‘Bringing Artists To Beautiful Locations’: Q’s With Andy Smith, Co-Founder Of Kendal Calling
Pollstar had a chat with Andy Smith, the co-founder of one of the UK’s most beloved festivals, Kendal Calling, and the company behind it, From The Fields.
Smith answered questions about his background, the state of business, challenges and opportunities for independent promoters in this day and age, future plans, Brexit, as well as his event philosophy, which is all about giving artists a stage in a stunning setting.
Do you remember your first contact with music?
I come from a fairly musical background. My grandfather was a promoter up in Darby, where he had a few dancehalls. I was in a band when I was in school, and I just wasn’t very good. So they asked if I’d become their manager, which was very polite of them.
My first task was to find them a gig, which I did, and I realized that it was a lot of fun putting on a gig. There’s a lot of fun to be had in making other people happy.
How old where you then?
How did you end up promoting a festival?
Over the next couple of years, the shows started getting bigger. I started getting offered bands that I listen to at home. Anti-Flag, Mr. Scruff. It really came to a head when we were offered Pendulum and British Sea Power, but there wasn’t any venue in town big enough. So we put them on in a marquee and called it Kendal Calling [in 2006]. And that became an annual event that just started growing.
When did you launch From The Fields as a company?
In 2011. Kendal Calling started off as a partnership between Ben Robinson and us, it turned into a limited company in the second or third year. When we realized that we wanted to put on more shows outside of Kendal Calling, that’s when From The Fields was formed.
It was probably the time we started doing the Live From Jodrell Bank shows, we had Flaming Lips down at Jodrell Bank, which was a precursor to Bluedot.
What’s your event philosophy?
Bringing artists to beautiful locations. Both Jodrell Bank and Lowther Deer Park, where Kendal Calling takes place, are stunning for their own different reasons. At that point I had seen a lot of bands in dark rooms with black-painted walls and stuff, and I just decided that, if you can, it’s always better to go see them somewhere stunning and beautiful.
Watching the Flaming Lips at Jodrell Bank was the perfect example of that, with the towering Lovell Telescope behind the stage looking down on it, the largest steerable telescope in the world. That for a band like the Flaming Lips was just wonderful to watch. Wonderful.
I though, maybe there could be a little bit more of a lean toward making the venue as much part of the show as the artist. It’s never going to be quite as important, but it’s certainly a main support.
What were some of the most spectacular venues you’ve considered so far?
We’ve been on old oil rigs looking at possibilities to put on concerts. We put British Sea Power up on the highest pub in England, Tan Hill.
We’ve been on helicopters to islands in the English channel. It’s just a lot more fun, if you’re trying to do something out the ordinary both for the audience and the promoter.
Is it a good time to be working in live entertainment?
I think any time’s a good time, but I think anytime’s also a hard time. There’s so much over-saturation in the market, that artist fees are getting quite terrifying, unsustainable. But people have been warning about that for years.
There’s a lot of consolidation in the market as well, but, at the same time, there’s more shows than ever, there’s more tickets sold then ever. So, from that end, it’s very good time.
How important is it to remain an independent company to be able to operate outside the ordinary?
As long as you’re with someone else, who’s got a similar vision and understanding, I see no issue. There are benefits that independents can give you, which is understandable. You can be more nimble, you can take bigger risks on gut instinct. But, no doubt, there’s benefits the other way as well.
How do you make the economics work as an independent company?
We would struggle a lot if it wasn’t for the following and the good-will of our audiences when it comes to the two flagship festivals we’ve got. Kendal and Bluedot have got extremely loyal audiences, and they buy their tickets way ahead of the artists names being announced. If we didn’t have that loyalty from the audience, as a company we would struggle.
Can you still charge competitive ticket prices?
With Kendal, we’ve always been very conscious about the price. We started it when I was about 17, 18 years old, I didn’t have much cash myself. I think it was £35 for a weekend ticket, and even when we started doing three days it was £55. And even though that [went up] every year, it’s important that we try and keep ourselves cheaper than comparable festivals.
Did you have to decline artists because of their fee?
Yeah, it’s a shame. We do get people approaching us, asking if they could headline, but the fees they quote are just…if you had three of those, that would be the only thing you had that year. But we’ve got 18 stages.
When we were growing up – we were always scaling, always growing – there was a lot of choice out there. The choice has definitely diminished. There’s less bands, and the bands that are there are charging unsustainable prices.
We can’t book them. It’s not a choice. A choice would imply that we could do it if we wanted to. There’s a lot of bands that want to headline but are unaffordable. So we’re finding different ways forward. We’ve had five headliners in three days before, and I can see co-headliners becoming more of a thing at festivals.
But we’ll also be looking for entertainment elsewhere across the site. It’s not just the music that people buy tickets for. Looking at the polls that we have each year – we’ve been commissioning the same set of questions for the past six years – 55 percent of the people are coming for the music.
That’s 45 percent that are coming regardless. So we just got to work on increasing it.
How do you go about finding and putting on alternative entertainment on site?
Very carefully, because we’ve not always had much money to spend, most certainly no money to lose. So we’ve got to be sure when we’ve got an idea, that it’s the right idea.
We like to surprise the audience, like when we brought in real snow and had a ski slope on site. You’ve got to be sure that it’s right. We’ve got a great communication with the audience, they suggest a lot of ideas that we end up following up with.
