interview with Summer Sundae Weekender festival organiser

Richard Haswell discuses next year's Summer Sundae, and Big Session

published: Tue 4th Nov 2008

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Friday 14th to Sunday 16th August 2009
De Montfort Hall, Granville Road, Leicester, Leicestershire, LE1 7RU, England MAP
£102 w/e, camping £7 per tent extra
last updated: Fri 7th Aug 2009

eFestivals spoke to Richard Haswell the organiser of The Big Session, and Summer Sundae Weekender about how he got started, his plans for 2009, greening festivals, The Association Of Independent Festivals, the credit crunch, and more.

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How did you get into running festivals?
I've been going to festivals on and off for years. I'm quite a regular Glastonbury goer, the two earliest festivals I went to were Glastonbury and WOMAD, and WOMAD itself was a bit of a revelation to me. When I first went to the Morecombe one, when they still did one there, it really opened my eyes to whole new world of music. I was an enthusiast of the festival experience and when I came to De Montfort Hall because there was this fantastic outdoor space in the grounds, it just seemed the right thing to do and it all grew from there.

And what year did Summer Sundae start?
2001 was the first year we held Summer Sundae, It was only one day. We had done one off outdoor shows before that. We'd done a big show with BB King and we used to do a lot of outdoor classical music. The first Summer Sundae was one day and two stages, it's grown a bit since then.

What's the worst thing about being a festival organiser?
I suppose the most frustrating thing about it is getting the line-up together. For every act that you want and succeed in getting there are eight that you don't for a whole variety of different reasons, That can be enormously frustrating and challenging, and you do seem to spend an awful lot of time waiting for people to get back to you. There's a great relief when the line-up is finally finished, and that's the moment you think, "Right this is definitely going to happen."

And what's the most enjoyable bit about organising Summer Sundae?
I guess it's just actually being around so many happy people. During the course of the festival I get a lot of people coming up and talking to me and saying thank you, and telling me how much they are enjoying themselves and what a great time they are having. Which makes me feel really good, and does make it all seem worthwhile, because you just get that feeling that you've created a weekend for people that is very special, and that feels great.

Roisin Murphy
How did both festivals do last summer?
We did well, we held our own on the Big Session, the number of people attending was the same as the previous year. Summer Sundae was up on the previous year,which we were very pleased about. It was a bit slower than it has been in the past. People left it a bit later, but quite a lot of festivals were reporting that in the run up to Glastonbury.

It was funny that after Glastonbury weekend, because the weather was so nice, I think people saw Glastonbury on the television and saw the sun shining and people having a great time. At that point lots of people thought, "Perhaps we do want to go to a festival after all." People obviously had a memory of how atrocious the weather was the year before. All the festivals reported that they had a noticeable pick up at that point, and along with everyone else in July and August we ended up doing very well. The whole festival season finished very strongly. Making rumours of doom and gloom circulating earlier in the year were proved very unfounded.

So with the credit crunch, and finance worries for 2009, how do you think next year will go?
It's going to be challenging, but I think that the well established festivals are going to be all right. The ones that have got strong audience loyalty, and a strong brand I suppose really. My feeling is that people are going to go to fewer than they have been going to in the past. But, if you've got a strong loyal audience then I think it should be okay.

This is clearly no time for anybody to start a new festival, and I'll be surprised if anybody does. The market is pretty much saturated. But, I'm cautiously optimistic, by no stretch of the imagination am I complacent about it. But when times are hard, that form of escapism do become important to people. It's interesting that in the main De Montfort Hall programme at the moment, the thing that's selling better than anything else at the moment is comedy. I do think there might be an element of when times are tough people need to laugh. Well, equally I think when times are tough, a festival is an ideal place to get away from it all.

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So who are plans going for next year's events?
They're okay, we're not at the stage yet where we've got any acts in place, and I wouldn't expect there to be at this time. But, we are just about to start work on the early part of that process.

We're looking at a few interesting site developments as well. We're actually talking to the council about making the site a bit bigger and moving things around a bit at Summer Sundae. If all of that goes to plan, which we hope it will, we'll actually be able to capacity up it a little bit, that would be good.

