The Business of Festivals: Sound Investments?

As the festival season gets underway, the founders of Castlepalooza and Indiependence talk early struggles, maxing out savings, the competition, licensing, and getting too hands-on with portaloos...

The Business of Festivals: Sound Investments?

Photo: Castlepalooza

"It's a great start – a castle!"

You can’t argue with Cillian Stewart. The music promoter was so pleased to secure the use of his uncle Dudley Stewart’s stately, gothic Charleville property for his own rock ‘n’ roll ends that he named his new festival after it.

In fact, it’s a sentiment you can trace right back to the beginnings of Ireland’s modern festival movement, when Lord Henry Mountcharles opened his Meath estate to music lovers in 1981 and Thin Lizzy and U2 played against the backdrop of Slane Castle.

Things have evolved dramatically since that one-dayer was the only game in town, and now even the young up-starts like Cork’s Indiependence are august events. And, as Cillian points out about his own baby: "People can touch the castle, whereas at other festivals it’s in the background, fenced off".

Take that, Slane.

Stewart’s initial shindig was a modest – retrospectively – 30th birthday party that he threw for himself, but a decade on, the resulting ‘Castlepalooza’ is still going strong in Tullamore, Co Offaly.

We love live music in Ireland and, in the summer months when there is at least the potential for decent weather, that passion is focused on fields across the land. The festival calendar is jam-packed from the June Bank Holiday weekend until Electric Picnic brings the curtain down on summer, and for every star-studded, MCD-supported Longitude, there’s another €20 day out held in a car park in Roscommon.

But are we overloaded with festivals? And in the wake of things such as the cancellation of Garth Brooks’ Croke Park residency and last summer’s drama surrounding the collapse of the Killarney Festival of Music & Food, are newly-revised licencing laws doing the trick?

Let’s look, then, to two medium-sized, much-loved festivals that have been getting it right for 10 years this summer.

Think running a live event is an easy gig?

Read the thoughts of Indiependence founder Shane Dunne and Castlepalooza’s Cillian Stewart on persevering through tough early years, getting a little too hands-on with portaloos, maxing out savings and dealing with the government and the authorities, and think again…

Shane Dunne, Indiependence

Having been a microbiologist with the Department of Agriculture, Dunne broke his mother’s heart by ditching the pensionable job to build an annual musical Mecca in Cork.

Since its 2006 start as a free event hosting local heroes The Frank & Walters and Sultans of Ping in Mitchelstown’s square, it expanded quickly enough to warrant a move to O’Connell Park in 2009. A year later, it found a permanent home at the picturesque Deer Farm.

Dunne's work with Web Summit means he’s just back from the New Orleans tech event Collision (“warm, sticky and True Detective-esque") and now his focus turns to INDIE ’16. Taking place July 29th to 31th, there’s less than two months to go.

Are beads of sweat forming on the brow yet?

Shane Dunne: I'm not sure that happens any more if that makes sense. We've been on the same site for seven years. While it changes a little year-on-year, you're familiar with nearly every blade of grass now.

People thing festivals are easy, which is mistake number one.  Every year festivals pop up and never happen and waste a lot of money.

What the real pressure with a festival is when it's not selling well and you think you're going to lose money. And then you have all the other side of it - the health and safety, dealing with bands, advertising and promotion, sanitation, logistics..

Those are the bead of sweat days.

This year we were 30% sold before we ever announced a band. At least now, you have to organise and run it, but you're fairly confident it's not going to lose money.

That's a big pressure element taken off. But there’s no guarantee...

You’ve talked about spending €50,000 “easily” to toughen up a high footfall area.

If it rains really badly, it'll get mucky on top but it'll never turn into a bowl of soup again. 80% of the water’s going to drain off. It's cost hundreds of thousands of euros over seven years to do that.

How much does each Indiependence cost?

A million quid, give or take. I don't want to put the boot but that Ravelóid festival, the Irish language one? It was announced and then it's gone, it's not happening.

The problem is you sit down and do the initial 'four mates in the pub writing on the back of a beer mat' thing.
Spend this much on bands, then we have to sell this many tickets... That's cool!
But when you get into the nitty-gritty of it, especially if you go into event licence territory of over 5,000 people...

You're dealing with the emergency services, the gardaí, the fire officer and the council. All of a sudden your costs just start to rise exponentially. And that's before you get into sanitation, hot water hand washing facilities for staff...

You're essentially building a temporary town.

I think Indiependence will be the third or fourth biggest town in Cork [in late July]. You're bringing in maybe 10,000 people, and all the staff that go with that. The sanitation that goes with that. You've got to feed everybody.

Then they're going to need the toilet, and you've gotta deal with that. The medical provision for that number of people as well; you can't just bring a local doctor. 

You get more paranoid every year. That's what happens to promoters. As something happens one year and you deal with it, then you wrap that entirely in cotton wool for every year thereafter.

Going back to 2006...

I wished I'd stayed there [laughs]!

Did you ever envision you'd be running this size event a decade later?