You’ve sold out every year since launching with 900 people in 2006 to 25,000 at the 13th edition in 2018. What’s your secret?
Really simple: we just always listen to the audience, and we grew slowly and steadily.
Bluedot has been receiving great reviews as well. What makes that event unique?
The fact that there’s nothing else like it. Jodrell Bank, the site, is just awe-inspiring. Most people have been taken there on a school trip, but when they return as an adult the telescope is just as big and even more impressive, when you’ve got a full understanding of what it is they’re doing.
There’s a big drive these days of festivals not just being about intoxication, and not just about the music. Something like Bluedot, where you’ve got science, which, in itself, is just fascinating, mixed with music, which everyone loves. The two together in a field, it’s brilliant. You’ll never get bored.
Do you work with outside companies on your events?
Ground Control do the production. We’ve been working with them, I think, since 2011. Everything else is in-house. We like to book the bands and sell the tickets.
Do you have a designated ticketing partner?
We’ve been working with Ticketline since 2010, they’re just across the road from our office.
Your team is now 10 strong, is that correct?
That’s right, it’s come a long way since it was just myself and Ben.
Given the size of your events and their number, it still seems like a small team.
I suppose so, but we’ve got booking, marketing and finances covered, and that’s really all it needs.
What are your upcoming plans?
People need to be surprised. Nobody wants to go back to the exact same festival three times in a row. Things have got to move around on site, new activities and formats have got to be added. Music changes as well over time.
The job is never done. We started working on our festival in January, back when it was really small, and announced the lineup in April. But these days I forget which year it is, because our head’s so far in next year and the year beyond that. You’ve got to make your plans years in advance now, especially if you’re doing landscaping and such, because you’re thinking about where the festival needs to be in five, six, seven years.
In terms of other events or festivals, we’ve go our eye on a few different ideas at the moment. It’s a mixture of delivering events to underserved areas, where there’s a gap in the market, but also finding those niches as well. We want a bit of each to complement each other, and we’ve got two or three really unique sites that we’re working on a unique concept for.
What do you look for in people you hire?
Passion. They need to have passion and be able to use Excel.
You’re also running a festival for up-and-coming talent in Manchester called Off The Record. Are you optimistic about the future talent potentially headlining tomorrow’s festivals?
I am positive, yeah. I wish I could see more research into the real grassroots movement. But from what I hear anecdotally, there are a lot more bands right at the beginning of their careers than there ever have been. That’s certainly the right direction.
What’s interesting about Off The Record is that 60 percent of the applications are female artists, which is fantastic. We can a bit of stick for representation, certainly at Kendal Calling, which is a shame, but the artist just aren’t on the rosters, not to a proportional representation anyways. That seems to be changing, and there are some brilliant initiatives like Keychange out there at the moment.
When it comes to headliners I’m not sure. There’s more bands than there ever have been, more tickets being sold than there ever have been, but it does feels like there’s less headliners. I don’t know what the bottleneck is. We’re looking at the headliners today vs. headliners 15 years ago, and it’s just incredible to see the difference in ticket sales or media exposure.
Could it have to do with he listening habits of today’s audience? People consuming more music on a variety of sources, but not with the same attention span? I’ve heard from promoters, who looked at their audience through a heat map and found that young festival goers in particular didn’t watch entire sets, but rather two songs of five different sets.
If that was the case it’d be a shame. We should bring back slow listening. But seriously, I’ve done it. The beauty of living in a city like Manchester is that you can go and watch four gigs in one night, which means that you’re not really watching any gig. It’s still a good evening out, but I’m much more inclined to go and sit in one venue these days.
You’re right, it’s easier than ever to access lots of music, so I imagine people are listening to lots of music, which I guess means there’ll be a lot more smaller artists out there doing better than they have been in the past. But it also means there’s less big bands. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing, it just means that the model’s going to change slightly, from one massive stage and one artist that’s going to lure the audience in to smaller stages hosting a wealth of artists.
Do you think Brexit will influence your business?
It already does. We’ve had a lot of fun bringing American artists over, but the Dollar exchange rate now is just crazy. A bit of that was fees going up as well. It’s a shame. There’s a lot of exciting bands over there, and it’s going to be a while before we can book them again.
The same goes for bands across Europe. [Brexit is] making it harder for us to book them both in terms of whatever the administration might be like, the paperwork, but certainly in the exchange rate as well, which is a huge shame. I’m really worried about the talent exchange as well. We’ve got good friends from across Europe, who’ve moved to England and work in the industry here. It’s be a crying shame if we were to lose that.
In terms of how it’s going to affect the festival, unless everyone loses their jobs they’ll be even more likely to buy a ticket, vacations on the rise and all that. If we can still hire the infrastructure the event will go ahead and we’ll have a great time. It’s not going to affect the festival so much, but it’s going to change the industry. And not for the better.
Do you have a favorite festival outside your own events?
That’s a tricky one. Yes, without a doubt, who doesn’t, I’m just trying to think of what it is. God, you put me on the spot there. Does the Edinburgh Fringe Festival count? Who doesn’t love that? That’s a brilliant time. But otherwise Best Kept Secret over in Holland, that’s one beautiful event. They’ve got the perfect site, they’ve got such a wonderful spread of genres and artists on the bill. It’s everything that I love in a festival.