Culture

True Stories of People Who Tried and Failed to Run Music Festivals

"We spent pretty much our whole budget on a Guardian Festival Guide advert, and it only gave us two sales."
25 March 2020, 9:00am
How to Run a Music Festival in the UK
Photo: Chris Bethell. 

The past few years in British festivals has been something of a bloodbath. In 2018, Camp Bestival in Dorset was cancelled due to bad weather, while Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire announced that 2017 would be its last event. Meanwhile Y Not festival, Boardmaster and Houghton all fought through apocalyptic weather, having to close midway or being called off altogether. Other festivals suffered financial and logistical difficulties, such as Citadel Festival which ran for five years in Victoria Park, east London until it was turfed out in 2019 to make way for All Points East. Bloc Festival, which ran from 2007 to 2016, is famously remembered for being cancelled at the last minute in 2012 due to overcrowding.

These are far from the only issues that threaten a would-be festival promoter. Headliners may come down sick, and fans could be unsatisfied with the replacement. Perhaps not enough tickets are sold. And that's not to mention the current coronavirus crisis, which has already forced many major music events to be cancelled this year.

It's never been easy to run a music festival but nowadays, some say it's almost impossible. Even without the coronavirus crisis, our summers are likely to get rainier than ever, which puts more outdoor events in jeopardy.

I spoke to five former festival heads about the highs and lows of running a festival in the UK.

“You'd be insane to start a festival in the UK now”

My advice is "don't do it." You'd be insane to start a festival in the UK now. It’s an oversaturated market, there’s not enough talent, talent is too expensive, ticket prices too high and you lose a shit load of cash. Leave it to the masochists already doing it.

I’m not a weatherman but it does seem that the pattern has changed a bit too. Augusts do seem very wet, and weather is a huge element to consider when running a festival. After a wet year, it's hard to recover as a huge percentage of your audience are loath to rebook for the following year. It adds to the expense of running the event as you’re forced to put in expensive wet weather contingency plans. When it rains, people don't eat and drink as much, so the bar takes a huge hit as well.

I felt terrible that Citadel Festival closed. You have to put your heart and soul into a festival if you want it to work at any level. It's going to take over your life completely, and that means the lives of all those around you too. Ultimately, it's personal and it hurts when it's over – but I'd do it all again and have and will do it again and again. If it’s in your blood then there's no denying it, and the highs absolutely outweigh the lows.

Citadel became a victim of an overcrowded market place. I would say, ultimately, the hardest part of running an event is to balance the books. You need to put in a long-term recoupment plan and have balls of steel. It's most definitely not a get-rich-quick model. John. Citadel Festival ran for five years in Victoria Park, east London until 2019.

“I felt awful about ending the festival, and continue to feel a massive sense of regret”

Chase Park Festival was one of the most accessible festivals in the UK, which enabled people with a range of complex disabilities to attend a great event which always had a combination of top headliners and emerging talent. We also ran a stage that gave disabled musicians a platform to perform. We worked with Attitude is Everything and Generator North East [disability-led charities] to provide artist masterclasses to support them in developing as performers. I felt awful about ending the festival and I continue to feel a massive sense of regret. The event had an amazing vibe and it was unlike any other event I’ve ever attended. The range of people of all ages and abilities coming together to enjoy great music made me feel really proud of everyone who helped pull the event together. I had numerous people tell me they had never been able to attend a festival before and Chase Park was the event that gave them the confidence to try more festivals. But the biggest challenge was the funding and making the event stack up financially. It was very difficult to get the event to break even. On top of that, you had all the other challenges in terms of booking the right artists, promoting it properly and competing with the increasing numbers of festivals in the UK. In the end it all got too much, so we had to pull the plug. I’m sure if we could attract the right sponsors and partners, we could access the grant funding and resurrect the festival. Alistair McDonald. Chase Park Festival was an inclusive festival held in the north east of England.

“The weather was absolutely Biblical. Food vendors had food flying through the air”

We started LauFest in 2017 following the death of my best friend Laura, who died of breast cancer. I, along with her husband Jon, wanted to start a festival in her honour to remember her in a positive and uplifting way, and also to raise awareness and money for the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! which Laura supported so strongly during her life.

