Page last updated at 23:07 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 00:07 UK

Festivals fight to boost bottom line

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News

Standon Calling
Standon Calling prides itself on its relaxed atmosphere

With most of his headline acts booked and ticket sales underway, music festival organiser Alex Trenchard is excited.

Not least because, for the first time in his event's seven-year history, he is paying someone else to build the main stage.

"It used to take a long time as well as a plenty of blood, sweat, and tears," he says.

"But doing it ourselves cost about half the price, so it was a great way to save on the budget."

The Standon Calling festival stems from a party he held for about 40 people in the grounds of a 16th century Hertfordshire manor house in 2001.

Having grown year-on-year, the 2008 event will have a capacity of closer to 2,500.

And with the likes of Super Furry Animals and Mystery Jets on the line-up, as well its growing reputation (Time Out has named it as a Top 15 UK Festival), Mr Trenchard is optimistic enough about ticket sales to hire in some help to prepare the site.

But there are no guarantees, and he says the festival must be run as a "lean operation", in a tough, competitive market.

'Out of our league'

Dozens of small and medium-sized festivals have anchored a place on the UK festival calendar in the past five years - from Latitude in Suffolk to the folky Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons.

The festival was expecting 8,000 people a day and we managed half that
John Gilbertson
Isle of Skye Music Festival director

But in this volatile industry, being a critical success does not necessarily make for a successful business.

The Isle of Skye Music Festival attracted acts including Kasabian and Primal Scream and in 2006 it was voted Britain's "most fan-friendly festival".

This week it was scrapped after running up debts of about 500,000 with organisers blaming expensive acts and increased competition.

"We jumped out of our league," admits the festival's director John Gilbertson,

"The festival was expecting 8,000 people a day and we managed half that."

Meanwhile, the Forgotten Valley festival in the Lake District, which had booked bands such as The Happy Mondays and The Wombats, has also been cancelled.

Its organiser cited the "current financial climate".

'Festival nuts'

We should expect other planned events to fall by the wayside in the coming weeks as they struggle to sell tickets, says Ross Purdie, editor of festival website VirtualFestivals.com.

"We've had a good five years of real growth in the festival market, but things are reaching a peak for now," Mr Purdie adds.

Not just anyone can say 'I've got a field, I'm going to put on a festival'
Ross Purdie
VirtualFestivals.com

"It's a tough market and not just anyone can say 'I've got a field, I'm going to put on a festival'.

"Agents are reluctant to field their bands out to unknown festivals. They worry it could harm the reputation of their act."

While there's no shortage of people wanting to go to the likes of Reading and Glastonbury, the smaller festivals "are left to mop up the rest - local people and festival nuts who will go anywhere and everywhere to see a favourite band," he adds.

Crowd at End of the Road festival
Despite its popularity, End of the Road festival organisers are still waiting to make an overall profit.

And this means that they will inevitably be the first to suffer.

This year, even the Glastonbury Festival has seen tickets sales that have been slow by its recent, albeit mammoth, standards.

Critics have pointed the finger at "weak" headliners while memories of recent mudbaths cannot have helped, though Mr Purdie feels that a big factor is a "changing economic climate".

"Some people are tightening their belts, be that whether they choose not to go on holiday or to give a music festival a miss, and Glastonbury is no exception."

Sponsorship dilemma

Back in Hertfordshire, Mr Trenchard says that his approach to the finances of his festival is "cautious", basing the budget on selling less than 80% of tickets.

The festival also runs its own bar rather than contracting the work out to maximise profits (which make up about 30% of the event's income).

Meanwhile some contractors have been talked into offering cheaper prices in return for two or three year contracts.

It's important to stay true to our roots as a small, intimate event
Alex Trenchard
Standon Calling

The past two Standon Calling have raised a total of 10,000 for charities.

Overall, last year's event made a loss, though this was not as severe as it could have been, Mr Trenchard says.

"We had the wettest summer in years," he recalls.

Like other small festivals, it does not have any significant income from sponsorship.

While the likes of Wireless, V Festival, T in the Park and the Leeds and Reading Festivals have huge corporate backing, it is something that smaller festivals cannot always get - and very often do not want.

"It would have to fit in with our ethos," Mr Trenchard says.

"We have been building only very slowly and that is because I'm not doing it to make lots of money. It's important to stay true to our roots as a small, intimate event."

'Rave reviews'

Also familiar with the financial risks of running a small festival is Simon Taffe, who admits losing "a hell of a lot of money" in the first year of the End of the Road festival.

Having sold his own home and persuaded a friend to remortgage theirs, he set up the event in North Dorset in 2005, only to struggle to attract punters.

We certainly didn't intend to lose a shedload
Simon Taffe
End of the Road Festival

However, word about the event spread, meaning that crowds doubled to about 2,000 the following year.

And last year the attendance neared 4,000, meaning the event made its first profit - albeit not big enough to cover the losses of the previous two years.

"We certainly didn't intend to lose a shedload," says Mr Taffe, who says that the growing reputation of the festival has made running it a little less stressful.

"In the first year we were naive and thought we would go for a few big names but only just managed to sell enough tickets.

"But we were lucky that the sun shone, everyone enjoyed themselves and we got rave reviews."

Price hike plan

Mr Taffe is still not expecting to have made an overall profit for another couple of years.

End of the Road festival
Smaller festivals often need to target more niche audiences

And with a focus on intimacy at the festival, there is limited scope for expanding capacity in the Larmer Tree Gardens, complete with its resident peacocks.

To increase income he instead plans to continue improving the quality of the festival, which would justify raising the ticket price from its current 105 to about 140 over the next few years.

Among its unusual features are a piano in a forest where acts from the main stage - who this year include Mercury Rev and British Sea Power- pop in play impromptu sets.

Without offering something different, it is "almost impossible" for a small festival to survive, Mr Taffe says.

"There's so much saturation. If we were starting now, I don't think we'd be able to get it off the ground."


SEE ALSO
Island music festival cancelled
11 Apr 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Glastonbury 2007 'generated 73m'
10 Apr 08 |  Business
Why just a logo is now a no-no
21 Jun 07 |  Business

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