eFestivals talked to Dave O’Hara of Call Of The Wild Festival, which will be going ahead at Lincolnshire Showground from Friday 18th to Sunday 20th September 2020. Dave is the festival’s Operations and Financial Director.
So what operations are you directing?
All of it! The way it works with the three of us - Raz White, Lee Byrne, and myself… Raz deals predominantly with the booking of the bands, Lee deals with the production side of things, making sure the stage crew is good, that we’ve got everything we need – the right staff, the right sound … and I deal with … basically, when we start spending a certain amount of money, then I need to start looking at budgets, making sure we’ve got the cash to spend, overseeing the day to day running of everything, keeping a close eye. Which we all do, everyone is keeping their own eye across everything… but you have to have someone who’s responsible.
How did Call Of The Wild get started?
Oh wow. It all started probably 4 or 5 years ago now. I was managing a band called A Jokers Rage, based in York, and we were supporting a band called Knock Out Kaine who Raz was the manager for. Lee was the bass player for that band. So the three of us all met that night.
We got talking about the state of the scene, we started talking about festivals and events, the way bands were being treated, the way events were constantly folding, so many different festivals popping up. Over the course of time that conversation got a little more in-depth and a little bit more serious. Fast forward two or three years, and we were having a chat one afternoon and said “you know what? We need to put our money where our mouth is, let’s have a look around and see what we can find”.
Raz runs and event in Carlisle called Rockmantic. Two-day, indoor, I think it’s coming into it’s tenth year. Always sells out, great weekend, loads of great rock bands, people coming from all over the country, Europe … and we thought there’s not a lot goes on in the rock scene in Carlisle, so we thought we’d put this event on in Carlisle somewhere.
We found a site called Kirklinton Hall which was absolutely stunning, a really old hotel. But it didn’t work out in the end, the dates we wanted to hold it were too near to Appleby Horse Fair so we wouldn’t be able to have the policing for the festival licence, they just couldn’t cover it. So we started looking around.
I’d been in Lincoln quite a few times when I left the military and the Lincolnshire Showground popped into my head. I mentioned that to Raz, and he said that’s great, Lee lives in Lincoln and he’d lived in Lincoln. So I phoned the Showground up just on the off-chance and asked them if they fancied putting on a 3-day indoor/outdoor rock festival. And the dates we wanted had just become available a few days before, someone had cancelled. Would we like it? And we said, yes, thanks.
That was lucky.
Yes it was. Now it feels like it was fated, because the support, the help, the generosity, of the entire team at the Showground has been absolutely phenomenal. They can’t do enough for us. If we’d tried to do what we’re doing with Call Of The Wild at another site we’d have never been able to do it at the standard we achieved at the Showground. At other sites we’d have had to have brought everything in; at the Showground there’s facilities everywhere. Flushing toilets, proper showers, great camping facilities, electrical hookups. We didn’t even need a generator for the main stage bar. And the festival went down there so well.
This has been a strange year. How has lockdown been for you? Have you been working?
No. I work off-shore, and travel globally. Sometimes oil and gas industry, other times scientific expeditions or shipwrecks. It’s been quite tough but the company I’m working with at the moment have been on furlough. I got home from a trip overseas at the end of November and I haven’t been to work since. It’s the longest I’ve ever been home. I’ve been at sea for 30 years and never had this amount of time to myself. It’s been difficult to deal with.
It’s allowed me to focus on the festival in the same way as Raz and Lee do for the first time ever. Normally I come home for 4-5-6 weeks or whatever and it becomes all-consuming because there’s so much that needs to be done in that time just in case when I go off-shore the comms are crap or there’s no internet connection. The band I manage these days called Tomorrow Is Lost, I’ve been able to help them, so although we went into lockdown in March it’s been beneficial in a lot of ways.
Does the festival have many staff other than the three of you?
Technically there’s nobody, and we don’t really count ourselves as staff as we don’t get paid.
You pay yourself with anything left over at the end?
No, nothing. Nothing has ever been taken out of the event, everything gets recycled back in, we put our time in for free.
I’m hoping that maybe around year five we can take a little something back because the entirety of this has been self-funded. We pay out of our own pockets for everything. Personally from last year I’m down from my own pocket around seventeen thousand.
So it’s an investment that we’re making because we want, we need … to do Call Of The Wild properly. Building a team, we’ve got the same guys coming back, the same traders coming back, everyone’s coming back to a man .. or lady. They get paid, all the crew get paid for their time on the weekend. But for us it’s about re-investing and growing and building the festival.
We’re giving the exploding UK rock scene a stage to get out and perform on alongside those much bigger bands. And that’s the crux of what this is all about for us.
You’re going ahead in September but you had to postpone from May. Had any bands pulled out before you took the decision to postpone?
No, not one.
At what point did you postpone, and what specific things happened for you to postpone?
We postponed about a week after lockdown. There was just no way we could go ahead. And at the forefront of our minds was the safety of everybody.
Had ticket sales slowed down before you postponed?