I could lie to you and tell you it was a grand plan and I always intended to do this but it was a complete accident.

I was working in the Department of Agriculture, I'd a masters in microbiology, I'd a pretty good job. Permanent, pensionable. And I was still working there while the first two or three Indies were going on. Driving up and down from Dublin a couple of nights a week for meetings. That was the old road. 
The last one in 2008 [in the town square], we had a gig with The Blizzards as the headline act – back this year at Indie.

The guards called me in on the Tuesday and said "okay, that was great craic, but that's the last of them now! Put it in a field, ticket it, and be more able to control it".

So we fell into a field, lost a load of money in '09, moved in '10 to where we are now, lost a little bit of money, broke even in '11, made a little bit of money...

Did you ever think of calling it a day?
I waver every year. When we're on August 2nd: "Never again, that's it, done, finished!"

By year four, we were at zero as an event. It took that long to get it into the black.

That's another thing that people don't realise: Unless you're one of the big boys, you can't really ling a quarter of a million quid at advertising a brand new event.
Word of mouth is the only ways.
If you're expecting to make money in your first year, you're probably going to be sorely mistaken.

For the first one in Deer Farm, I maxed out all my savings, then got 10 grand from my mother to pay White Lies' deposit.

How was that conversation?

It was fine, to be fair, but she was still annoyed that I'd left the Dept of Agriculture at that stage!If you don't have the possibility of doing that, the bank or credit union are very unlikely to give it to you. It's a cashflow issue for many. Killarney was the key one last year.

It's fair to say there's not much trust within the music industry...

In the music industry?! You need to know what you're doing. My accountant always uses the phrase "a neck like a jockey's bollocks"! You need to be just tough. We've had issues in early days with contract companies that we used. While we agreed a contract in good faith and paid them, they didn't pay some of their sub-contractors.

I don't have the buying power to pay for Radiohead. If you can build up a trust with agents, contractors, it's huge.

An element of personality as well. Weirdly, I think my science background helps me quite a bit. A lot of people get into the promotion of events because they've come from a fan's point of view. Maybe they want to hang out with the bands.

I love lists and spreadsheets. Listen, 98% of this is boring. Sitemaps. Talking to Billy who does my toilets. I meet that guy some weeks more than I meet my wife!

It's something that you can't get wrong. It the thing that people talk about at festivals – the toilets!

I've gone from being on the radio with Matt Cooper or Ian Dempsey, doing a quick interview, to literally having my hand in a portaloo within two minutes. We're not big enough for me to have a staff of 10 people full-time. So sometimes I just have to go out there and shovel out sand and muck, or unload loos off a trailer. I do enjoy it though!

Shane Dunne with Damien Dempsey

Is the festival calendar overstuffed?

It's gas how things turn out, because seven years ago I'd have been the one banging my chest when I was trying to book a band and they were on an "island of Ireland" exclusivity for Oxegen or Picnic.

But now, there are so many festivals even in Cork of 1,00 to 2,000 capacity. I've found I've had to start putting exclusivities on my offers.

I would never say to a young act that they can't do Castlepalooza or Sea Sessions or Body & Soul. Get out there and do them. But the problem we're having is with the amount of small festivals that are within 50 miles of Indie.
There's too many of them. Too many small festivals.

Can you spot the ones that won't survive?

Every year. And there's 50 that we don't hear about that lose money all over the country. What drives me cracked are the ones which get government funding or Failte Ireland funding which we are told we're not eligible for, or Picinic or Longitude. It really looks like the reason we're not eligible is that we're successful!

Have the changes to licensing laws last year to prevent a Garth Brooks scenario helped?

No, not really. We have a good relationship with all of the statutory bodies that affect our licence. So we haven't had any problems. We went in and did our pre-planning meeting last October for this year and where they've had issued, we've fixed them.

From a point of view of the licensing legislation as a whole, it means that they have to grant your licence four weeks in advance of the event... But they could still say no four weeks out!

They allow you to put your tickets on sale once you do the pre-planning meeting. They do say in principle it's fine if everything is alright down the line, but your application is still open to public submission when you do apply for your licence. So you could still not get it and be a million quid committed to an event. It's a planning application and it goes through a very similar process to if you were building a house or an apartment block. Which is crazy.

Can you pinpoint the moment you saw Indiependence taking off and thought 'this makes it all worthwhile'?

It's funny, because Editors are back playing Indie this year. While in Ireland, they're probably an Olympia-level band, they're a huge band on the continent.  They've headlined the likes of Rock Werchter in Belgium. A huge band.

They came in 2011 when we were a much smaller, worse-run event than we are now. That gig was probably the turning point. The Coronas, who were up to Marquee level, headlined the other night. You had two arena acts headlining. We were gone from the local-type festival; there were people at that Indie from all over the country. We had people from Germany, France and Switzerland.

So it's gas that Editors are back this year. I'm looking forward to meeting their tour manager because I think the last time he arrived and thought 'what are we getting ourselves into'!

