Monday, 17 September 2012

OxjamBrum: not just a festival; it's a boot camp

Logotastic Lyle and Nic...
What, exactly, is a Music Festival these days? The term has become somewhat... stretched. From this year’s rain-swept wellies-and-mud rural affairs, to one-day events like Simmer Down and Reggae City, through to Birmingham City Council’s Arts Fest - all of these are termed 'festivals'. 

When you organise a festival, you take on a lot. It’s an enormous amount of work. For this post, OxjamBrum  Takeover Managers for 2012, Nic Toms and Lyle Bignon, in between compering and cajoling at a pre-festival fundraiser and artist showcase in Sutton Coldfield, very generously walked me through exactly why they got involved in such a back-breaking activity, and, interestingly, hint at where this all might lead in the future.   

Look, Scott Matthews! He's playing...
Many festivals have themes; some have agendas. Some (Shambala, Flyover Show) are overtly idealistic; others are there to promote or celebrate some institutional corporate thing – or to make a bit of money, or at least to break even, in as pleasant a way possible. Too many are simply part of the well-oiled entertainment industry, set up to relieve attendee / victims of as much money as possible as efficiently as possible. After all, in terms of exploiting a market, what could be better than to drag your audience out to some remote location miles from anywhere, corrall them, and then charge them inflated prices for food, showers and warmth?

and so are Bluebeat Arkestra
Festivals rely a lot on perception and image. Glastonbury has long been the granddaddy, basking in extensive media coverage and luvvy attendees. In reaction, boutique festivals offer a totally different vibe. And as a further reaction, the one-off, pop-up, alternative alternative festival has emerged as well. 

It's instructive to look at OxjamBrum Takeover 2012, a one-day multi-venue music festival. The 2012 festival, one of many such localised events organised for Oxfam each year, showcases local talent. 

So in my book, we're in positive territory already. Compared with Birmingham Council’s ArtsFest, it's tiny: twelve hours of gigs, performances, sessions and discussions in a handful of mainly independent music venues, for which you will pay a nominal admission fee. But tiny or not, Oxjam Brum punches considerably above its weight with an ability to attract credible local star names and assemble coherent line-ups. That counts for a lot, especially among the participating musicians.

