March 24, 2011 4:09 pm

Lucrative celebration: earning money from festivals

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Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire

Party at a price: revellers at Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire

When Alex Trenchard, the eldest son of Viscount Trenchard, was jailed in the UK last month for using his company credit card to defraud Tesco, his employer, out of £355,000 ($578,000), it was a salutary tale of the perils of running a festival.

The 32-year-old, a corporate affairs manager for the supermarket group, used the card to pay off debts incurred by a music festival at the family seat, Standon Lordship in Hertfordshire. The former page boy to the Queen had, the court heard, become “obsessed” with staging the summer festival, which had developed from his birthday party 10 years ago into Standon Calling, an annual event featuring acts such as Florence and the Machine, Friendly Fires and Mumford & Sons.

Trenchard’s case – and his solution – was extreme, but staging such events can be a risky financial enterprise, as several landowners have discovered when holding festivals as a way of helping to keep their historic estates afloat. Lady Tania Rotherwick, whose 16th-century family home, Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire, hosted the Cornbury Festival for seven years, admits the three-day event has had “a chequered history”.

Cornbury developed a reputation as a peculiar mix of a traditional music festival partnered with village fête activities, resulting in a rather curious English affair. Alongside the bands and camping, there are Morris dancers, tombolas, hot-air balloons and cake stalls. Held on the Rotherwicks’ 6,500-acre estate, the event has been dubbed “Poshstock”, with festival-goers including David Cameron, the prime minister; Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson; the actor Rowan Atkinson; and Jemima Khan, the socialite ex-wife of Imran Khan, the cricketer and politician.

Lord and Lady Rotherwick are among those with both the land and the inclination to hold a boutique festival on their own turf, inspired by Michael Eavis’s Glastonbury, which has been held in various forms since 1970, and the Port Eliot Festival, a literary event that takes place in the grounds of the 10th Earl of St Germans’ 100-bedroom gothic pile in Cornwall.

Another is the Kimberley Festival – nicknamed “Toffstock” by society bible Tatler – which was started in the early 1990s by Peter Buxton, a former pupil of the UK’s Eton College. The Kimberley Festival and acts are a closely guarded secret, and the organisers shun the media. You must be invited to buy a ticket to the event held at the 18th-century Kimberley Hall in Norfolk, making it one of the most exclusive festivals.

Hosting such an event can be “hugely enjoyable and magical”, according to Lady Rotherwick, but this comes at a price. For example, she says, “we’ve invested a huge amount in the infrastructure, putting in roads in the area”. The Rotherwicks and the festival promoter, Hugh Phillimore, another old Etonian, have gone their separate ways – Phillimore is moving the Cornbury Festival up the road, while Lord and Lady Rotherwick plan to host a new festival with different organisers.

It is not only financial risks that promoters must worry about, warns Glastonbury’s Eavis. “There are so many hazards out there,” he says. “Terrorism, Icelandic volcanic dust, weather, foot-and-mouth.”

In 1990, large numbers of so-called New Age travellers clashed with Glastonbury security guards. His daughter Emily, who now helps run the festival, recalls doing her homework at the kitchen table as a child: “I was absolutely terrified. It was horrible. We didn’t know how long they were going to be here for; you didn’t know what they were going to trash. I looked out the window, and there were people running, travellers with telegraph poles on fire, and … Molotov cocktails being thrown at Land Rovers, and things were just blowing up. Honestly, it was absolutely terrifying.”

Wayne Hemingway, the designer and entrepreneur, last year teamed up with Lord March to launch Vintage, a summer event that aims to celebrate British music and fashion, at the earl’s Goodwood estate in West Sussex.

“The complexity of putting on a festival is nothing like I’ve done before,” says Hemingway. “To build something for three days and then take it down is madness. I don’t think I’ve done anything this hard in 30 years of business. There’s a great enthusiasm for festivals, but you can’t bank on the weather or the interplay of the acts.”

