos – and if you’re extremely lucky, a meagre profit – are yours. Botch it, and you’re looking at huge debts and a phalanx of pitchfork-wielding revellers.
As a public service to budding festival czars, we’ve canvassed twenty-odd festival founders and directors and bigwigs for advice about how to go about starting your own. Where to put it, how to fund it, who to book, what to do when things unexpectedly go belly up – from conception to reception, here’s a comprehensive guide to the process. With contributors ranging from hulking Goliaths (Glastonburgh, SONAR, EXIT) to plucky Davids (Three Days Of Struggle, Love Saves The Day, Eastern Electrics), the following six pages offer a comprehensive guide to the nitty-gritty of running a festival. As with previous guides to running a clubnight and starting a record label, the feedback within is diverse, spirited and occasionally contradictory, but as advisory panels go, you won’t find a more experienced bunch.
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THE BEST IDEAS BEGIN IN THE PUB.
Julian Butterfield (co-founder, Lovebox, London): Chatting to some friends in a pub, already doing a club night called Lovebox, someone thought it would be a good idea and we might make a few quid. It was really no more complicated than that to start with. We weren’t experienced festival people embarking on a vision and strategy, we were winging it.
Rob Da Bank (founder, Bestival, Isle Of Wight): We started Bestival ten years ago after copious amounts of wine were drunk and we got over excited about throwing a bigger Sunday Best party and it turned into a festival. We definitely felt there was a gap in the market for a less serious, more adventurous and magical festival, with an outstanding lineup of old faces alongside hot new talent – and I still think we tick that box better than anyone
HAVE A MISSION.
Dusan Kovacevic (co-founder, EXIT, Serbia): EXIT started as youth movement for freedom, fighting the oppressive Milosevic regime in the Balkans. We used music and culture as our main weapon. At the University campuses, many parties, concerts, gigs, films, theatre plays and public debates were being held for around 100 days and motivating young people to take part in democratic processes. After political changes in Serbia in 2000, EXIT grew up into one of the most popular music festivals in the world, with a strong social responsibility dimension.
Alain Mongeau (director, MUTEK, Montreal): In 1997, I joined the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media (FCMM) as the Director of the New Media program…Over the years we hosted a number of artists like Thomas Köner, Coldcut, Pole, Burnt Friedman, Jan Jelinek , a Touch showcase, a Perlon showcase, a Basic Channel showcase, and many many more. One of the goals back then – a self-assigned mission, if I can say – was to help the electronic music scene gain some respect outside of the party factor and the rave movement. I felt that a lot of the musicians were underestimated artists, that a lot of craftsmanship went into the creation of a real digital culture that deserved to be revealed and nurtured.
CHECK YOU’RE THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE JOB.
Julian Butterfield: If you’ve got incredibly deep pockets, a God-given talent for resisting a number of mental health issues and an unhealthy pandering for ridiculous working hours, knock yourself out. Otherwise probably find something to do where the financial model isn’t such an uphill struggle.
Rob Da Bank: Think very carefully if you want to commit yourself 365 days of the year to keeping your head (and hopefully those of your faithful staff) above water with the very distinct possibility of never making any money and going grey at an early age. If you’re prepared for that, welcome aboard!
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PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
Rob Star & Will Paterson (co-founders, Eastern Electrics Festival, London): Start slowly! We built our brand over 5 years before we even thought about doing the first festival. Unless you have lots of money to lose, don’t go all out straight away. You need to grow the event with your audience.
Alex Deadman (founder, Tramlines, Sheffield): Don’t underestimate the workload involved, and make sure you have a strong team of skilled, adaptable and reliable people around you. An eye for detail and the capacity to visualise every scenario are also essential. It’s all about the planning!
Mark Newton (director, Hideout, Island Of Pag, Croatia): Dont rush into things: begin very small and set your budgets realistically from the outset. Make sure you can afford to take any loss you may have in the beginning without your parents having to remortgage their house!
Tom Paine (founder, Love Saves The Day, Bristol): Budgets – not an unexpected problem I guess, but a problem that you pretend doesn’t exist until the last minute. We found with our first year last year that we were trying to shoehorn an event into a budget, rather than being realistic about what things we going to cost and how much money we really had to spend. It’s a mistake that I think many new and naive festival/event promoters make – and that’s what finishes many of them off when the tickets don’t sell as well as hoped. You have to be realistic with your budgets. Don’t kid yourself, as you’ll bankrupt yourself….