Yeah, they had. Probably on the day of lockdown. Everything stopped for a while.
Did you have a lot of tickets roll over from May or did you have to refund a lot?
Most rolled over to September, about £6000 of refunds. In the grand scheme of things at £99 a ticket for 3 days with camping and parking it’s not many. The support we’ve had from the fans and the people who were at last year’s event has been mind blowing to us.
This crisis has shown that lots of festivals have got very strong supportive followings which is great.
Yes. One of the things that works really well is that there’s a core group at Call Of The Wild but they’re also a lot of the same group who are at Stone Dead Festival, which is run by a great group of guys, we get on well together, we help each other out. We talk to the Bloodstock guys too, ask them for advice, they’ve always been open and friendly. That’s what it’s all about. You can’t be fighting everybody else, you’ve got to find a way to work together.
What consequences did the May cancellation cause? Have you had to pay out on things from then, or have you managed to roll costs over until September?
For the most part we’ve been able to roll the costs right across. Some things have had to change around. Originally we had Massive Wagons to headline the Friday night and Phil Campbell was going to close on the Sunday. Moving to September we’ve had to flip-flop that because of other commitments both those bands have, so Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons are now headlining on Friday night, and Massive Wagons on Sunday which is really quite appropriate, I think, for them, because myself, Raz and Lee have worked with Massive Wagons in many many guises over the years – they were the very first band to play Raz’s Rockmatic event. We’ve watched them for probably the last 10 years. And now they’ve had their latest album go straight in at number 9 which is an incredible achievement.
Yeah, that looks a great booking for right-now.
Absolutely. They’re a band we’ve always got on really well with, and we’ve a lot of faith in them. I think they have faith in us. And they’re still playing the festival, we’ve got a UK top-ten band on that main stage on the Sunday night. Marvellous!
Moving forwards to September, have you had to work a lot with the authorities to make it happen?
We’ve had no help from government apart from the basic guidance they put out a few weeks ago. So in March, we had the new dates and confirmed the new dates with the Showground, and then we took a week off to drown our sorrows, and then let’s get September moving. Although there were no ticket sales from the lockdown announcement until maybe the end of May we kept working and adapting and changing the plans every time the government legislation changed. So every time they issued new guidance for social distancing, for instance, we updated our risk assessment and our plans.
The main reason for that was so we didn’t get inundated with information as we got closer to September and to keep on top of it. Although we’ve worked all the way through it’s lightened the load quite a bit. We’ve got the risk assessments ready, everything that we have from our traders, our security teams, our medics, the cleaners … everything has been uploaded into the Lincolnshire Showground Safety Advisory Group portal so the fire, the medical, the police, the local council, licencing, everything, can go over it with a fine toothcomb.
We asked them to go over it and send us a list of questions or advised changes or things they would like to see, how we’d deal with certain scenarios. We got that response, put it into the documentation, put it back onto the portal and then hopefully we’ll have a meeting next month to go over it for the final stamp of approval.
Do you feel their requests have been reasonable? Do you feel they’re pushing you too hard?
I don’t feel you can be pushed too hard for something like this. You’ve got to do some decent investigation and a lot of research. You need to know how you’ll do something in any event. Whether it’s a local lockdown – and that might happen – but it could be an earthquake, it could be a tornado. We can’t legislate for something like that but what we can do is be 99.999% certain that we’ve done absolutely everything humanly possible to keep people as safe as we can.
Whether that’s accidental fire or risk of catching the virus. We cannot guarantee you’re not going to catch it, you’re going anywhere at your own risk.
So have you had to reduce the festival capacity as part of that?
No. We’re aiming for a 1,000 capacity. It’s all outdoors, there’s no indoor stage this year, we’ve cancelled that. Actually, we’ve got licencing for 30,000, that’s the beauty of the Showground, it’s a big site, absolutely stunning. It can throw it down with rain and the drainage is incredible, so you don’t get mud baths.
We could grow the event into something incredible, but baby steps. Last year we had about 600 a day, this year we were aiming for 2,000 before the marketing stopped. We have to make sure we keep it manageable and especially with the virus, there’s no point in trying to maximise it for the sake of maximising it.
We’ve made some changes to the layout of the site, moved the stages, so things have changed slightly, we’ve cancelled the indoor stage. But we are bringing a couple of the bands – for instance Glenn Matlock – who’ll now play the 2nd stage on the Sunday night. And we’ve brought Blaze Bayley in to headline the 2nd Stage on the Saturday night.
Face masks must be worn in front of the stages. Was that your own decision?
Yes. Everything you see in our covid guidance came from us. That’s what we’ve pulled out from the government’s guidance, what we’ve decided to do ourselves.
Have any of the bands commented on how it might look for them, looking out on this audience in face masks?
No, not one. They’ve all as far as we’re aware, they’re all for it. We’ve had positive feedback, people can’t believe they’ll be able to get on a stage and play a show for people. For a lot of bands it’s been a long time since they’ve done anything so they’re quite excited about it. We’ve made some changes to how we operate backstage, so bands can stay in their own bubble if they want.
