With Latitude kicking off in a few days we caught up with organiser Melvin Benn to discuss the weather, Reading and Leeds and swine flu...
Virtual Festivals: How's 2009 shaping up for you so far?
Melvin Benn: “It's good, I'm pleased with it so far! I've just been looking at some designs for the Latitude beer cup. They look very bright and sunny, wholly in keeping with what the festival is and it brings a smile. I'm at that point where I'm ready to embrace the summer. I was just up in Suffolk yesterday at the site. It's looking lovely, the grass is in really good shape at the moment, we've had lovely dry weather. We were actually saying yesterday that we could do with a bit of rain and by God did it come down last night!”
VF: Let's hope it stays away during the actual summer though, eh.
MB: “Well the rumour is - I don't know where they keep getting it from because I haven't seen it - but everyone does keep telling me we've got a long, hot, dry summer ahead and that sounds like a nice thing.”
VF: Yes I'm a bit concerned people are going to jinx it by going on about it so much.
MB: “[Laughs] Well I'm not talking about it and jinxing it Steve because I don't know where these stories have come from!”
VF: Once again Reading and Leeds seem to have almost effortlessly acquired a massively powerful line-up that fits their identities like a glove, whereas many other established festivals appear to be scrabbling around, settling for whatever they can book this year. What's the big secret?
MB: “That's kind of you to say. I'm of the view at the end of the day that Reading and Leeds are the market leader in terms of what a good festival should be. My team and I have worked really hard at making them the best festivals in the world.”
VF: What do you think it is that sets them apart?
MB: “I think Neil Pengelly's programming of the bill is obviously hugely, hugely influential in helping set it apart and then there's the atmosphere at the festivals which is created by the fans. The excitement of being at Reading or Leeds, I don't see or feel or touch at any other festival.”
VF: In particular among the major festivals, Reading and Leeds seem to have a unique emotional connection with the audience that you don't find elsewhere...
MB: “That's my feeling Steve and the fans have definitely created that. We've helped, obviously, ultimately it's about the fans.”
VF: I'd say the attention to detail's an important factor too. You mentioned about the Latitude beer cups and I think people can really feel the passion in the small things coming from the very top, which you don't get at other big events.
VF: “Yes, none of my festivals are without my passion. They're not there to try and make money; they're not there to keep me and other people in employment. They're there because they are my passion.”
VF: I expect it came as a massive relief when Glastonbury sold-out this year?
MB: “Yes, although Glastonbury last year was one of the best Glastonbury's ever and so building on that, we did anticipate it and the strategy of putting the tickets on-sale with a deposit system very early on was a masterstroke, and I have to say it was Michael and Emily Eavis' rather than mine. I was very supportive of it but it was very much their idea, and I thought it worked really, really well. What was remarkable about it was that when it sold out, we still hadn't announced who was playing. There was a lot of conjecture but it sold out well before any of that rumour could be given a great deal of credence. So people bought for the festival and I think they did so very much on the basis of what they witnessed last year.”
VF: So it wasn't really much of a surprise in the camp when it sold-out?
MB: “It was a delight but not very much of a surprise. Ultimately we'd been tracking the registrations from the deposit system, things like that, and actually we knew that, unless there was going to be a very significant lack of conversions from those who paid the deposit to actually buying the ticket, that we would be fine. Plus there was a very strong waiting list for anybody that fell out so we were very confident by the middle of February that we'd be fine.”
VF: What's your assessment of the line-up this year?
MB: “Possibly Glastonbury's greatest ever line-up. If two particular acts we'd been talking to had been added to the bill, it would never ever be surpassed, but hopefully those acts will play another year. This year is still the strongest musical line-up we've seen for many, many years. What's great about that is that those people who had the faith to buy tickets before the line-up was announced will be rewarded with a terrific bill.”
VF: You've recently bought into Hove (Norway) and Electric Picnic (Ireland) festivals overseas. Do you see the future of festival expansion being in Europe?
MB: “I don't know. If people think I sit here making strategic moves, it wasn't quite like that as it happens. It's much more about trying to just constantly be aware of what's going on. I think Hove's a festival that's got a great future and it was an opportunity that I decided to have a go with and hopefully long-term that will pay a reward, but it wasn't a strategic move, as such. Electric Picnic has already established itself as one of the main Northern European festivals I think. It has a real feel to it, not too dissimilar to Glastonbury albeit much smaller, and is massively supported in Ireland. It was already a very successful festival and I bought a majority shareholding in it as a result of the existing owner needing to raise some capital, really. Not strategic but delighted by both.”
VF: So you bought into the festivals specifically, rather than the territories they were in?
MB: “Exactly, yes.”
VF: There's been some drama in the press recently, saying the Government may have to enforce cancellations of large scale public gatherings, including festivals, if the swine flu thing gets any worse. Do you think that's at all likely?
MB: “No, I don't think that's likely at all actually, Steve, if I'm honest with you. I met with the Glastonbury emergency planners, the Health Protection Agency, the police, the local health authority and all that sort of stuff, very much to talk about our own planning for any risks that may be there. We were all very confident; including those you might think would be naturally pessimistic, that the festivals wouldn't be affected by swine flu. The pandemic is unquestionably on the wane, really. To put it in perspective, there are between fifteen and twenty thousand deaths from normal flu in the UK every year and we haven't had a single death due to this flu. We're all very confident about it and I'm putting some plans in so people can be tested and all that sort of stuff, should they show any symptoms while they're at the festival but the reality is that the festival is pretty safe unless something really extraordinary happens. It's much more likely that the country will run out of receipts to be presented at the House Of Commons. They you can bet there will be a major swine flu epidemic!”
Latitude 2009 takes place at Henham Park, Suffolk this weekend.