REMEMBER IT’S A BUSINESS…
Gareth Cooper (founder, Festival No. 6, Portmeirion): Why did we start it? No idea… it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s what we do for a living. Ultimately the underlying reasons are commercial which is adding another event to our portfolio. I suppose there is an element of wanting to put on a party or being part of that party, but we still have a business to run…
Ricard Robles (director, Sonar, Barcelona): We forged a business from the very offset. We sought credit and found someone to be a guarantor for the first two years. Thankfully there was never a need to exploit the guarantor, and the festival was able to support itself financially from the very first edition. The economic independency was a decisive element to be able to maintain the artistic independency.
…BUT PROFIT ISN’T EVERYTHING.
Alain Mongeau: I believe it’s getting more and more difficult to do a festival like MUTEK that has been driven by a love for the artists, the scene, the people. More and more blind commercial interests have been moving in these last couple of years, especially in North America. It’s becoming more and more of an industry. When we started 15 years ago basically none of the artists had booking agents: I had most of the mobile numbers and could talk directly one-on-one with the artists. Nowadays it’s the opposite; all the artists are represented by many layers of agents, managers, etc.. and I feel bad if I try to write an email directly.
Jonathan Scratchley (co- founder, Outlook/Dimensions, Pula, Croatia): Do something you love, or sell out completely and don’t consider anything other than ticket sales. However, if you don’t have a love for it then during the hard times – and there will be many – working on the festival will be very difficult. There are many ways to run large scale events: at Outlook and Dimensions Festivals we have chosen the road less trodden and it makes me proud to have been a part of starting these events. Doing something you care about makes waking up in the morning an enjoyable experience.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO IT ALONE.
Tom Paine: We tried quite a few people, from big promoters to private equity investment groups, and although had a bit of interest from a few, in the end nothing materialised. So we had to make a crunch decision – and went for it with what limited funds we had of our own and loans from friends and family. It could have ended horribly, but we knew what we were doing would work – and thank God it did. Now we are totally independent and fully in control of our own festival.
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FILL A GAP.
Nico Vascellari, (founder, Three Days Of Struggle, Vittorio Veneto, Italy): Three Days Of Struggle started in 2008. The first edition was a way to celebrate the opening of Codalunga, a place dedicated to sound and art investigations located in my former studio in the heart of the historical part of Vittorio Veneto – basically in the middle of nowhere, somewhere at the feet of the mountains in north east of Italy.
Sacha Lord-Marchionne (co-director, Parklife, Manchester): Although we ran the Warehouse Project series, we realised that Manchester lacked a festival. All other major cities seemed to have one, so it seemed odd that Manchester didn’t. We noticed that a group of promoters tried to run a small scale festival (quite badly) which coincided with the end of the uni academic year… That’s what gave us to choose that date, as Manchester has the largest student population in Europe. The first year was mainly student based, however it now reaches all corners of the clubbing market.
Julian Butterfield: Victoria Park is aesthetically the most appealing park in the whole of London, it wasn’t a difficult choice. Plus we were bringing the party East, the first people to do so for decades !
THINK CREATIVELY ABOUT LOCATION…
Gareth Cooper: Portmeiron, where Festival No. 6 is set, is an Italian village built into an estuary in North Wales. You dont go about looking for something like that because you dont believe it exists until you see it. Thats why we chose it. We created a unique look and feel to make Festival No. 6 stand out. The main star of the show is Portmeirion, so we wanted to utilise the the architecture and the location as much as possible, which we did by using the estuary stage area, the woodlands, the piazza and the castle.
Dusan Kovacevic: We’re fortunate to have one of the best festival sites in the world as EXIT is held on a magical 18th century fortress. The Petrovaradin fortress is one the biggest of its kind in Europe, and the fortress plays a very important part in the overall festival experience.
Rob Da Bank: We look for a friendly owner who doesn’t mind when his ground gets trashed and a great variety of hideyholes and hills and valleys and woods to get lost in. Our site Robin Hill is a country park with a toboggan run and some mad woodland trails – so obviously the toboggan sold it to us!
Mark Newton: It’s such a long journey to get to – if you’re lucky it’s minimum 3.5 hours travel from the UK to the festival site – so it feels so special when you finally get there. This helped inspire us to call it Hideout.