Dan Whitehouse is popping up too...
The event is run by a team of relentlessly passionate, enthusiastic and engaging volunteers, with organisational support from Oxfam. Oxfam has come a a long way from the 70s brown and beige institution many of us still imagine it to be. OxjamBrum is deliberately pitched at a more diverse and mixed audience.  
Nic Toms: "It’s not by accident. People at Oxfam have researched and built a model that different teams across the country can pick up. The idea is to take a multi-venue event, before ‘Oxfamming’ it."  
So were Oxfam aware of the image issue? 
Nic: "Yes. But I would also say that Oxfam has changed too. They do other things: there’s a big country-wide festival stewarding initiative, for example. "
Lyle: "The model that Oxfam has created and shared still gives us lots of flexibility room. We can take that model and shape it."
Nic and Lyle met at Flyover Festival in Hockley, Birmingham, in 2009; both were volunteers. Lyle did PR for the 2009 Takeover while Nic was involved across the entire event. Now they’re joint managers. In addition to Flyover, Nic had also worked for Moseley Folk. 
Nic: "I thought there was a gap in the market - Birmingham didn’t have a city centre based multi-venue music festival with local artists. We’d had Gigbeth, but I wanted to see something in the city centre. And Oxjam gave me the model to do it. They gave me some training, some organisational back-up…and a good reason to do it."  
... the Dhol Blasters play as well...
It’s pretty obvious to me that Nic and Lyle are driven, first and foremost, by the wish to see a decent local music festival running in the city. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to do good by Oxfam as well; they’re extremely grateful for the organisational support. They're by no means the only people working hard to set up music events with more than a dash of idealism in the city, and I’ll be returning to this in future posts. But along with the passion and, let’s be fair, the downright fun that you can have with such an event, there is a hefty fundraising target to be met. 
Lyle: "Can we mention this? Yes, I think we can. Last year, the Oxjam team raised £6,000. This year, our target is £10,000. "
But you can’t just be doing this on your own... the two of you and a few pals?
  Nic: "No. We are collaborating with a range of promoters. We try to work with as many people as possible on the Birmingham music scene.  
...and watch out for these guys too....
So having set out your stall, the next step was to chase artists? 
Lyle and  Nic together: "Mmmmm… no!"  
Lyle: "It’s more about vision. Nic and I had to agree on some fundamentals from the outset. We wanted to represent more of the diversity in the city."
Nic: "Back in 2009 myself and the then team were mainly focused on getting a festival of this type off the ground.  We started by approaching indie and guitar based bands we liked, and Brum has lots of great ones.  Perhaps we had to stay close to that genre in order for it to work.  A lot of credit for our first festival must go to JP White (Victories at Sea, This is Tomorrow) because without his production and programming foundations we wouldn’t have been able to grow or develop in future years. OxjamBrum is now four, and this year’s focus is to represent Birmingham’s demographic and ensure the music is more diverse.  But yes, of course there will still be indie bands and guitars!" 
Not forgetting Paul Murphy...
"The next thing was getting a good team on board. Oxjam suggest teams recruit for three coordinators covering marketing, fundraising and production. Recruiting is really difficult, getting the right people in place, and asking the team to do it for no money, in their spare time – we’re asking a lot. We spend a lot of time together, and as the festival date approaches, we’re asking them for more and more. " 
Lyle: "Then it was picking dates and venues. We wanted more venues, so we needed to sort dates early. We didn’t want to clash with existing festivals like Supersonic, BASS Festival, Moseley Folk, Mostly Jazz, Artsfest and the like." 
Dates fixed, team in place… you’ve also added some seminars and industry discussions. What was the thinking? 
Lyle: "I wanted to give it more of a festival ‘feel’. One of the driving factors is supporting young and emerging talent. As well as having gigs, it’s a nice addition for a new young musician to be able to get some advice, where there’s more to it than standing in front of an act and seeing what they do."
You are assembling a unique skillset in your team. In making this huge effort, there is now a team. What happens when’s it all over? Are you just going to melt away, like the Olympic games makers?. 
Lyle: "We need to see how good we’ve been – for Oxfam, for our team, for the musicians." 
Then it’s a case of seeing what’s gone well, and what could be built on? 
Nic: "Are you saying there’s a niche, Robin?" 
Lyle: "I don’t mind stating that Birmingham is in need of a big music industry festival that matches The Great Escape, Sound City, Unconvention, In The City, etc – one that brings in fans, professionals and artists alike, gives the music community here a voice, a chance to share and showcase to the region, the country and even internationally’ "
Finally – repertoire….?
Lyle: "To broaden the festival's reach, we worked with more people: Birmingham Zinefest, Sugarfoot Stomp, Eye Candy, Speech Fewapy, Brum Town, Louisden, Secret WallsThis is Tomorrow, Brum Notes, Jazzlines, Eatgood. Maybe 20% came to us, and the other 80% we went out to.  We wanted to spread the range.  And the decisions on the acts were made by the whole team."
It’s fair to say Nic, Lyle and team are about to enter the most all consuming phase of the festival, and I am ever so slightly jealous.  From where I’m sitting – as  someone who will happily spend the day bouncing around the various venues to try and catch as much as possible, and who will contribute to one of the media seminars – the organisers and team are living it and loving it. 

But it’s also hugely encouraging to see new blood channel the ideas that that Clare Edwards put into the Birmingham mix with Gigbeth, to put something purely idealistic together that could grow into one of the most positive parts of the city’s music calendar, and to raise a bit of serious money. 

And where is it going in the end? We don't know yet, but I'm optimistic. This sort of thing works best when you play the long game. 

OxjamBrum website and Facebook page
Sample some of the music at the OxjamBrum 2012 Soundcloud group

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