Melvin Benn: Festival headliner fees have gone up 400 per cent in ten years

You Me At Six at Reading Festival 2014 by Trevor Eales
You Me At Six at Reading Festival 2014 by Trevor Eales

Festival Republic's Melvin Benn joined Kendal Calling's Andy Smith and The Great Escape's Kat Morris for a special festival discussion on BBC Radio 6 Music's Steve Lamacq show earlier this week.

The panel recapped on the latest successes, failures and challenges facing the festival market. Reflecting on 2014, Festival Republic’s managing director Melvin Benn, who is responsible for Reading and Leeds Festivals, Latitude and Electric Picnic, said the summer had been a good one and gave him reason for optimism.

Benn said: “There have been two or three relatively high profile casualties of festivals closing, or not being able to pay the bills, that sort of stuff. Guilfest just found itself in that position recently, Jabberwocky closed before it happened, you know Camden Crawl, there have been a few relatively high profile casualties, but from my experience and, I think probably the experience of Andy [Smith] and Kat [Morris] as well, we’ve all had particularly good years really. Reading and Leeds did better than last year, and last year sold out. We sold out at Reading, we sold more tickets at Leeds this year and Latitude sold more tickets than last year; all three were great festivals, and there was a feeling of optimism around it, despite the casualties that happened.

Andy Smith, Director of Cumbria’s Kendal Calling, was asked ahead of his festival’s tenth anniversary, if organising it had got harder or easier as they got larger? “It was a lot harder when we were starting out because we didn’t have the budget to get the talent that we wanted, we didn’t have the budget to get the decor or the nice site. So the larger we’ve got the more resources we’ve had.

Referencing the rise of ‘posh facilities’ and glamping options at festivals, Lamacq asked Melvin Benn if this trend was true to every festival-goer? “Only the old buggers.Melvin said. “The younger ones still just want the raw experience, in my opinion. The older the audience, generally, the more they want that nice fancy camping and the glamping, or all that sort of stuff. If you’re 16 or 17 you pretty much want the same experience that I did when I was 16 or 17, two or three years ago(!). I think there isn’t a specific, singular festival audience anymore. I think that’s the big change in festivals really.

Talking about the fees that promoters pay for talent, Melvin remarked on the power wielded by artist’s agents. “They’re all powerful, but in fairness I think they’ve always been all powerful.” He said, before talking about the increased costs involved in booking artists and headline acts. “You’ll be talking Italian lira type figures really, quite dramatically I’m afraid. But the reality is they’re worth it, that’s the truth of it. People want to see them and there’s no obligation to pay what an act or an agent is asking you for. You can walk away and say you don’t want to do it. My experience is, in the main, rightly or wrongly, the agents call it reasonably correctly, most of the time.

“Nicola my accountant, who has already been listening in the office here, has just emailed me to let me know the rise in headliner fee from 2004 to 2014 is 400 per cent.

Andy smith then had his own say on the matter: “I totally agree with everything that Melvin just said there. Lots of the acts that get put forward to us are certainly the wrong price range for what they should be but we just walk away and find someone else who is in the right ball game.

Andy, talking about the Association of Independent Festivals‘ annual meeting and their member’s thoughts on 2014, said: “Everyone was reporting increased audiences, their best year yet.

Kat Morris on The Great Escape festival spoke about the urban festival experience and the challenge of mounting them every year: “You have to work within the constraints of the city, so to speak. Lots of the venues that we use might close or change hands between each year and then there’s council restrictions, local residents, etectra, so working within the constraints of the city is a challenge and obviously the landscape of a city changes which we can’t control.

Steve Lamacq’s festival special also listed the five acts to play the most festivals this summer, who, according to the Steve Lamacq team statisticians, were:

5) Dreadzone (14)
4) The Wytches (15)
3) Foxes (17)
2) Wilkinson (18)
1) Clean Bandit (24)

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