Backstage at Kendal Calling, Access spoke to From the Fields co-founder Andy Smith about this year’s strong focus on sustainability and how the event has evolved from a 900-capacity gig to a 40,000-capacity mainstay in Northern England’s festival scene.

Despite this season’s increasingly familiar weather challenges, as seen at fellow From the Fields-promoted festival Bluedot one week before, Andy Smith was feeling upbeat on day three of what he dubs the “country’s wettest festival” Kendal Calling.

The picturesque Lake District event, which is now part Superstruct owned, sold out for the 17th year in a row in May, on the back of the event seeing its best first-day ticket sales ever.

What makes Smith proudest, however, is its audience engaging with sustainability more than ever before, driven by the festival’s ‘Leave Nothing But Memories’ campaign. The first year of the campaign generated positive results in 2022 with 284 tents left behind – a 91.4% decrease from 2019.

Moving from Kendal 

Before the Penrith-based festival became a 40,000-capacity Superstruct-owned event, hosting acts such as Nile Rodgers & CHIC and Kasabian, it began as a 900-capacity event down the road in Kendal – and was never intended to be a permanent feature on the festival calendar.

Set in Lowther Deer Park in the Lake District, the site is the third home the festival has had, having started in 2006 at Abbot Hall Park by Kendal Castle. The event has gradually increased in capacity over its 17-year history. It all began with Kendal-born rock band British Sea Power wanting to do a hometown show.

“There was no venue in town big enough, so we jokingly said let’s build our own one says,” says Smith. “Then we thought ‘hang on that’s actually got legs’. People started asking us when we putting the next one on, so we moved out of town and added camping and it’s very slowly grown up to 40,000 capacity.“We’ve found the most perfect place up here. This site used to be a wildlife park with a circus big top tent. When it closed down the infrastructure was still here.”

Having started an electronic and rock music event with artists such as Pendulum playing, the festival has evolved into a family-friendly event spanning different generations

While hosting prominent acts on the Main Stage such as Blossoms, who were introduced by Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham (pictured below), the festival has a vast family offering through its various smaller stages including Parklands and Calling Out, hosting the likes of Dick and Dom and indie bands The Hunna and Circa Waves.

“What’s really changed is the festival’s ethos of having programming for everybody. I grew up in a village down the road from here and we realised that if we wanted to sell a lot of tickets, we had to appeal to everybody in the local area,” says Smith.

Sustainable focus

As well as working with festival regulars, comedy folk band The Lancashire Hot Pots on a playful video encouraging attendees to bring their tents home, organisers also teamed with Japanese designers Takekiyo and Hiroaki San, to develop mobile and desktop game Flappy Tent. Organisers offered the first person to get a score of 50,000 on the game a £200 bar tab to spend at the festival.

“It’s all about reinforcing the message, but coming at it from various different angles,” says Smith. “Trying to make people feel like they’re doing the right thing but not feeling peer pressured into it. You’ve got to hit all these different triggers to see what works.

“We had a problem like many festivals did which was just getting worse. During our years off we knew we had to do something about it. We needed to up our game on sustainability all over the place, but that was our biggest focus.

“If people are thinking about leaving their tent on the weekend, they’re just not thinking about sustainability at all. We thought that we’d focus on the hardest thing first and then sort everything else out afterwards. It’s something that many people have tried but I’ve not seen much success elsewhere; I couldn’t find anyone who could offer advice on that one solution, rather being focused on other things like carbon reduction and travel.”

Smith says he spent a year learning about human behaviour and how to interact with crowds – reading every behavioural university research paper he could lay his hands on – including one on the 1994 Australian Sydney Olympics.

“The fact we could count them was insane,” Smith adds, reflecting on last year’s abandoned tents. Despite this year’s testing conditions, organisers have since confirmed this year’s numbers were as low as 2022.

Another sustainable initiative which Kendal introduced last year is not cutting any grass on site, which Smith says not only helps with a muddy surface, but also from a carbon reduction point of view: “If you normally cut the two thousand acres of grass that we use, you’d end up with an awful lot of leftover grass which gets turned into silage and then methane. This creates tonnes of carbon, but we’ve avoided all of that. Instead it gets pushed into the ground and acts as carbon capture.

“Not only does it make for a better festival for the audience, but it’s also a huge reduction in carbon – and that’s from not even doing anything. It’s something that I’d love to get the word out there about because it’s a great initiative. I think people just never think about it.

“When you’re the country’s wettest festival, you’ve got to do what you can.”

“We’ve got this fantastic multi-channel approach that works on various different levels,” he adds. “You see it in advance of the festival – including the physically printed letter that we send to every single ticket holder. It’s important that people hold that in their hands and see a personal plea to take their stuff home after the festival.”

New features

Smith says one of the main focuses for this year was improving the festival’s arts offering in its rustic woodland area, which also features classic acoustic sets and the infamous late-night silent disco.

“The arts focus is something we started about five years ago – we didn’t have any budget but it’s slowly increased,” says Smith. “With arts, it doesn’t sell tickets initially, it’s when people have experienced it that they’ll buy tickets for the following year. So we couldn’t go too heavily into it, we still had to rely on the main acts to sell the tickets. But this year, it’s really coming into its own and it’s absolutely magical. The Parklands stage has also really come along.”

Other site features that Smith hails include the Oktoberfest tent, which launched last year and hosts live oompah bands throughout the day and a range of German and world ales.

Following its complete overhaul of the festival in 2022, event décor and installation specialists Visual Architects was recommissioned for services at the event this year. Director Lefteris Angelidis says, “In the second year our delivery became more streamlined and in sync with the festival organisation and facilities. This allowed us to focus more directly on creativity and the development of a new ‘Summer of Love’ concept with the Kendal team.

“This is a festival that is now in our hearts, which feels like part of our own journey, which is a result of the relationship between the Kendal team and Visual Architects. It’s a famous saying that the best results need three years, and if this is true we cannot wait for what is to come next year.”

Reflecting on Bluedot festival the week before which saw Sunday tickets cancelled due to torrential rain, Smith hailed the Engine No. 4 team which managed to keep the event running “against all odds”.

With both festivals now 60% owned by Superstruct and the other 40% by Smith and fellow Bluedot co-founder Ben Robinson, Smith says the relationship with the festival promoter giant has been a roaring success so far.

As for Kendal, 40% of 2024 tickets were snapped in record-breaking time, just hours after going on resale. “Bigger and better” is what Smith expects for the festival going forward, but “it’s not growth for growth’s sake,” he says.

With From the Fields hosting other events throughout the year including Cardiff’s Christmas at Bute Park and Newcastle’s Northern Lights, Smith says there are many areas of entertainment that Kendal attendees are yet to see at the festival.

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “One of the proudest things for me is what we’ve done with the arts in the woodlands area. I’d like to expand on that and make it a festival in its own right.”

The next edition of Kendal Calling takes place from 1-4 August 2024.