In our third installment looking at how to organise a music festival, DiS goes behind the scenes with Ben Lewis who works for promotions company Super Friendz and is currently the main booker for Beacons Metro. Having only joined the company in 2015, this is his first full year in charge of booking a festival line up. DiS caught up with him to find out what goes into putting together a multi-venued event such as this.
DiS: Congratulations on booking such a wonderful line-up so far, particularly as it's your first year working with Beacons.
Ben Lewis: Thanks! I kind of came into it halfway through last year. I worked on Live At Leeds with Futuresound for a few years then left them and joined Super Friendz. They'd already booked a couple of things and I came on board halfway in, booked a load of acts, and then once we got it out of the way it was a case of looking at what we'd done with the intention of improving on it the following year. So I guess this is my first year in terms of it being a wider vision of what I'd initially began working on.
How did you first get involved? Had you always wanted to work on a festival?
In my old job, Beacons is something that I'd always go to and really enjoy when it was in the field at Heslaker Park. In the past I guess the Live At Leeds line-up was a little more constrained; lots of lad bands and pop stuff, which obviously there is a place for, but my tastes are a little bit more eclectic. So working on Beacons given me the opportunity to book something where I can essentially mix things up a bit. So for example, I've booked a few grime acts but I've also booked Dinosaur Jr and Fucked Up; although they're musically at opposite ends of the spectrum, it seems quite coherent. I've always wanted to get my teeth into something like that, so when the opportunity arose I couldn't say no.
Since moving from the Heslaker Park site in Skipton, Beacons Metro has been split across three cities (Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester). What was the reason behind that bearing in mind each city has a number of established festivals already?
We've just streamlined it down to Leeds this year as it was difficult to concentrate on all three cities. I came on board after it had been decided not to do it in the field any more. I think that decision was reached on a number of fronts. You can already see from the number of festivals struggling to break even this summer that stuff's dwindling. It's getting harder to make that big green field festival work. A lot of them are now shifting towards city wide events. Last year's decision to base it in Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester was meant to be a statement for the north, which worked as well as it could, but at the same time it proved difficult to pin down any kind of coherence. So for us, it's about how to focus this event, and how to still represent what Beacons was about when it was based in a field but also bring it into the city. So the programming has been very intense. We've looked at old line ups and the eclecticism of all those and realised it works for a festival like Beacons. You can put artists together from different genres because its known for being diverse and adventurous, so I decided to be as adventurous with the bookings as I could be.
Do you think the festival market has become overly saturated?
Yes and no. It's a difficult one. I'd say they're overly saturated in terms of there possibly being too many green field festivals. But then I also don't necessarily think that's the case. It's more about the amount of money people can afford to spend to go to festivals rather than the actual amount of them. So if you have to choose just one festival to go to, it can be really difficult if you're competing against events like Latitude, who've got Festival Republic money behind them. They can afford to book huge headliners so even if you're doing something a bit more boutique, interesting and different people will still wait to see who they book before making a decision. It's the same with Leeds Festival; when I was 15 or 16 we'd queue up for tickets outside HMV on the day of release not even knowing what the line up was because we knew we had to go. Nowadays, people wait to see who's playing what festival before deciding. Primavera and Glastonbury are probably the only two now where people buy tickets before the line ups are announced because they know they'll have a great time regardless of who's playing. The summer festival market has become extremely competitive; if you get one big headline artist you don't want anyone else booking that big headline artist because that could detract from your success. In terms of saturation, I think some of the core festivals are seeing more and more of that, whereby every town and city has their own version. It's clearly what people want and can be really good value for money, so I guess the way forward is to try and find a way of doing something within that which is a bit different. So with Beacons, what we've done is have a series of events that are linked together, but at the same time if someone fancies one that particularly stands out to them, they can still go.
Do you think the growth in popularity of European festivals has had an impact on the UK market?