Would that include additional stages?
No, it wouldn't include additional characters. I kind of think we have enough really at the moment, but it will involve moving the Rising Stage, and that might mean it gets a bit bigger at that point, and we can fit a few more in. That also means it will free up some more space, so we can develop further the stuff we are doing for families and for children. In particular we want to look at developing a stronger programme for teenagers.

So what sort of things does that mean you are looking at?
We've always done activities for children and families and that's been very strong. That's based around workshops, and making, film screenings, play activities, and so on for the younger age group. There's a thing we've been doing for a couple of year's now called the Urban Jam Tent which is exclusively aimed at teenagers and is based on music participation, performance and DJing and so on. It's that whole area, based around workshops, and participatory activity for that kind of age group is one of the things that we'd like to develop.

Summer Sundae has moved weeks in the calendar, can you explain why?
There are five weekends in August this year, and we originally thought we were going to be the second weekend which is the 7th, 8th, 9th, but in fact the way that everything else started to fall into the calendar when other festivals started announcing their dates. It meant we would be on the same weekend as The Big Chill, and a few other things, and we really didn't want to do that. So, we really didn't want to do that, so what we've done is gone back to traditionally where we've always been which is the week before V, and the week after The Big Chill.

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What sort of feedback do you get back about Summer Sundae?
Overwhelmingly there are two things that people say they love about the Summer Sundae. One is that it's such an incredibly laid back environment, and very relaxed, and that was part of why we started doing it in the first place. It seems extraordinary now that when we started, year's ago what we actually thought was that there was something of a gap in the market for a smaller, family friendly, musically very diverse festival where the audience and artists were treated with respect and everything was done on a human scale. What that became, is what the media, like to call a boutique festival, of which there are now hundreds, the demand clearly was there. What we wanted to do, myself and my colleague Rob Chalice at Coda, who is my co-director on all this, is create the kind of festival that we wanted to go to, and that our friends wanted to go to. That families could bring their kids to, and so on, and that's the kind of ethos we've stuck to all the way through with the development of the event as it got bigger.

And the other thing, is when we started musically in terms of the programme, we wanted to mix it up a bit. We weren't going to be genre specific, we'd drop things in that simply we liked, if people were good enough then they got to play. That's the other bit of feedback we constantly get from people, that when people go away on Monday morning having discovered their new favourite band, and invariably it will be somebody they've never heard of when they first arrived.

That's really important for the ethos of the festival, a significant part of the festival is about new music. That's why BBC 6 Music came on board, they've been our media sponsor for seven years, since they started and they like it. What we do at the festival reflects what they do at the station and vice versa, and that's one of the things that isn't going to go away.

That kind of diversification is important, one of the big hits this year was the poetry tent, Phrased And Confused, that was new, and it was a massive hit. When we look at next year at other things we can odd on there, like that, which are important to the development of the event.

We've always consistently worked in partnership with people to deliver this with a whole range of different people. The Musician venue in Leicester that runs the musician stage, the comedy festival runs the cabaret stage, the media partnership with the BBC, the poetry partnerships, the partnerships with Bathosphere for electronica, and so on. There's great merit in all of that because the whole becomes greater than the sum of all the parts., and that's part of the magic of the event really.

So what became your favourite new act of this year's weekend then?
We had one of those moments of the festival I think with Noah And The Whale because they hit the top ten the week of the festival, and you simply couldn't get into the Rising Stage to see them, it was absolutely heaving, packed for that. That was good. Also, not necessarily my new favourite band, was Roisin Murphy's set on the Saturday was just absolutely stunning. The other thing that is great is when someone so far exceeds your expectations of what it's going to be like, and that was a very good example of that, I think.

continues on page 2... more >>

interview by: Scott Williams

Friday 14th to Sunday 16th August 2009
De Montfort Hall, Granville Road, Leicester, Leicestershire, LE1 7RU, England MAP
£102 w/e, camping £7 per tent extra
last updated: Fri 7th Aug 2009

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