Festivals are big business in the UK. The past decade has seen the outdoor music event evolve from niche to norm, with every weekend from May to September playing host to a variety of festivals of all sizes, styles, and quality.
This year more than ever before has illustrated the strains facing the overcrowded UK festival market - which is why it's becoming more and more important for event organisers to prove their mettle and strive for something exceptional. As Ash Kollakowski, organiser of Beacons Festival explains, "just because you put on a big indie act that’s had one or two Top 10 hits and filled it with a load of up-and-coming NME acts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to sell the tickets".
Last year, the independent Yorkshire Dales festival was cancelled due to flooding; a huge disappointment to music fans who were drawn by the events' clued up line-up and switched on approach to festival creation. This year organisers are taking no chances, with the entire event now moved to higher ground and every provision taken to guard against the unpredictable English summer.
With a progressive, eclectic and thoughtful line-up of credible underground and established talent, Beacons is a true music lovers' festival, curated by people with music - not money - on their minds. The thoughtfulness applied to the line-up curation spreads across the whole festival experience - from the food and drink to the marketing. As Ash explains, it's all aimed towards a certain kind of person.
Will Orchard listens as Ash Kollakowski takes us deep under the skin of one of the UK's most exciting new festivals.
How are you feeling about Beacons being so close now? Is it starting to get a bit hectic?
No, no, to be honest. I’m looking forward to it more than that. I’m really keen to get onsite and for things to be moving a bit quicker, because now is a period for me where I’ve done my booking for the festival and everyone else is taking care of the production and that side of things and I’m just concentrating on the marketing. Ticket sales are up on what we needed to be so we’re ahead of target, so it looks like we’re going to sell out basically. So that’s really good, that puts my mind at ease.”
It’s fantastic that Beacons has sold so well. I think people appreciate that there’s such a clear ethos behind the festival and that you care about creating a cohesive line-up, good food and drink, and an enjoyable all-round experience.
Absolutely. There have been a lot of festivals with good line-ups that have gone under, and I don’t know if that is just bad marketing, bad strategy… I don’t know. But the big ones that aren’t going on, I’ve never worked for those sorts of companies – I’ve been a consistent independent promoter for almost ten years now and my thing is I want to book things for festivals that I want to go and see. Just because you put on a big indie act that’s had one or two Top 10 hits and filled it with a load of up-and-coming NME acts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to sell the tickets. It needs to work together and gel together well.
We’ve got dubstep on at the festival but it’s not big dubstep like Skrillex, it’s not that sort of stuff. It’s intelligent, thought-provoking music… things like Mount
Kimbie. I guess that’s a perfect example of a live dubstep artist that we’ve got that’s almost gone past that. If you’re prepared to go and spend £50 on seeing Wild Beasts, the likelihood is that you’d like to see Mount Kimbie, and probably Junior Boys, and probably Ghostpoet. There’s a particular sort of strategy to booking where they need to be cohesive and correspond well to each other. But also, that has to match the marketing, where you advertise it and what sort of food and drink you have. You can have Wild Beasts, Ghostpoet, Mount Kimbie, Jessie Ware at your festival but unless you know where to market it it’s going to be a tough job for everyone.
I worked on this festival for 18 months without earning a penny and that’s what people have to be prepared to do. If you’re coming in to this to make money, you might as well go into another business. Putting on festivals and gigs is not easy money like it used to be. I used to run a venue called The Faversham years ago and you could put any rubbish on and sell tickets, because the live music scene was so intense and massive and everyone wanted to go to gigs, and there was quite a bit of money going round – a lot of sponsorship, a lot of magazines were being bought – and everyone wanted to be in a band and go to live gigs. But now people are sick of going to rubbish venues with high ticket prices, the same line-ups, seeing four boys in leather jackets on a stage. Music has completely progressed and merged into something which isn’t ‘going to see a band’ but it’s to see something creative, artistic and original.
People like to see interesting bands in interesting venues with interesting drinks, and they like to eat interesting food. You’ve got pop-up restaurants now, artisan and craft beers, you’ve got more on your doorstep. If you’re going to do a festival or a gig, it needs to be aimed at the people that have got that. It’s not just about the band – you need to have good food and drink, good support acts. It’s mainly to do with the fact people are spoilt these days. You can switch on your computer, find out what the hottest album is on Pitchfork and have it within three minutes. That is how easy it is to have music these days. And on the flipside, getting out of your house, you can go into town and have the best beer, the best venues. Everyone wants everyone’s attention these days and the only people that are going to survive are the people who really understand the market. I’m not saying we do – we’re yet to have a successful festival – but when I put on gigs in Leeds and when Dan’s company puts on gigs in London, everything is designed for a specific person.
When you’re faced with ten, twenty festivals, there’s only going to be one or two that appeal to you – it might be ATP, Field Day, Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, Coachella in California, Primavera in Barcelona – but each one is specifically designed and aimed at a particular kind of person. These people who put a load of bands in a field, where there’s no thought process behind anything, they’re going to find it really difficult to survive in the future I think.