…BUT THINK PRACTICALLY TOO.
Sacha Lord-Marchionne: [Our first site] was in a residential area, and next to a school which was taking GCSE exams during our soundchecks! That combined with a church slap bang in the middle of the park…it made it quite challenging. Luckily, our production partner (and a very understanding Manchester City Council) helped us through it!
Alex Deadman: Our festival site is essentially the whole of Sheffield city centre. On the one hand, it means that a good deal of the infrastructure needed is already in place, but it can also be a challenge when it comes to closing roads and managing the movement of thousands of people across pavements.
AND REMEMBER, THERE’S ALWAYS CROATIA.
Jonathan Scratchley: I was part of a small group of promoters lucky enough to be asked to come out to Croatia by a Liverpudlian couple who had sold up in Liverpool and moved out with the specific desire to set up a festival site. That was a lot of fun so we decided to continue….
Mark Newton: We’d been working over in Ibiza through the summer for a number of years running events and, although we loved the place, it was becoming so saturated and commercialised we want to do something new and exciting. Some of our friends had been putting events on over there and we’d heard so many great things about the place, we went and visited and loved it and came up with the concept of Hideout…
Chris Greenwood (founder, Stop Making Sense, Tisno, Croatia): The move to Croatia four years ago away from the UK was one way of standing out. Now that Croatia is equally saturated, it could be time to move on. I hear there are some sweet spots in Albania…
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SOME THINGS ARE OUT OF YOUR CONTROL.
Michael Eavis (founder, Glastonbury, Pilton): We booked The Kinks in 1970. I loved their songs and even started playing them to the cows when I was milking. I bought a sound system from Watts Radio in Somerton and set the speaker up in the collar of a sewer pipe. Then the Melody Maker ran the headline “Kinks To Play Mini Festival” and the next thing I knew I was getting sent medical certificates and they pulled out. I was going to cancel the whole thing but my daughter Juliet, who was only 10 at the time, said “Daddy – you’ll look such a fool” so I carried on and booked Marc Bolan.
Rob Star & Will Paterson: We lost our first festival site (Clapham Common) and then the owners of our second site (Greenwich Peninsula) went bankrupt. So we didn’t have a whole lot of luck with venues.
BE PREPARED TO LEARN ON THE JOB.
Ricard Robles: The main challenge was the format of Sonar By Day, when we had to pair the museum setting to that of live music, requiring a level of technical complexity of which we had no prior reference. Later, the challenge of Sonar By Night was similar, in that we had to equip spaces that had never before been used for live music venues, let alone a music festival. To all that we would have to add the fact that all distributors and technical crew (most of which coming from the rock scene) would be able to get to grips with what we were talking about, a new concept of “show” with particular needs in light, sound and visual. I remember cringing to a sound-check with a Sting album…
Jonathan Scratchley: All the directors had been club promoters for years so we knew how to promote and put together a line-up but: travel, accommodation, transfers, wristbands, stage management, site design, operations…yeah, almost everything. We just jumped in head first and then learnt how to swim.
GET THE POLITICIANS ON SIDE…
Alex Deadman: We worked collaboratively with Sheffield City Council right from the start, and they’ve always been really supportive of what we were trying to achieve…Sheffield City Council provided a good proportion of the initial funding, with the rest coming from sponsors and stall holders at the event. The city’s venue owners and promoters all put in loads of work for free, and our management company invested a substantial amount of money and a huge amount of staff hours for the first few years.
Sacha Lord-Marchionne: This year we have relocated to Heaton Park, the same place where The Stone Roses played last year. We actually took guidance from Manchester City Council as our previous venue was bulging at the seams! We couldn’t take it any further, and they came up with a great answer.
…BUT DON’T BE AFRAID TO KICK AGAINST THEM WHEN REQUIRED.
Dusan Kovacevic: Well, I was arrested at one point of festival history due to political reasons as the regime wanted to stop the festival, they didn’t understand it. However the whole society-media, NGOs, artists, public figures stood up with my colleagues and me and after only eight days we were free.
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THE LINE-UP IS VITAL…
Alain Mongeau: I think that one of its key stand out factors still remains curation: the festival is recognized for its carefully selected line-up of close to 100% live acts. I think that Montreal is also a key element of the festival’s soul. With its European influence coming from the French/Latin roots, it provides a great backdrop to the festival. We also try to provide a high-quality environment for the artists to perform in, and to deliver the best they’ve got.
