Why We Gave John Giddings the Outstanding Contribution Award

"Why have you given this award to Giddings?", sneered a rival promoter recently, "He's only done one festival!". We'll come back to that...

By Steve Jenner, Founder and Director of Virtual Festivals

Although I had been aware of the name John Giddings since the Isle Of Wight Festival first appeared back on the scene in 2002, I had no idea what the man looked or sounded like until I found myself watching a re-run of the 2006 festival on Channel 4 last Christmas. There he was on primetime holiday telly, presenting the whole programme himself, giving me a close and personal insight into his beloved event. I’d never seen a festival organiser do anything like this before – they normally hide from view – so what a refreshing, endearing and effective concept. I made a new year’s resolution to finally meet the man.

I didn’t have to wait long, as two weeks later, I received a telephone call from John introducing himself to me. In hindsight, these two initial experiences each highlighted one of Mr. Giddings’ winning qualities in this arena; that he thrives on doing things differently, undeterred by the scale of the activity, and he is always one step ahead of you.

John Giddings first became a self-employed booking agent for the same reason I started Virtual Festivals – because he couldn’t get a job at a record company. How apt that he entered the business in the year of punk. He remains one of its finest – and last remaining – proponents. Long after John Lydon consigned his safety pins to the Hard Rock Café and began presenting shark documentaries, Giddings is still out there innovating as hard as ever, ram-raiding the status quo and laying down a new template at the highest end of the festival scene.

The following examples underpin my point:

1)    Resurrecting the Isle of Wight Festival

In terms of sheer scale and attendance the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival (which attracted more than 600,000 revellers and listed Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Who among its headliners) remains the biggest festival ever staged and possibly even the largest public gathering of all time. The UK’s live music promoters agreed en masse that it would be an impossible brief to bring the event back to life after its 32 year hiatus, when the island’s council invited them to do so. Start-up festivals were a high enough risk proposition at the start of the millennium without worrying about such details as how you transport tens of thousands of people across the Solent. On a purely logistical basis, this concept was a non-starter.

What makes John Giddings such an inspiring and successful individual is his refusal to allow logistics to get in the way of something he feels passionate about. As he considered the council’s proposal, his soul began to reverberate with electric memories of seeing Hendrix perform at the 1970 event and as far as he was concerned this was simply too exciting a proposition to turn down. Hence the Best Major Festival in the UK (as voted for by fans in this year’s UK Festival Awards) owes its existence to one man following his heart before his head. How brilliant.

2)    Limiting the Line-Up to Just One Stage

As a festival promoter, the more acts you can cram in, the wider your potential audience and the more tickets you will sell. This has been the modus operandi of the major festivals in recent years and it has really put me off them in a big way. I don’t want the stress of having to decide which of the eight or so bands playing in different tents at the same time I would rather see. Festivals are supposed to bring everyone together, not disperse us like flies.

Luckily, John Giddings agrees and he has disregarded established commercial sense to guarantee that everyone shares the same musical experience by keeping all of the live acts on one stage. In doing so, he has managed to create a major festival that sells all of its tickets before the headliners are confirmed. This is why the sense of community at the Isle Of Wight is so unique and so much stronger than any other major festival. With less trekking around site, it might also explain why people seem to have more energy and stay up later at night, there. Once again, John Giddings has flouted the accepted formula and come up trumps.

3)    Securing Coldplay on a European Exclusive

After the 2005 event, the gap between the Isle Of Wight Festival and the ‘Big Four’ (Glastonbury, The Carling Weekend, V Festival and T in the Park) was closing. What John needed now, to smash his way into their circle of dominance, was a big coup. Opportunity struck at the 2006 Brit Awards and, in customary style, John was first to strike.

Coldplay famously announced that they were having a break, prompting immediate speculation that they were splitting up. John queued outside their dressing room backstage for over an hour to offer them a way to prove to the world in spectacular style that this was not the case. His persistence paid off and they agreed to headline his festival that summer – their only European appearance. By the time they left the island stage, the Big Four had become the Big Five.

4)    The Rolling Stones

It had long been a Virtual Festivals tradition to tease our users by adding The Rolling Stones as a line-up rumour, usually to Glastonbury, before the real headliners had been announced. This often filtered through to the press, who had a disturbing propensity for taking our wild speculations as gospel, which always gave us amusement. I suppose I hoped that the residual hype would in some way eventually pressure Jagger and co. sufficiently to take a punt and do a festival. Deep down, I didn’t ever think that would – or could – really happen, especially at a smaller festival than Glasto.

I didn’t factor on John Giddings, though. Why accept equal billing with the big old giants of Britain’s festival scene when you could leave floundering behind in the mud? As their European booking agent, John had a good in to the Rolling Stones so he made the most of it and had the assertion to tell the biggest live band in the known universe that it would be a good career move for them to headline his festival. Incredibly, they agreed, and the Isle Of Wight suddenly had the greatest line-up of any festival since that 1970 event.

What is even more amazing than this, is that, before the Stones were announced, the festival had already sold-out of its 55,000 tickets! Booking them was yet another magnificent example of John’s rebellion against the traditional commercial sense that shackles his competitors into relative mediocrity. The band are the most expensive act in the world! Furthermore, John argued against their own suggestion to reduce costs by stripping down their usual production. Adamant that his attendees would receive the same quality of show as those who saw the Stones in the band’s own stadium environment, he insisted on installing their famous ‘B Stage’ in the middle of the crowd, at his cost – another festival first.

On the balance sheet, this entire scenario was completely ludicrous – nothing but an enormous hole in what would otherwise have been a highly profitable festival year for John. Regardless, it sealed John Giddings’ legacy as the most outstanding achiever in the world of supersized music festival production and I will forever tip my hat to him for having the conviction to follow it through.

Just one festival? Yes, and this one festival is a truly remarkable triumph of passion against the odds that shows just what can be achieved when you follow your intuition, no matter the perceived barriers. The world – never mind the music industry – has never needed people like John Giddings more than it does today, and that is why we have given him this award.