Steve Heap, one of the best liked and most respected figures in the live events industry, was declared an Access All Areas Industry Legend at the Event Production Awards last month. From touring in a band, performing on TV and promoting folk club nights to overseeing one of the longest running independent festivals in the UK, Heap’s career certainly has been eventful.

While many in the live events industry are aware that Steve Heap has been the general secretary of the Association of Festival Organisers (AFO) since its launch in 1987, and was the director of Towersey Festival for 45 years up until 2019 when he retired, few will be aware of some of the more colourful moments on his impressive career path.

From a young age, Heap was eager to get to where the action was. He was born in Rawtenstall, a small town in the Rossendale valley some 15 miles north of Manchester.

Having learned to read music and play the cornet in a brass band, Heap left school at the first opportunity, aged 14, and before long was playing drums at a local club venue.

“My dad played drums in a ballroom dance band at the Astoria Ballroom, he couldn’t do it one night so I got the opportunity to stand in for him – I was basically busking, but it was great fun,” he says.

It was the mid 1960s, and with dedicated folk clubs springing up throughout the country, Heap wasted no time immersing himself in the nascent folk revival.

He began by sweeping the floors at venues but by 1966, aged just 16, Heap had moved on to booking acts into venues including the Bury Folk Club and Valley Folk Club, and sometimes performing in them.

“I joined an acapella group called Folk Valley, singing mostly English folk music,” he says. “We made a record, toured some clubs in the UK and across Europe and made another album when we came home. In the end, though, I found myself knowing more about organising events then playing at them and decided that was probably a better career path.”

Heap started working as a concert programmer in Manchester and set up an agency, booking folk acts such as Donovan, The Dubliners, Ralph McTell, The Watersons and Martin Carthy into clubs and festivals.

“I’d been to loads of festivals and that’s where I thought the action was. Clubs were starting to decline a bit and festivals were taking over,” he says.

Tower of strength

Heap had missed the first Towersey Festival, which took place in the Oxfordshire village of the same name in 1965, but was booked in a band to play there the following year. By 1968 he was MC, PA man and chair shifter. His involvement grew and finally, in 1975, Heap took over the running of the whole thing.He says: “It was a village fete with music. I helped run it, working on the infrastructure mostly. There were only a few hundred people attending in the early days but within two or three years Towersey had moved from selling about 600 tickets to 3,000. By the time I decided to retire and hand it over to my son, we had around 8,000 people attending. The festival is now in its 58th year, and over the years it has contributed half a million pounds to charities.”

Heap’s interests were far from limited to Towersey. In the 1990s, Heap was running six festivals around the country including the Sidmouth International Festival.

“When we took it over it was running over seven or eight days and attracting about 5,000 people. We rebuilt it and when we retired from that in 2004 it had an attendance of 65,000,” he says.

Naturally, Heap and his team have had to face some major challenges over the years at festivals, not least the British weather, but one encounter that comes to mind almost immediately was his experience with South American band Incantation.

“They were booked to play our open-air arena at Sidmouth, situated in the gardens of the council offices that are miles away from anything. The band’s rider said two bottles of red wine, so we gave them the bottles. Just before the band were due to go on stage their road manager asked for the two bottles of red wine, to which I had to say, ‘You’ve already had them’. He said, ‘Well I’m sorry, if we don’t have two bottles the band will not play’.

“I’ve got 6,000 people in the audience and we’re miles away from an off licence, so I just put my arm around him in a friendly way and walked him up the ramp towards the main stage. He said, ‘Just a minute, what are we doing?’ so I said, ‘You and I are going up to the microphone in front of 6,000 people to tell them why your band are not going to play’. Of course, he instantly changed his mind, and the band played a blinder.

AFO launch

After attending and running festivals across the country for years, in 1987 Heap made the pioneering move of launching the Association of Festival Organisers (AFO).  He says, “It occurred to me that my communication with other festival organisers was limited to the occasional phone call and meeting them at other festivals. I thought we should get together in a pub, have a drink, exchange ideas and stories and maybe find ways to support each other. There were only six of us in the first meeting, and nobody else wanted to do any admin so I got the job. I’ve been general secretary ever since.

“The ethos of AFO has nothing to do with how big your event is or how much money you make or how many people you book or even who you book; it’s to do with supporting each other and sharing knowledge to benefit the wider industry.

“Professionalism is a state of mind, not a state of income.”

“I learn things from going to Festival Republic events but I also learn things from going to Priddy Folk Festival in Dorset, which has 600 people at it.”

As well as his role at AFO, Heap is chairman of the Events Industry Forum (EIF) and a contributor to The Purple Guide – which it produces in consultation with The Health and Safety Executive to help event organisers manage health and safety issues.

Heap says the festival industry has changed a lot since he started out, largely for the better: “The industry has grown significantly and become more professional – a lot of people used to work in little groups on little events.

“There are still people in the industry who think that major rock and pop events are the only things that matter, sadly, and I quite often have to point out that there are nearly 1,000 music festivals around the country and most of them are run by volunteers.

“The professionalism part of it is nothing to do with how much money you’re making, it’s to do with how you behave. We have a slogan at AFO– professionalism is a state of mind, not a state of income.”

This article was published in the latest edition of Access All Areas magazine  – subscribe for free here