How to Build a Festival
" 'I was just in a meeting about how to fit 4-metre waterfalls to the front of a stage'. Sometimes, these features just write themselves."
The clocks have gone forward. Spring is making its presence felt. Some days I leave my thick jacket at home, and on others I even get home from work in reasonable daylight. British Summer Time begins, normal service has resumed.
You get the point. Summer is approaching, and with it, the UK’s world-class festival season, and like most publications, we will be devoting quite some print space to this season’s offering.
Unlike most publications, though, we’ve spoken to some of the big cheeses at the most beautiful, innovative and downright mental events in 2016’s calendar to give you an insider’s view on how these incredible parties come together in the first place.
Gottwood is possibly the most charming, well curated and aesthetically pleasing event in the summer calendar, returning to its site in Anglesey for its 7th year on June 9th. We spoke to director Tom Elkington about the challenges of putting on a raucous party in such a picturesque location.
“7 years ago, we were all away in Berlin for the weekend, and we went to various parties there. We ended up at one on a man-made beach around a lake just outside the city, and on the way back on the ferry we thought it would be amazing to bring that kind of spirit over to England. That's how the idea of Gottwood came about, and it started as a small, invite-only party and it's got a bit out of hand! [laughs] It's all about keeping that independent, DIY spirit. Other festivals much bigger than us like Wilderness and Boomtown also do a very good job at that.”
A very diplomatic answer. Part of Gottwood’s charm is its gorgeous location at Carreglwyd Estate and low attendee capacity, but this brings some challenges of its own for the organisers.
“The biggest challenge is the fact that we can only fit 5,000 people and ticket prices aren't exceptionally expensive”, Tom explains, “so it's about bringing the whole thing together within budget. In theory, our infrastructure costs are no different to another, much larger festival, but we don't have that extra revenue that you can raise by selling 30,000 tickets. Also, as we grow in popularity, it's about retaining your ability to negotiate a reasonable fee with booking agents. It can be a challenge to get across to the agents and the artists that whilst we are well-known, we're much smaller than your typical festival and we can't afford to pay the typical fees. On the other hand, after they've come down and experienced the weekend, they always want to come back.
“A lot of the creatives that build our stages are friends that we know from hanging round in certain circles for a while. I've always said that with festivals, you can't just buy everything off the shelf. You need to have been working in the industry for a number of years because the contacts are what you need, be it the food traders, creatives or whoever it may be. You can't just call them up and book them.”
If last year’s weekend was anything to go by, this attitude is certainly paying off.
Tickets are available at gottwood.co.uk
Boomtown Fair is the daddy of immersive festivals and “the UK’s maddest city”. Boomtown takes over Matterley Estate, Winchester, in the second weekend of August. OX got hold of production manager Robin Collings to learn where the mad ideas come from, and as soon as he’d picked up the phone, Robin was getting excited about one of Boomtown’s more elaborate stages:
“I was just in a meeting about how to fit 4-metre waterfalls to the front of a stage”. Sometimes, these features just write themselves.
“Our meetings are ridiculous: ‘Can I find a crane to hang two aerialists from?’” Robin laughs. I ask how these ideas enter his head in the first place.
“Well, Boomtown has this underlying storyline. Not everybody fully buys into it, and that's part of the beauty of it, but if you look for it, there's a very rich and quite literal storyline behind the festival, and that's where the ideas come from. It often mimics life, to an extent. The Bang-hai Palace [pictured] came from the idea of this power-mad Mayoress spending all of her town's resources on this big palace for herself. We started with just that storyline, and then thought "what would this crazy egomaniac do?" It had all these huge, spiral visuals and ‘propaganda machines’.”
Robin is understandably enthusiastic about his event, but I’m beginning to wonder how his outlandish ideas turn into physical setups and stages.
“Well, you need to think what kind of line-ups will be on the stage. Setting up a stage for an 18-piece orchestra is going to be completely different to a stage for one DJ and one MC. You start to think about what the parameters of the program are, you start thinking about how big the arena needs to be, and more practical questions like those to answer. Catering for the expected crowd is particularly hard. Then, coming from being ravers and being party people, we understand what it's like to be in a massive sea of people, and there's a payoff because there's something amazing about being in a vast crowd, but it can be quite deadening for the vibe if it's too rammed. It needs to be fully immersive and wrap you up in the story. Sometimes you have to compromise, because obviously for a certain number of people you need a certain number of exits and a certain amount of bar frontage, and so on, but we try and marry even that side of it up with the existing storyline. Then, you have to find a group of creatives and suppliers who can handle the job.”
