eFestivals spoke exclusively to Simon Taffe, festival organiser of End of the Road Festival, held in September in Larmer Tree Gardens, a Victorian pleasure garden on the Wiltshire/Dorset borders.
Hi Simon, for those who have never been to End Of The Road how would you describe it?
Small, intimate, a music lovers' festival full of surprises and unexpected things. We have a piano stage in the middle of the forest where you will find big bands playing surprise slots, and there's a lot of that mingling with bands that people like, and there's lots of surprise slots by bigger bands late at night at smaller venues. The whole idea comes from me going to lots of festivals when I was a kid and growing up, and taking all the best elements from every festival I've been to.
So you've tried to cherry pick the best parts of other festivals for your event?
Yes, basically, I went to South By South West and the thing I liked about it the most was all these surprise shows all over the town, and I thought that would be a good element to bring to End Of The Road, and so we started doing the surprise shows. When we first started five years ago we just had impromptu performances in the forest, and stuff.
And, I've also liked the idea of ATP how they have longer sets for even the smaller bands, and just have quality bands and have longer sets. So, we took that element from them. And, at Glastonbury I've always liked the idea that you don't have that barrier like at Reading where you have to go through that barrier to get into the main arena and then youÂre searched for alcohol, so I've tried to make it so all of it including the main arena is all part of the same area.
The non sponsorship thing was what I liked about Green Man, it had a very laid back feel, and I'm quite into folk music but I didn't want to be the same as Green Man. So, in the first year we particularly went louder with bands, as I felt that was what was lacking, it was mainly bands with acoustic guitars, this was when Green Man started, now theyÂve changed their programming.
Basically for me it's picking my favourite bands from my record collection.
You also have the Glastonbury cider bus there, are there other things on site apart from the music that you've picked from festivals?
That was something else I took from Glastonbury, and that's because I used to love it when I was younger. At 17, 18, 19, I spent most of my time at Glastonbury at the cider bus. I convinced them to come, when we actually got them, the only festival they did was Glastonbury. That's a good element too I guess.
We have comedy, and film, I make music videos as well so I'm quite obsessed with film, so we have the film tent done by Little White Lies, but we mainly focus the festival on the music.
And get a bigger band like Fleet Foxes who play on the main stage, and then convince them to play on the piano stage, to a couple of hundred people in the forest late at night. It's things like that, that make our festival special.
How do festival goers find out about these intimate gigs?
It's completely random, but I do put a chalk board out near the piano stage in the forest, you have to walk through a thousand yards of fairy lights through the forest before you get to the piano stage. When Steve Earl came he thought the whole thing was very Lord Of The Rings. When you do get there the chalk board can be filled in by bands sometimes only a few hours before "oh we're going to be playing here."
Then we have the Tipi tent, where I choose certain bands and ask them to do a covers set late at night, so people go there anyway expecting to see some surprises.
Do you have any surprises to bring this year?
We basically pick the main bands and then get them to do surprise slots, and I think we're in a position this year where we can book bands, because weÂre going to sell out anyway, that don't have to be necessarily announced on the line-up. So, we're going to do a bit of that. Last year we had Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley turn up and play for free on the main stage with Bob Lind, so that was a bit of a surprise for people.
How did the festival come about?
I always joked around the idea of doing a festival whilst going to other festivals like Glastonbury, and Green Man, and All Tomorrows Parties. I always joked about doing dream line-ups, I always wanted to be involved in music somehow, I had a huge record collection, and a passion for music.
I went to Green Man, and a couple of other small festivals, and thought I could do a festival and sold my house, and went for it, and didn't realise until later how much money I was going to lose and that I would get into financial trouble in the first couple of years before pulling it off.
Is the financial situation all right now?
Yeah, now it's fine, but the first couple of years we pretty tough, because I was a bit naive, and was thinking pick a bunch of good bands and it'll sell out. It's sold out for the last two years, and we're already half way to sold out and we've only announced one headliner.
