For Jess Shields, taking over the running of Download Festival this year was far more than just another major client win for her company; having grown up in and around the hugely successful Donington Park event, it is a passion project.

Download Festival promoter Andy Copping asked Shields late last year to take over the operation of the event. For the experienced festival producer, it was a true homecoming. In 2016, the year prior to her co-founding award-winning events management company Far and Beyond Events (FAB), Shields was Download’s festival manager while working in-house at Live Nation. But her association with the event goes back way further.

“Download was the first festival I worked on as a production assistant in 2008, straight out of University,” says Shields. “I worked my way up over nine years and went from an assistant to the manager of Download. So, when Andy was looking to make a change I was an obvious choice because I know the festival inside out.

“Download is a massive passion project for me. I grew up next door to Donington Park, and literally lived it my entire life. It was my favourite festival to work on at Live Nation, and I was gutted to leave it behind. From 2017 until last year my involvement was limited to being a local resident, but that has enabled me to see it from both sides and really live the whole experience.”

Shields is now festival director at Download, and working alongside her is FAB’s Alex Hulme as festival manager. Since taking on the contract, FAB has had 20 people working on it, but with the 14-16 June event barely more than a week away, the overall production team has expanded to around 300.

Download developments

With Download’s 20th anniversary edition last year being stretched from three to four days of live performances, and it having attracted a record attendance, one of the negative impacts of those changes was traffic problems on nearby roads including the M1, A50 and A453. Not surprisingly, preventing those issues from reoccurring has been a major focus for Shields and the FAB team.

“Last year was a bit of an anomaly; there was an absolutely enormous capacity. So, we had a few really quick wins; going back to the normal format in terms of capacity and having two ingress days, but we’ve also been doing huge amounts of work overhauling the traffic management alongside the local authority, Highways Agency, and Tracsis, our traffic management company.

We’ve had the opportunity to look at this event with completely fresh eyes.”

Another key focus, says Shields, has been on improving the experience of festivalgoers when they are on site: “We’ve had the opportunity to look at this event with completely fresh eyes. There’s really nobody working full time who has been involved in Download over the last few years. Aside from what people will see on stages, which is an incredible offering of music, we want to really improve the customer experience at the festival as a whole.

“We’ve been focusing, with Live Nation, on the content in District X; which is the campsite village, so that there’s lots of out-of-hours entertainment available when people aren’t in the arena.

“We have taken a holistic look at the whole festival experience, from making sure that people can get in and out of the campsite easily to being able to find information points.”

Aside from Tracsis, among the suppliers that Shields has brought on board for Download festival this year are Showsec and Power Logistics.

With Shields having lived in close proximity of Download for many years, she says respecting the locality and its residents has been another major priority: “I’m really aware of some of the issues that would affect local people, and so we’re trying to be a really good neighbour. We have had multiple meetings with parish councils and residents groups to engage and build trust with the local community.”

A strong performance

Following the expanded anniversary edition last year, Download’s capacity has been reduced to 75,000. In what has proven to be a very difficult year for festivals, with more than 40 cancellations, day tickets for the Sunday of Download have sold out, and Shields says ticket sales have been in line with expectations.

“I am lucky that the festivals I produce are owned by Live Nation and so there is a financial advantage but we have to be so conscious of our costs, the budget is really what drives the entire project. We’ve been talking about production costs rising since coming back from Covid, and it’s still increasing. It’s really tricky, particularly for these smaller independent festivals, and I really feel for them. To some extent it’s a bit about saturation but it’s a real struggle for everyone and I hope that we can get to the point where we stop seeing these festivals drop off.”

She says that aside from infrastructure and staff costs rising, changes in ticket buying patterns are also making life more challenging: “We’re definitely seeing new trends in ticket buying; people are buying tickets much later, much closer to the events, especially the younger generation. So it’s difficult to establish exactly what your ticket sales look like. We are quite lucky with Download as the majority of the audience are slightly older.”

Weathering the storm

At FAB, Shields and her team also manage Live Nation’s Creamfields festival alongside Cream Global. Live Nation recently announced it is investing £2 million in new and enhanced infrastructure for this year’s edition of the 70,000-capacity event in Daresbury. Much of the funding has been spent on inclement weather mitigation measures including a new 30,000 capacity indoor main stage supplied by Acorn Event Structures, and extensive improvements to the field drainage systems.

She says that while inclement weather mitigation has been a major focus at Download, there is robust existing permanent infrastructure in place: “There’s a lot of hard roads, and there’s drainage systems that were installed years ago but are still doing a really good job. Wet weather is always one of the biggest fears of any organiser, especially at the moment because it’s just so unpredictable. Looking around at what’s happening to other festivals at the moment. people are really struggling, the price of infrastructure is increasing constantly, and I know there’s been difficulties with insurance premiums because of the weather.

“At Download we have made sure we have strong contingency measures in place, and that we’ve got supplies on hand; whether that’s contacts with local farmers so we can get a load of straw on site last minute or a supply of trackway that we know we can get hold of quickly. It’s a matter of constantly monitoring the weather. Creamfields last summer was so wet it really caused us huge issues, the team pulled together so well to keep it going. At Creamfields there is a lot of permanent work to the site so that we’ve got a similar longevity to what we’ve got at Donington. It’s always going to be a concern, so we’re certainly planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”