Access puts the world to rights with the independent festival go-to-guy, Paul Reed
When Access met up with Paul Reed, industry legend and general manager at the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), he was in a reflective mood. After 15 years of delighting audiences, Secret Garden Party had not long announced that 2017 would be its final outing. The Cornbury Music Festival had also revealed it’s bowing out this July.
“Both shows have been around since the early days of the AIF so it’s a great shame,” mourns Reed. “Although it will be interesting to see what form of phoenix rises from the ashes, especially from the talented people behind Secret Garden Party.”
T in the Park’s decision to take a year out has already opened the door for TRNSMT, a new Scottish festival to take place on Glasgow Green over the same July weekend. While after 15 years of an independent Isle of Wight Festival, the 2017 edition headlined by Rod Stewart, will be run under its new majority share owner, Live Nation.
All in all, the independent festival scene is undergoing huge change and disruption but it’s the demise of Secret Garden Party, which appears to have hit Reed the hardest.
“I was more surprised that the news didn’t leak and that everyone kept a lid on it, as I’m quite well connected to the event. I worked on its early years and I’ve got a personal connection to it because I met my wife there,” he says. “If you look back, in terms of when it started and as a boutique festival, I think it has really led the way. It has always stuck to its guns on things like sponsorship and, for me, it is one of those festivals that define the word independent, so it is a real shame.”
In March, when John Giddings’ Isle of Wight Festival became the latest addition to Live Nation’s growing global festival family, it was already its sixth acquisition of 2017.
At the time, Giddings said: “The partnership with Live Nation will give us the ability to access the company’s scale and talent pool, bringing more acts and a better experience to the UK.”
In reaction, Reed says: “Again, I had no insider knowledge on that deal but it was perhaps less surprising. I suppose it says a lot about changing audience expectations.”
“Take Garden Party for example — it now attracts a lot of experienced festivalgoers. Even Boomtown is up to 60,000 capacity, which is incredible growth.
“There are other huge shows out there, like Victorious, and they are still growing. It’s a lot more of a traditional festival in the way that it’s structured, but it has got a great site. There’ll continue to be new and innovative events, as long as people have ideas and can find good sites.
“You know, it does feel like a bit of a pivotable year for the independents I guess,” continues Reed. “On the one hand you have Live Nation in an increasingly monopolistic position. It’s now in control of 90 festivals worldwide and manages more than 500 artists. There’s nothing wrong with the majority of the market share itself. It’s just if there ever comes a point whereby it uses its dominance to the detriment of the industry as a whole.”
Reed’s concern focuses predominantly on how Live Nation will manage the touring schedules of its artists and what this could mean for the smaller festivals, which may struggle to attract the bigger names in the future.
“Exclusivity deals were always going to happen at that level of headline artists and you can understand it to a degree. I can understand radius deals as well. It makes sense if you’ve got a festival within a 60 mile radius, it is just sensible booking processes,” says Reed, referencing the radius clause used by tour promoters to keep artists gigging for a certain period of time prior to, or following a festival appearance.
Within the AIF, there is an alliance that allows members to discuss topics such as this.
“They have conversations around booking issues and efficiencies and how to work together more closely, but we just facilitate that. If the conversations become too commercially sensitive, they most likely continue outside of the alliance behind closed doors.”
When discussing how the AIF’s members feel about the announcement of the deal between the Isle of Wight and Live Nation, Reed explains to Access the exact stats the association uses, in order to classify a festival as independent.
“We’ve got one definition of independent which is about the ethos of an event. But we’ve also got another definition based on a festival’s market share. If you can’t claim five per cent or more market share or you’re not 50 per cent or more owned by bigger entity, then you can be classed as an independent. Isle of Wight therefore is no longer an independent.”
Media and entertainment group Global expanded its festival portfolio by significantly increasing its stake in Broadwick Live in October last year. As a result, the company has taken control of SouthWestFour, Field Day, Boardmasters and Rewind Festival, which were previously owned by Impressario, alongside Y Not and Truck, previously owned by Count of Ten.
“Obviously, some of those acquisitions included our members, but I feel personally that’s more of an opportunity than a threat,” says Reed.
“We still work together with these festivals and class them as independent according to our definition. But Broadwick Live is now the second largest festival operator in the UK.
“I don’t believe it’s concluded its acquisition strategy either. Perhaps it will start to buy abroad. Again that’s me speculating but people are asking me, ‘are you not concerned by this aggressive growth?’
“I actually believe that in a world where a multinational organisation such as Live Nation controls the majority market share, it’s good that there’s someone else fighting on behalf of the independents.
“One of Broadwick’s key working practices is that it has kept all of the promoters – most of whom have worked on their festivals since the beginning and helped to build them up. So it’s a partnership approach with a high level of individual expertise and knowledge.
