Standon Calling’s Alex Trenchard On How To Ride It Out
When an independent festival promoter can’t put on their main event in any given year, it puts their livelihood on the line. Especially when the lineup has already been announced and tickets have been sold. For many event organizers, this became a reality in 2020. Alex Trenchard, founder of Standon Calling, was one of them. He told Pollstar that his festival wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for three main factors: Standon Calling’s loyal fans, who didn’t just hold on to their tickets but also donated money in a crowdfunder, the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, as well as the entire business coming together and supporting each other in terms of cash flow, contracts and a general understanding that decisions would be made at the last minute.
Then came 2021. The UK government had already changed the date for the lifting of coronavirus restrictions once. Trenchard took the gamble of his life when he decided to go ahead with the festival’s traditional late-July dates. “On July 11 , the prime minister announced that restrictions were being lifted [on July 19]. We had started building the festival on the sixth. So, for five days we were building something we didn’t know could happen or not,” he recalled, adding that the 2021 edition was a huge success, especially because the atmosphere on site was outstanding. People had been longing to return.
Trenchard and his team had been optimistic that 2022 would mark a return to some form of normal, but had to find out that, in a lot of ways, putting on a festival post-pandemic had gotten even tougher. Prices had already risen dramatically before the current inflation, as suppliers tried to make up for lost business, but the looming energy crisis has exacerbated the situation, some aspects of production have become 20% more expensive, in Trenchards experience.
Standon Calling, now in its 16th year, is a family friendly festival. It is struggling less to sell tickets than events targeting a younger demographic, who are spoilt for choice right now. The countless postponed shows are competing for tickets buyers with many new events that sprung up this year. Which isn’t to say that it was a walk in the park for family events, not at all. Raising ticket prices to offset costs isn’t an option, seeing that the cost-of-living crisis is affecting everyone, families in particular. “We added the Thursday as a festival day within the price of the ticket,” said Trenchard, “the idea is that the bar and on-site food sales would cover the relatively minimal added cost of putting on the extra day.”
The independent festival market began to develop from the late 1990s onwards, a period of low inflation. Trenchard explained the sector has never had to deal with double-digit inflation. “It’s an unknown challenge and one of the reasons why the industry is asking government for a VAT cut,” he said. UK events are paying 20% VAT on tickets, which is way more than in other European countries. During the toughest period of the pandemic, the UK government had lowered the VAT rate to 5%, which is what the country’s live sector would like to return to.
Looking ahead, Trenchard thinks, “we’re going to have to look quite seriously at our budgets, how we can be more cautious while delivering a quality lineup. We might have to pause some of the cool, smaller stages around the edges of the festival, whilst we see what’s happening. It doesn’t feel like this inflationary period is going to unwind in January, February. Is it going to be like this for the next two, three years? We don’t seem to know. On the independent side at least, people are going to be a bit more cautious. Ultimately, I think the established festivals can still do well, because of their loyal audience and strong regional customer base, they are in a good place to ride it out.”
Boomtown, another independent event, albeit four times the size of Standon Calling, just sold a stake to Live Nation. Joining the majors is an option Trenchard and his team have been looking at in the past, but not right now, he said. “Obviously, there comes a time as a promoter, when you ask yourself how much risk you are happy to take yourself. As the festival gets bigger, the risks multiply. In an increasingly uncertain world, it’s something I’m sure lots of independents would be looking at, just because it is a sensible thing to explore. You should be open to all things, and not be dogmatic about being independent. Sometimes you can be too independent, and then end up with nothing at all. In difficult times it’s often helpful to have the support of a larger partner.”
The benefit of being independent is that everybody working on the event feels like it’s truly their own, which creates a different level of passion. “There is something very strong in that,” said Trenchard, concluding, “it’s what motivated me and my staff, who’ve helped me build Standon Calling. It’s also human nature to believe that in the distance the storm will end and you’ll find that beautiful island where you’re going to have an amazing festival. I’m hoping that these choppy waters we’re in right now will subside, and that we’ll reach July 2023 and welcome everyone on site again. And that’s keeping me going right now.”