Wilco, and how's it going with the other two headliners, are you close to announcing them?
It's always a chasing game anyway, because you think you're going to get this band, and you're told by the agent you're going to get this band and then it falls through. We go through it every year, at the moment it looks like we're closing in on a couple of headliners, but you never know at the last minute they might decide not to do it, it's always difficult. But we have got a couple of headliners that we've got offers out on.
Do you have difficulties booking bands because of exclusivity deals with other festivals?
Yes, more so this year than previous years. Because Bestival generally donÂt do exclusivity deals, although obviously they did with their main headliner Kraftwerk, we have a good relationship with them, it's mainly Latitude and Reading where they really go in with their exclusives. We didn't think that Latitude was much of a threat because it was three months away from us, but now it's doing exclusives that far ahead in the season. There's bands that we could have got that now we can't get, so that's a bit of a shame.
But I also hear that Live Nation are possibly thinking of doing a boutique festival at the other end of the season, but, I think it's planned for next year. An outdoor thing, I think they want to get a finger in the pie for the September part of the season around the time of Bestival, and End Of The Road. They're saying it will be boutique but I don't know what that means because they've labelled Latitude Boutique, and it's not exactly boutique.
You've brought some great breakthrough acts to End Of The Road to showcase, like The Low Anthem, you were the first to bring them to many people's attention, how do you find acts like that?
I just love them, and I found out about them from a friend who lives in New York, he told me about them, and I've got a record label, that releases 7" and the odd album. I released their first 7" and I booked them early on for a few hundred quid, and they got bigger. I tried to sign them for a full deal, but I actually gave them to Bella Union, I've got a good relationship with Simon, hence we got Fleet Foxes, and Explosions In The Sky, and quite a lot of Bella Union bands. I handed them over to him, and then I made their music video as well.
What's the most memorable act you've played host to?
Bon Iver was good in the first year, I think we were the first festival to have him. It was another act that I was onto before he was signed, and we booked him really early on, and by the time he played the festival he was huge. It was quite special because it was his first UK festival that was really good. Richard Hawley, also in the first year, was pretty amazing, and Yo La Tengo. It's always good to see those acts that you book grow really big over the year.
I always have this challenge with myself, competing against the previous year, trying to find that act (that goes big after booking), there's only a few that do cross over last year it was The Low Anthem, before that it was Bon Iver, and so it's trying to find the next one for the next year, that will do that and cross over. We're hoping to book a band called The Middle East who I think are going to be pretty big, theyÂre from Australia. And, The Antlers who we have already booked, are also really picking up a momentum.
I usually go to South By South West that's where I find most bands, and I go to Rough Trade a lot, and obviously we have loads of people sending us music. But it's SXSW where I find most new bands. I usually work out beforehand what bands I want to see, and then I try and get them to play our festival. We've done that since year one, usually there's a little bit of a buzz or something going around the industry beforehand. You hear that record labels and agents are chasing and you go and look for those acts.
Do you think if you didn't have that ear to the ground the festival would struggle?
I think it really helps, the main thing is the word of mouth, the artists love it (the festival), and that just spreads amongst what is quite a small industry. The word spreads around, like the Fleet Foxes, who had heard about The End Of The Road and really wanted to play it. It didn't matter that other people were trying to do exclusives with them, they just wanted to play and that was that.
The artists don't get convinced until they go and then it's a case of building up that relationship. I've built up a great relationship with Richard Hawley who brought Jarvis down last year even though he was the headliner of Green Man, and he's helped a lot with acts, and he's helped since the beginning. We really appeal to a lot of the artists it seems, because they're into the idea, and they see the music, and most of them are into the music that's put on there.
What advice would you offer to others interesting in founding a small festival?
