United Kingdom | 30 September 2009
To celebrate Virtual Festivals' tenth birthday, we've tracked down some of the most influential people in the festival world - those that have shaped the current scene - to talk about the last decade...
In this, the first in a series of anniversary interviews, we chat to the likes of Melvin Benn, John Giddings, James Barton and Vince Power to find out the changes in the festival since VF’s inception and what they wish they knew before they started out.
Virtual Festival: How do you think the festival industry has changed in the last ten years?
Jim King (Rock Ness organiser): “There’s a massive difference between now and ten years ago. Ten years ago the main source of income was still record sales and money from their own tours, but now, festival fees for bands are off the scale, which really has changed the dynamic considerably. The other one is that you had very few festivals ten years ago and now it’s a real extension of a lot of people’s businesses with bands even now looking to run their own shows. The sheer number of shows is the main difference and the reasons behind them are clear – it’s a great way to make money.
“On the boring side, the regulations have tightened up considerably, I think for the better. I think local authorities and police and everybody else know what they are doing now, which they didn’t ten years ago. At best you had a police force that managed large sporting events, so they had some understanding of that side of the business but there were very few large live music events, whereas now we work with six or seven constabularies around the country and they’re very experience and trained in that dynamic. So I think if you look at shows now, they’re much better organised.
“The customer service aspect is night and day from what it was. If we went back in time and took ten people from Rock Ness or Bestival this year and walked them around a show there, they’d want to leave in about five minutes. The nostalgia aspect of it is wasted because the customer service aspect that people expect is so much higher than before. The real boutique and independent side of it has driven the creatively and service levels and the major festivals now feel like they have to follow suit. It’s not just about camping out in a dodgy tent watching a few bands on one stage and throwing cheap warm larger on each other. People want really good bars, they want good camping facilities, they want to be able to get there easily and if rains they demand that the facilities are in place to deal with those conditions – it’s completely different.”
James Barton (Creamfields): “There's a whole raft of differences. There's a huge difference with us and how we approach things because obviously we're now more experienced and probably a little bit more professional. I think back then we came at it in an easy way, like ‘let's just throw a big party and see who turns up’. Back then festivals were popular but not as popular as they are now, they’re a part of British culture.
“Obviously the consequence of that is there is a lot more competition out there, that wasn't around ten years ago and the space is a lot harder to obtain. You're trying to convince an artist to play for you or a sponsor to sponsor you or a journalist to write about you they have a whole raft of other festivals to consider, so it has moved on quite a bit. Probably the biggest thing is the competitive marketplace and how competitive it is, for sure.”
John Probyn (Live Nation): “Artist fees have gone sky high! [laughs] and I think the public have become more aware of the surroundings and the facilities, and to be honest they demand more. Ten years ago, you could get away with an awful lot. You can't these days! They want more. You know, because the artist fees have gone up, the ticket price has gone up and when the customer is paying £130 for a ticket, they want £130 worth of value. Safety regulations have improved, the new Licence Act and things like that, it's a lot harder than it used to be for us.”
Melvin Benn (Reading, Leeds, Latitude): “Well it's certainly very different. In 1999 I was just beginning to launch Leeds Festival and make quite a bold step at that point because it wasn't clear whether there was a market for Reading as well as Leeds. Reading at that point was at a capacity of forty thousand people, and I launched Leeds with a capacity of thirty thousand. Leeds didn't sell out in that first year; Reading did sell out which was pleasing that I hadn't diluted Reading by launching Leeds. That year, between Reading and Leeds we probably sold sixty five thousand tickets and this year, between the weekend tickets and the day tickets, we will sell in excess of two hundred thousand tickets. So I guess, using this as a marker of the ten years, the market is probably about three times stronger now than it was then. Back then, there was only Glastonbury, Reading and the V's plus a few dance festivals around - we created Creamfields, Homelands, things like that.
“Perhaps the most significant change of the last ten years is that the bands see playing festivals as essential, whereas previously they didn't see the necessity, and preferred to do their own gigs. When we put Madness on at Madstock back in 1992/93, they received more money on those days than they had in their entire career previously. It was a very good weekend for them - and they got most of it in cash!
“Also, ten years ago there were a lot of raves around, both legal and illegal so that's changed quite dramatically. Creamfields and Global Gathering are really the only ones that still exist and Creamfields is looking to depend increasingly on live acts as well as DJ's while Global Gathering is still very much a down-the-line dayglo and glow-stick gig really, with the DJ's. Musically, obviously, things change and that predominance of dance music that was around ten years ago has certainly disappeared.
Vince Power (Hop Farm, Benicassim): “I have more financial security now. We used to do festivals on a whim. We did Jazz On A Summer’s Day, which lost us a fortune, Pheonix which lost money and we didn’t care because we’d do some other festival that would pay for it and stuff. We came up with some mad ideas for the festivals. I did all the Fleadhs in New York and Boston and Chicago and San Francisco and I think ‘god almighty, I couldn’t even dream of that, setting up an office in America an doing it all again.’”
Warren Le Sueur (Jersey Music Live): “Artist’s fee are huge to when we first began six years ago. Also healthy and safety has become fine tuned at our event, compared to when we first started.”
VF: What’s one thing that you know now, that you wish you knew ten years ago?
Jim King: “I’m glad I didn’t know anything when we started because we would’ve never got as far as we are now and if I knew what I do now I would’ve been too scared to even do it. Honestly, we would’ve never entertained it. We went into it with a naive blindness about the real risks of managing a show of that size financially and safely.
“I’ll give you a classic story: the first show I was really responsible for in Liverpool at Creamfields and we’d done the year before with Meanfildder and we’d learned a lot off of those guys. So we’d produced this big show and I remember walking around it about 11.30 in the morning on a Saturday and I remember thinking, ‘this looks brilliant, I’ve done an amazing job, everything looks brilliant, we can run festivals.’ And then 30,000 people walked through the door and for the next 24 hours for I’d never been so scared. It was awful. If I knew what I’d known now, I’d have never even opened the gates. But just like you guys, launching a magazine or site or anything else, the best thing that can happen in terms of creatively in some ways is naivety. You go into it with enthusiasm that isn’t tampered with the realism of knowing the risks. That’s what entrepreneurs are all about: not being aware of what the real risks are but being driven by your ambition to do something.”
Vince Power: “Oh, I don’t know... [thinks hard] Stay away from women! [Everyone laughs]. Festival-wise? Well I’m no good anyway I just do things and I can’t be told but I suppose my advice would be to sit back and relax more. I am very impulsive on things and when I get something into my head I just do it to know that I can. I did the Barclay Square Ball – a very posh ball, just because I wanted to know if I could do it. Now I’m going to do it in LA next year, again just to make sure I can do it. It’s a good question.”
John Giddings (Isle of Wight Festival): “How much it costs [laughs] and how much of a risk it was."
VF: Are you glad you took that risk?
John Giddings: “it's the best thing I've ever done. How many people do you know that get the opportunity to pay the bands they love millions of pounds to play in a field and invite their mates?”
VF: Next to none...
John Giddings: “Exactly, and long may it continue.”
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