LeeFest started in a South London backyard and has since grown into a 2,000-strong festival. Emma Hudson talks to founder Lee Denny about his festival’s humble beginnings and keeping it out of the hands of corporate sponsors.
Ever since he launched LeeFest in his parents’ backyard in 2006, Lee Denny has been the festival industry’s resident rebel.
Denny was just 16 when he invited 10 bands to come play in his backyard one summer. “My parents were away and [my friend and I] fancied having a massive party. We thought if we did it in the garden we could get away with it,” the now 26-year-old told Access. “We couldn’t get into clubs or bars or music venues and there was nothing happening. We were all in bands or really into live music. It was a great chance to get everyone to perform.”
Eight years on and approaching his ninth festival, Denny exudes that same spontaneous spirit. LeeFest has grown exponentially, with flattering comparisons to the early years of Glastonbury.
Now, having plateaued at 2,000 punters yet still dreaming of growth, Denny has created ‘The Campfire Cabinet’, LeeFest’s version of a board of directors, in the hopes of growing the festival while avoiding the claws of corporate sponsors.
“[We realised] that to keep the festival going, we needed to grow a bit,” Denny said. “The level that it’s at now is unsustainable; it has to grow in order to keep going. The ways we could see forward all needed a bit of investment – we’re a non-profit, we don’t have piles of money waiting in the bank.
“To get the capital we needed to grow and survive, we could raise the money with traditional shareholders – and change from a non-profit to [taking in] a profit; we could sign up with big sponsors and tie ourselves in for five years and in return ask for a lot of money,” Denny explained. “Then, somebody suggested crowdfunding. We decided we’d give it a try – it was very much ‘Let’s try this and see if it works.’” Their Kickstarter campaign ended in May 2013, with 680 backers and over £50,000 deposited into LeeFest’s bank account.
Out of those 680 backers, 160 opted to join The Campfire Cabinet. The goal of the Cabinet will be to make decisions on the future of the festival while keeping its unique, independent identity. The Cabinet, Denny said, chose themselves. Supporters could opt to join the Cabinet as one of the campaign’s gifts.
“I’m passionate about accessible, great live music,” Cabinet member Camilla Covell told Access. “It’s early days – but although [the Cabinet] has no legal rights, it has the potential to steer the direction.”
Covell supported LeeFest’s Kickstarter campaign out of love for a festival she holds dear – her additional participation in the Cabinet because of her contribution was simply a ‘sweetener.’
“When people come [to LeeFest], the number one comment is that the atmosphere is amazing,” Denny said. “It’s to do with the people involved, the people that come to it. Accepting sponsors or making a profit would really destroy what’s so special about it.”
“Sponsors don’t have a passion for live music,” Covell agreed. “They don’t have the interests of the participants at heart; they don’t stay loyal when times are hard.”
Could Denny’s aversion to corporate sponsorship also stem from disappointment watching other festivals welcome corporate money with open arms?
“Festivals are about escaping the real world, escaping day-to-day life,” he said. “It’s hard to do that if it feels like you’re in a supermarket and surrounded by all this stuff trying to be sold to you. The nicest festivals are the ones that have creative objectives rather than just selling people.”
Denny credits his festival’s independent feel as the reason people keep returning. LeeFest has a mysterious draw to it that even its organisers can’t understand. “It’s nowhere like I’ve ever been before,” Denny admitted. “We’ve tried to understand it and we don’t, really. You can’t say exactly why it exists, but a community has grown around it.”
Perhaps Denny’s humble beginning, never forgotten despite success, is what attracts festivalgoers. In a time when huge corporate sponsors, turning festivals into large scale advertising events, dominate the festival scene, there is something admirable about LeeFest’s dedication to remaining independent. The fact that they’ve been so successful so quickly as well is only icing on the cake.
“It’s happened organically,” Denny said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
This was first published in the April issue of AAA. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson