Melvin Benn: Reading/Leeds Festival

Mean Fiddler's director of festivals talks flooding, helicopters, American idiots, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as giving 'clues' as to the identity of next year's headliners.

As Mean Fiddler’s director of festivals, Melvin Benn is one of the most powerful men in the UK festival industry, with Glastonbury, Homelands, and Reading/Leeds all part of his portfolio of responsibility. From his calm manner, you wouldn’t think this is one of the busiest men in music but perhaps that’s exactly the quality you need to succeed when dealing with dilemas by the dozen load, in his case over two sites hundreds of miles apart! Today he kick-starts a series of fortnightly interviews, as VF quizes all the main festival organisers about their events and where they might be going next year – starting with the Carling Reading and Leeds festivals, held consecutively every August bank holiday weekend.

Virtual Festivals: A man with not one, but two festivals to look after in one weekend. Respect. How exactly?
Melvin Benn: I travelled between the two sites by helicopter. I’d sleep in Leeds, take an early flight to Reading, then spend the day there before coming back up north around six or seven. It was pretty hectic but fortunately you can use a mobile on a helicopter, unlike on a plane, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have done it.

VF: What was better Reading or Leeds?
MB: They were both great but they were both difficult, Reading particularly because of the rain. The site’s actually located on a flood plain and because we had loads of rain during August and especially in the week running up to the festival, there was a real problem with the amount of water on site. There was a similar amount of rain in Leeds but fortunately that site wasn’t also on a flood plain, otherwise it would have been double the trouble. But other than that it was great. They both sold out in advance, which was a first for Leeds, and the line-up was great with everyone getting more than their money’s worth from the headliners alone. There were a few issues with 50 Cent but other than that it all went down really well.

VF: Were you surprised by his aerial bottling bombardment? It was certainly a passionate reaction from the crowd.
MB: Well it was an oddity and I was surprised, yes. We have had hip-hop acts for many years at both Reading and Leeds, in fact it’s unusual for us not to. It’s important to reflect different types of music but for some reason it just didn’t work for 50 Cent. Maybe it was because he was billed just before Green Day. Perhaps we should have put him before The Darkness.

VF: Well at least it got him dancing. Will it change your booking policy?
MB: Not really no. It’s had a bearing and we’ve taken notice but we’ll still be looking to include an element of hip-hop. I can’t see why that will change. Maybe we need to be a bit more careful to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

VF: Enough of the lows. What were your highlights?
MB: Green Day were extraordinary and probably my highlight. I was looking forward to The White Stripes and they completely lived up to all expectations, but for some reason Green Day absolutely blew me away. I think it was a very important gig for them. It was the first time they’ve headlined a major UK festival and they just totally pulled it off. Then there was Dizzee Rascal in the Radio 1 tent. We booked him for Homelands and he wasn’t quite ready for the main stage there but he’d really worked it out for Reading and Leeds. The Streets were also great. They just held the audience in their hand and that was especially significant considering the treatment of The Rasmus and 50 Cent.

VF: So apart from not re-booking ‘Fiddy’, will there be many changes for next year?
MB: Not really no. It’s going to be the same amount of tickets and the same site lay out. Reading has been so consistent in terms of how it’s put together that there’s no need to touch it and Leeds has settled into Bramham Park well and really made the place its home. Both are doing exactly what we hoped was possible in running two festival simultaneously. So there will be no substantial change, apart from obviously the line-up.


VF: And how’s that little, trivial matter coming along? Who’s in the fray? Tell us.
MB: It’s much more than a case of ‘who’s in the fray’. We’ve booked most acts already and have confirmed two of the three headliners.

VF: And they are…
MB: You know I can’t tell you that.

VF: American? British?
MB: They’ve both got singers and use guitars.

VF: Do they make a racket?
MB: They both have drummers as well, yes. That’s as much as you’re getting!

VF: What’s been the best Reading/Leeds line-up of all time?
MB: It’s really impossible to say. It may sound a bit of a cop-out but the answer to that question is, honestly, the next one. It’s always about the next festival and there’s always a pressure to make it even better and more spectacular than the last. I’d say Rage Against The Machine were one of the all time greats to grace Reading and I’d love for them to reform and play again. They’d be very high up my list. They were just so pure.

VF: 1993. My first ever festival. I couldn’t agree more. But what would be your ultimate fantasy headline line-up?
MB: Led Zeppelin, Free, and Bruce Springsteen. God I’m showing my age aren’t I?

VF: Nothing wrong with The Boss. Finally, how can you sum up the state of the festival industry at the moment?
MB: It just continues to get better really. There’s a lot of stability for the big festivals and there are still a growing number of small festivals chomping on the bit and tapping into markets that they’re now making their own. There’s not a more vibrant scene in the world than in the UK at the moment and, for all the hundreds of millions of people living in the States, they barely have a decent camping festival. They’ve got this bizarre idea that getting a load of people together in a shed listening to some acts constitutes a decent festival.

VF: A shed? That sounds fantastic! It always rains here.
MB: No, we’ve got it good here! People in other countries would die to have the diversity and choice that we seem to often take for granted here. We live in a country that thrives on live music and absolutely loves it, from listening to opera at Glastonbury to discovering a previously unheard of band in an obscure tent, and all in a country that spans less than 400 miles. We’re very lucky.   

The next Carling Reading/Leeds Festival takes place between 26-28 August 2005.