Forestry England manages 1,500 of the nation’s woods and forests. Its land has been used to stage the Forest Live gig series for the past 22 years, during which 2 million people have attended the shows.

Looking to build on that success, Forestry England has forged a new seven-year partnership with Live Nation-owned Cuffe & Taylor that has seen its long-running concert series rebranded, with more shows planned in more locations, and a more diverse line-up of artists booked.

Next year will see Sherwood Pines, the largest public woodland in the East Midlands, host Forest Live shows for the first time since 2019, while fellow former Forest Live venue Dalby Forest will also be used for the first time since the pandemic struck. 

Cuffe & Taylor founder Peter Taylor and Forestry England national events programme manager Rhodri Jones tell Access All Areas about their plans to broaden the offering at the long-running shows and revitalise the offering. They explain what it means for attendees and suppliers, and reveal plans to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the events.

What does this new partnership between Cuffe & Taylor and Forestry England mean for the event series?

Rhodri Jones: We’re two very different organisations; Forestry England is an organisation that has many different arms, the event series being quite a small part of a very big picture. We made the decision last year to take on a partner for the festival programme for many reasons, but primarily to expand the reach of the concert series, try and get bigger and better artists, and attract a wider range of audiences.

We went out to tender last year and Cuffe & Taylor won, it’s an organisation that we were really keen to work with. The last few months has been us marrying up our ambition and how we both see the future together. It’s a 50/50 partnership. It has been a really interesting few months of us working out what’s possible in terms of expansion just because our sites are so varied and complex and we have to deal with a year-round offer in the forests. The result is more shows, expanding to more sites, and having a greater and bolder ambition for the future.

How many shows will now be staged each year and at how many sites?

We will have 26 shows across six sites in 2024. Last year was our post-pandemic reintroduction of Forest Live to the marketplace, and we did 14 shows.

So why Cuffe & Taylor?

The Forest Live sites are incredible but they’re also really challenging, not only in terms of the fact that you are trying to put on a world-class concert presentation in the depths of forests but also because of where they are geographically in the country. They’re not in places you would normally expect A-lists performers to be playing. Cuffe & Taylor has a great track record of staging shows in places like Halifax and Scarborough; places that previously weren’t necessarily associated with artists of the highest calibre. That was something that really impressed us, and we want to see the same things in places such as Cannock and Thetford. Our shared aim is to generate money for the future of our nation’s forests, and this partnership feels like a symbiotic relationship where we’re both aiming in the same direction for the same goals.

“Our aim in the next five years is to make the show series carbon neutral, and that’s not carbon offsetting, our big focus is how we reduce our carbon output.”

When it comes to staging shows in a beautiful natural environment is there an opportunity to inspire attendees to be more environmentally considerate, and what sustainability considerations are being taken in the staging of these shows?

 That was another huge part of what attracted us to working with Cuffe & Taylor. It was really difficult for us, as Forestry England, presenting an event once a year, to make really significant gains in terms of the sustainability and the impact of the events. Although the events are very much held to generate income for the future of the forests, we know that we also have to be first-class in terms of the sustainability of the concepts and how they’re presented. We are doing everything we can to make the carbon footprint as small as possible. It’s a work in progress for next year, and very much something that we’re tapping into the expertise of Cuffe & Taylor to achieve.

Peter Taylor: Green Nation is our internal initiative and Forestry England has ambitious targets too so it’s taken a bit marrying the two together. The biggest challenge has been power, because the sites are so remote. We are investing in infrastructure to enable mains power at all the sites. Because we have the contract for seven years, it gives us the time to look at how we can invest capital into the sites. We’re also looking at transport. We’re keen to incentivise people to travel by public transport, and to car share. We’re in the process of making bus transfer tickets available when the events go on sale to make transport easy for people. We’re looking at how we can subsidise transport to and from the sites. It’s not just about sustainability, some of these sites can be challenging access wise, so the less cars we have coming into the venues, logistically, the better.

Our aim in the next five years is to make the show series carbon neutral, and that’s not carbon offsetting, our big focus is how we reduce our carbon output.

So what new sites will be involved in the series next year and what other changes are planned longterm?

Two of the sites were rested during Covid, but those sites will be back next year, so that’s Dalby and Sherwood. They are smaller sites and commercially it’s always been a challenge to make them work. One site, Bedgebury, isn’t coming back this year but our ambition is to bring it back in 2025, and that will make it seven sites. There are 26 shows planned at the moment, it’s very much a trial year. We’ve got an ambition to do an additional weekend of shows at some of the sites where we’re operating over one weekend.

It’s not about us coming in to make it better because it has not been good. Our expertise is in booking artists and marketing concerts. Forestry England is very good at delivering the concerts because they’ve been doing it on their sites for a long time. Around 90% of what they do we’ll not change. We’re just going to move forward in a different way. We’ve rebranded the series and we’re looking at the programming; we’re going to make that a little bit more eclectic and less safe. We’re going to give the core audience what they want, but we also want to attract a new audience. That’s the key thing that we’ve all agreed on. We’re also not necessarily going to have the same artists at every venue.

So you’re looking to branch out and attract some different demographics to the shows. What is the core audience typically and what genres are you looking at to broaden the offering with?

From the analysis that we’ve done, it’s been very much BBC Radio 2 playlist, there is nothing wrong with that, but if there’s a radio station comparison to be made we are looking to get a little bit more XFM, Radio One and 6 Music. It’s that kind of mix that we’re trying to get into the balance. Forestry England has a core demographic and members who are regular visitors, but the music programme is a way of introducing new people into the forest, often for the first time.

“The result is more shows, expanding to more sites, and having a greater and bolder ambition for the future.”

Will there be a focus on utilising the environment in interesting ways and providing a tiered experience that includes VIP facilities?

Yes, we were introducing VIP hospitality areas into all of the show sites for the first time next year. It’s going to be like a woodland VIP area using the natural spaces that we have. Often the concert arena is lined by trees, and everything’s located inside that area but not in the trees. So, we’re pushing into the trees with things like nice tepees, festoon lighting, seating areas, champagne bars and enhanced catering opportunities. We recognise there’s an audience that wants to come to the forest that want that opportunity. A lot of our premium ticketing across all our sites sell very quickly.

So this is the beginning of a new chapter in the event series’ history, does it mean you’re working with new suppliers?

We are giving everybody the opportunity that’s already been involved in the shows to come on board in this new chapter but inevitably there’s going to be some changes. As an industry we’re under huge financial pressure in terms of our costs, so we’ve got to look at how we can be clever with our costs. There are some changes that we definitely want to make and certainly, when we visited the forest, it was really clear how the front-of-house tower looked quite strange in the amphitheatre as it was very much splitting the audience in two. We’re looking across all of our sites to keep the centre arena clear. We definitely feel there’s a need to enhance the production values on stage; the stage, sound, lighting and video. That’s not to say that the suppliers were not right, it was perhaps a specification issue based on budgetary constraints. Hopefully, by operating more sites it gives us a good cost of sale by being able to do multiple site deals with the same suppliers.