Quiet relaxing times for Birmingham's festival planners? Not a chance.
Those 60s and 70s festivals were full-on free enterprise ventures, overlaid with the faintest idealist ethos. Since then, festivals have - I use the word deliberately - mushroomed. There's hundreds. Some are great, some diverse and eccentric, some super-specialised, and some - too many - built to separate you from your money as efficiently as possible. Idealism is rare. Glastonbury is still seen as cool, by the BBC at least, and is a must-play venue for artists. Others give you little more for your money than touring acts on the take, a sea of mud, expensive concession stands, and corporate branding upfront and centre.
There are exceptions…..
Summer festivals feel like a lifetime away. But for those who do the planning, right now is when it gets complicated and frantic. Birmingham’s Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul has already had its launch party; the festival itself isn’t until the end of June. Its big brother, Moseley Folk, runs at the end of August. And fabled but elusive Shambala, held in remotest Northamptonshire but organised from Birmingham, runs the preceding weekend.
Half a year away from d-day, both Moseley Folk and Shambala are trying to pull off the interesting trick of bringing in advance ticket sales without revealing too much - or indeed, anything - too far in advance. Mystery, magic and surprise is part of the deal at Shambala, while Moseley builds anticipation by going public about its star billings in a splashy, deliberate and calculated way. It's an interesting challenge to try to glean details of what's been settled already. While I'm pretty confident about some of the brilliant local bands and acts who will appear - you'll find quite a few of them featured on this blog - it looks like both festival teams are busy painting their portraits not so much on canvas as on water.
Squeezing time out of organisers at this stage is difficult, but I eventually had long chats talking Shambala with Jonathan Walsh, of Kambé Events and Jibbering, and Moseley Folk with John Fell, who also fronts the excellent Goodnight Lenin. Both were gracious, if rushed off their feet. Kambé also work with St Paul's Carnival Bristol and Reggae City Birmingham. Jibbering, some people may remember, was once a hip record shop in Moseley, with great expresso, cool music, and free wifi. A fine combination for customers. Sadly, there was only so much free browsing time Jibbering could afford to dish out to customers who then used Jibbering's free wifi to order the records Jibbering sold... from Amazon. Jibbering continues with regular promotions at places like the Hare and Hounds in Birmingham, and elsewhere
Jon Walsh first…
It’s a crowded festival timetable. Yours takes place on the same weekend as Reading.
What’s the most important thing to nail right now?
JW: At this time of year, boringly, one of the most important things is the budget. What venues are we going to have at Shambala, what the make up of the event is going to be, what proportion of the budget we’re going to put into art installation, as opposed to music or site services…When you started, what did you have in mind? Has it deviated? Is it a monster out of control?
JW: It is a monster, but it’s not out of control. When we started, it was a stage, and a few friends…. and a party!. Twelve years on, fundamentally, that’s still what it is. The analogy is, it’s a bit like a rolling stone that you guide along its path. It’s such a creative force in itself – new things pop up, new perspectives arise each year.If we weren’t in the 21st century, I’d have thought I was having a conversation with you about a festival from the late 60s, full of idealism and goodwill. But this still a business, and it’s still got to pay its way…do you ever get caught in the middle?
JW: You're right. That ethos is still very very true. It’s a massive event with massive budgets now. Hand on heart, we try to make sure the whole event is fair. We won’t suddenly go out and book an artist for £50,000, and have to skew what’s happening across the rest of the event. In the early days, we did beg and borrow kit and make it happen. Now, we’ve moved into a realm where we have to put money in, and then balance that shift from doing it for the love of it to having to pay for certain things.So, a philosophical approach. Beyond discussing the multimedia approach of Shambala, John will not be drawn, either on who is appearing, or exactly what sort of non-music events are planned for the Festival, except to say that they do, inevitably, suffer from leaks... and this year it may lead to their publishing some details in advance... which might help sales along.
JW: The difference is that Shambala isn't so much about the acts, it's the fabric and depth to the event... the people, their respect for each other, and their open mindedness... something to discover every step of the way...Nor is the Shambala location, a constant for some considerable time, ever formally disclosed. This may seem wilfully perverse, but it’s part of the package, and it works. Those who go swear by the festival, and return yearly if they possibly can. If you want to find out more, you need to ask around, or try to read between lines on the website. It was amusing to see the Guardian describe Shambala as a boutique festival last year – my guess is they didn’t have much of an idea what was planned.
But that doesn’t stop the marketing exercises, which are in full swing on Facebook right now. And here’s a sweet video made last year.
Again, it comes down to selling the festival as an idea, rather than a music destination. Nor does it stop the advance sales. All the Shambala Early Bird tickets are already gone, and sales are 80% up this year on last.
Compare and contrast to Moseley Folk, five minutes away along Fazeley Street from Kambé's Custard Factory headquarters. The Moseley Folk team also delivers the Jazz/Funk/Soul festival and a string of other events throughout the year. Tickets do not go on sale until the end of this month. Moseley Folk announce details of headliners in advance of the event (but not just yet), following up with details on freshly booked acts, to hopefully generate a steady stream of ticket sales. The affable John Fell of Goodnight Lenin - not a total surprise to see them happily already on the bill, as you'll see - does most of the festival publicity.
What’s the most important thing to nail right now?
JF: The most important thing about any festival should be the music. At present, we’re working hard on bringing the line up; there’ll be a lot of acts that the usual Moseley Folk crowd may have not heard. We’re trying to confirm some international acts. We need to tie these in early to make sure we have the music which we want to promote.When Moseley Folk started up, what did they have in mind? Has it deviated? Is it a monster out of control?
JF: The key aim was to give folk a platform. The same philosophy is still there although now at at a higher level. We are especially proud to offer local bands the opportunity to play along international household names.Moseley Folk and Shambala have very different policies on announcing headline acts. You go public early. How soon to you tie yours down?
JF: We start to look into the line-up two months or so after the festival has finished although don’t start confirming bands until the New Year. Although we are confident that Moseley Folk has a regular audience who trust our programming, we like to announce the headliners as early as possible. This year we will be announcing the line up in segments to add a little excitement.What about an early scoop on a star name - just one - for when I publish this conversation?
JF: Ha! Goodnight Lenin are on the Saturday bill!... Unfortunately, we're not announcing before 1st March. It's all very nu-school.Shambala runs on exactly the same dates as Reading, and that is deliberate. What sets the timetable for Moseley’s festival dates?
We always run on the first weekend of September. It’s the best time: all the commercial have been and gone, and we can relax in the autumn with a beautiful independent inner city festival.Posters, press, radio or word of mouth? What's best for you?
JF: Everything! There is a lot of competition when it comes to festivals although we don’t see it like that. We encourage new events all the time however have to be wary that if we don’t focus on all promotion channels we may not reach all those that would be interested in the acts that Moseley Folk books. Therefore we work with Radio, Press, and Posters which all help in creating a word of mouth buzz around the festival.The festivals do not overlap; the choice is therefore yours - Shambala, Moseley, or even both. One thing to bear in mind: you’re going to see an awful lot of the same people at both festivals. It’s just that at Shambala people may look a little… weirder… but in a good way. Prices? Full price at Shambala will run you £119 for up to four days; Moseley Folk haven’t announced their prices yet, but the three-day Jazz Funk and Soul event will run you around £79; I expect something similar for Folk. For comparison, Glastonbury tickets ran you £195 in 2011.