eFestivals caught up with Andy Smith of festivals & events company From The Fields, to find out how covid-19 impacted onto the summer’s plans.
From The Fields run Kendal Calling, bluedot, festival and conference Off The Record, as well as arts festivals Arts By The Sea and Festival of the Sky. Andy is in charge of Kendal Calling and has involvement in the other events.
How has lockdown been for you?
Groundhog day! If you ask me on a Monday its not going to be as good as it was on a Friday. We’ve been … busy. I’d say it’s been quite crazy, it’s really odd. While knowing we could sit down and not do anything because what’s the point anymore, that’s just not who we are as people. Or at least not who I am. I like doing things, so we’ve been coming up with ideas all over the spot, it’s crazy.
So you’ve been working all the way though?
It’s by far the busiest year we’ve ever had despite not actually producing anything. Not only did we have to pack the festival away which we’ve never done before, which was a learning curve, we also had to work out how we could still do something to commemorate the weekend, it would feel very odd if we didn’t. How do you take that and do it differently? So that’s been quite an experience.
Plus we’ve got a business, we’ve got employees, we’ve got a lot of frontage in the industry. Everyone has got nothing to do, and worse, people are losing their jobs.
So we’ve … not got a sense of responsibility, that would be putting it too grandly, but we love doing events so we’ve been trying to work out what can we do. We don’t want to be left in the dust here.
This will pass, things will change. What are the first things we can be doing both for ourselves, our own personal psyche, but also to keep people employed, but also for people to come and attend and experience and enjoy community again.
I think it’s going to be momentous when I go to see my first concert after this. And I think that’s the same for a lot of people, and we want to be doing the first concerts, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be unless we’re resting on our laurels.
So we’ve been pushing forwards, trying to work out … within 2 days of lockdown we’re on the phone to drive-in companies trying to work things out … we quickly realised that’s red-herring. All sorts since then, you know … beer gardens in car parks, light trails. What could we do that’s socially distanced but still really enjoyable.
So have you managed to do anything?
[laughs] Unfortunately not. Pretty much everything we wanted to do, either we chose not to do it or we were a victim of circumstance or we couldn’t do it. For instance, I thought that when the pubs re-opened they’d be so packed that people would be queuing to get into them all the time. So let’s take a multi-story car park and put a bar on the roof.
Well, fortunately, we couldn’t do that. I was very annoyed at the time, but in hindsight, looking at how empty the pubs around me are, that could have cost us dearly.
Have you started to go out as the measures have been relaxed?
Yeah. It’s picked up a bit but it’s all quite different. We went for our first restaurant meal the other day, it’s not just a question of supporting local businesses, it’s good for the health. I’m feeling cooped up as I’m sure we all have been.
Have you had to furlough any of the staff?
That’s another reason why I’ve been so busy, we’ve had to furlough about three quarters of the team. Furlough has been a very helpful scheme, it’s helped many businesses, it’s been a lifesaver for us, but because it’s not sector-specific it’s still going to be incredibly difficult. For us, it’s not that we’ve lost 3 months takings, we’ve lost an entire year’s takings.
And on top of that, packing a festival up and putting it back in the box costs a fortune. Money spent on marketing and selling tickets you’ve had to refund, you can’t get that marketing money back. A lot of wages. A lot of money just evaporated.
Did many ticket holders go for refunds? Or did most roll over?
There was a very good uptake on the rollover which was wonderful. We’re really really happy about that, it’s a beautiful show of support. Quite humbling really.
So how did postponing come about? We know about covid-19, but how did the situation unfold? When did you think you’d have to postpone? Did any bands pull out before you postponed?
We found out that one of our headliners had pulled out from reading about in the newspapers which was interesting. When we spoke to the agent they heard it from us first so there was a bit of confusion there.
We saw it coming, which is why we started working on fallback positions of perhaps moving it back a few months, trying to come up with something, and then the inevitability of having to postpone. Because we’d never done it before it was very scary times.
You’re hearing all sorts of rumours and horror stories of suppliers, artists and so on wanting full payment. So sadly it took longer to cancel than we expected. Simply because you’ve got to get lawyers involved and everyone is in new ground, and going over all the contracts, making sure that when you do announce the inevitable that it’s the proper procedure.
An example of that would be the Virgin festival in America who is currently suing an agency, a large agency, because they haven’t had any of their artist fees returned. And that could add up to hundreds of thousands of pounds, which is on top of all the other losses.
It was very terrifying at the beginning. We’re very fortunate as that didn’t become a problem, but we had to work hard to make sure we were covered in terms of not doing anything wrong and did it too early. Because that was the fear if we pulled it too early then people could quite reasonably say “no we’re not giving back the deposit because it could have gone ahead”.
