On Friday eFestivals interviewed Robin Bennett founder of Truck and Wood festivals, as well as Truck America which started last year.
It was back in 1998, I was just out of school at 19, and my brother Joe who I did the festival with was 17 at the time. We'd been to a couple of local and national festivals and found them a bit lacking, and we watched the Woodstock movie, and thought, "Wow! I want to do something like that." It was also coming up to my birthday, and I thought I'll have a big party and that will be the first festival. So, I planned it for my birthday in July.
We began planning it two weeks before, and we were then informed that we needed a license. So, we had to postpone the date to September. We asked a local farmer if we could have it in his field, and I kind of down played it, and said there would be 20-30 friends, he said okay, I'll flip burgers, and you can use the field.
We asked a few Oxford bands if they would come and play, any band that could play at a real venue I was pretty in awe of. We got some interest from some of the bigger bands in Oxford at the time. Somehow we even ended up with one band coming from New York.
What made you decide to expand to do Wood too?
Well, obviously, Truck went on for 10 years and grew and grew, until it was at 5,000 capacity, and in 2007, roughly 10 years after the first one, we had the very bad floods, and for the second time we had to postpone the festival, and held it that September again. It's usually still in July on my birthday.
After that we had to start again really with a new business. We had always wanted to run events all year around and do them in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Having been hit by a natural disaster we thought it would be good to build that into the way we operate, so that we were doing things in the most environmental way we can.
Also, I'd just become a parent, my son had been born just before Truck, the September one. So, being a parent I wanted somewhere to take my son, and run it on environmental values.
Wood started that, and we first did that in May 2008. Now, we've just had the fourth one, and my second child, my daughter, was born the day before Wood this year, amazing timing.
Any plans for a third festival, and a third child?
Well, actually we have a third festival, we have Truck America festival too last year, inspired by the Woodstock movie, and by artists like Bob Dylan and The Band. We've always been interested in Woodstock, and the area, upstate New York. We'd been there a bit on tour in the past with bands we'd been in, and through some contacts in Mercury Rev, we were suggested a location called Full Moon Resort, which was amazing, up in the mountains just near Woodstock.
We did a festival there last May with Mercury Rev playing, and we're going back on September 9th this year, and the details should be announced in the next couple of weeks. It does make a great holiday actually, flying to New York, and then driving up to the Catskills.
Did last year's event have that vibe that you wanted to instil from Woodstock?
Definitely. Even, doing Wood and then doing our first different festival, we did wonder whether we could transfer the things that were good about it, and thus far it's worked. They've had that spirit, and in some respects been better. Certainly each one is different, and you work with the people in the place where you're going. What we bring, I think, is a community spirit and a passion for music, and the experience that we have.
How did the Americans find it, did they find it different?
Yes, they did. My brother is married to an American, Claire, from New Jersey, and we have a lot of American friends and some of them had been to Truck UK and said, "You know, there's nothing like this in America, you should come over and do it." So, Truck America is a bit like Wood, it's on the scale of Wood, and in a beautiful, natural setting, with the kind of music you find at Truck festival. The people who came the first time, they just loved it.
You tend to just get big gigs in stadiums in America, or they're set in the desert, and everyone stays in hotels. The English type of festival doesn't exist very much.
What was the first festival you went to?
I think it was V96, and in a way that was very different. Although , the festival is what it is, that was what made me want to do something very different, as different as possible from that really.
Although Truck has grown, it's still tiny really. The main thing is the artists, we've got all these great artists. We've got a lot of our favourite artists playing, this year we've got Gruf Rhys, Graham Coxon, Phil Selway, St Etienne, and lots of artists that you could see at a much bigger event, playing in a really intimate and personal setting. That's what I enjoy.
Do you find it difficult to book acts, with exclusivity acts. Have you experienced that?
Not this year, we have come across them in the past, but it's been okay this year. We haven't tried to put exclusivity contracts on anyone. I think artists should use their judgement to see how many concerts they want to play, rather than refer to big promoters. I prefer to trust people, but it does go on, and we've never done it. We have found it a problem with other people doing it, but this year it seems to be okay. I guess, for the artists there's quite a big diversity of events they can play, and they would have to earn an awful lot to only play one.
Are there any new things you're unveiling at Truck this year?
Many. One thing after Truck last year, or 13th one, was that we did feel it needed changing and freshening up a bit. We'd been going with the same formula from day one really while it got bigger and bigger.
We've almost started from scratch this year, we've got a new main arena in a different field with a big natural amphitheatre, a bit like a small version of the Glastonbury main stage, with the sloping hillside. We've got a brand new Clash tent which is a very large tent where Graham Coxon, and St Etienne are going to be playing. That will be hosted by different independent labels each day. We have Transgressive, Heavenly, and Bella Union.
Which reminds me, the event is three days this year, for the first time. We've had limited Friday opening for the last few years, but this year is the first with a full day, with all the stages running. We've also brought in a Wood Field which has a taste of all the things that happen at Wood. Wood's very different, as well as 100% renewable energy, it has a more folk/acoustic line-up and it has a lot of kid's activities and workshops for adults as well, and that's going to be going on in the Wood field.
Do you find a lot of people go from one to the other?
It was like that initially, but Wood's really found it's own audience now. People that discovered it the first couple of times keep coming back, by the second year it was full, and it's been the same crowd ever since.
We generally want Truck to be more suitable for families now. Especially as the clan is expanding further, my brother's got a daughter as well, and we want Truck to be even more of a family event. It always has been, but we're making sure there's extra provision.
We're also bringing in Oxford Playhouse to Truck this year. The boss of Oxford Playhouse came to the event last year, and just phones me up and asked if they could come and do something. They're bringing theatre productions, street theatre, and childrens workshops from their educational team.