So have the extra measures for the bands and the public been a heavy cost?
Not really. The cost side of it comes more from the toilets and hand sanitiser stations, and the cost of cleaning which has doubled. But we have to do it, the cost doesn’t really matter. Lots of the traders are bringing their own sanitisers, so before you go to their stall you have to sanitise, and you’ll have to wear a mask. That’s our conditions but it’s also theirs. Each of the traders will have their own procedures for how they operate in their stalls, and we have the same in our management plan so everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet, there’s no ambiguity in any of it.
What has the reaction been of your ticket holders to the decision to go ahead, and the anti-covid measures?
With the go-ahead thing the reaction has been pretty much “woo-hoo! We’re getting to do something”.
With the rules you’ll have in place, do you think there’s a danger of the festival seeming a bit killjoy if you’re having to keep reminding people to follow the rules?
No. You’ve got to have faith in people, that people will follow the simple guidelines. That you have to wear a mask when you’re here, but you don’t have to when you’re there. Be aware of the people around you. That people have to social distance. We have all the space for people to spread out.
You’ve got enough space so you feel it will work?
Oh, without a doubt. We worked out that if social distancing was reduced to 1m, we could have 11,000 people in that area.
We were all on site last weekend going through everything, marking it out with football cones. We think we have it covered.
Has it been disappointing to lose a stage and have fewer bands? Or has that been lost in the joy of going ahead? Who have you been most disappointed to lose?
For me personally, it’s Kickin' Valentina. They blew the roof off last year when they played, and it was a popular request to bring them back, and they were originally scheduled to headline stage 2. Those guys are great, a great bunch of people, crackin’ band, love their fans, before they play they’re in the crowd talking to everybody, they’re watching and supporting the other bands. So I’m quite upset that we couldn’t get them over.
You’re happy with the line-up you’re going to deliver?
Absolutely. It’s allowed us to refocus on UK bands. Everyone loves the international acts, but being able to have more of the UK grassroots bands that lots of people haven’t heard of is great, being able to open up the event to those bands who don’t get the opportunity to play on a big stage with those bigger bands.
How have ticket sales been since you’ve announced you’re going ahead? Have they picked up?
Yes they have. It started off a little bit slowly but the momentum is building. What’s difficult, tricky for people is the government. There’s no clear guidance, there’s nothing clear, it’s just drivel, everything is contradictory. Yay, everybody go on holiday, go have a great time, here’s a voucher for a meal once or twice a week to boost the economy … then a week later everyone stay home, and by the way you’re too fat go get a bike.
It’s not been the best, has it?
No, so that doesn’t help. It doesn’t matter if it’s an event like this or a family going to Nando’s. People can’t build any kind of confidence in going out. We’re starting to see it slowly improve.
I think it needs events like yours to go ahead to build that confidence. Very well done for keeping at it.
There are things happening, and I think it will slowly improve.
We can only guess looking forwards, but do you think there will be anti-covid measures at your festival next year?
Erm … probably. Possibly. Maybe. [laughs]. Yeah, Jesus. I think this virus is here to stay in one form or another. Whether we’ll have a vaccine and how things will change between now and May ... that’s … another issue that we have, we’re already into our promotion time for next year, we should be promoting for May 2021 but we can’t.
Although you’ll have the perfect promotional tool, from having run a festival this year…
That’s the plan. It’s a big part of why we’re doing a crowdfunder. Crowdfunder got in touch, and if we wanted to set up a project with them it would be free of fees, and that’s a massive help right there. So we set it up to start to promote Call Of The Wild 2021. A little bit for this year things like merchandising, t-shirts, re-usable pint pots ... and that’s actually part of our covid measures for this year. As people come thru and get their temperature checked and get their wristband, if they’ve ordered a merch bundle we hand them their bundle, and that helps lessen the queuing that will occur at the merch desk and the bar.
But we’ve also put early-bird tickets for 2021 into that crowdfunder. Things like join the crew for a day for next year, things like that. To help us sell those early bird tickets. We haven’t announced any bands although we do have some booked that we’ll announce on the festival weekend in September.
I’m at my last question now. This is next year’s additional crisis. Brexit.
There’s going to be different visa rules for overseas bands from next year. Will that cause you to look at booking different bands than you might otherwise? There’s a lot of European rock bands that come to the UK and they’ll need work visas.
Apparently so, but … who knows? Next year has the potential to be a mess. But we’ll approach it in exactly the same way. As legislation and rules change we’ll adapt. If they don’t even better, and who knows, Boris might be gone by Christmas.
That’s a bit hopeful, i think.
…. Is there anything extra you’d like to tell me?
There’s loads I’d like to tell you but most of it I can’t. Because … I can’t really announce anything. But …
Tickets are still on sale. We are bending over backwards, doing whatever it takes. It’s all about making sure as much as we can that we keep everyone safe. You can have a look at though our website, read the covid FAQ there.
Thanks to Dave for his time and insights.
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