We’ve got a friend in another part of the country, and they couldn’t get the council to say “we’re not supporting your event”, the council still wanted it to go ahead. They thought if they could get the council to say it couldn’t go ahead, force majeure, and everything would be fine. But the council were saying “no no no, we think you can still go ahead”. This was in April.
I was speaking to him just now, and he had an idea, working on a show for a few hundred for a socially distanced gig, but the local authority has said they’re not supporting any events. The neighbouring local authority are allowing events and he can’t. So they were fine about an event for 10,000 people but now won’t allow anything with more than 30 people, despite a campsite in their area with more than 30 people. But the second you say event…. Interesting times, as they say.
Did you get much feedback from local council or national government? Did you try and get feedback from them?
Nationally, no. Local council were very supportive of the event, with the best intentions, they were really hopeful we could find a way of going ahead. Not just for the economy, but maybe because they thought that’s what people need on a spiritual level, we need something like this to give us hope, to look forwards to. These are what bring us back to normal.
Looking forwards… we can only guess, but are you more hopeful for next year?
Oh yeah. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. I’m still hopeful we can get some events happening this year.
Oh really. Indoors or outdoors?
Outdoors. I’ve got a new tent and I’d like to use it please. Right now I should be in a field at bluedot and I should have been there for the last few weeks. It’s the happiest time of the year … we go for about 6 weeks with friends and colleagues, who over the years have become a family to us. We just spend weeks and weeks setting the festival up and taking it down and sitting round a campfire each night. Good hard work during the day and a crack at night, it’s the point of life. It’s my favourite time of the year, it’s really sad, it feels very strange not to be there.
So we’re very hopeful we can create something. I’m looking at the budgets thinking why are we even bothering, looking at event management plans, thinking “I could just do nothing”. But … no, there’s the passion, there’s the love. That’s why we’re doing it.
So if you do get to do something this year, or even next year, would you be happy to go ahead with compulsory face masks?
Hmmm, that’s an interesting one. I think let’s be led by the science. It will be what it will be. I’d rather go with compulsory face masks – it would make one hell of a fancy dress – than not go ahead at all.
Do you think there’s a danger of festivals and event being killjoy by having to keep reminding people of having to follow anti-covid rules?
It depends what they are at that point, but there is that potential. One of the features of events versus other sectors is that they’re temporary in nature so can be redesigned, we don’t have to retro-fit a plan, we can design it from the ground up. Which will be easier applied to music than it will be for other … I was talking before about picnic concerts a friend is planning for later in the year. You could go there and it doesn’t sound like it’s covid secure at all, not that it isn’t, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll be killjoy.
Everyone sat down having a picnic, naturally a few metres away from each other, with the right kind of music to create the right kind of vibe and ambiance. It’s natural covid secure. It doesn’t need fencing, it doesn’t need constant reminders and so on, it’s naturally that way by design and by nature.
That works as long as it doesn’t fill up too much.
You’ve got to be careful about the music as well. There’s music that you can sit and watch on a picnic blanket that would be beautiful, but then there’s music … that if you’re watching a Queen covers band, a tribute band, wouldn’t come across naturally. “Oh, I can’t sing and I want to. I can’t dance and I want to”. But if you’re watching an orchestra that’s not the case. So we might have to be careful in that sense. I can’t see any socially distanced punk shows any time soon.
Moving onto next year … you’d announced this year’s line-up. Do you plan to invite the same acts back? I know you’ve re-announced the same headliners…
We have for bluedot. Some festivals have rolled the line-up over, others haven’t. All it comes down to is the artists availability and willingness…
Of course, but also your invite….
Well yes. There will be the invite, or at least in the majority of cases, but the issue can be the ones who aren’t available.
A line-up is curated, you’ve got a certain number of things you’re trying to achieve with the line-up, and if some artists aren’t available then you have to go and get others that achieve that, and if they’re not available then you have to get other hybrids. They don’t necessarily have to sound the same, they have to push the right buttons and get the right audience excited.
So for instance, if one headliner isn’t available that might have repercussions on other headliners potential, because you don’t want to end up with too strange a line-up. Certainly with Kendal Calling we want to have something which is a nice balance across all ages and genders, something that appeals to everybody across four headliners. We don’t want to lean to heavily in any direction and alienate the audience. There is a fine line. Over the years a pattern, a formula, a way of booking, has emerged.
You speak to the agents at a certain time, and there’s a nice process to it. It does get earlier year after year by a bit of creep. It’s got to the point where in June you’re talking about next year’s line-up which I don’t like because I like to do the festival and fine-tune based on what’s just happened.
Some artists aren’t making decisions until September, others artists are saying you’ve got to make an offer now else we’ll have made our choices and you’ll have missed the boat. I wouldn’t say it’s chaotic, but it’s disjointed in a way that it wasn’t which is making the booking process all that harder. You don’t want to make an offer now on an artists when there might be that’s better suited but you won’t know until September. It’s just risk, it’s a risky game and you’ve got to weigh it up. So it’s keeping us on our toes.
