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Vince Power - Hop Farm's Godfather


United Kingdom United Kingdom | by Steve Jenner, Daniel Fahey | 10 July 2009

Vince Power is a living legend whose story reads like a Hollywood biopic of a mafia don. Rejecting the poverty he was born into in rural Ireland, he burst onto the streets of London at the age of 15 and embarked on an entrepreneurial rampage that saw him gatecrash the highly fortified live music industry, barge his way to the very top and carve a fearsome empire throughout the 80's and 90's. It was called Mean Fidder and, at its peak, it owned 27 live music venues (from The Astoria to The Jazz Cafe) and seven festivals, including Reading, Leeds, Homelands, The Fleadh and slices of Glastonbury and Creamfields.

He then sold up to Live Nation in 2005 and went into exile, forbidden to run festivals in the UK for three years as part of the deal. Astute as ever, he invested his time and money instead in Benicassim, in Spain, turning the event into one of the most successful European festivals, and one that attracts more brits than most medium-sized festivals in the UK. And then last year he came back. His first step was to establish Hop Farm festival, a boutique-style event in Kent that frightened Power's rivals by its very modesty; it could only be the first step on a much larger plan.

Indeed it is, as he openly explained to us when we met him at his London headquarters. Unlike the glamorous West End towers that the likes of Live Nation and Festival Republic hold court in, we found Power's new operation in a much more gritty but endearingly real set-up, based in his 'spiritual home' of Kilburn. With only his reputation to go on, we were a little nervous in anticipation of the meeting, and our minds raced with images of Don Corleone, a tommy gun under his desk - certainly a man who would take no prisoners and who would think nothing of swatting us like irritating flies if we so much as asked the wrong question.

What we got instead was both a relief and a very pleasant surprise, in huge contrast to our expectations and the reputation that preceeds him - a softly spoken man of great eloqence and charm, clearly exceptionally intelligent, consumed with passion for live music and with an impressive understanding of technology and the youth market that betrayed his sixty two years. We were treated to a relaxed, animated and thoughtful discussion that lasted a good hour, punctuated by amusing anecdotes and a lot of laughter. It was easy to forget we were conducting an interview with a man of colossal power, wealth and a fearsome reputation; we had a good craic with Vince.

In this first part of the interview, Vince tells us about his plans for Hop Farm Festival. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did...

Virtual Festivals: What was your thinking behind Hop Farm and bringing festivals ‘back to basics’?
Vince Power: “In the way the recession has turned out anyway, sponsorship is hard to get now. In the heady days we used to get £1 million a festival from Carling and we had everyone on there: Vodaphone, Bacardi and Bulmers and it was just full of upgrades and VIP tents and I think people got a bit too fed up. There was no choice either, if you sign up a deal with Carling, that’s all you can have, Carling. The good thing about last year’s Hop Farm was that we had a good choice of beers, food and stuff that people could have. We’ll see how it goes; there’s no sponsorship out there this year anyway.”

VF: Do you think it’s a viable model going forward?
VP: “Yeah I think so, I’m not against sponsorship myself, I just don’t think it brings anything to the event. Evian stood outside the gate and gave everyone a case of water to take back to their tent and I thought that was a good, effective way of branding and marketing. But it will never benefit long-term  and actually it’s a just another thing at the expense of wanting to see your favourite band, you have to take on all these other commitments like – you have to drink our beer and you have to eat this type of food. I’m trying to free it up to give people the choice. It would be nice if you could charge people one price and let them to bring their own beer in. You could get someone like Tescos on site and have them sell on the beer and do it. There is a huge infrastructure cost in actually providing bars and beer for people. Because I was off for three years, it’s just about looking at the model again and seeing what I can do with it. When I took over Reading in 1989 it was just a big old beer-swilling, warm beer kind of place and it used to have two stages and the VIPs were in front of the stage and the punters were about 50 metres back.”

VF: Some big gigs, like Hyde Park, still have that now.
VP: “It’s crazy, I think it is such an insult to people who buy tickets. They say, ‘there’s the stage, but you can’t go anywhere near it.’ How far do you go with it, the humiliation of people?”

