How to put on a festival: Essential dos and don'ts
Organising your own music festival
This article is from 2011.
There are days now when The List can barely pop out for a pint of milk without tripping over a pop-up shop, flashmob silent disco or warehouse rave; and that’s not just because we live in a particularly hip part of town, it’s because this is the age of DIY. Things have come full circle since some bloke in Somerset invited a few bands to come hang on his farm, the pop festival has eaten itself and it’s now all about the boutique. A curious spirit of go-getting vim is sweeping the nation, smaller festivals are popping up everywhere and in the name of public service The List has gathered some crucial dos and don’ts from those who’ve been there: Dave Boyle has run numerous parties and three full-blown festivals at Kelburn Castle on the Ayrshire coast, while Walter Micklethwait is the owner of Inshriach House estate near Aviemore and one of a team of four festival directors at The Insider.
Don’t expect to make money
This is Micklethwait’s first piece of advice. Boyle agrees immediately: ‘if someone had told me the situation I’d be in after the first Kelburn festival or if I’d had too much advice, I wouldn’t have done it!’ Thankfully both have never let a little thing like potentially massive debt prevent their great parties. Also in both cases, a seed of an idea was planted by a previous event - the Insider came about when the nearby Outsider festival was cancelled in 2009 with weeks to spare and Micklethwait decided to fill the space left with something ‘smaller and cuter’. Kelburn Garden Party was inspired by the ramshackle unofficial parties that took place during the Graffiti Project, which turned one face of Boyle’s ancestral home into a colourful riot of Brazilian street art. Before they knew it the two were both tackling the planning of ‘proper’ festivals, with all the attendant licensing woes, band booking and portaloo count deliberations.
Do own a castle
‘This is a fallacy I never understand –’ says Micklethwait, ‘why festivals build huge and elaborate sets one year, and then take them down, destroy them and change the theme for next year. I guess we’re quite lucky in that we can just leave stuff here, so every year we just add to the infrastructure.’ (FYI that infrastructure includes a ‘mad, Gothic-looking wooden structure’ lovingly known as ‘Medieval Knievel’.) A good site can also provide inspiration, as Kelburn’s wooded glades, waterfalls and psychedelic castle do for the Garden Party.
Don’t count on the weather
‘From seeming faintly amusing at about 5am, by 7am the comedy value of a month’s worth of rain in a single night had decidedly worn off,’ remembers Boyle about 2010’s notorious Saturday night monsoon at Kelburn. ‘Tents were getting blown off the campers while they slept and rolling across the field like tumbleweed. Along with the first aid tent getting blown away, our second stage being unusable, a river running through the dance tent and a waterfall flooding over the gutters on to the main stage, panic stations were upon us.’ The List can vouch for this, having had to replace sodden trousers with a new pair bought from Largs Red Cross on the Sunday.
Do learn the restorative value of bacon
‘An entire rethink was called for,’ continues Boyle. ‘We set up a temporary stage indoors near the campsite, rushed in bacon rolls and bloody marys and grabbed some friends and asked them to perform, with no idea if they could even play an instrument. Luckily this first act were an amazing comedy duo who could, indeed, also play instruments.’
Don’t be afraid to ask
In pulling together a line-up for a first time festival, the Insider team worked local contacts in the folk world, and the rest was ‘pure brass balls. Don’t be afraid to ask, and to make a cheeky bid. There are things we can get away with in terms of fees because of the hospitality,’ says Micklethwait. ‘We have all these bands come up and play in the pub [Aviemore’s Old Bridge Inn] any given weekend, and then we take them and get them drunk - there’s a key tip!’
Do exploit your friends (and hippies)
Both organisers suggest enlisting an admin wizard to keep an iron grip on the balance sheet and, as Boyle puts it, ‘keep those creative types under control’. Though, ‘you do on the whole need a lot of hippies to run a festival,’ Micklethwait adds. ‘Either get yourself a really good team for a day or get a lot of hippies for a week and feed them.’ If you are, like him, a self-confessed ‘aesthetic Nazi’, you may still find yourself with a lot to do.
Don’t get out of your dept
‘Unless you’ve got good relationships with everybody, and they’re confident you’re going to be able to do it – or they know where you live – you’ve got to bridge that’ cautions Micklethwait on the subject of cashflow, pointing out that far from being instant sell-outs, many small festivals have to wait until the week of the event before receiving the bulk of their ticket revenue. A cautionary tale: Alex Trenchard - Micklethwait’s friend, and the man behind Hertfordshire’s Standon Calling - found that his birthday barbecue in 2001 grew so fast into a fully-fledged festival that he is now on the wrong side of the law for having used his company credit card to fill gaps in the finances.
Do have fun doing it
‘It’s the biggest ups and downs,’ says Boyle ‘you’re going through absolute hell because the stages haven’t started and everyone’s complaining or whatever, and then everything comes together and you’re standing at the back of the stage and everyone’s having an amazing time, the lights are looking amazing and the sound’s great and it’s working. You’re having a good time but you’re also getting off on everyone else having a good time and you kind of know at that point you’re probably having a better time than anyone. But you do spend a lot of the time wishing you had less responsibility – seeing people enjoying themselves and thinking “I wish I knew what my own festival felt like as a punter.”’ Which is probably another reason why Micklethwait is so keen to keep the Insider at a small size: ‘The Insider is basically four neighbours. Our entire festival has been organised in the pub so it doesn’t really feel like work. You can’t quantify the amount of work you’re going to end up putting into it, so you might as well be having fun while you’re doing it.’
Insider Festival, Inshriach House, Inverness-shire, Fri 17–Mon 20 Jun
Kelburn Garden Party, Kelburn Castle, Sat 2 & Sun 3 Jul
Inspired to hold an event in your own back garden? Niki Boyle consults the professionals for a five-point how to guide
1. Get the necessary permissions
‘You’ll need licences if you’re selling anything – food, alcohol, merch, tickets etc,’ says David Waddell, senior events officer at Edinburgh City Council. ‘And for live music, you’ll need to pay PRS.’ According to the Council’s Noise Team, any paid event in an urban area is unlikely to get the official go-ahead; however, if it was to be a free event, you’d be fine as long as you keep the volume under 41 decibels between 7am and 7pm, and 37dB between 7pm and 11pm, as recommended by Environmental Protection UK.
2. Hire the gear
‘For an audience of about 100 people, hiring the equipment for an afternoon’s worth of music will probably set you back about £300,’ says Cammy Forbes of Hyper PA, Glasgow. ‘That includes your PA, sound desk, monitors, mics, and an engineer to oversee it all.’
3. Booking bands
To get a band playing for cheap or free, it might be worth aligning yourself with a charity – preferably one with existing band connections. ‘Lau would be keen to be involved in a Folk Against Facism event because it's an organisation we are involved with already,’ says Martin Green, accordion-player and pianist with the band. ‘As for people putting on events and what makes them appealing to bands, creative groups of people are exciting for musos to work with.’
Capital caterers Appetite Direct recommend a barbecue for festival food, which they price at £10–£20 per person; there’s an option of ice cream provision as well. As for booze, Edinburgh-based company Kegless offers a range of barrelled beers, ciders and ales, with a 35-pint keg of Birra Moretti starting at £109 (with discounts available for bulk buying).
5. Non-musical fun
Of course, it’s not just about the music – you may want to provide some extra entertainment. ‘Bouncy castles, if you get the right size, can be used by both adults and children – our prices start at around £89,’ says Tom Beattie of Glasgow’s Crown Castle inflatables. ‘In addition, you can hire sumo suits, bungee runs, inflatable pole jousting and sticky walls.’