Festival Republic boss talks exclusively to eFestivals

Melvin Benn

published: Mon 21st Dec 2009

Melvin Benn

Friday 27th to Sunday 29th August 2010
Little Johns Farm, Richfield Avenue, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 8EQ, England MAP
£180 for a weekend ticket
daily capacity: 87000
last updated: Thu 26th Aug 2010

eFestivals got to talk to festival organiser Melvin Benn about his events including Reading and Leeds Festivals, Latitude, Electric Picnic, Big Chill, Hove in Norway, Glastonbury Festival which he helps to manage.

Melvin Benn
Glastonbury Festival seems to have solved the problem of touting with the way it does photo ID tickets do you see that spreading to other events?
No, Glastonbury is in a very fortunate position in that it sells out before the artists are announced, because it does that it has time to set these things up. Other festivals tend to have a very protracted sale, and tickets are usually on sale once the artists are announced, that makes having an ID system a lot harder to achieve for festival organisers.

I notice next year's Festival Republic Crime Prevention Conference will include a discussion about ANPR, what's that?
ANPR is automatic number plate recognition. I'm very pleased it's on the agenda because I don't know how successful the use of it has been so far, but the police are very, very keen on using it. They use it particularly around big events, like football matches where known criminals could be attending a football game or something like that, and the police are able to pick them up and prevent them going. Its success in relation to festivals has been pretty limited, but we have had some success with ANPR but not very much to my knowledge.

The number of people who are victims of crime at festivals is staggeringly low. Particularly when you put it into context with the sort of accommodation people are staying. The figures are incredibly low at all festivals. But we as festival promoters are always trying to further reduce the crime, it's our customers who are a victima of crime so we have to work hard to constantly reduce the numbers.

You've bought the Big Chill what do you hope to bring to the event?
The Big Chill is a fantastic event but it suffered from very poor financial management. It had been going relatively well but the event had been running itself, financially, pretty poorly. I think that you won't see a great deal of change to the Big Chill, but I'd like to think I'd bring a more coherent music policy to the festival, and I'd like to think that I'll also bring better behind the scenes organisation, and much better financial management. The reality is that it's a great festival but it's not been managed financially very well.

Talking of music policies, has there been a slight tweaking in the booking policy of Reading and Leeds festivals it seemed a much more diverse line-up this year which drew a more diverse crowd?
No, no, it's not intentional tweaking, it's whoever the best acts are that are available in that particular year. It's just that at Reading and Leeds 2009 they both had a much more accessible line-up than we have been known to have, but there hasn't been a musical policy change, that remains the same all the time. The acts we had as headliners were offered to us and we'd have been silly to have turned them down.

Sticking with Reading, what's the current situation with managing the problems in the campsites for next year?
There's always been a certain amount of high jinx at Reading, but it's never spilled over into wanton destruction before, but it was there for a period of two or three hours this year. We, and the police in particular, have always taken a fairly tolerant view of what occurs. That tolerance has completely gone now. If people are stupid enough to do that in future then their lives might well be ruined. the police are absolutely determined to arrest people who cause any kind of disruption in future. I'm hoping it won't be necessary but believe me the police are 100% determined to arrest people who mess about in future, and they will.

Will there be a distinction made between what's been traditionally high jinx as you call it and wanton destruction?
There always has been, and yes I hope that the police will exercise that discretion in the future.

Are you looking to implement any other changes to either event next year?
No, I don't think so.

Have you booked the headliners yet, any clues as to who they are?
No, none. Yes, we've booked them.

You also have Latitude, Electric Picnic, and Hove Festival to consider does having so many festivals mean you can't personally put as much time into the details of each festival as you used to be able to?
No, it means that I am even more involved than I used to be, it just means much longer hours.

Do you still have that relish for doing it each year?
Oh crickey, yes, like you wouldn't believe. It's the best job in the world. Well, there's only two roles that would be better in this world. One is manager of Manchester United and the other is manager of England. I don't know that I'd swap my job for either, but I think they run pretty close. Actually I could try and fit it in as well. They're the only things I might swap this for.

You say that you've already booked the headliners, a lot of festivals have decided to release some of their line-ups early (this side of Christmas) were you not tempted to do the same?
No, we've always done it the same way, I never reveal just the headliners, I prefer to announce a lot of acts. If you release just the headliners it suggests that the festival is just about the headliners, and none of our festivals are just about the headliners. I always leave it until we've got a fairly substantial amount of acts to announce.

Do you have any headliners booked for most of your festivals already?
Two of the three in place for Latitude, and two of the three in place for Big Chill, and one in place for Electric Picnic, and I've got very high expectations on all the empty slots being filled, and the artists have indicated that they will do it, they just haven't confirmed yet.

How soon do you start booking them each year for say Reading and Leeds?
It's usually just after the end of the last festival or sometimes slightly before the end of the festival. At the festival is a good time because the agents are around, and they can say about acts they might be able to line-up for the next year if we're interested. So it does happen then quite often. Quite often we've got the acts secured during the festival for the next festival, that's what's happened this year, but it's not always the bookers we talk to sometimes, it's the artists.

I heard your ideas for Glastonbury Festival to open early for cars next year? Where does that plan currently stand?
That plan currently stands as a submission to Mendip District Council, I don't know exactly when the meeting is I think it's February.

... and that's to open the car parks on Tuesday night with some facilities available in the car parks, and the Festival open its gates on Wednesday?
That's correct.

Were you pleased with how rapidly it sold out?
The fact it has sold out is really down to Michael and Emily. I just manage the operations at the festival. The feel and style of the festival is very much their doing. Obviously I was delighted that it had sold so well for next year.

I heard you were involved with Treeathlon this year is that right?
Trees for cities. Yes, I'm a patron of that particular charity, and it's organisation is something that's very close to me. There's actually three annual events one in Battersea, one in Leeds and one in Manchester. We already do a lot of tree planting in both Leeds and Reading.

Is there a plan to expand it to take in more cities?
No, not in the near future.

Considering the recession were you surprised how well major festivals fared in 2009?
No, I wasn't actually, I thought we had particularly strong acts available this year for line-ups.

Lastly, do you think the Olympic year will have any impact on your events?
Yes, to a certain extent. Obviously Glastonbury has decided to take a year off when it happens, but I don't know how much it will effect other festivals. I don't think it's necessary for other festivals to take a year out. Glastonbury chose to take that year off, and move the fallow year. We took the decision entirely on the basis of the economy of the bookable accommodation for Shepton Mallet and the surrounding area. We did that because we fully expect Millfield School (near the festival site) to be a training base for, I'm pretty certain, one of the major Olympic teams. We expect much of the accommodation in the area to be used by them, their security, etc. The number of people will be very significant. These places are also booked for the Festival when it's on and it just makes sense for us not to compete with them for space in bed and breakfasts etc in one year, and then have them have no income if we took a year off in 2011. So it makes sense to let the Olympic team use them in the year we take off.

Thanks for your time Melvin, and have a Merry Christmas.
And you too, take care.

interview by: Scott Williams

Friday 27th to Sunday 29th August 2010
Little Johns Farm, Richfield Avenue, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 8EQ, England MAP
£180 for a weekend ticket
daily capacity: 87000
last updated: Thu 26th Aug 2010

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