Aside from the 4-metre waterfalls, creative production manager Natalie Smith gave us some idea of what to expect at 2016’s Boomtown Fair:
“This year we have the Sector 6 building, which is a direct reference to a power plant that we have near Bristol, and that's a really new and exciting part of the storyline. We're putting a lot more energy into theatrical shows going on in the city and a focus on Mayfair and the "rich" side of Boomtown. For example, we're doing a city-wide treasure hunt called Beat the Banker, where people get involved in games throughout the city then have to make their way to the bank in Mayfair. It's breathtaking. I'd never have imagined that this was the sort of thing which we're now able to produce.”
Tickets are available at boomtownfair.co.uk
A little closer to home, Wilderness is a classy, escapist celebration of music, food, theatre, arts, wellbeing and much more besides, hosted in the charming surroundings of Cornbury Park. The OX team had a fantastic weekend at Wilderness last year, and senior arts and culture programmer Tessa Clarfelt teased us with some information about what to expect in 2016:
“I can’t give too much away, but we’re going to have a new spectacle for this year which is going to be truly amazing and completely different from last year. It’s something that hasn’t happened at a UK festival before, so we’re very excited”.
The spectacle that Tessa’s referring to is Wilderness’s grand finale event, which takes place once each year. Last year, theatrical group La Fura Dels Baus unleashed a 150ft wicker man, which strode over the crowd whilst a lattice of circus performers arranged themselves into disorientating shapes whilst dangled high in the air by a crane. I asked Tessa where these outlandish performances originate.
“La Fura Dels Baus are from Barcelona, and they do enormous Olympic opening ceremonies and things like that, and Wilderness last year was the first time they'd done a festival of this kind. I was actually standing by the foot of the man, and we had to seriously watch where the feet were going - I had to move a pushchair out of its way at one point!
“Each year, we want to do a spectacle that surprises and is ‘awesome’ in the purest sense of the word. Each year we also want it to portray a different emotion from the last. Last year's one was very original and unusual, and all about size and movement, whereas the year before was much more fiery and earthy and almost pagan in its performance.”
The originality shown by the Wilderness team extends further than the finale, though, and this year the festival will be expanding into ever-more eclectic areas of entertainment.
“We've got two new venues”, Tessa explains. “A dedicated theatre tent, which in the day will be celebrating new writing, and in the evening will host comedy and cabaret. We're also introducing a stage called The Atrium, which we've described as a ‘compendium of sensational music and dance from around the world’. The headline act is absolutely fantastic, but I can't announce it yet! We've got dance institutions Rambert and The Place, and they're presenting a program of dance, which is going to be spectacular. We also have pianist James Rhodes doing a show there, as well as the Wilderness Orchestra who will be doing a tribute to David Bowie.”
As the site is only half an hour’s drive from Oxford, what have you got to lose?
Tickets are available at wildernessfestival.com
A name which should need no introduction for OX readers, Cornbury is the godfather of Oxfordshire-based live music festivals, returning for its 6th year at the Great Tew Estate out of an impressive 13 years in the game. Director Hugh Phillimore gave us some insight into how the local festival scene has changed over the years.
“In the old days, you'd have to drive quite a way to get to a festival, whereas now everyone definitely has one within a 50-mile radius. When I started in Oxfordshire there was Truck Festival and there was Cropredy, whereas now there's Wilderness, The Big Feastival, Common People, they've restarted gigs at Blenheim Palace, and so on. You need to be honest with each other and luckily, in Oxfordshire, all the events are very different.”
A seasoned festival veteran, Hugh knows a thing or two about curating top-tier lineups. I asked him how he goes about ensuring that the famous friendly attitude at Cornbury is kept consistent.
“The actual vibe you create with a combination of the site and the way your team approaches dealing with people, really. We have about 95% of the same team that started Cornbury, and everyone from the stewards to the production people are all really lovely and that creates a lovely atmosphere. There really is an aura around that kind of team. We have a "no arseholes" policy, so anyone who behaves in such a manner is swiftly ejected. In terms of actually putting the lineup together, my job is to be "out and about" 10 months of the year and to be in touch with the agents and managers. The business works further in advance than it ever used to. I finish one Cornbury, I have a week or so off and then in August I start sending emails to people again.”
No rest for the wicked. Hugh explains further about the trials and tribulations of putting on Oxfordshire’s most famous event:
“I have an annual routine with Paolo Nutini. He's one of my targets for Cornbury and has been for several years, so I'll send his agent a note in August going "very keen to have Paolo", and the agent that I've known of old says "He's not working" or what have you, and there's always a reason, but eventually I'll get him! It was similar with Keane: it took me 5 or 6 years to get them. They confirmed once but then there was a reason why they couldn't make it, and so on. We got there in the end. So there are certain artists on a hit list that you would go for, and then you begin to hear from other people who's around. You build from there, making sure that it all hangs together.”
Cornbury’s 2016 lineup so far includes names like Seal, Soul II Soul, Jamie Cullum and Bryan Ferry, and takes place from the 8th to the 10th July. Tickets are available at cornburyfestival.com