With the Association of Independent Festivals’ Festival Congress kicking off today in Bristol, the association’s new CEO John Rostron tells AAA about his vision for the organisation and the priorities for 2023.

John Rostron, co-founder of Cardiff’s Sŵn Festival and the Association of Independent Promoters (AIP) took up the position of CEO at the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) on 18 November.

Rostron, a former member and vice chair of AIF, is looking to bring his experience of working on events and leading an association to bear. Aside from co-founding the multi-venue Sŵn Festival in Cardiff in 2007, his other industry experience includes being a consultant for Arts Council Wales and Sound Diplomacy, and being a development manager at From The Fields. A former CEO of the Welsh Music Foundation, he also co-founded the Welsh Music Prize.

At AIF, Rostron is now working alongside AIF chair and Notting Hill Carnival CEO Matthew Phillip. Taking over from former CEO Paul Reed, whose tireless work during the pandemic helped gain the festival sector recognition and support from central Government, Rostron acknowledges that the festival business is far from being out of the woods when it comes to challenges.

“Festivals are the most important part of the music ecosystem.”

His relationship with the AIF is long established and it is that experience with, and awareness of, the benefits of being part of the association that Rostron says drove him to want to steer it: “I joined AIF a long time ago, when there were around 20 members. I went to my first meeting and thought it was amazing to be able to sit in a room with other festivals operators. I got so much out of talking to them and being part of the network, not just in terms of the running of a festival but emotional support and help understanding the bigger picture – the positive impact festivals have more widely.

“A decade or more on, I am not promoting anymore but I still love going to festivals. I am wiser now and I’ve got to a place in my life where I understand all the work that is needed strategically to advocate and lobby on behalf of the people that make these great events happen.”

Looking back to his mid-twenties when he first set out as a promoter, Rostron says there was no promoting manual, and very little support of any kind. He credits AIF with playing a significant role in changing that and helping the UK’s festival market evolve into the hugely successful industry it is today.

Around 1,000 festivals take place across the UK each year but the vast majority, around 80%, are community-based greenfield events with capacities below 5,000 that often are run on a voluntary basis. The remaining 20%, regarded as the commercial market, is where the money is made.

That 20% consists of around 200 events that range in size from 5,000-capacity shows to giant operations such as the 147,000-capacity Glastonbury. The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) membership grew significantly during the pandemic to 94 festivals, meaning it currently represents around 45% of all commercial UK festivals with capacities of 5,000 and over.

“Before AIF there wasn’t an organisation that supported anyone trying to put on a festival,” says Rostron. “So everybody just stumbled their way along and some festivals worked but many didn’t. AIF has reduced the numbers of people that have problems, reduced the number of closures, helped relieve the stress that’s put on people both financially and emotionally – it helps people make a success of the things they set out to do.”

Added value

At the helm of the AIF, Rostron says he will continue to work to grow its membership, enhance the networking and knowledge sharing opportunities, provide training and resources to relieve the administrative burden of running festivals, while also lobbying hard on behalf of the sector.

“We have the worst VAT levy on culture in Europe.”

He says, “Among the areas of concern for festivals are EDI, environmental sustainability, and audience welfare. For me, one of the biggest things to do is make clear how important festivals are. When it comes to developing talent, finding artists, growing fanbases and driving revenue for artists and the sector; festivals are the most important part of the music ecosystem.”

Lobbying Government and keeping the profile and importance of the festival sector near the top of the agenda is also at the top of Rostron’s ‘to do’ list. He says he will continue to fight the battle to get VAT back down to the 5% rate that AIF helped achieve during the pandemic.

“We have the worst VAT levy on culture in Europe,” says Rostron. “It’s not equitable in any way. You also have to take into account the huge rise in event production costs and the need to be extremely careful about raising ticket process during a cost-of-living crisis. If we reduce VAT, that money gets put back into the sector and enables festivals to meet those rising production costs, enables them to limit the amount of increase they pass on to audiences, and it enables them to book and help develop more artists, and in so doing grow the UK music export to the world. Whichever way you look at it, VAT should be a number one priority for the Government when looking at our sector.”

Having promoted a show by Sam Fender at a tiny venue back in 2017 and seen him go on to be announced as a headliner at Reading (105,000) and Leeds (75,000) festivals this year, Rostron says it is a great example of how acts usually take around five years to reach their full potential, and the important role independent festivals play in that journey.

“Live Nation doesn’t own small or medium size festivals, so it requires its headliners to be developed elsewhere,” says Rostron. “Talent is developed at independent festivals. If Live Nation and other multinationals want acts like Sam Fender to headline their festivals in the future, and the UK Government wants British talent headlining Glastonbury and not international talent because it wants to export them to the world, they need to support the R&D part of that ­– which is the independent festival sector.”