Who have you been most proud of getting to Truck over the years?
Well, in 1998 we sat around the kitchen table and drew up a list of artists that we wanted to get. It was all pie in the sky at that time, but we felt it was realistic. We wrote letters to them all, and the only one who ever replied was Grandaddy, they sent a letter back saying, "We'd love to play but we're 3,000 miles away." But, now we've had nearly everyone on that list, bands like Ash, Supergrass, Idlewild, Lemonheads, Mercury Rev... the list goes on. Gruf Rhys is one that we've been wanting to have and he's there this year. Phil Selway coming from Radiohead, so we've had all the local heroes. Hopefully Phil will enjoy it, and mention it to the others.
When can we expect the next announcement?
We're going to announce the theatre, and cabaret, and the Oxford Dance area, and that will be coming out next week, probably Tuesday.
What's always the most difficult hurdle when putting it together each year?
There's the usual ones, booking acts, avoiding those exclusivity contracts, and staying in budget, or even working out the budget. Then there's licensing, the Council, and the police. They're trying to help you a lot of the time but it's still difficult. Then there's selling enough tickets, to make sure you have enough people there. I think when running a festival you need to be able to handle a lot of uncertainty, and complexity really, because you're dealing with so many different factors. From farmers, kids, punk rockers, and policemen, you have to deal with all those different kinds of people, probably more so than most jobs.
I remember the first year having Council meetings, meeting the police, checking toilets, generators, learning about electricity, how that works. We were self taught really, and nowadays because it's bigger - we've got a much bigger team and we have experts on the team that know they're stuff.
We've run 20+ festivals since we were teenagers, and we've picked up a lot, that's quite a bit of experience now.
What trends do you see happening with festivals these days?
There are a lot of them, it's become something of a national pastime and if I think back to 1998, it's so different now. I think there's 10 times as many at a guess. There was 80 to 100 and now there's 800 to 1,000 at a conservative guess, which is just extraordinary. And, although I think we're probably hitting the limit, it's great that audiences are able to be outside and listen to music. It's a shame that we don't have a slightly more stable climate here, that would help, and that's the other uncertainty, that we all have to deal with.
These days you get David Cameron going to festivals, you get Joey Barton going to festivals, everyone goes to festivals.
Do you think the recession has hit festivals?
I think the recession has hit all businesses of any kind. One thing I have noticed, is within the huge influx of money into festivals, are a few very amateurish organisations that have been doing it for years, like we have, for the love of it. We're still donating all proceeds to charity and not really giving the next year's event any though until a few months before it, and doing it on a voluntary basis really.
Suddenly all these venture capital companies, and huge corporations were coming into it, and it became immensely competitive, and the business of it, is rapidly becoming professionalised, in a way that it never used to be. Websites like yours are a big factor now, and it's a whole industry now.
It has become an addition to the music industry, rather than just an aside. It used to be just Reading, and Glastonbury, and that was it, and now it's a whole season, from the beginning of May until the end of September now.
What advice would you offer to budding festival organisers?
I think that the way things are going, people are not going to travel far to go to a festival, so you're really going to have to reach your local audience, or a real niche, something that you're really interested in yourself. Trying to cater to a general audience these days I think you'll fail, because there's a million events, well not far off.
There's all these ones now that are for 3-500 people as well now, that are going on every weekend. It's great, they're great for music really. And I can see why, doing one on a 5-10,000 people level is immensely expensive, and I don't think that starting as a new venture would be very easy, unless you get a lot of financial backing because chance are it will lose money the first couple of times you do it, and it's not cheap to put that kind of event on, because of the level of health and safety compliance and everything you have to do. Probably, I would advise starting small, certainly the way Truck did. If there's demand for it, and people like it, it will grow anyway, on it's own accord.
And what advice would you offer someone coming to Truck for the first time?
I would say, don't think like normal and turn up late on Friday or early Saturday, get there early because we've got Gaggle, kicking things off at 4pm. So you've got to get there around midday, set your tent up and get down the front for Gaggle.
What's the most essential item a festival goer should take with them?
Well you obviously have to have wellies, because if you bring them, you know it won't rain.
Truck features a line-up that's topped by Bellowhead and Gruff Rhys as headliners, also confirmed are St Etienne, Johnny Flynn, Graham Coxon, The Go! Team, Philip Selway, Edwyn Collins, John Grant, Tunng, Dean Wareham, Roddy Woomble, Justin Townes Earle, The Duke & The King, Cherry Ghost, Fixers, Trophy Wife, Jonquil, Chad Valley, Caitlin Rose, Marques Toliver, Treefight For Sunlight, Marcus Foster, Jonny, Richmond Fontaine, Dreaming Spires, and more with more acts still to be announced. For the line-up details as available please click here.
Truck Festival is growing this year, becoming a full three day event (Friday to Sunday) and increasing capacity from 5000 to 8000. Taking place from Friday 22nd to Sunday 24th July at its regular location of Hill Farm in Steventon, the site will be expanding too with a whole host of new features including a brand new major stage, label takeovers, improved camping areas, cabaret, comedy, theatre, cinema, a dedicated Family Field, luxury camping options, and the after-dark party spot Boxford.
An adult weekend ticket (including 3 nights camping) is priced at £99, a young person (aged 13-17 years) weekend ticket is priced at £79. Under 18s must be accompanied by a responsible adult. A minor (aged 0-12) can attend the weekend free if booked in advance. All under 18s must be accompanied by a responsible adult. A car parking ticket is priced at £8 adv / £15 on the day, with a campervan ticket priced at £40. To buy tickets once available, click here.
interview by: Scott Williams
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