VF: Is your ambition to grow Hop Farm to the same extent as Reading and Leeds?
VP: “I think my ambition is to get back into festivals and I really enjoy it. I know it’s much more competitive and it’s run by people that I sold out to - Live Nation and Dennnis Desmond and AEG. The market is pretty hard to get into now, so I’m going to have to be very innovative and aggressive. I’m trying to get another site to be able to twin [Hop Farm] because that’s the way it’s been going. I started it off, when I started Leeds and its coming back to bite me now.”

VF: Why did you decide to book The Fratellis to headline Hop Farm this year?
VP: "Well originally I had Oasis pencilled in to headline but I got knocked back on the licence when some local residents complained that young people were aliens and they didn’t want them in the area. By the time we’d gone through the appeal process, which took four months, I’d lost Oasis to V Festival. But I thought I’ve got to see this year through and keep the brand going, so I put it together with a smaller line-up than my intention is for future years. The Fratellis wanted to do something lower key, because they didn’t have a new record out, and they were a bit late out of the box for the other festivals."

VF: Have you got any bigger acts in mind for next year?
VP: "I have. I’m going to do a second site next year as well, on the same weekend. I’ve got a site in mind in the North of England, around the centre of the Manchester/ Leeds area. I can’t tell you the names of the artists but if you think about who’s likely to be around next year you’ll get a fair idea." [VF’s tip is Guns N’ Roses]

VF: Do you think there’s a shortage of good quality headline acts currently?
VP: "You’re right there. This year there’s no surplus of acts there, and also you’re competing with the growing festivals in Europe. It’s a very good, healthy state to be in, especially for the bands. In the winter time, they can go and play in Australia and New Zealand and in Spring and Summer play every weekend across the Northern hemisphere."

VF: Your break has coincided with the rise of the boutique festival. Have you been following this phenomenon and attending any yourself?
VP: “I know them all, but I haven’t attended them. I generally just go to The Big Chill. I haven’t been to Glastonbury since we sold it, I haven’t been to Latitude, I haven’t been to Electric Picnic. I am aware of what they are like and I’m aware the model that they have is building a brand out of the name of the festival, rather than having it headliner-led. Bestival is in a good position where Rob da Bank has built a brand festival where people go because they know what to expect rather than the likes of Reading where, of course it’s got a big brand, but you always have to run on the big headliners. It’s nice where you can get a boutique festival and you can say ‘I don’t care who’s on, I’m still going’.”

VF: Do you still feel paternal to Reading and Leeds?
VP: “I do get little twinges all the time. I dread the amount of guest list requests I still get, you would not believe it! I have to go back to Live Nation to get guest lists and stuff. I wouldn’t go back there, it would feel a bit odd really.”

VF: How do you think they’ve progressed without you?
VP: “I think they’ve done very well from a financially point of view. I’ve never really gone for it from a financial point of view, they’re more bottom line. Mean Fiddler had a huge amount of stuff going on with The Garage and the Jazz Café and sometimes the festivals paid for that. In the early days they paid for the festival. What they did immediately was strip out what was worth having and what was worth not having. They thought ‘we make X amount of money from festivals and we’ll get rid of places like The Borderline and all those venues’, which I never did because as long as I was making money out of them I didn’t care. The Forum never made a huge amount of money, but I liked having it. So yeah they’re doing a good job.”

VF: What always struck me when you were at Mean Fiddler was the strength of emotional connection that your festivals (like Pheonix, Homelands, Fleadh, Reading and Leeds) managed to forge with their fans, which I haven’t seen to the same degree at other major festivals today. How did you achieve that – what did you do differently?
VP: “I think Neil Pengelly and all the bookers we had at Mean Fiddler all had an integrity about them. Reading has an integrity in it. The Phoenix was very hands on and we were very personal and we did persona things for people and it’s about the way you treat people. You don’t treat them like sheep, but you treat them like individuals. We had some great fun at The Pheonix. I think the Pheonix was my best, it wasn’t financially successful; it stopped in the last recession.”

VF: Do you have any ambitions to bring that back?
VP: “I think I might bring the Fleadh back. The Fleadh blossomed during the last recession in Ireland and now we’ve got a mega recession on our hands and people are going everywhere to get a job, I think it’s a good time to bring the Fleadh back. Maybe not on the 30,000 level but maybe something like 15-20,000. I’ve already made enquires into Finsbury Park.”

Catch the second and third parts of this interview soon, as Vince talks about Benicassim and the last decade of festivals...

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