Definitely. I guess the big ones for that would be Primavera, Benicassim, and some of the dance ones that take place in Croatia. I totally get why people would rather spend their money over there. With most events over here by the time you've bought your tickets, organised travel, and sorted your spending money, it can be well over the £500 mark. So more people are sitting back and realising a flight to Spain or Croatia plus tickets won't cost that much more than it would to sit in a muddy field over here. Also, the opportunity to have a week away in the sun in a foreign country is proving more difficult to resist. It's actually a no brainer, which is why more and more UK promoters are also doing more overseas events. Because people don't have as much disposable income to spend on everything as they'd like to, they're more likely to spend big on the things they really want to spend money on. It strikes me that if you've saved £500 to go to a festival, why not throw in a week's holiday abroad with it, rather than camping in a field? So it's definitely had an impact for sure.
Of the shows you've booked for Beacons Metro so far, which ones are you most proud of? Which ones were the most difficult to book?
Dinosaur Jr was a big one. It was an interesting one as well. They're a big American band with a big American agency, and in a post-Brexit world we had to make them an offer in pounds sterling which might not necessarily equate to the same thing for bands from other countries any more. That was probably the most difficult one to finalise. I really had to grind to make it come off. There were a whole load of factors that came with the plummeting exchange rate, but at the same time they're a great band and a huge name to have for our event. We know they're worth a lot of ticket sales which is great for us, but then we also have to become aware of the wider picture which is maybe the amount we'd normally pay for them isn't necessarily going to be the same amount they'd be expecting to get any more because of exchange rates. That was a really interesting booking to deal with so I'm mega excited to have them on the bill. I think the Lady Leshurr gig will be really good too; that one sits nicely in the grand scheme of things because grime is hugely on the up. I'm really excited about it and she's one of the most successful artists to come out of it in terms of commercial crossover. I wanted to do something different, so we've got this gig with AJ Tracey, Ghetts, and Frisco playing a grime bill at the Belgrave Music Hall which will be really great. But it's a lot of men doing grime rather than women. So I thought Lady Leshurr would be a bit more interesting and we've had offers from agents asking if their artists can support but I've been quite headstrong in keeping that bill more female oriented. So I've got Nadia Rose and Paigey Cakey as support on that. You have this huge subculture where so far, most people only know the male artists, so I think it's really interesting that we're promoting the female artists who are also pretty exciting as well. It was quite a conscious decision to give female grime artists a platform rather than just go with a male dominated bill. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of grime MCs now but I think it's a lot more forward thinking to try and do something different with it. Anna Meredith is another one I'm really excited about; I saw her a couple of years ago supporting Anna Calvi and I was repping the show, and I remember spending a lot of time talking to Anna and being blown away by the person she was. She has this song where she puts some Celine Dion into it and it was just mad. I used to play it in DJ sets just to see how much I could freak out people! I think that will be amazing purely because she's unlike any other artist on the bill; she's one of the most unique artists around at the minute, and I think to have her on the night after a grime artist and the night before a hardcore show highlights the diversity of this year's line up.
How many venues will be participating this year? Were they all willing to come on board?
We have another music company we run music programming for at Belgrave Music Hall and Headrow House, so they became our central hubs for the festival. Beacons Metro started when Headrow House opened, so they've both been very good vehicles for each other. Those two are the main venues but we've also got some bigger shows like Dinosaur Jr which is at Leeds University. Then Cat's Eyes are playing at the Howard Assembly Rooms, which is run by Opera North and seats about 300 people. I saw Xiu Xiu perform the 'Twin Peaks' covers album that they did there and immediately knew I had to put something in that venue for Beacons. Hookworms are playing at the Holy Trinity Church which I think will be amazing. The idea is - if we can get it by everyone - to put them in the middle of the floor. Do it in the rounds, and they have some friends doing projections. So there'll be a projection match in the rounds as well. It's a big ambitious plan but hopefully we can get that all in. We've got Kogumaza as the main support for that. Then we've got a couple of other venues to coincide with our next batch of announcements, Canal Mills being one of them. I think it's very important to promote our name as a brand, because that's got people pretty excited about getting involved within the city. When you talk to people about Beacons it still has that same clout about it. Even though its moved from a field to a city it's still got that same ethos and vision with the same people behind it, so people have been really excited to get on board. I think if you go to a venue and say we want to put a psych band on in the rounds with loads of projections and it'll be totally insane for the night, what do you think? Most venues would say sure, that sounds like fun!