The first LauFest was essentially her wake. We planned the party and it just turned into a festival. So, we decided to keep it going. The following year was the first paid-for LauFest where people bought tickets, and the weather was absolutely Biblical. I'm not lying when I say I've never seen weather like it in all my days. The circus tent was flying up in the air, food vendors had their grills and food flying through the air, people's tents were crumbling under the power of the wind and rain. It was like the Red Cross, with people bringing their crying children and remnants of their tents to us in the middle of the night asking what we could do to help. Seriously, it was insane.

There were no food vendors left because everyone's stock and stalls were ruined, so they all went home early, and for safety reasons we had to close the festival early.

That should've signalled to us the risks associated with weather, but we loyally (stupidly?) carried on. 2019 was better weather thankfully, but the rain and mizzle set in on the Sunday, which made lots of people go home early. By the end of the weekend, we decided that the weather was a huge risk so it played a significant factor in our decision to end the festival.

LauFest had to end so that we didn't risk running into debt. We raised £10,000 for CoppaFeel in the time we ran the festival and happily left it at that. Claire Ray. LauFest was a charity music festival in Plymouth, founded in memory of breast cancer victim Laura Plane.

“We have grown old, fat and tired”

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves doing festivals for ten years, but in the run-up to what became the final Bloc Weekender, we sort of looked at each other and said in a low, strangled whisper, “This cannot go on”. We had the feeling that we had been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and been sick all over it. Like every other promoter, we were completely fucked for money all of the time. While it is a source of immense personal satisfaction to us to know the part we played in extending the basement swimming pools of many well-known touring DJs, like everyone we have grown old, fat and tired. With that comes a greater interest in keeping a roof over your head than staying awake for three days in a bingo hall in Somerset. These days, we turn derelict and old buildings into music studios and have built a workspace community on Fish Island in Hackney Wick. We decided it was better for the soul to be a young developer rather than an old promoter. Our times running festivals were magical and traumatic, which was of course part of it. We loved almost every second of it, but would never do it again under any circumstances whatsoever. Alex Benson. Bloc Festival was an electronic music festival which ran at Butlin's and Pontin's holiday camps between 2007 and 2016.

“We lost about £100,000. I couldn't enjoy a single moment”

We put our first festival together in about two months in a deer park outside Tunbridge Wells. Dealing with the aristocracy that owned the land was a bit of a nightmare, but we got there in the end. Our second festival was the best but by the third event, it all went wrong. It was the wettest summer on record. After the previous amazing year, we were sure this would be the one that at least broke even or made a profit. We ploughed a load of money in marketing. We even spent pretty much the whole budget on a Guardian Festival Guide advert, which was big at the time, but it only gave us two sales.

We sold OK, but then the rain started and didn't stop. Finally, the landowners said the site was too waterlogged for us to run. We ended up moving the date to September and offering refunds to anyone that couldn't make it. We had about 30 percent of people get their money back, and we sold another 100 or so tickets. It was basically a disaster, and in September it rained anyway.

People had a good time, but it was nothing like the one before it. We lost about £100,000. I couldn't enjoy a single moment. I remember the power company we were working with wouldn't turn the festival power on until we paid them everything in advance. They wouldn't wait until after, which was fair enough in retrospect. It was horrible.

My business partner had remortgaged his flat to help us get the lease on a small live music venue in the city. The losses from the festival meant we had to take money from the venue to cover it, making that space even harder to run and eventually partly leading to its closure. It was a really sad end. There is no money in small festivals – the margins are just too tight. You need at least three years and a lot of luck and support to make a profit. Even large festivals seriously struggle.

People who run festivals don't really have a good time. More often than not, they aren't bumbling around the festival site with a vintage camera, calmly taking pics and casually dropping that they run the show in conversation with punters. They are in the control room with no sleep, having to deal with the next shit storm that comes their way. Declan Cassidy. Performing arts event Playgroup Festival ran between 2010 and 2013 in Sussex and Kent.

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