That survival of the fittest aspect means that the punter is better off. Now that you’re in a position where there’s no incentive for people to go into it just for the money, you’re creating a situation where the punter has all the power and is driving the festival market. Is that a better situation for the scene as a whole?
Absolutely. I really respect people like Pitchfork, ATP, Field Day, Primavera, Now Wave in Manchester, because they craft their line-ups so they’re perfect and it’s a music fan’s dream come true. I think that’s what it should be. When I buy a car, I don’t want the exterior to look amazing and the interior to be cobbled together from a bunch of different cars. I want everything to be to the specifics that I want. These other [corporate] festivals coming in are doing smaller festivals a favour because those smaller festivals with the better artwork and the better line-ups and the cheaper tickets are hopefully the ones that are going to survive. It has been unfortunate that there are companies with a lot of money that have pushed smaller festivals out, but hopefully the people that can see it through, if they can see it through the next couple of years, the festival market will be as healthy as it was years ago. And there’s obviously the flipside which is England - bad weather - but all our stages are inside tents – we’ve got circus big top tents, marquee tents, all the bars – so come rain or shine there will be a comfortable place to be. But that’s also why city centre festivals like Warehouse Project are really popular, because you can put a festival on in November and it’s not reliant on the weather. If it rains, if it thunders, if it snows, it’s still going to go ahead.
The weather side of things is particularly important for Beacons, considering what happened last year. Obviously that’s a huge hurdle to get over, especially in the first year. Looking back, has it changed how you’ve approached this year’s festival?
No. Apart from that we moved the festival. That was the most important thing. It was an act of God, these things do happen. You just have to deal with it as maturely as you can and tackle all the problems; make sure everyone is happy a month later, make sure everyone has got their refund. I think if the same happened again this year, if there were extreme weather, we would still go ahead. We’re higher up, there’s going to be less chance of a flood this year. I would say 80% less chance. If it did rain, there are provisions to make sure there isn’t going to be any flooding. Last year, there was a foot of water in the road. You couldn’t even get to the festival. That’s unheard of.
If you look at the line-up, you’d not be able to tell the problems you had last year. It looks completely fully-formed. The line-up is so cohesive and well thought-out.
It’s twice as good.
Exactly, if anything it’s better than what you would have hoped for. What was the thinking behind the line-up?
It started last September. Me and Dan Crouch put down a few bands we wanted to headline this year. There were a couple of others like Metronomy and The Horrors as well, but we were thinking based on a 5,000 capacity festival what would be realistic, and who would be our favourite headliners? I managed Wild Beasts for three and a half years, up until about a year or two years ago. I opened up a shop in Leeds and the band moved down to London. My business partner Ed (Mason) went on to carry on managing them and we’ve since gone back into business with Whitelocks. So I’ve already had a really long personal relationship with Wild Beasts in terms of managing them, and I put out their first ever record on Bad Sneakers Records. So I was like ‘Well, we’ve got there, I think the guys will be interested if we put a nice proposal together for them'.
- Date: Friday 17th August 2012
- Event: Beacons Festival at Funkirk Estate
- Venue: Funkirk Estate
- Artists: Ghostpoet, Pearson Sound, XXXY, Roots Manuva, Bok Bok, Submotion Orchestra, D.R.U.G.S., Errors, Jam City, Star Slinger, Toots and The Maytals, Mazes, King Krule, Bos Angeles, Peaking Lights, Gross Magic, Still Corners, Cass McCombs
So I put together a list of twenty bands, DJs and producers who I thought would be good together. It was the kind of stuff I was listening to at the time like Pearson Sound, Girl Unit, Hudson Mohawke, Wild Beasts, The XX. I put this list together and thought ‘That looks really good. Obviously not all of it’s going to happen but if I can get a few of those I think it will start to come together.’ And then meeting up with the band, the band’s agent, their management. It’s not just a case of emailing someone. If you get someone excited by the idea and can sell the idea of the festival to one person, if you can convince other people that other people are interested in doing it… and we also said to Wild Beasts ‘Who would you like to do the festival?’. And they sent us a list of all the artists they’d like to see at the festival which gave us Kwes, Cass McCombs, Junior Boys, Ghostpoet. So they sent us a list of what they really liked and thought was inspirational and from that we looked at people like Ghostpoet and Junior Boys and thought ‘Who influences these people? Who do these musicians remix?’ Every band has a connection. Wild Beasts were remixed by Junior Boys, who are on the same label. Kwes has remixed some stuff like Junior Boys and some other people who are on the line-up. Then we thought about Warp Records, which linked us to artists like Hudson Mohawke. And then from Hudson Mohawke, he’s connected to Lunice. Lunice has had remixes from Starslinger. Starslinger is on the same booking agency as Peaking Lights. Peaking Lights, in turn, are on Domino Records. It’s all kind of linked, everything has a natural momentum to the mathematics of music.