I think it's quite hard to start a festival now, but I think the thing is not to try and put on a bunch of indie bands in a field that are playing other festivals. I follow the buzz slightly, but I also have to like the bands, and I've managed to find a niche. Even though we have a lot of different music, thereÂs also a strong representation of alt-country Americana music, and that was something I noticed that Latitude, Green Man, none of them really had, and we always make sure that we have a strong contingency of acts that are special and having a few surprises.
Also, something I learnt in the first year, we spent a fortune on promotions going up and down the country, and unfortunately it was a bit of a Catch 22 because it's all word of mouth, that's what sells tickets. But, you canÂt prove that until youÂve done it the first year.
The main thing is to follow what you believe in. It's a case of finding a niche, and there's not many of those left, and sticking to it. Take The Hop Farm for instance, the first year they did it really well they had Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Laura Marling, and all these interesting bands. Then all of a sudden it was Paul Weller, and Pigeon Detectives, and bands like that it was really bizarre, I think they should have stuck at that original concept.
In our first year we sold 1,600 tickets and budgeted for 5,000 and lost over a couple of hundred thousand pounds of my own personal money, and had to sell my house. If I'd changed my formula thinking "Oh okay that music didn't work" and tried try out something else I probably would have fallen flat on my face. I think that's what happened to Hop Farm they didnÂt know what they were doing.
That's why Latitude does succeed, it does try to stick to its guns on the music. Fortunately Melvin Benn has got John Dunn who has got good taste, who promotes Arcade Fire, and Antony and the Johnsons, and knows what he's doing booking wise.
How difficult is it for a small festival to be profitable?
Well, we were profitable last year, not hugely so, this year will be profitable. It's quite difficult, you have to sell out, to be profitable, but it can be done. We realised we could have sold more, we had 6,000 there last year, and we sold out in the first weekend in August, we could have sold 10,000 tickets.
Our venue is limited and we don't really want to move from that venue. I've thought of the idea of starting another festival, and I'll carry on thinking about that idea. I would like to do another one at the beginning of the year June. I think it's a case of picking the right time of year. I'm thinking around the same time as Primavera, there's loads of bands in Spain for Primavera. It's just a case of finding the right angle that makes it different.
How easy do you find it to put on an event without major sponsorship?
It's pretty hard, the first two years was all just borrowing money off friends, selling my house, and doing whatever I could do to get it off the ground. At the same time nobody would have given us much sponsorship anyway in the first two years. Now lots of people have offered us sponsorship, but I've turned it down. I'm very pleased to have achieved it without it, it's very difficult for the smaller festivals. I think even Green Man have turned down a fair bit of sponsorship as well, it kind of pisses me off, when I see festivals like Latitude offering this boutique festival with no sponsorship. But they've got all this hidden sponsorship going on with Gaymer's cider and Tuborg.
What's been the hardest aspect of running the festival?
Just the amount of work that went into just pulling it off in the first two years. Running up and down the country putting leaflets of our festivals in car parks and also the hard work it was to build a relationship with the industry. For a small festival we get some pretty high profile bands even in the first year. It was very hard to get people to believe in us in the first few years, but then a bands starts really believing in you it doesn't matter what an agent thinks. If the band love it they demand to do it, and it's building that relationship with the record labels and bands that you love.
For me I'd never put on one show before the festival, I did painting and decorating for a living, and I had no (music) contacts whatsoever. We just built it slowly, we started off as a concept the year before End Of The Road, and we went to a lot of gigs. Sofia (Hagberg) would go to gigs and meet the bands afterwards, and give them a little press pack that we'd drawn up of the concept with photos of the site, and empty fields and stuff.
We put on there a wish list of bands that we liked, to give people an idea of the music it was, and we just built it slowly. We didn't even know who agents were, we just went straight to the bands, and got into a little bit of trouble here and there. That's why we went to South By South West the first year because we found out we could meet the bands really easily, and it was really accessible. We went to SXSW with a list of 10 bands we really wanted in the first year, they weren't particularly big names, Richard Hawley was probably the biggest name. We ended up booking pretty much everyone we went out there to get. Now we have a relationship where the agents are contacting us nearly every day to try and get their bands on at the festival, and we turn down a lot of bands.
