Q’s With Ella Nosworthy, Creative Director of Nozstock The Hidden Valley Festival

Nozstock main stage by night.
Charlie Rimmer
– Nozstock main stage by night.
The 2019 edition was the last one. Since then, government restrictions in reaction to coronavirus have made the execution of the event impossible.

Nozstock The Hidden Valley is one of the UK’s most beloved boutique festivals, and one of the most family friendly as such. It takes place at Rowden Paddocks, the working farm of the Nosworthy family in Herefordshire, England. What began as an intimate party with a few friends in the summer of 1998 has evolved into a weekend of escapism set across the idyllic rolling hills of Herefordshire, with headline acts from around the world dropping in each year.

The fact that the festival site is a working farm all year, the boutique capacity of 5,000 guests, the complete independence in which Nozstock is run – it all means that the Nosworthys require enough planning time and, especially, planning security. 
Meet the Nosworthys:
– Meet the Nosworthys:
MD Pete “Noz” Nosworthy, his daughter and creative director Ella, with little Edie.

Despite selling out the 2021 edition, Noz (dad), Ella (daughter), Julie (mum) and Rob (son) were facing a bigger gamble than ever going into this year. For a second year running, they couldn’t touch the ticket money to pay for artist deposits and suppliers’ fees without a guarantee that the UK’s festival season would go ahead or an insurance scheme in case refunds had to be granted in light of the event’s cancellation. The government has so far failed to provide either. 

While the decision makers haven’t backed out of their June 21 reopening date, which is supposed to lift all restrictions on social gatherings in the UK, they remain open pushing the date back. Going ahead without a government-backed insurance scheme would put Nozstock Festival, the family farm, home and livelihood at risk. They therefore decided to postpone the festival yet again, the new dates are now July 21-24, 2022. Pollstar spoke to the festival’s creative director Ella Nosworthy about this difficult decision and the unresolved issues affecting the entire UK festival community.
Pollstar: How do you feel, having just announced that Nozstock had to be cancelled for a second year running?
Ella Nosworthy: People have been so supportive. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone else, of course, but, to me, it confirmed that it was definitely the right decision. You know, we’d agonized for a long time over what to do. And when we made the decision, there were a lot of nerves about how people were going to react. I felt like people might be thinking, ‘Well, hold on, the roadmap still looks like it’s going ahead. Other events are happening. Why are you cancelling?’
But, actually, that that didn’t happen. People were totally understanding, saying, ‘thank you for trying to put it on as hard as you did. We’ll be there next year.’ It’s been wonderful to have that level of support from our punters for two years, really overwhelming. It made us feel quite humbled, that people felt strongly enough [about Nozstock] to roll over tickets two years in a row. I was prepared for a lot more refunds this year, and that hasn’t happened. People are really just trying to support festivals and events. I think that’s wonderful.

Sunset at Nozstock 2018.
Chloe Knott
– Sunset at Nozstock 2018.
A boutique event like Nozstock needs planning security.

Can you put a number on the amount of people who have kept their tickets?

They can still refund up until the end of July, so it will change, but 80% of people so far have kept their ticket. That will go down a bit, because some can’t make the dates anymore, but it’s still pretty exceptional. It’s not what I was expecting, even though I know Nozstock fans are really loyal, and they’ve always supported us. But, equally, asking someone to keep hold of a ticket that they bought back in 2019, and not be able to use it till 2022, it felt like a big ask.
Everyone’s been hit hard by this pandemic, there’s a lot of people who just haven’t got spare cash anymore. I thought more people might need their ticket money back, I thought people might think, ‘well, I’ll be able to go to other events this summer, so I’m not quite so bothered about holding on to my ticket’. But everyone’s pulled together and been really supportive of our decision, which is great, because it was a hard one to make.
I was a bit worried that people might wonder why we hadn’t waited till June 14, when there will be an answer to whether the UK roadmap will continue. We made the call when we did because suppliers needed paying, artists’ deposits were becoming due, it was getting to the point where we were having to invest quite serious amounts of money. 
And it got to the point where we couldn’t hold on any longer on this issue of insurance. Is it coming? Quite possibly. But when, how long will it take to implement once it is announced, will it be backdated? Just too many variables. And even if we had waited till June 14, the amount of money we’d have to have invested by that point just made [the decision] for us. We’re a small festival, we don’t have sponsorship, we’re completely independent. We just ran out of time.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the unique economics of independent boutique events like Nozstock?
Each festival has got its own kind of delicate supply chain, and decisions that it has to make. We are lucky in that we were small; our build time is a lot less than some of the bigger festivals. That’s why we did hold out longer than some medium-sized ones at the 15,000-capacity mark, because we knew that we could build the festival quicker if we needed to. But because we are completely independent and we’re only 5,000-capacity, that’s quite a limited pot of income for us to work from. 
When a festival is cancelled, that’s not just a weekend of lost trading income, it’s the whole year. We’ve already had one lost year, and therefore had to be quite careful financially with how things were done at the prospect of potentially having to fund things for another year without extra income. It got to the point where we couldn’t pay this money out unless we could be sure we’d be able to go ahead. And we couldn’t. If there had been a government-backed insurance scheme, we would have been able to carry on, because we could have invested that money with confidence. But as much as all are whispering that it’s going to happen, it still hasn’t happened, there’s still been no official word. The kind of investments that festivals are looking at, it could be millions, depending on the size of the event, and you can’t spend that money with that kind of question mark hanging over your head.