“There is always concern from some members within the AIF but inevitably those festivals will be sitting down together and talking about talent. These are opportunities to work together.” The AIF and an organisation such as Live Nation may appear to be on either end of a very broad spectrum, but at least they are both on that same spectrum. And while this is still the case, Reed is keen that both should fight for common causes such the battle against secondary ticketing.
In November, Live Nation Italy was caught up in a secondary ticketing scandal after it emerged that the concert promoter had been giving tickets directly to the resale website Viagogo.
At the time, The FanFair Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of artists for stronger regulation of the market, urged politicians in the UK to take note of the stance that Italian politicians had taken, which included tabling an amendment to Italy’s budget law, which would curb the activities of these secondary ticketing websites.
“Way back when we were grappling with this issue, we published a fair ticketing charter. We set up a fan-to-fan exchange called the Ticket Trust, which became a bit out-dated so now we work with Twickets,” says Reed.
“We support the work of the FanFair Alliance. I think it has been one of the most brilliant campaigns in the industry during the last few years. It has achieved phenomenal success and even UK politicians now understand the issues.”
On the future for independent festivals, Reed remains optimistic: “Something like Bluedot. I thought it was great to see it on the cover of Access (March 2017). I was there on-site, and it was really innovative. The site worked, the theme with all the science activities really worked and I thought it had the right musical line-up to accompany it.
“As long as people keep coming up with these type of unique ideas, I believe there are no shortage of amazing places in the UK to hold them so the scene will continue to thrive.”
Driven by passion
However, as anyone who has ever considered launching a festival from scratch will testify, the reasons not to do it are often overwhelming.
“If you just looked at the business plan on paper, you probably wouldn’t do it,” says Reed. “But staging a festival isn’t all about commercial success. Organisers are driven by a passion for the atmosphere and the buzz that it gives them to succeed. They’ve been bitten by the promoter bug. There’s no stopping them after that. I know people who have gambled their mortgages in order to stage their event, it’s quite crazy really.
“Maybe John Giddings is feeling a little less stressed these days”
– Paul Reed
“Samphire Festival in Exmoor National Park was successfully crowdfunded so that gave
it a financial buffer zone, but that’s quite an exceptional case. You’ve just got to be prepared to take the risk,” adds Reed.
John Giddings has previously said that he lost half a million pounds during the Isle of Wight’s first year. In its third year however, it booked David Bowie to perform and the rest is history. “It proves that although it is a lot of money to gamble, sometimes it pays off better than you’d ever expect, whether that be from the headliners or even the innovative qualities of the festivals,” says Reed.
“There’s an incredible amount of infrastructure on board with some festivals these days. Something like the Green field Festival in Switzerland involves building a small town in a field on the outskirts of Interlaken. That’s an insane thing to do. Thankfully some people are courageous enough to go through with things.
“John Giddings said recently that we must all just enjoy a bit of stress to know that we’re alive. Maybe he’s feeling a little less stressed these days. At the end of the day though, we’re all gamblers. You are always going to be at the mercy of whatever is going on in the outside world causing economic uncertainty.”
Reed continues, discussing the Shambala Festival in Northamptonshire and, in particular, its unique meat-free and fish free catering policy.
“It was a real eye-opener, and it’s interesting that it’s doing it to spark debate. Festivals can be a great platform for that,” he says.
“It gets the audience thinking about the supply chain. It’s important that the sustainability debate moves on from energy because it’s more than that.
“It’s perhaps more likely these days that people will go to an independent coffee shop rather than a Starbucks, so if you want to draw that parallel with festivals, I think it exists.”
So who is the Starbucks of the festival world then?
“I’m going to have Live Nation on the phone aren’t I? As long as we’re both looking after the customer and supporting emerging artists while being an incubator for new talent, then both the independents and the Starbucks of the festival world can pave the way for acts to play their first festival and progress to becoming headliners.”
To round off Reed’s time talking with Access, he tells of the time he heard somebody from Crate Brewery draw parallels between the craft brewing industry and the independent festivals scene.
“He said that the major breweries always had the capacity to innovate, they just never did because the business model was never considered to be broken enough. Entrepreneurs then came in and began brewing in their basements, distrupting the industry. It was only then did the majors start looking and buying them up because they wanted some of that innovation and creative thinking.
“Perhaps the major festivals have always had the capacity to experiment but it has taken the independents to come along and lead the way on that,” suggests Reed. “I probably sound old- fashioned here but I believe that people are so addicted to their digital devices that there will always be a strong appeal to step away and just hang-out with friends, dancing in a muddy field. I don’t see that ever declining.”