Do you see potential for growth with Beacons Metro in the future?
Yeah, and I think for us as Super Friendz being the main promoters for the festival, it's a good one for us to leave it where it is in the calendar, even though there's a couple of others around that time like Pitchfork Paris and Liverpool Music Week. I think it will definitely stay in this format, so I don't see any reason why we'd ever need to put a limit on the number or size of shows we can do. Also, I think the knock on effect from Beacons has been massive. We were the first northern shows to sell out for Loyle Carner, Nayo, and Mura Masa, and all of those were up and coming artists at Beacons last year. There's also scope within the series to build smaller events inside it; we've had a couple of all dayer events at the Belgrave and Headrow that worked really well. So for example, we could have the overarching festival that runs for a week, but then an all dayer that runs on the Saturday or Sunday across the city as well within it. There's no halting what we do, plus it's also a nice jumping off point for us as promoters to say this is really showing our mettle, what our vision is, so why not carry on and do something big in the summer? Then why not build on that and try and do another event in the winter and so on. It works nicely in terms of us being able to flex our muscles a little bit and say right, this is what we do, and use them as building blocks to see how far we can develop these ideas we've got.
It's quite unique in that people can buy wristbands for the overall festival or tickets for individual shows. How did you calculate the numbers in terms of wristbands and individual tickets, and do you envisage any problems for people wanting to get in to see certain shows?
We've worked really hard to try and ensure we can accommodate both festival wristband and individual ticket holders. I can't imagine your average Dinosaur Jr fan would want to go and see Lady Leshurr or vice versa, but then by the same token, it's also an opportunity for people to see something new, especially those with wristbands. We've worked on the idea there'll be a limited number of overall wristbands which means every person that buys one technically has a space reserved for them at every show. We've put a package together for wristband holders where they also get a tote bag with some vouchers and other goodies in it, rather than just: "Here's a wristband, come to the event." They've invested in our vision, so here's something more interesting for them to have as well as the wristband which gets you into all the events. We're also doing a newspaper as well. It's about trying to give people another incentive to buy a wristband other than for just attending the shows. The individual tickets are priced on a face-by-face basis where we're negotiating with booking agents based on venue size, who's playing etc etc; it would be the way we normally offer agents a price for a show really, but at the same time we don't want to potentially price anyone out. Also, we want people who've bought a wristband for the whole festival to think they've got a good deal, rather than thinking they could have bought individual tickets for this, this, and this, and got a better one. It's a bit of a balancing act but we've struck it quite well so far. We've done quite a lot of wristbands which is nice, and all the individual tickets are doing well too which is a big relief!
Have you set yourselves a financial target in terms of breaking even or making a profit? Like a five year plan or something like that?
Because a lot of the shows were costed up on a show-by-show basis, one thing we've tried to ensure is that they all break even. That's certainly the intention. But also for the series, for the festival, we can get bigger named artists if we want to stretch the financial boundaries further. So in some cases we've taken tactical decisions where we know we've spent x amount of money over budget on certain artists, but we see it as a stepping stone to bigger things in the long run for us a festival that wants to grow. Hopefully it will also increase our profile next year when it comes to booking artists and help us build the festival. Generally, we'd like all of the shows to break even. A good thing about this festival is rather than just have a headliner and fill in the support slots around them, each bill has been carefully curated to fit in with whoever's headlining. So you'd hope that each person who buys a ticket is buying one for the whole bill and not just the headliner.
You're also a member of the band Bruising. Will you be playing the festival?
No, I don't think so! I try and keep the two things separate as much as I can. I'm sure there would be some people who'd have something to say if I did put us on! I'd love to play with Dinosaur Jr. I've ripped most of my guitar riffs off J Mascis, so that would be lovely, but I think for the sake of everyone involved it's never going to happen.
For more information on Beacons Metro including where to purchase tickets visit the official website.