 

Cillian Stewart, Castlepalooza

This year's edition runs July 1st to 3rd and is undoubtedly the biggest Stewart has put on. A partnership with Aiken promotions sees Castlepalooza enter a new phase where they're increasingly competing with the big boys for acts. The likes of Caribou, Villagers, Jurassic 5 and Cat Power make it a line-up that also doubles as a real statement of intent.

Is securing a stellar line-up the major concern for any festival organiser?

Cillian Stewart: It's one of the first things you do; you start that a month after the festival finishes. And you really start work on it straight away. See who's touring, who's available. It's one of the most important things. We've a great site down there and we've a lot of people that come every year anyway just based on their experiences from years before.

But when you put on something like we have this year with a very big bill, it will generate more interest. That's the plan going forward – that every year on that weekend, we keep trying to get the bigger acts to come down.

As long as you have Charleville Castle, the unique vibe will always be a draw...

And it's right smack bang in the middle of Ireland so it's very easily accessible for everybody. People from the North, from Galway, Cork, Dublin... It's an hour away from Dublin so it's a perfect location.

We've got the castle in the middle of the grounds which everyone has access to over the whole weekend which you don't get at any other festival.

We have a stage in there this year, we're putting on acts all day and everyone has access. They can go in, they can walk around. It's the vibe down there and the access to the castle. Plus the site itself is dressed nice!

In terms of the other festivals, there seems to be more and more competitors every year.

It keeps happening every year. You'll have festivals that will try it out, do one, lose money and you never see them again. And it's happened so many times.

We're fairly well-established now, which is good. Now it took a lot of work to get to that point. But every year it's still very hard work to put on the gig because there's always something in your way. Something happens that you just have to deal with straight away.

It doesn't get any easier and that's being honest. It almost gets more difficult as you grow it.

There's lots of competition but that’s great. It's great for the people of Ireland that go to festivals, because it just means there's something on all the time and there's lots of choice.

It makes everyone keep their socks up and be competitive, make sure they're charging the right price...

Have the authorities been a hindrance or a help?

No, I think they want it. They see the advantages of having something like Castlepalooza in Tullamore. It's very good for the local economy even though it's on for one weekend. My feeling is that we've always had a very positive response from the gardaí down there, from the fire services, from the council. 

They do want it to grow and bring more money into the economy.

So for the moment, it seems to be working very well the way it is. I guess over time we'll start to grow and we will get more involved in licensing issues.

And it all started as a birthday party you threw for yourself?

I'd done business studies in college and I was working at the time, so I ran the first one while I had a full-time job. I just saw a gap in the market. At that time there really wasn't anything else going on.

I felt because of the site and because of where it was, it was a good starting point. I basically took out a notepad and started to work on that. 

The only issue was the finances. 

Going into it I thought it'd be great and I'd make lots of money. But... I didn't [laughs]!

Even the week before, I was thinking 'oh yeah, I'm going to sell tickets this week!' It just didn't happen.

On the Thursday before the Friday when it started, I decided 'look, at this stage, I'll just try and manage to put on a really good show'. Which I did. Everyone loved it. And they kept coming back.

I'm glad I did it again in the second year. It had been a good event, there was something in it, so I kept at it.

Was there a single moment that gave you the confidence to push on?

See, I never thought like that. I just wanted to do it, really enjoyed doing it, so I kept at it.

I've enjoyed every year, it's always different. You're dealing with different sponsors.You're dealing with different acts. It's still challenging.

Do you actually get to enjoy the festival yourself?

I do. On the Sunday night I'll always wind down later on and relax a bit. I get to enjoy it a bit from there.

At that stage, it's all running smoothly and there's various different people in different roles that are helping me out on sight. So it means that I can take a little bit of a break.

Any jobs you've had to do that you never thought you would?

Of course! I've done pretty much everything to do with the festival. Even down to digging a trench for drainage or trying to fix toilets that have broken down. All these random things that you end up doing.

I guess you just have to put in the hard work because it's not like can get somebody else to do it, especially in the early years.

You need to really work on every single thing, from advertising to PR to site work. It's every year. But there's always something that's been really good in one year and you'll keep that [in mind].

[Similarly] If you make a mistake, you'll never make that mistake again.

So you learn from those mistakes and keep the good ideas onboard. People seem to love the ideas we're bringing in. It's good to have people that have been there since the first one. And now they're 10 years older and some of them down in Tullamore this year.

I was going to ask what Aiken gives you, but looking at the bill, it's fairly obvious...

Yeah, it's access. They have really good relationships. They've been doing it a long time and they're very good at what they do. We get on very well, which is great.

Will there be changes? Yes. There will be changes to the line-up and changes to the price.

But they're all ones that I would have done anyway. It's just easier with their help to finally do them.

It'll be good for the people down there. A nice change. But we'll always keep the same vibe because the people that go create that.

For more information on Casltepalooza go to castlepalooza.comFor details on Indiependence, go to indiependencefestival.comThese conversations were edited for brevity.