So the longer the festival has been running, the easier it gets?
Yes, definitely, it's just the word of mouth, once it starts spreading around the music community it becomes really easy. A lot of the big managers who manage the big bands, like someone like the Fleet Foxes for example, will also manage three other bands, and if they come to the festival with their band and they love it, it spreads. Bon Iver was raving about it on his website because it was his first outdoor festival in the UK, and then telling his mates, and then it just has a knock on effect as word spreads. ItÂs always still hard trying to close in the headliners because theyÂre thinking a year ahead, and theyÂve got such big schedules.
But then Wilco pretty much called us up a few weeks after the festival this year and we booked them in October.
If you had all the persuasive powers in the world, who would you book as ultimate headliner?
Tom Waits, probably, or Nick Cave, although I don't think he's totally unrealistic, or somebody like Neil Young. There's also people like Sufjan Stephens who I've been trying to convince since year one to play the festival. He's never played an outdoor festival in his life. If I'd have announced him for the festival back in October it would have sold out within an hour. A lot of people don't realise just how many tickets he would sell. Arcade Fire would be great as well, I've been trying to convince them, but when a band like that is getting offered a hundred grand from other festivals it's difficult. I think if a big band like that wants to play a small festival I think they should.
Are you surprised how much of a loyal following you've managed to instil for End Of The Road?
Yeah, I think it's very good, we've really built up a die hard following for End Of The Road, that I'm really surprised about. We put our early bird tickets on sale for the last two years, I think we'd sold 800 within eight days of the end of the festival, we didn't even want to sell 800 we wanted to sell 600 but we didn't keep an eye on it. That was before anyone was announced and now weÂre almost half way there, and that's without announcing anyone else.
Although Wilco is one of the biggest bands we've been able to pull out of the bag so far, in America they're huge. Even here theyÂre quite big, and it's quite good it's pretty much an exclusive, just playing End Of The Road.
Of the acts you have announced so far, who are you most looking forward to seeing?
I'm a massive Black Mountain fan, and weÂve been trying to get them for the last five years. The Low Anthem are obviously playing again, who I've always loved, and Wilco obviously. There's some smaller bands I really like. Ladyhawk are a Canadian grunge band, really exciting live, I've tried to go a little bit more diverse and louder this year, something I try to do every year, as well as still having folk and country acts. Deer Tick are really good I saw them at the Borderline, theyÂre a sort of country band, and Dengue Fever a Cambodian band. All the bands are really good Timber Timbre is another great band. I notice a lot of our bands are getting signed now, Mountain Man has signed to Bella Union, and I think Forest Fire are going to be signed to 4AD. I know we booked them before they were even talking to them. All those smaller bands were booked last year before Christmas.
I think A&R men do look at our line-up because I'm really of careful of who I book from the bottom to the top of the line-up. There's a certain number of smaller bands who always end up doing the rounds, not indie bands, playing most of the summer festivals. I try to stay away from them and just find bands that I love. I do get accused of not booking enough English bands, and I think there's only one or two currently on our line-up.
End of The Road takes place at Larmer Tree Gardens, Tollard Royal, in Salisbury, from Friday 10th to Sunday 12th September. Full priced tickets are now on sale priced at £130 for adults, a youth (ages 13-17 years who must be accompanied by an adult) ticket is priced at £120, a ticket for children aged 6-12 years (must be accompanied by an adult) is priced at £50, with free entry for a child aged 0 - 5 years, they still need tickets which must be purchased in advance. A campervan/caravan pass is priced at £45, a car parking is priced at £5 (payable in cash on arrival).
To buy tickets, click here.
latest on this festival
End of the Road 2018 review
line-ups & rumours