Festivals: a black hole for cash and a life’s obsession


The featured image is of Etienne de Crecy, who is performing at Standon Calling this year, taken from Dazed Digital; awaiting photographer’s details.

Running a festival which is screwing you into the ground financially, while you obsess over delivering it with the responsibility of a King of a small but wonderful nation of people’s threated at every turn by evil armies of creditors, local authorities and insane weather conditions is a familiar story to many festival organisers.

Alex Trenchard, who had a day job as corporate affairs manager at Tesco, was recently convicted of spending £350k on his work credit card to keep his festival Standon Calling afloat, thereby taking his festival story to extremes which he and his family will be processing for years to come.Thankfully he has all the chances one can have in that situation to pull himself and his wife and kids through, so hopefully and with a bit of forgiveness all round esp on himself by himself, he will prevail.

The festy was and is fully plugged in to festival culture in the UK, having grown organically – as all the best fests do – from a birthday party for Alex and friends on the grounds of his family home into a fully blown festival.

Impressively and thanks in no small part to the Trenchard parents, the show will still go on and Standon Calling is looking like an extremely good bet for a brilliant weekend this summer.

In 2008, Standon Calling won the Innovation Award at 2008’s UK Festival Awards for its underwater disco, which I was gutted about, as I had just taken twenty Big Issue sellers to the Big Chill to sell the festival programme – a project which saw the homeless vendors earn between £200- £1,000 each over a single weekend by earning £1 per programme.

underwater disco - harumph

It was the natural conclusion of Big Issue Publisher Lisa Woodman’s relationship forging with festivals over the years and my work building an advertising relationship with the Big Chill festival. They wanted something more than ads – and we came up with the idea of a contract publishing deal which would see the Big Chill paying a lot less for producing their programme (the Big Issue is a national magazine with a huge print run, so it could pass on the beneficial printing costs).

The deal would also give a group of homeless people the opportunity to be part of something truly special: none of them had ever been to a music festival before, let alone been part of the core team.

Some of them put their earnings to good use buying training, treatment, train tickets to see family, professional equipment, and even deposits on flats.

I felt that the idea of giving Big Issue sellers the opportunity to be involved in music festivals – a scene which is usually exclusively for those who can afford to splash upwards of £300 on a single weekend – and providing festivals with a seasoned outdoor roaming sales force (which produces higher sales than their usual static merch stands or charity bucket shakers), was a damned fine innovation and deserved recognition especially as it was just getting off the ground in its second pilot year with the Big Chill.

I also felt that The Big Chill deserved props for giving it a go – inviting twenty homeless people into your festival is quite a leap of faith – although as it turned out the Big Issue supporting staff were more ‘fun loving’ than the Vendors, who are a seasoned lot who can handle themselves at festivals and have far too much to lose to throw it all away on a few high jinks on work time.

The Fest Awards are voted for by punters however, and the idea was so fledgling and leftfield that we had yet to use the success of the pilot years to get the great stories out there on festival websites, blogs and press, and I don’t think the festival market had quite enough confidence in our rather revolutionary idea by that stage.

Possibly a good thing too – the idea needed finessing. Investment from the Big Issue was urgently needed if the scheme was to be developed into fruition, and unfortunately the Big Issue did not, or could not, take the plunge.

I was in danger of getting obsessed with launching the scheme so much did I believe in it – and still do. It has the potential to be to programme production and distribution what Oxfam is to stewarding.

However once the Big Issue made it clear they were not able to invest in health and safety training for vendors and support staff, and a real look at the business model to help festivals integrate it with their existing merchandise deals (all of which I had taken far into development), I had to force myself to move on.

Standon Calling has always been a non-profit making festival with all profits going to charity. It has also been a creatively-led festy with innovative ideas and a good atmosphere. I am glad to hear the team is struggling on – they must be eternally grateful to Alex’s parents who have fronted the astonishing  £355,000 that Alex spent on his Tesco company credit card keeping the festival afloat.

Having both flirted with irresponsible debt and run a festival whilst at the same time holding down a full time job, I cannot help but sympathetic towards Standon Calling’s erstwhile director.

Festivals hoover money, and Alex’s isn’t the first to spiral out of control. Each year a flurry of festivals go under, often smaller ones but increasingly the mid market players – ’boutique’ festies such as The Big Chill itself which went into liquidation in 2009 and is now owned by Festival Republic.

Insurance, the expense of ‘weather proofing’ a site (an activity which can easily be rendered obsolete if there is either fine weather, or a hurricane), paying local police and councils demands for the site are often more of a swamp than any festival site after three days of rain.

You HAVE to sell tickets to cover your expenses, and yet even with the best marketing campaign in the world complete with apps, exclusivity, and reams of photo’s of an idealistic summertime nirvana from the year before, random trends can catch on amongst the festival going public and drive them all away from their usual festival of choice and into the arms of another.

Delivering a festival is obsessing. When you have full time job to do on top of producing a festival, you deplete every last ounce of reserve energy, networking, phone calls, endless emails, promoting, talking it up constantly, confidently, energetically. The creative juices are electrified as they flow alongside the highly pressurised white waters of the unassailable deadline.

You become incredibly excited and driven, and each positive confirmation from an act, or an idea which comes together, or ticket sales bench-mark reached, are successes which give you a huge, igniting and whoop-inducing sense of achievement. If you have a flair for creative ideas and organising, this can be the most fulfilling buzz there is, a thousand gallons more than the day job.

You are in a position where you must give absolutely free rein to all of your ideas and imaginings; the uniqueness and energy of your event depends on it. At the same time, every day there are several moments where you must tell yourself to reach for the stars – make that phone call to a peer or performer or sponsor  – with capability and confidence, and each time it works out, it inspires the next big challenge. There is only you to give yourself the confidence to carry on, and those benchmarks of success are a life line. It’s a chance to bounce your creative vision amongst a real live pulsating audience of appreciative like minded types; a very rewarding project indeed.

And then, when the time comes, you are part of a huge team making the festival happen, but your control is no longer absolute; its up to the characters, party styles and spirits of the punters, the visiting fooderies, bar staff, production teams, compere’s, artists, litter pickers, campaigners, security staff. They dictate the pace and you firefight and beeline and find five minutes for a wash and lap it all up and enjoy the early mornings and make sure your tent is a haven and then finally its over and there is the calm after the storm.

Beats wondering how to be warm AND sexy in fancy dress, paying 20% extra just to get your own cash out, mulling over the programme endlessly and feeling like you are never in the right place at the right time, which is what I often feel like when I don’t have an impossibly challenging job to do at a festival. Boring!

Good luck Standon Calling, and good luck Alex – the festival is a good legacy whatever else has happened.

Visit Standon Calling’s bubbly, clean and attractive magazine style website

Read about the Big Issue / Big Chill programme distribution project

The Super Furry Animals closed the fest in 2008. This year's acts yet to be confirmed - to be fair, most other festival's aren't announcing their headliners yet either. Lets hope agencies and bookers get behind them.


One Response to “Festivals: a black hole for cash and a life’s obsession”
  1. Wise words indeed Lucy! I sympathise deeply with Alex, having met and done a bit of (legit) business with him with a band I manage.. and I try to remember everything I learnt as the Big Chill grew and grew and grew until it popped… as I launch into year 2 of my new endeavour in Croatia. Come along and be my guest! C x

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