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Festival Fever! Are events in fields the new cash cows?

Updated Friday, 11th July 2008

As part of Festival Fever!, the Money Programme team filmed interviews with some key players from the UK festival scene. Here you can watch longer versions of these interviews.

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John Giddings (Festival promoter)

John on the importance of headline acts, the competitive market, the local community and why there's only one stage at the Isle of Wight festival.




John Gidding:

On the importance of headliners

You just have to gauge it yourself. I remember, last year, I booked the Rolling Stones after we'd sold the event out. And everybody said to me why do you want to pay them all of that money when you could have made that as profit? And I thought well, if I got run over on the Monday at least I was the person who brought the Rolling Stones to the Isle of Wight.

And also, what it does is, you can go to the Foo Fighters, to Muse and say we had the Rolling Stones last year. And it’s all to do with that premier league of artists. I remember with Coldplay they kept saying no, no, no, then they did the Brits, and they said you won’t be seeing us for a long time, and the press interpreted it as them splitting up. And I said well the way to prove you’re not splitting up is to come and play the Isle of Wight Festival, which they did.

It’s a combination of knowing what’s going on, we’re lucky we’ve been in the music business a long time, so we know what these headline attractions can draw when they do their own shows.

On the competitive market

I think in England there are four major festivals. The Isle of Wight, Glastonbury, the V’s and Leeds Reading, and that means there are 11 nights a year that have to be filled by major headliners, so that’s a competition in itself, you are bound to get some repeats.

There’s also a raft of other events every weekend, boutique festivals, that are competing against you because how much money have people got? Do they want to go to a festival every weekend? And what’s becoming more apparent is kids are more prepared to travel to southern Europe because the weather is more guaranteed, and it’s cheaper to get in. They get a bigger range of UK-based artists because they don’t mean that much south of the Isle of Wight, so they’ll play for cheaper abroad.

On the benefits to the local community

The Isle of Wight gets out of the Isle of Wight Festival international acclaim. Last year, for the first year ever, it got more coverage that Cowes Week. It’s put it back on the map as a destination for young people, whereas for 32 years it’s been this backwater. Everybody says to me, "Went there as a kid. I've never been back since." Now people are going back and discovering the beaches and what you can do now. And there’s more hotels, more restaurants. It’s going to become the English Riviera.

On why there’s only one stage

We asked the groups, at an early stage, what they thought about that, and they all said to us don’t get another big stage because what it means is everybody has the same experience, and all the bands lower down the bill are watched by the same number of people. Our audience turns up early and everybody watches everything. I’ve been to other festivals and seen the headline act only watched by 15-20,000 people because there’s 6 to 8 other stages 3 miles away. It’s all about what people tell me they want to do.

Melvin Benn (MD, Festival Republic)

Melvin on how the festival-goer has changed, the risks promoters take, the "3-year rule" to success and what the festival season will be like in the future.




Melvin Benn:

On how the festival-goer has changed

What’s changed really is that people have continued to go to festivals, when I, as I say in the early 70’s when I went I was a) a very, very one of a very small minority of people that actually went to a festival and b) the idea that you would still go to a festival when you were in your 20s – pretty odd – you know, you were thought of as being subversive, you were thought of as being over rebellious, that you probably wouldn’t be able to hold a job down, all that type of stuff, and that just changed, and the days when, I suppose, essentially the days when you got to 21, 22, 23 you got married, you got a mortgage – and by and large your life stopped at that point, you settled down, you didn’t really go out so much – all that sort of stuff. That’s gone. That has disappeared. The idea of being an eternal teenager is very much on the agenda, and I’m rather pleased that it is, actually, because that means that people still want to go to festivals when they’re 30 and 40 and 50 quite frankly, and 60 and 70, maybe, I don’t know, but certainly 30 and 40 and 50, not uncommon at all. But it hasn’t stopped the younger ones coming, it’s just added to.

On the risks promoters take

We think, as promoters, that we always know which artists are going to be the winning artists for the year, type of stuff, and that’s what we do, and if you can’t put those artists in the relevant space for the audience, you’re going to lose. It’s that simple.

