Having not staged the event since 2017, organisers of the “passionately independent” Secret Garden Party (SGP) are working on its return this year. Despite a difficult market backdrop, all tickets for the festival have been snapped up and its booker and production manager James Brennan is understandably delighted to be working on it again.
In the years since Secret Garden Party (SGP) owner Freddie Fellows launched it at Abbots Ripton in 2003, the festival has been steadily expanded from a small-scale show entertaining hundreds to a multi-stage event with a capacity of 30,000.
James Brennan started promoting concerts when still at school before going on to study arts and event production and working at venues including London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Mean Fiddler.
In 2008, he joined SGP as production manager and music booker. Here he explains why 2022 was the right time to revive the festival despite the obvious market challenges.
After a five-year hiatus were you concerned about reviving SGP this year, with it being such a busy one for events and there being obvious concerns and challenges around the supply chain?
I was more excited than concerned. Yes, it is a hugely busy year for events and an incredibly tough market – I am certainly experiencing it across other shows – but SGP has a certain magic that left a real hole in the festival scene. When Freddie called and asked if we could get the band back together, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I knew there would be challenges, wide increases in prices across the board, but I was confident we could make the show work again. Some rejigging on schedules was needed, but we came to some great agreements in the end.
Have you had any supply chain issues so far?
Toilets and cabins were the biggest hurdles to get over but we booked everything up some time ago, after much additional work. Our relationships with our suppliers and contractors are as strong now as they were when we stopped SGP five years ago. We have all continued to work together on other shows, and I’m very proud to say we all jumped at the opportunity to work with each other.
Are there any new developments with your event set-up this year in terms of the size, shape and facilities?
I can’t give away too much, as part of the whole model for us going forwards is to create a fully “secret” garden party. But we have reduced the size of the festival by a third, have put in new venues and partners, plus a greater emphasis on trying to ensure a safer space for all the walks of life that SGP welcomes. At the same time, we are keeping to our principles of having no above-the-line sponsorship or branding and making sure that all our waste is either compostable or recycled. Harm reduction is, as ever, a core principle and, as long as the Home Office is willing, we will be hosting the LOOP’s drug-testing set-up.
Are you handling the production in-house or using an external agency, and if so which one?
We have always run the production in-house at Secret Garden Party, I’m still the production manager for the festival and the key production team remains the same.
SGP tickets have sold out, was that expected?
I did think we would come back with a bang and sell out, but I didn’t expect us to sell out so quickly. Originally, we were going to do up to four tickets for each of those that registered, but as more than 70,000 people signed up for what would have been 280,000 tickets, we had to limit it to two tickets per person. Technically, we were sold out in under a minute but I guess it was under 10 minutes on paper.
What is the event’s capacity this year?
We have a licence for 32,000. In 2017, we had three entertainment arenas and a 30,000 capacity; this year it’s two and the capacity is 20,000. We wanted to bring the show a little more back to its roots. Heading past 20,000 people always loses a bit of the magic and intimacy.
What are the biggest challenges involved in being an independent in a market where majors such as Superstruct, Live Nation and AEG carry so much weight?
Suppliers and contractors have never been a problem, our relationships go further than simply being offered multiple shows. However, booking talent still throws up its challenges. As I mentioned before, on wanting to create a fully ‘secret’ garden party, we decided to not announce any of our line-up. Guests will only be told who is playing, and at what time and stage, when they arrive onsite, nothing before. Headliners on the main stage are a guarded secret until they walk out on stage. Part of why we wanted to do this, was to try and deal with exclusivity issues. So, if I have a show that sold out a year in advance, in under a minute, with no artist announced whatsoever, then there shouldn’t be an issue if a band is on an exclusive in this case, right? Is it f**k. Still, it’s nice to see that our little independent party represents such a threat to the majors.
What are the advantages of independence?
Creativity, creativity and creativity. It’s nice not to be stifled, even if majors don’t want it to be that way. But mostly being independent means just that; you get to go your own way and be unique.
What has it been like getting back in the saddle, as it were, and getting events up and running after the long pandemic shutdown?
I worked on productions throughout the pandemic but it was all pro bono. Half the time was spent on seemingly endless rescheduling and re-budgeting and the other half dealing with councils and public health. I managed to do the Red Rooster festival in 2021 but not much else. It is a great relief to know that the events will all happen this summer and that the spectre of lockdown has gone.