It’s very much a music fan’s line-up. It seems very much orientated around the fan who has a Nicky Hornby-esque level of obsessive investment in ‘the scene’ as well as specific bands.
Yeah. I think that if you’re into music and you’re into Peaking Lights or Cloud Nothings and you look at that line-up and you see them on there, you’ll think ‘Well, if they’re playing on there I’m sure there are other acts on there that I’d enjoy'. But also, 'if they’re playing at the festival there are going to be people
there like me.’ I think people go to a festival not just to discover new music, but to get their friends together. Like, I’m going to convince my friend Nick from London, who I’ve not seen for ages, and I’m going to get him up and take him to see all my favourite bands. It becomes an experience of people letting other people know how much they love music. It’s almost like kids who always wear Eastpak rucksacks and Supreme baseball caps. It’s like ‘I want people to know I’m into this sort of music and anyone that looks like me will probably have a similar taste to me. And also my friends, who don’t know this sort of music but do dress like me, I think they would like this. People become quite obsessive about festivals. I know people who have been to Glastonbury every single year, and their year is all about looking forward to it. I’m the same when it comes to SXSW in Austin; I’ve been there every year for nine years in a row. It’s a £1,500 round trip but I’ll do it every year because I love the people who go there and I know I can go there by myself and meet like-minded people who love to discover new music and who like to read certain websites and certain newspapers. I love it. And I try to convince people to go with me to SXSW because I want them to experience what I experience and have the love for new music like I do. That in itself, getting your friends into new music, is what people used to do years ago.
I’m 37 now and when I was 13, going to school in 1988, I was making mixtapes for my friends. My friend Mark Dickinson made me a mixtape that had The Descendants on it, Minor Threat, Big Drill Car, SST bands like Husker Du… he wanted me to be into the same bands that he was into. Mixtapes don’t happen anymore but people like to be the first of their gang of friends to hear of someone. So you get people saying ‘I’m going to Beacons Festival becasue Maya
Jane Coles is playing, and Julio Bashmore and Disclosure are playing’. People like to be the first to tell their friends that. Festivals bring people together.
Who are some of your highlights of the line-up?
We’ve got a band called Holograms playing and they’re from Denmark. They’re a really young band - 18, 19, 20 years old. They’ve not properly toured the UK yet, this is going to be one of their first festivals, and I’ve got them headlining a stage on Friday night. That’s going to be so exciting. Toots & The Maytals and Roots Manuva are sort of heritage bands from Jamaica and England and they cross the Jamaican-English divide, which I think is a really important one in music. The whole Jamaican culture which was embraced by London youths in the 1970’s – whether it was punks, or Rastafarians who moved from Jamaica.
I think that is another thing I would like to get into more next year; some really interesting reggae and ragga artists. I love people like Yellowman, Capleton and Cutty Ranks. I love that Kingston ragga sort of sound. But for me, that also gels well with punk bands from Denmark and Peaking Lights from Baltimore who make a dub-reggae sound and Ghostpoet, a South London rapper. It really does work. Bringing that to the Yorkshire Dales, that’s so English. People think of England as folk music and morris dancing but I don’t because I was born in 1975, brought up at the beginning of an economics crisis, with Margaret Thatcher, miners strikes, petrol strikes, and the music I grew up with is The Clash… Having an English-spirited festival doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have English folk music. So that’s something I would like to get into next year. The English spirit of urban youth.
How does it feel to have put together such a line-up and such a festival?
It’s amazing. When I look at the line-up, I’m pretty proud of what I’ve put together. But it’s not for me; I don’t know how many bands I’m going to see at the festival. For people to comment on it on Twitter and Facebook and say the line-up’s amazing, for 110 people to ‘like’ the fact that I’ve put on Mount Kimbie, that’s cool. That, for me, is awesome. And the festival isn’t even here yet. Seeing people at the festival really getting into it, I think, if it goes well this year, if everything works well, if people love the line-up, I think people will buy tickets next year without even looking at the line-up.
If the trust is there that they think we’ve done such a good job this year then next year is guaranteed to be good, I will work twice as hard to make it good next year. I’ve got no intention of making this festival a 20,000 capacity festival. As soon as it gets to that, it loses the reason I got involved with the festival in the first place. If we can sell enough tickets to make the festival busy and to be able to afford to pay the acts what we think the acts deserve to get paid, then that’s the festival right there.
I’ve not gone out on a limb and booked people because someone’s said they’re going to be big. I’m not bothered about that. I want it to be interesting, thought-provoking, exciting.
Interview by: Will Orchard
Beacons Festival tales place near Skipton in the Yorkshire Dales from 17-19 August 2012.
Tickets are still available from £34.50 per day and £84.50 for the weekend. Get yours through Skiddle below.
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