Wychwood's Graeme Merifield interview

speaking exclusively to eFestivals about plans for 2010

By Scott Williams | Published: Mon 18th Jan 2010

around the festival site (1)

Friday 4th to Sunday 6th June 2010
Cheltenham Racecourse, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England MAP
adult weekend £110, concession weekend £85, youth (10-15yrs) £50, under 10's free
Daily capacity: 7,500
Last updated: Fri 28th May 2010

Graeme Merifield hasn't come through the traditional route of a festival organiser from a background in music and then festivals. He was a Jack of all trades before becoming a festival organiser, with a varied working background from marketing, music sponsorship, tv production, and telecoms marketing to touring with Elton John, and his first job was working as a secretary at a film company who did things like Muriel's Wedding and The Piano. In 2010 Graeme is organising the sixth Wychwood Music Festival and eFestivals interviewed him exclusively about how the planning for this year was going.

around the festival site (2)
Do you have any plans to alter the layout at Wychwood this year?
Yes, we're looking at re-jigging the site to make it work even better than it has in the previous years. We’ve still got our main arena, but what we want to do with the other part of the site is to turn it into a second arena that will house all the workshops, the third stage, and everything else. So that everything will be a lot more obvious and a lot more accessible. That's what we're planning at the moment, so that it makes it even easier to navigate around this year.

The third stage is due to change programmer is that right?
We are in final talks with the BBC Introducers and a number of local radio stations who would like to take over the third stage, and bring local talent, and support local bands through the stage, and that's what we’d like to do with that this year.

You've announced workshops with the English National Ballet, do you think music festivals are expanding their music programmes more these days, and will they also perform on stage as well?
I think that music festivals are a great opportunity for various art forms to become more accessible to a number of people and English National Ballet, are an example, where they've been involved in the Angelina Ballerina stories, and therefore more kids become interested in ballet or learning how to dance, and that's why it really interested us in having them. They as an organisation are a ballet company that don’t actually have a venue, so they need to be out at events, and music festivals seem to be the way to go. They'll actually be doing dance workshops in our workshop area, and not as a performance on the main stage, we'll be keeping that to the music.

You're also having the Children's Literary Festival and the Roald Dahl Museum and Storytelling Centre return this year, where do you get your ideas of what to offer kids, that's much more wide ranging than the usual circus skills fare?
With that we're very lucky that the guy who runs our workshops is a street performer himself and so he goes to an awful lot of events and festivals, and is able to see what works and what people really enjoy. He and I both have young kids between the ages of three and six and so we're getting hands on experience of what our children enjoy. On top of that, it's about talking to friends of our who have older kids to see what we can put into the festival to make it more enjoyable for them. We also get a lot of feedback from the audience, we get a lot of suggestions that way. From there we try to put in as much as we can so that people of all ages are able to come and have a really good time over the weekend.

We also have Mr Tumble booked this year to entertain as a main stage event, we are looking to expand the cinema and the comedy a little bit more too within the second arena. We're only now starting to work on the workshop programme for this year, and there's a lot of exciting stuff coming through, that we’ll announce on eFestivals as they happen.

Do you do all the programming yourself for the workshops?
I do all the music, and all the partner activities such as the Roald Dahl, and the NGO seminars and workshops, and Friends Of The Earth, World Vision, and those sorts of things. Then we have another guy who works on the hands on workshops for adults and kids, and it's someone else who programmes the comedy, who runs a comedy club himself. We try to use these people within their own backgrounds to make the programme as early as possible. This year we will also be having comedy workshops, and comedy workshops for kids within the workshop area as well, I've just found that out today.

Wychwood also, with Friends Of The Earth, and so on, promote a range of social issues and causes. Do you think it's important for festivals to have a conscience?
I think so, I think festivals have a character, obviously different festivals out there have different characters. Be it, the one day picnic type event, or the full on Glastonbury Festival with multifarious characters. We think by the way we programme Wychwood, and the associations that we have, we attract a certain type of festival audience that enjoys Wychwood. We always try and have things on offer, without pushing ideas or things down people's throats. But more a case of if you can go and see a workshop and come in and look at some aspect of life or the environment, and then take some of those ideas home with you, that's entirely up to you, but it's there on offer. There for you to dabble in if you want to over the weekend.