Julian Butterfield: The line-up. People historically know that we have a reputation for packing the most fun into a London park and we back that up with the right talent. It’s a party, and we make sure people enjoy it.
Tom Paine: We’ve stayed well away from the ‘booking by numbers’ approach to programming the artists who play Love Saves. We know a lot of other festivals who simply book acts they think will sell them X amount of tickets. We’ve stayed well away from booking obvious headliners, and looked more to expanding the width of our line-ups rather than making them top heavy. We also like to book real up-and-coming acts before they are widely known. For example, last year we had Disclosure and Jessie Ware both play live before they went on to blow up over the summer. This year we are really excited to have Dusky, Bondax, Clean Bandit and Lulu James on the bill – all of whom we expect to have really a big year.
…BUT IT’S NOT EVERYTHING.
FIND YOUR USP.
Ricard Robles: The festival came about in 1994 with the idea of creating a space where the electronic music and arts scene, at that time diverse and very much scattered, could come together…Create your own model, define what your personality dictates and make it easily identifiable. And think, more than anything, in which artists and public have the best conditions for it to be enjoyable.
Gilles Peterson: I was sick of playing festivals all over the world where the sound wasn’t quite right or the vibe was average – I had to create it myself to make sure. Imagine a Japanese club on the mediterranean with a multinational crowd…
Rob Da Bank: We stick to what we do best which is magical escapism, fun, dressing up and some massive acts tempered with hundreds – literally hundreds – of up and coming DJs and bands who by September who will be someone’s favourite new act.
KEEP TABS ON YOUR IMAGE.
Alain Mongeau: For many years the festival was perceived as very niche, cliquey, perhaps lacking enough of the fun factor – at least from the outside. So, ever since the first few years, we’ve been trying to maintain the right balance between things, between experimentation and beats, between unknown artists and more established acts, between local and international content, between pleasure and respectability.
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DON’T FORGET THE WHOLE PACKAGE.
Ricard Robles: A festival must be an experience, one that is the sum of various factors, as well as having artistic relevance. It should be easy to get to, comfortable to access and circulate. One must feel safe, and to be able to enjoy what the artistic proposal has to offer in the best conditions possible. As well as creating an experience, we look for unique spaces, ones with imminent urban character, that were never originally intended to be designated for concerts nor use as cultural event spaces, let alone festival sites.
Alex Deadman: Initially, the fact that we were completely free to attend really helped us out. We’ve also always aimed for an immense spread across the city, with over 70 venues and stages involved and something for every type of music fan – from ale-drinking blues lovers to bass fans partying at Toddla T’s massive dance showcase.
KEEP SIGHT OF YOUR CORE VALUES.
Michael Eavis: We try and stay true to the values the festival has always had – and we have to treat each and every festival as if it might be the last one…The site chose me. My great-great- grandfather arrived at Park Farm in 1865, so we’ve had plenty of time to get to know the Vale of Avalon
Nico Vascellari: Three Days Of Struggle basically started (and continues) with the same attitude with which I have started organizing shows here almost twenty years ago when I was basically too young to go see the concerts and bands I was interested in and nothing at all was going on in this town. My idea back then was, “If I can’t go there, perhaps I could make the bands come here.” Of course, now I can travel wherever I want, but there’s still nothing I’m interested in going on here. Try to find at least one good reason to start a festival and never forget it.
Ricard Robles: Work hard to maintain the festival essence intact after twenty years. Sonar remains to be a meeting point and place of discovery, it continues to cultivate its vocation to explore as well as its more hedonistic side. There are always things to discover at Sonar and always reasons to celebrate. It’s not about trying to exhaust the same formula from twenty years ago last, but the will to maintain sight and vision alert to what the music scene has to offer to keep its focus and principle grounded.
Dusan Kovacevic: If it had been up to us, the war would never have happened… because all of us were craving for the same things, a normal life, socialization, traveling and other pleasures. Then all together, after many turbulent years, NOW and STRAIGHT AWAY we wanted to compensate for everything we had lost during the Balkans’ bloody decade. This is the reason why EXIT’s energy has been so powerful! The energy and love they felt in Serbia, was the same energy and love buried in the memories of the hippie movement of the 60s and 70s. The Western artists soon felt and recognized this new energy.
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