Festival Ireland: the art and graft of selling out

Trust the locals; offer something different; and hire a good graphic designer. Jim Carroll talks to festival organisers to find out what makes their events thrive

Crowds throng the main stage at Electric Picnic 2014. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Crowds throng the main stage at Electric Picnic 2014. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

For every long-running summer event, such as Indiependence, Life or Castlepalooza, you have the ill-fated Killarney Festival of Music & Food, which flopped in its first year. For every Electric Picnic or Body & Soul which sells out in advance, you have events such as last year’s Light Colour Sound, which left acts out of pocket.

So what are the secrets behind having a long-running, successful festival? Doggedness is the first thing that comes to mind for David Teevan at the Junction festival, currently running in Clonmel.

But the Junction festival, which marks its 15th year on the go this year, also owes a lot to being “an ongoing conversation with the local community or those interested in that conversation”, he says.

“We have survived because we listened. The whole choral strand in the festival came about because of that, and we’ll have more visual arts in the future because we feel that’s an area we haven’t been serving.

“We found we were engaging with adults and children, but teens were a law unto themselves. We’ve now done that with the trainee programme, and we’ll have 25 to 30 teens working with the festival and some may go on to work in the arts.”

Community roots

In Limerick, Shane MacCurtain has just overseen the fourth Make A Move festival, and it’s an event whose roots and appeal lie in the city’s community ethos.

“The idea was very much based around celebrating the wider culture around hip-hop and engaging with lots of people who maybe felt alienated or who didn’t really feel they were part of the city’s culture,” says MacCurtain. “From the start, we had strong links in communities and this helped in getting young people involved in workshops.

“However, in a city hungry for a good summer festival, external pressures emerged early on to take the festival on a more traditional route, to fly in big stars. I think it is very difficult to be both and I think when we firmly made the decision to stick with our original purpose, it has strengthened those bonds.”

Angela Dorgan credits a range of people, from the media to the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, for the longevity of Hard Working Class Heroes, the Dublin-based music showcase that has been running since 2004.

However, one category stands out for her. “There would be no festival if musicians and bands from all of Ireland had not got behind it.

“Similarly if local punters and music lovers hadn’t got behind it in the numbers they have, you would have had to ask at some stage, well then why are we doing it? Without the artists, there would not be much point in doing any of it at all.”

What has surprised Dorgan, though, has been the lack of buy-in from some quarters. “Apart from the input of individuals, the larger music industry bodies her haven’t got behind it in a way they do in other countries.”

A different steer

All of the above festivals are annual events, but Mary Nally at Drop Everything has taken a different steer with the Inis Oírr cultural biennial, due to return to the island next May for the third time. She believes that ideas are the key to a sustainable festival. “If your ideas are good enough, people will be interested. Stay fresh. Necessity really is the mother of re-invention.”

For Nally, the involvement of locals is key. “I think – well more hope – that the local community trust us, and that with each edition I aspire to strengthen that trust. The entire event is built on trust and being in such a small community, it’s absolutely essential to have that from the people whose home it is.

“We are still relatively new but there was without a doubt more involvement from the locals last year as to the first year, and I hope to build on that again for next year. It just feels better overall when the community are into it and get involved too. I don’t think it would make sense otherwise.”

Extra hands

When it comes to advice for those seeking to start their own events, there’s widespread agreement from all about the usefulness of extra hands. Shane MacCurtain talks about the need for “experienced volunteers, board members and constructive partnerships. Try and develop relationships that are not just about getting finance, but also expertise and contacts. Getting the right people with level heads and creatives with grand ideas; a mix of both is very important.”

“Make sure you have the best team,” adds Nally. “Be kind. Work hard. And please hire a decent graphic designer.”

David Teevan believes timing is key. “We’ve been very lucky in terms of starting when we did. Now, it’s a very different landscape, but there’s always room for good ideas. It has to be a bright idea that shines brighter than the other ideas. And people need to remember that to move from a small operation to something like we have now is hard work.”

For Angela Dorgan, it’s about doing something no one else is doing. “Have a reason you want to run the festival and never stray from what you want to do to suit a sponsor or someone else’s idea of what they think you should be doing. Make sure everyone on the team wants the same thing. Make sure the artist is at the centre of what you do. Make sure there is an audience for what you are doing.

“Be humble. There are a lot of people involved in what you are doing, don’t always assume they will support you, earn their support and be grateful that they do.”

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