Sunday, 10 August 2014

Festival horror stories: when the headliners pull out the day before their gig

Taking care of business at festivals and gigs you promote is one thing. Keeping a weather eye on your own band's business? Tricky. Now do both, all at the same time.  

Fellster: not a hair out of place. Um.  
As of today's publishing date, it's three weeks until the final day of Moseley Folk 2014, and four weeks on from the end of Mostly Jazz Soul and Funk. I'm quizzing John Fell about all of this, and on the band he plays in, Goodnight Lenin, and the final final final release of their first album, later this year. He's not unbusy.

Timing is a tricky thing. Planning festivals is a year-long process. Right now, John's looking at possible acts for 2015. And he's working on the next gig for Goodnight Lenin, in three months, to tie in with the album release. So he's juggling time scales.

If that's tricky, consider the perspectives he has to navigate. A great many bands (and artists, producers, writers, broadcasters and bloggers) get so close to their projects that they wind up missing what audiences might value. I'm not saying that's a bad thing – it's part of the creative process, is all.

But it does raise issues of marketing what you've got. That means you have to look at it, see yourself as product, all that. It's not an easy process. Given that, John Fell is in a pretty unique position. Wearing his festival organiser hat, he's in a position to weight those factors up in other acts. He has to monitor the market to see who's around and who's coming up. He has to judge the audiences for the different days of both festivals and Lunar, the Nick Drake-themed festival he also works on. 

Critically, he has to step beyond his own purely and intensely personal sentiment to judge whether the music Goodnight Lenin makes has its own independent life once he and the band let it out into the public realm. 

So, quite a lot on the Fell plate. And that's before your headline act cancels on you at a day's notice. But we'll get to that.

Especially with Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul, I'm seeing a shortage of headline acts... And maybe there's a weakness at Mostly, being so very US-oriented. There's a lot bands coming over, doing the Festival circuit in the UK and Europe. And there's an absolute ton of festivals. So maybe there's not enough talent to go around?
I think a lot of festivals now will pay way over the odds to get an exclusive, to make a difference. So their act does them and not just one of thirty dates in Europe. Neutral Milk Hotel at Green Man – that's an example, the Gene Clark Band at End Of The Road… they're earning big money, stupid money.

Moseley and Mostly can't do that.
No, we can't. So what we've got to do is to keep it varied, so the line-up's exciting. So that people don't know what to expect. We did that at Mostly Jazz with King Khan and the Shrines. I was most excited about them because I knew people would go away loving it. And I knew that no one would come to the festival just to see them. That's the card we're playing.

You had a bit of hiccup with the Earth Wind and Fire show cancelling on you at 24 hours notice.
Ahhhhh.... I got in Friday night after working from 5am that day. Looked at my emails at 1am Saturday – just to check – and it said 'Earth Wind and Fire Experience cancelled'. So what do we do? Less than 48 hours away, and it was our marquee name as well.
We didn't really sleep that night. So I went to do the Saturday work... at 5 again?...
...yes. While trying to book another band. Which we did. And then getting the flights sorted, getting the contracts out, getting the backline, getting the hotel. Getting the money wired. All that.

A Family Stoner    
You got the Family Stone, which is kind of the same level, given that it's not the original line-up. There wasn't a Sly, but EWF didn't have Maurice White either.
Exactly. In my opinion it was better, but the only downside was that we'd had them two years ago. It kind of made for a really good feel, because everyone clubbed together. This has happened. Here's a surprise. It was a story. People like gossip, people like a story.

And, unusually, you went public with it.
Funnily enough, it gave it a buzz. No-one know what was going to happen. That was exciting – for everyone else, not the organisers! And in the end about seven people contacted us to complain, out of the 2,500 who were there on the night. Lots of people on Facebook were more excited about the Family Stone.

Where were they?
In Belgium. We had to fly them in.

You were over a barrel. They could have really screwed you financially.
They could have. But we were helping them out too – they had a couple of spare days, so rather than just sitting there in Brussels, eating chocolate, they came to us, cut their costs and got paid. There were two or so other options. So we got stupid lucky, really.

So it worked. And you had your other legendary names. Ginger Baker. He kinda has... a reputation... that goes before him.
He does! If he'd have turned up and been nice, shook your hand, been all sweet, I'd have been really gutted. He has that legend, and he lived up to it. He was brilliantly horrendous.

And I notice you're looking for acts for 2015 already.
Email me!
Photo: Richard Shakespeare

Now, looking forward to the end of this month with Moseley Folk, there's some nice marquee names.
The biggest we've ever booked: Waterboys, Richard Thompson and Johnny Marr, in a park in Moseley. That's pretty cool. Advance ticket sales are up on last year - best we've had at this stage.

What about the new talent that you give a leg up to? That's what I find most interesting; that's what I want to catch, above all. I'm hoping to do another post, like last year's, on the new talent people miss if they show up late.
That's all happening now. You won't see them listed on the posters. We've got most of them sorted. It's nice to give them that opportunity, the ones that are bubbling up. But you need to look in the other places apart from the main stage and the Lunar stage. And they can say they played Moseley – which is great if it's their first time.

So let's talk about Goodnight Lenin. Last week I put up a post which charted the 50 most-viewed local acts on YouTube. It's complicated and geeky, but it is a very rough ranking of popularity for those acts who have gotten videos out in the past three years. Midnight Bonfires, your support act at the Hare last week, actually scored better on the chart than you. I find that surprising, given your band's position.
We haven't done that many videos, and we've pulled most of them.

Well, that could explain your score. Why did you pull the videos?
When we did our first videos, we just finished then, and then realised that we were looking like a band we didn't want to look like. So we've had to stop until we got it right. We weren't ready. We put our stuff out there, and as soon as we did, we were over it. We've had to go away and scrap the album, probably twice. Wrote ten songs, scrapped them, wrote another ten songs, scrapped them... We kept writing until we got the sound, until we've got to the point where we want to be. And we've done that now. We've changed as a band.

OK, here's an awkward question: why didn't you put a first album out, bish bash bosh, quick, down and dirty, just to let people know you were there? You'd have still grown as a band from that point onwards.
You know what? As we did the first EP, which we put out...

. which a lot of people really liked....
thank you! But we instantly went 'No' between ourselves. To do that with an album... A debut album is your first shot. It's really important. Now, we'd have been really unhappy of that was our first effort. Now is the time to say to everyone: Listen! And now we've got six or seven new songs ready, which are the best things we've done.

I've got to ask: you're managing three festivals a year, you're working with This Is TMRW, and you're in Goodnight Lenin. How can you be fair to everyone? Is anyone suffering?
No, not really. It's a good balancing act. The band's not suffering. There are times when I won't make a TMRW show because there's a band rehearsal or a gig. Now we've got these little projects happening which will fund the next step, and so on.  

Lots to look forward to, then. The Goodnight Lenin album, In The Fullness of Time, comes out on the 24th of November. The band play a major show at the Institute on the 28th. And those new songs? John's right – they're belters. 2015 could be a very good year.


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