You know, I put Sting in Finsbury park in the late 90s and it died a death. It just didn’t sell. One of the greatest artists in the world, but his audience didn’t want to be in Finsbury Park. It’s not just about getting the right artist, it’s about getting the right artist in the right place. Put him in a stadium, put him in Hyde Park, it’ll be great, but put him in the wrong park or the wrong environment it wouldn’t work really. And they’re lessons that you learn over the years and you’ve got to find a relevant market – no matter what it is you’re doing. If you’re selling baked beans, you’ve got to find a relevant market to sell baked beans to, and we’ve got to find a relevant market to sell in what is a festival product.

On whether there’s a “3 year rule” to success?

Yeah, I mean I’d say I’ve probably not only heard of it, you know, I'd say I’ve might well have initiated it really. Certainly three to four years.

If you can’t see progression year on year, then you’re going to struggle. Three years, if you’re not seeing breakeven, and you might not be at it, but as long as you can see it coming, and as long as you have deep enough pockets, then that is it. I’m on my third year of Latitude Festival this year, and I’m going to cross the line this year, I’m going to breakeven and make a little bit of money, not a lot of money, and certainly not going to make anything like the money that I’ve lost over the last two years. But that’s about an investment and I’m hoping that in 20 year’s time that festival will still be thriving and the money that I lost in the last two years will be insignificant in the longer-term.

I’m sort of relatively okay, I’ve got quite a big turnover, I’ve got quite a sort of healthy profit on other shows so therefore I can carry that, and you know my shareholders are happy for that to be the case, they’re happy for that to be carried. If you’re doing it entirely out of your own pocket, and you’re losing after three years, you need quite a lot of commitment as well as the big pockets really, so yeah three years, it’s not a rule, but it isn’t a bad mantra if you’ve lost it, you know, if you’re still losing in year four, you know, you need a psychiatrist, I think.


On what the festival season will be like in the future

I think there’ll be a continued diversity of more small festivals, but I think the number of people running them will be less. I don’t think there’ll be quite so many independent operators. I think the bigger operators, the big promoters, will eventually buy up a number of the smaller ones. Again no different to normal high street businesses in that sense really. Still maintaining an independence about each individual festival, but I think the independent festivals will, again, find it increasingly difficult to compete, and I think it will mean people like myself will have to have major commercial festivals or straight forward big festivals like Reading and Leeds, you know, which has got a pureness of its music, an intensity of its music, but it’s about big numbers, and we’ll also have to have smaller festivals like Latitude Festival, which is more niche, and we’ll be able to, have to be able to offer, as a company, both offerings, we’ll have to be able to say, you know, you can come to Latitude, you can come to Reading and Leeds. And I see the alliances between independent and smaller promoters and bigger promoters you know, generally getting closer and closer, but I think the offerings will just get better and better.


Peter Florence (Director, Guardian Hay Festival)

Peter on the Hay Festival goer, the local economy and being a festival organiser.




Peter Florence:

On the Hay festival goer

It’s a mix actually, to be honest, now, I mean this audience is very odd and completely wonderful. They love the headliners but what they really love is the quirkiness. They don’t mind if they’re going to hear, as they did with Homero Arisdjis the world expert on saving the Monarch butterfly in Mexico. If he’s the world expert and he’s good, they’ll go. So they kind of trust us to programme good people without necessarily knowing what they’re going to. I mean we have people who say here’s £100 can I just have 10 tickets. It’s like putting your iPod on shuffle.

On whether the festival benefits the local economy

The local economy thing swings both ways. On the one hand, we’re not here as a motor for the local economy, we’re here to have conversation and share stories and ideas. On the other hand, the banks tell us that it’s probably worth £15 million investment in the local economy. We spend over a million pounds locally ourselves. We’re the second largest local employer. You know, at the moment, around this site we have 170 people on pay roll. Now this is very small beer in terms of industry but in a farming and rural community where most businesses have three or four employees, many of whom are family, it’s quite an important social, as well as economic, function.

On being a festival organiser

The risks, I have to say, are part of the fun. It’s a lot more fun that working in a big red brick building would be. And the joy of it, so much of the joy of a festival is the unknown. You have no idea what the great hits will be actually, no matter how carefully you plan it, and you have no idea how people will respond to events.

This week we’ve had, in five days, a fifth of Hay-on-Wye’s annual rain fall and people got the blitz spirit, became more bonded, they forged a solidarity in the adversity of elemental rain that actually stood us in good stead. Now we could never have planned that but it turned out alright. And the sales of Wellington boots went through the roof.

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