Hemingway’s experience is echoed by Pablo Ganguli, the 27-year-old founder and artistic director of Liberatum festivals. Liberatum stages discussions between cultural figures from architecture, music, literature and fashion – such as the writers Gore Vidal and V.S. Naipaul and fashion designer Gareth Pugh – in cities around the world including St Petersburg and Istanbul.

“It’s not a job. It’s my life,” says Ganguli. “It’s what I dream about and have nightmares about.” The festival’s principal source of income is sponsorship, which he says is “never easy to get and requires a lot of hard work”. He refuses to pay speakers. “I’m not sure if a fee on top of promotion is necessary,” he says. “It’s like giving a fee to someone for attending the Oscars.”

Britain’s festival market is the world leader, according to James Drury, managing director of the Festival Awards, established in 2004. UK fans spent £1.45bn on live music in 2009, 4 per cent up on the previous year, according to PRS for Music, the songwriters’ organisation. About £275m of this was spent on festivals, a rise of roughly £50m – a bigger increase than in any other area of live music.

Drury says festival organisers need an excellent financial plan and good infrastructure. “Most festivals understand you won’t make money for at least three years. The margins are very small, so you have to be very careful. You need a very good bank manager and nerves of steel.”

If they get it right, the financial benefits for landowners can make it worthwhile. In 2008, Eavis’s Worthy Farm was paid £500,000 for hosting Glastonbury. While the festival’s profits were a meagre £18,000 on a turnover of £24m, generated largely through ticket sales, it gave £1.5m to charities.

John Ailwyn Fellowes, the fourth Baron de Ramsey, holds the Secret Garden Party festivals in the grounds of Abbots Ripton Hall in Cambridgeshire. “I really look forward to them,” he says. “But I am at arm’s length – I do a deal with my son Freddie [the festival organiser]. We fix a price set through a land agent and then I stay out of it. It makes a profit for me, else I wouldn’t do it. I don’t do it out of love for my son.”

Fellowes, whose highlight has been watching Caravan Palace, a French techno-swing band, play while fireworks exploded overhead, says the festival is part of his plan to keep the estate afloat, alongside converting farm buildings to offices. “We’re capital rich and income poor. We have to look at ways to bring in money other than agriculture.”

For music promoters, festivals are extremely profitable. Neil Warnock, chief executive and founder of The Agency Group, the entertainment booking agency, says: “It’s wonderful for us. Nigel Kennedy [the violinist] can play at an eclectic festival such as Bestival and might make some people who would never think of seeing him go to his tour. Festivals don’t seem to affect the tours; in fact, it can double the audience by piquing their interest.”

It’s not just musicians, promoters and landowners seeking to profit from festivals – there are also niche businesses such as Camp Kerala. The company provides Indian shikar tents similar to those used by maharajahs on hunting trips, each containing a bedroom with a king-size double bed and a duck-down duvet from Hungary. Yours from £7,500 for two for a weekend at Glastonbury.

However, with so much competition, many festivals are vulnerable to takeover or collapse. According to the UK Festival Market Report, the market “remains fairly convoluted in terms of ownership. Many festivals are owned and operated by joint ventures between two or more different promoters ... Just as major [record] labels have traditionally acquired the most successful independent labels, so too the larger promoters move in to acquire successful independent festival brands.”

To survive, festivals must find a niche. “Everyone is doing festivals on their estates – it’s harder for promoters to differentiate themselves from other festivals,” says Cornbury’s Lady Rotherwick.

Hemingway agrees: “There’s fatigue about ‘me too’ festivals. They’re often interchangeable. A lot of it is about 16-year-olds on the lash away from their parents. I wouldn’t want to go to them.” Yet he disputes the notion that the market is saturated, arguing there is a need for variety.

“Just because there’s a Morrisons [supermarket], it doesn’t mean you can’t have a Waitrose,” he says. “If you bring something new, there’s always a place in the market.”

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