Fifteen years in, have there been any acts you’ve been trying to get and you haven’t been able to yet?
I’ve got the perfect answer for this. The idea for the original Kendal Calling …. when we started we didn’t have any dreams of getting it to where it is now. I don’t dream of winning the lottery, it’s never going to happen. I’d never have even hoped to get half of what we’ve got to now with the bands we’ve booked and enjoyed or the number of years we’ve managed to operate.
But the very first festival was mainly dreamed up when I had a kind of ‘flu, laying on the sofa for 5 days not able to move, never had that before. Back in 2005 winter. I mainly watched music videos and there was one artist who repeatedly came on, Jamie T. I thought this guy’s amazing. So I sent the agent an email and he wasn’t available. Every single year now I’m resurrecting that thread in my inbox: “What about this year?”. It’s about 70 emails long now. The subject is ‘Jamie T Kendal Calling 2006’. It breaks my heart but it’s just a succession of no’s. As time goes by my fondness for his music only grows. One day. That’s the one that’s always got away, one day I hope we get that, I really do.
The strange thing is he hadn’t brought out an album for a good period of time, maybe 6 years at one point, and hadn’t toured for a long time. Yet we always ask the audience ‘who do you want to see?’ and he has been consistently in the top 3. It wasn’t just me that’s a big fan of Jamie T, there’s a ginormous following in Cumbria.
Have you planned anything extra for next year because you’ve had this summer free?
We do get the question, are you going to do something really special? It would be lovely to, but … we’ve got to weigh up the costs of things. We’re not going to be cutting corners, or short-change anyone, it’s going to be the same festival and it’s going to be that more special because we’ve not been able to be in a field together for so long … but we’re not going to get a 2nd main stage there, or something spectacular like that.
What we are doing, this is a really welcome break in many ways – obviously, absolutely horrific and terrible – but the one good thing, I’m trying to remain optimistic in life, looking for silver linings wherever I can. One of the good things is a chance to take stock and do those projects we haven’t had a chance to do. Things like décor. We want to get a workshop going on on site, building wonderful installation art. That’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time, but with 101 ones always to do immediately there’s not really the time for large projects. They take an awful lot of brain space because they’re completely re-inventing how we do it. Sadly we’ve had to do it the same as last year. Through things like that we’ll be able bring more value in and make for a better event.
Things on the to-do list which never hit the top.
Exactly. And décor is one of those. We spend an awful lot of money each year but the way that it works, you spend most of the money putting it up and taking it down, and storing it. The actual décor itself is probably the smallest part of the overall budget on décor. Which is a bit crazy, you think “if we could only spend the whole budget on décor”, that would be great. But that has to relook at how we do décor. There’s got to be a way of doing it that brings far more value. We need to find a way of doing more with what we’ve got.
Building it on site, and thinking about it in advance, designing it, thinking how long it’ll take to put up, how do we reduce that time. So we can spend more time putting up other bits of décor. I’m a big fan of the décor as you can tell.
It’s the sort of thing which makes a big difference to a festival. I’m a big fan of tree lighting.
We’ve got a beautiful site for that, but when you’ve got 200 big oak trees it takes weeks and weeks to put up and weeks and weeks to take down. The cost isn’t the equipment or the cost of turning on and off. We need to find ways of doing that which doesn’t cost so much so we can do more of it.
I really want to go to town. I’m an obsessive reader and I love immersive worlds, and that’s what we’ve got the opportunity to build here. We’re just curtailed by budget and we need to find ways of making it go further.
I went not my first light trail last year, I see those cropping up each winter these days. If you’ve not been to one it’s really worth going to. A nice walk round botanical gardens or stately home or deer park, and completely full of light sculptures. They can be quite special. We want to do more of that, we’ve already got a bit of that going on.
The final question on my list, completely different this one. Brexit.
Ha! One crisis at a time please!
This is next year’s crisis. I’m wondering if the likes of different visa rules are causing you to look at booking different acts to those you might have booked otherwise?
Not at this point. Mainly because we’ve got an exceptionally busy time already, and I try not to worry about things which are unknown at this point. I think it’s going to be bad but I’d rather wait for guidance, I’m not going to be able to solve it, especially when no one knows what it is. Absolutely bonkers, the most bizarre thing.
It’s not changing how we’re booking, because I’m confident that one way or another the show always goes on. There’s a reason for that saying, it’s nearly always true. We will get around this, we will do what we can, I’m just not letting it affect us in that way. If there’s a band we want to book because they’re the right band then we will make it happen. I’m not going to let something like that change how we do things.
Thank you Andy, I’ve really enjoyed our chat. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that things improve.
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