How to build your own festival

Diverse, exciting, unpredictable, uncompromising and unashamedly specialist: welcome to the new wave of boutique festivals.

From modern art to 19th century song, these events are finding a ready audience, eager to experience something immersive and real. So if you’ve ever wondered how to build your own festival, this is our guide — with advice from the people who are making it work artistically and financially.

It sounds obvious, but a successful niche festival must have a reason for existing: a story, a goal, a theme. It doesn’t matter what that reason is, but it’s not usually anything to do with wanting to make a vast amount of money.

“I never had a master plan,” says Sholto Kynoch (Guildhall alumnus, Piano 2005), pianist and founder of the Oxford Lieder Festival, now the biggest song festival in the UK. “At the start, it was just about finding a way to perform some amazing music with friends.”

Andrew Monks, a final-year video design student who worked on The Temple stage at Glastonbury 2016, points to the success of events like LeeFest. This festival was born in a 16-year-old’s back garden in 2006 when his parents weren’t home, and now has 5,000 attendees and headliners such as Clean Bandit and Jake Bugg. “That’s how you start a festival,” he says. “Don’t follow a trend, set a trend.”

Boutique festivals thrive in quirky settings. The Oxford Lieder Festival has the city’s rich building heritage to call upon, from churches to colleges.

Internationally renowned cellist Alexander Chausian (Guildhall alumnus, Cello 1997) founded the International Pharos Chamber Music Festival. This takes place in the Gothic Hall of The Royal Manor House at Kouklia, a former sanctuary of Aphrodite, surrounded by archeological sites.

He is also artistic director of the Yerevan Music Festival in Armenia. “The Pharos festival is 10 days long, and everyone stays in a wonderful hotel on the beach, so it feels more like a holiday,” says Chausian.

“Being in such historical and beautiful surroundings makes for a wonderful atmosphere in which to play. The Yerevan festival is very different — it is longer, lasting over a month, and there are much bigger events, including 10 concerts with orchestra, spread out over the city.”

Think of free festivals and you inevitably conjure up images of the early days of Woodstock or Glastonbury (though Glastonbury’s first incarnation wasn’t actually free: it was £1, an entry fee which included free milk). They’re eulogised because they spoke to an era before the excessive commercialisation of festivals, a time where these artistic events were free in more than just the monetary sense.

“If a festival is cheaper, or free, you can offer somebody a place to be for an extended time, surrounded by art or by naughty or exciting things, without them feeling like they have to take a photo or put it on social media to show that they’ve paid their entrance fee,” says Dominic Spillane (Guildhall alumnus, Acting 2014), co-founder with Adam Gerrett (Guildhall alumnus, Acting 2014) of Matchstick Theatre.

The pair have also run a stage at Danny Boyle’s Shuffle festival and regularly put on their own underground festivals. “They’re not attached to their phone. They can immerse themselves in a place or an idea. We performed Frankenstein in a graveyard for Shuffle. When you charge, you lose the 200 or so people who were walking through the graveyard out of chance that weekend and stumbled upon us.”

Scale up and risk losing what makes it special, or stay the same size and risk stagnation? It’s a tough choice that the founder of any successful festival has to make, but ensuring that any expansion is done with thought and care is key, Kynoch believes.

“We don’t want song to remain niche,” he says. “We all want to see it thrive, and share in that. Nobody wants it to have some exclusive sense of it being recherché. As wonderful as it is to have just 150 people in the audience for an art that thrives on intimacy, that doesn’t go very far in terms of the box office receipts. We have to find a balance, fitting the space to the event: big enough to let lots of people be part of it, but never cavernous and impersonal. We also make sure that we are always providing something brilliant and with a fresh feel to it, so that it never feels stale.”

The best festivals somehow create a time and place where sparks can fly between audience and performer, whether that’s at a 19th-century Schubert recital in an Oxford chapel or an illegal installation in the middle of a Welsh forest. But how do you create that atmosphere? Much of it is down to spontaneity, says Gerrett.

Gerrett recalls the time that a big-name band played an underground event. It should have been a disaster — but it wasn’t.

“There was power outage: a pint of beer had gone on to the mixer and everyone went quiet. The lead singer just continued and they played acoustic. They played in the dark. Some stuff worked and some didn’t, and everyone had a great time. Afterwards, we were apologising and the band said no, that actually created the atmosphere that they wanted. And we thought: ‘Wow! You’re looking for excitement and engagement with the art that you are producing’. And that happens in festivals.”

One of the best things about putting on a festival is inviting your friends to play, says Chausian.

“With the Kouklia festival, I initially invited friends and musicians I knew. Then friends recommended people. Then new people came, and everyone who played at the festival became friends and started performing together. That was a wonderful thing: you can both learn from each other and you can network, which is a great professional benefit.”

Ask anyone who’s ever run, worked at or attended an outdoor festival in the UK and the biggest challenge is obvious: the weather. It affects everything you do, every decision you make. It can send a festival’s atmosphere soaring to the heavens, or mire it in the mud before your punters even arrive. So whatever you do, be prepared, says Monks — you don’t have money to spare, after all.

“You’ve got to think about how you’re going to get there if it’s muddy. Then, how are you going to get your equipment there? You might need to be out there with boards or tracks for lorries in a muddy field. How are you going to keep equipment dry? A projector can cost upwards of £50k. Have you got everything you need? You can’t pop back and get it, because you’re in the middle of nowhere and everyone is panicking. It’s very different from the theatre…”

Indeed, just getting permission to use that field can be a struggle, says Gerrett, who reckons red tape is a significant threat to a festival’s very existence. “I don’t think festivals are leading the frontier on progressive art or political art because the legalities force them underground. Everything else is very easy. It’s very easy to get people to come and do stuff, as long as they have a platform to do it on. So the challenges are all conforming with the requirements: the complex and boring stuff.”

Festival artistic directors are commonly performers as well, but finding a balance between the two worlds can be tricky.

Kynoch identifies this challenge as his biggest in recent years: he performs all year round, and plays a dual role of performer and host during the Oxford Lieder Festival.

“I’m the face of the festival, I’m at every event, and I know a lot of the audience and our supporters,” he says. “To switch from that mode — shaking hands, enthusing, meeting sponsors — into performance mode, where you must be at the top of your game, is definitely a challenge. I have to be very careful with my time and how I organise things. I do a little bit more playing in every festival than I think I should, as I find it almost irresistible. Having a team that you trust is a huge help: you know they are on top of things if you need to detach and practise.”

Smaller, more specialised festivals are different because their founders are themselves specialists in their form: what makes it work, what its limitations are, and how to present it in the best way. Kynoch says that people usually need to go to more than one song recital to appreciate it, if they’re not used to the form, and a festival is the perfect space for this kind of exploration.

“It can be quite intimidating. There is just one person singing and if they are good, they will look into your eyes and tell your something incredibly personal. It’s unsettling, the first time it happens, but it can become addictive. It’s like having a great actor in front of you, right there, giving a sort of 40-minute soliloquy right into your eyes — about love, death, every subject under the sun.”

It’s very different, he says, to walking into a big concert hall, listening to a concert, then walking out. “At a festival, you’re seeing the same people. You’re in small gatherings, and going to them again and again.”

Whatever your festival aims to do, Chausian says that when you come down to it there is really just one factor that will make the difference between success or disaster: quality.

“The rest will come in time, and things will blossom,” he says. “But if you concentrate on the best possible artists, the best possible repertoire, that is what will prevail.”

This article first featured in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of the Guildhall magazine, PLAY, and was written by YBM for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

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Articles, discussion and debate on higher education, music and performing arts from one of the world's leading conservatoires and drama schools.