Sibling love at Nozstock 2018.
Charlie Rimmer
– Sibling love at Nozstock 2018.
The festival is renowned for its family-friendliness.

You said people are whispering. Is that really as concrete as it gets, because the calls for this kind of government-backed insurance have been made for months?

We’ve had some good meetings with our department of culture, they’re supportive of festivals. We’ve put a good case forward for events, they appreciate how important it is. We’ve heard that, if come June 21 the only barrier to not going ahead is insurance, then the government will do it. That’s all we’ve heard. In some ways that’s worse, because you’re like, ‘Okay, it is coming, but only if it’s the only barrier.’ So, there’s another question mark. 
And is it going to be implemented and ready for that date, so you can use it from June 22, or are they going to start having the conversations then? There hasn’t really been anything more firm. We’re doing this Events Research Program in the UK, there’s people putting on events, to give the government an idea of how it can all be done safely. The results have been super positive, as expected. But that hasn’t seemed to hurry the process along, the full results haven’t been spread about. It just feels like [live events are] not going to be their priority, they’ve got plenty of other things going on every day. We’ve been left to wonder and to hope. You can’t put on a festival that way.
The lack of understanding of how important live events are for people’s well-being seems to be a theme with governments across world. 
People’s most amazing memories come from live events. They’re so important and should not be underplayed in terms of what they can do for people’s mental health and the bonds that they can forge. But also, economically, the spend in the local area, using local businesses or suppliers. There’s no doubt that a government insurance scheme would unlock [that kind of] spending, it would have been worth it for everybody involved. 
I appreciate, that there’s probably every single industry asking for insurance, but this isn’t reinventing the wheel. They did it for film and TV, it worked really well. We will be the last industry to unlock, and if they don’t provide insurance or come up with another targeted financial scheme, like another cultural recovery fund, then there’ll be lots of wonderful events that just won’t be able to ever get started again.
My main concern is that the festival landscape is going to look very different next year, and that would be terrible, because the UK is a world leader in festivals. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, and maybe it’s been a little bit forgotten by some people.
Did you receive any government help throughout this past year-and–half?
We did, actually, we were lucky enough to get the cultural recovery fund. It was a lifeline for us. It allowed us to carry on with business as usual for the last year. It allowed us to keep our freelancers on, so we didn’t have to make redundancies. So, that was really good. But it’s a drop in the ocean, really. We were lucky enough to be one of the people that got it, but many, many wonderful organizations didn’t. Without insurance there will need to be another scheme, it’s going to cost regardless. We will need targeted financial help for the sector to survive. I’m incredibly grateful that we got that, but I’m obviously also looking to the future.
Can you talk about supplier issues that have been occurring throughout this past year?
A lot of our freelancers have had to go and get other jobs. They’re saying, ‘we need to know now, if the festival can go ahead or not, because we need to give a month’s notice to quit our jobs’. That was an issue. 
Some of our bigger companies that come and do the toilets and markets, a lot of their staff comes from Europe, and they can’t get the staff over here. So, they were coming to a point saying, ‘we’re not sure if we can honor the contract, because we can’t get the staff’. That was another issue. 
Obviously, a lot of freelancers have just left the event industry and have retrained in other areas. On their own, these issues could have been overcome, but it’s been one thing after the other. It gets to the point, where you have to ask, how many suppliers do you lose, how many new staff can you get involved [without disrupting everything]? If we can’t be sure of the quality of the event that we’re going to put on, if we can’t be 100% sure that it’s going to be what people expect, that makes the decision for you, doesn’t it?
So, if you want to go ahead next year, there either needs to be insurance or another financial fund in place?
In an ideal world, both, really. You don’t know how things will look this time next year. If everybody in the UK’s vaccinated, the variants are under control, then the insurance won’t be quite such an issue because you’d feel like you could still plan with confidence, and maybe commercial insurance companies would be willing to provide normal event cancellation insurance. The ideal would be that the government wouldn’t have to get involved in that way. My concern is even making it to that point. I think there will be events that need targeted help, like another round of Cultural Recovery Funding.
Is there anything you would like to add at all?
I just want to get across how important festivals and live music is, because I think perhaps some people have forgotten. Maybe that’s not fair to say, but it doesn’t feel like a priority for a lot of people in a time of national crisis. I do understand that, but, equally, once it’s gone, we’ve lost our position as world leaders in this industry. 
Before the pandemic, it was one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Now it’s just being completely shattered. Perhaps people don’t realize just how much goes into putting on an event or any live music show, the massive amount of people working behind the scenes. I think perhaps people didn’t realize just how many people we’re supporting, how big and busy and thriving an industry it was, and what a terrible shame it would be to lose it.