Whilst Breaking More Waves home city of Portsmouth is well served for music festivals such as Victorious (a huge outdoor event with some big names and bargain ticket prices) and Icebreaker (local scene multi-venue festival), when it’s longest running new music event, Southsea Fest announced it was taking a year out there was some disappointment locally.
So rather than just moan about it, a bunch of local music enthusiasts, including Breaking More Waves, got together and decided to run a replacement festival that we called Dials (the name coming loosely from the concept of everyone involved having different tastes / skills - different locations on the dial if you like). Dials was strictly D-I-Y. There was no big corporate sponsor, no advance funding except for digging into our own pockets, and the vast majority of people involved in the team were also balancing busy day jobs and other life commitments that had nothing to do with running a such an event.
Whilst Breaking More Waves’ involvement in the festival was far less than some of the other truly hard working souls who put their names forward, what we did do for Dials (help in booking some of the acts using the contacts that we’d developed from running the blog, putting some money on the table, organising and running the majority of press liaison, and a small amount of marketing and promotion) helped us gain a deeper understanding of just some of the pressures and difficulties festivals are under, some of which don't get talked about very much.
Here are some of the things we learnt:
1. Cashflow is everything (Part 1 – Punters and tickets)
Stuff doesn’t happen without it being paid for. And when your main source of funding is ticket sales this means that there’s a very difficult balance between what’s going out and what comes in. When you book your ticket for a festival you might think that the money goes straight to the organiser. Not necessarily. Many ticket agencies withhold money they take until after the event has occurred, so that if it is cancelled they can refund easily. So as an organiser your choice of who you sell tickets with is incredibly important for cashflow, as is how you arrange for things to be paid for up front, and as a punter, if money isn't being held back by the ticket agency, buying your ticket early or from local physical retailers can help the festival to overcome the issue of cashflow.
2. Cashflow is everything (Part 2 – Bands)
Dials’ original intention was to pay every band on the bill. However, it quickly became clear after doing the maths and taking all costs into account this wasn’t possible. Quite simply, to put on an event with 45 bands (that’s nearly 200 musicians - roughly a quarter of our total capacity / ticket sales) in small venues, with no big sponsorship and to pay everyone would lead to cancellation before tickets had even started to be sold. Before Dials we’d always thought that musicians should be paid for every show they played, but the practical reality is far more complex. Dials paid every national touring act that performed, and most larger local acts, however some acts, who were generally occupying bottom of the bill slots, playing to just a handful of people for half an hour, weren't offered payment. However we tried to treat these acts as fairly as we could – they were all given a small amount of free drinks and had their festival wristband so they could enjoy the rest of the day watching the music after they had played.
3. Cashflow is everything (Part 3 – Blaggers)
The number of blaggers shocked us. That's blaggers, not bloggers. This wasn’t an expensive festival (£15 early bird / £18 regular / £20 on the door, for an event that ran from 1pm to 11pm + DJs after ) and every band was entitled to a set number of cheap guest tickets at £10 where they arranged them in advance. We also had a number of photographers, press and competition winners who received free tickets. Yet we were surprised at the numbers of people trying the ‘I’m friends / with such and such a band and I should be on the guest / press list’ approach or people who expected there to be a totally free guest list. Dials wasn’t Glastonbury. It was a small independent festival where every ticket sale counted; not to make money for the organisers, but so that we could pay the people we had agreed to pay; artists, security etc.
If you went to see a film you wouldn’t expect to get a free ticket from the cinema just because you happened to be mates with one of the actors in it would you? Music festivals are the same. The bottom line is if Dials gave everyone who thought they were entitled to a free ticket a free ticket, there would be no Dials.
Likewise the number of bands / their representatives who put down frankly ludicrous requests in their contracts for their riders. If you called a plumber to your house to do a small job that you were paying him say £150 for would you expect the plumber to request a roasted chicken (sliced) and a bottle of spirits in addition to his payment?
4. It’s quite possible to have a festival line up that features as many acts with women in them as men.
Earlier this year you may have seen various articles online asking why UK festivals were dominated by male only bands after Josh at Crack In The Road blog produced a now internet-famous poster showing the acts playing this years Reading / Leeds festivals that contained female musicians. At Dials we were very pleased that nearly half of the acts playing contained female musicians. Several ticket holders commented positively on how great it was to see so many women on stage. It’s sad that they should even have to comment on this, but what we learnt was that: 1. It is very possible to book a festival line-up where women were given as much opportunity as men and 2. That punters will watch music by either sex – all they care about is if the acts are good or not.
5. There’s a lot more to organising a festival than you could possibly imagine. You do need professional help and people with experience.
Despite the D-I-Y approach that Dials had, within the team we had highly professional and experienced people who knew what they were doing. Without these hard working and brilliant people who understand how to run venues, who know the right people to speak to and who understand the stuff that nobody wants to do like financial accounting Dials wouldn’t have happened. These people all put their hearts into Dials for one reason - they wanted a live music event like this in Portsmouth.
6. Successful bands aren’t just good musicians. They go about their jobs professionally.
If you’re a musician and you’re due to play a festival and your stage time is 1.30pm, turning up late or even worse not at all because you’ve been waiting for a taxi / are hungover / didn’t realise what time you were on and not phoning the organisers to let them know is not a way to impress either the festival management or the punters who have decided to come and watch you rather than someone else. To be fair Dials only had a small amount of these instances and they were from local artists lower on the bill who probably lack experience – all of the more well known acts were absolutely professional in their approach. In fact our main headliner was the first band to arrive!
7. Everyone wants their name on the top of the bill.
We suspect this is more to do with bands agents than the bands themselves (who generally don’t seem to care and just want to play) but everyone wants their name nearer the top end of the poster that’s advertising the event. Maybe the way to go is just to list all bands from A-Z, then there is no room for egos, only the alphabet.
8. Being part of running a music festival carries some level of stress, but with the right team, it can be an absolute blast.
To say that we were on an incredible high after the last band had played at Dials is somewhat of an understatement. Seeing bands like Black Honey (one of our choices / bookings for the event) play to a packed sweaty room, watching another of our choices Alice Jemima, who we have been championing for some time, playing to a warm and attentive crowd and clearly enjoying herself, getting namechecks from stage for the blog from at least 2 of the acts that played and meeting many of the artists that we have written about over the last few years who without exception were lovely, seeing so many positive comments about the festival on social media after it was all finished and just being part of it all was way more than we could have ever expected when we started this humble music blog back in 2008.
And the thing that we’ve learnt the most? That old cliché about teamwork being the best way to get results. That truly was the way with Dials.
*This post is the opinion of Breaking More Waves Blog and not necessarily reflective of the opinion of all of the Dials team.