Which non-musical aspect of Wychwood 2009 did you most enjoy?
I think, the non-musical events I most enjoyed were around the workshop area, things like the fire shows, which is on late at nights, and are highly enjoyable. And, although it's going to be the Headphone Disco and not the Silent Disco, last year the Silent Disco was a great laugh.

How did you come up with the concept of Wychwood?
Probably around 2003 at a festival. I go to quite a few festivals, and I was at one, and suddenly realised that festivals were something that I really, really did enjoy and wouldn't it be great if I could do my own one, and move out of working for other people and put a show on essentially. The idea was pretty much born out of that, and then I put a lot of work into building a business plan that was feasible, find the right partners, and partnerships to actually make it work.

Originally, because I live in West Oxfordshire, and there was an event in West Oxfordshire 200 years ago which used to attract 40,000 locals. The original idea was to resurrect that, but we could never find the right site to do it on in West Oxfordshire, and Cheltenham Racecourse welcomed us with open arms and the site seems to have worked for us ever since.

You've decided to introduce camping fees this year, what prompted that?
Well, we look at the prices every year, and we try to make them as fair as possible across the board. The actual cost of doing a festival each year goes up and up. Rather than increase the ticket prices across the board we've made changes where our kids are still free, we've reduced the price of the teenage ticket. There are obviously customers who come to the festival who don't camp, so the fairest way in our mind to bring about some increase to compensate for bringing other prices down, was to start a small camping charge. But, we have run two offers since the last festival for our customers in which the camping was included, both at the festival and then another deeply discounted offer up until November.

So, we think if people are confident in the festival, and for our regulars who want to come to Wychwood they can take advantage of those cheaper offers then, and other people who want to wait and see what the line-up is like we have the prices for them in the new year. It's really more a case of the festival needing a certain amount of income from tickets, and we're trying to do that as fairly as we can each year. Other festivals charge for children and we still don’t, and the same with teenagers. When you compare across festivals it's often swings and roundabouts, but we’d like to the majority of families and customers are getting better value for money out of Wychwood.

We understand that it's quite a costly thing for people to come to festivals, and if they want to commit early for next year, the offers will be there. It's our way of trying to say thank you, and trying to help financially. Also, for the offer after the festival that were taking bookings for, we then don't charge people's cards until November, so that allows people time to budget as well. We are a smallish festival, we're an independent festival, and sometimes it makes it a lot harder for us, than the big festivals who operate on a bigger scale than us, but we try to be as fair as possible.

You've got one headliner booked (Levellers), can we expect another headline announcement soon?
We're working on the rest of the programme at the moment, there are a number of new bands that have been signed, that we'll announce on eFestivals over the next month or so. Generally, we announce our second headliner and more artists towards the end of January, and the third early February and then at that point we go on sale with day tickets.

You've done a great job of spotting talent early at Wychwood, with the likes of The Feeling, Duffy, and Little Boots all booked before anyone had any idea who they were, do you hope to keep bringing breaking acts to the line-up?
Yes, obviously our music programme is quite broad, we cross folk, world, indie, and local bands, and we hope we can help new bands and offer them a performance slot, and every so often the ones as you've picked become very popular, and it would be nice to think that we can continue with that little bit of black magic.

I get the impression that bands enjoy their Wychwood experience, what’s the feedback you get from them?
I'd like to think so, and the feedback we get back from them says they do. Because it's a smaller festival, the audience have more of an interactive experience with them, and are not stuck down the back of a field behind a screen trying to see them. The audience can get closer to the main stage, and then we programme other acts within the Big Top who are even more intimate. After the festival loads of them want to come back the following year. Obviously you don't want to repeat too much because then it looks like you have no imagination or it's going to be the same festival again. Yes, we do get a lot of bands who want to come back, and that is very encouraging.
interview by: Scott Williams

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