‘One Of Our Challenges In A Soundbite World Is Selling The Unknown’: Q’s With WOMAD Director Chris Smith

© Elliot Caunce
Chris Smith. (Picture by Elliot Caunce)

Chris Smith is the director of WOMAD, the culture festival founded by Peter Gabriel in 1980. Smith joined the team some 20 years ago, and has overseen an incredible evolution of the event, which currently comprises seven WOMAD editions around the world. The last one for this year is currently underway in Gran Canaria, Spain.

It was high time, Smith and the festival got recognized for the contribution it is making to the exchange of culture, love of music, and celebration of “just how amazing it is to be human,” as Smith puts it. Head here for Chris Smith’s 2023 Impact International honors.

In this interview, he shared his view of the current state of business, which he sees not much different from the state of the world in general; how to survive as an independent in an industry dominated by corporations; how a new generation of professionals has a different mindset when it comes to working in live; and why events like WOMAD, where commercial viability isn’t the guiding principle, are vital to the future of the live entertainment business.

Pollstar: What’s your state of mind after the summer season and another successful WOMAD from a business standpoint?
Chris Smith: I think it’s been a very difficult year. In Europe particularly, the weather has had a huge impact. It’s been cold and wet here in the UK, and when you do outdoor events, that brings a whole level of challenges. We’ve also had wet weather in Italy, hot weather in Spain.

So, my state of mind is partially exhausted. Commercially, going forward, there are a lot of challenges. Nevermind global warming, it’s dealing with inflation, it’s shortages of good staff, the cost of artists, the cost of flights. Everything we do is worth doing, and we will carry on to do it to the best of our ability, but it certainly isn’t getting any easier.

In terms of the economic position, I do feel positive. We came out of the pandemic in relatively good shape. We had a good year last year, this year has been hard, but we will survive. We’ve been going for forty years, and I know that we will survive, and that we will survive as an independent organization as well. We’re not gonna be bought out by the highest bidder.

WOMAD Festival At Charlton Park, Wiltshire
Marina Satti on stage during day four of WOMAD 2023 at Charlton Park in Malmesbury, England. (Photo by C Brandon/Redferns)

How important is the being independent to the spirit of WOMAD?
It’s absolutely central. We’re very lucky in Peter Gabriel, who owns the company, and believes passionately, and invests well. I think there’s been a homogenization, or globalization of the sector. Many events feel very similar, most of them are coming out of companies that are funded in North America, one in Germany. Certainly in Europe and the UK, there are very few independent festivals left.

Many festivals are generic, they may have a different name, and there’ll be differences, but the lineup is often broadly the same, with bits around the edges. It’s boring. What we’re representing isn’t mainstream, commercial artists. What we’re doing is representing music from all over the world, bringing artists together, bringing people together, and that isn’t necessarily commercially viable. And I think if you tried to turn WOMAD into a Live Nation special, I doubt it would survive, it definitely wouldn’t survive in its current form, because it wouldn’t be economically viable, whereas we can make it economically viable.

How, given all the economic challenges, rising production costs and artist fees, lack of qualified staff. Where do you even begin?
Starting with the artist, the artist has to be paid and paid well. There’s no question about that. The challenge is, there are fewer artists that are able to tour, particularly on our circuit, because of the nature of what we do.You have a split in the industry, where you have the high-end, commercial artists, who are represented by high-end, commercial companies, the percentages the artists are getting are not the amount management is charging.

The biggest problem in our sector is the difficulty artists are having putting a tour together, venues are struggling, the whole financial ecology of live music is fractured. You have your high-end stadium tours doing very well, but further down, where the talent is coming from, it’s really struggling. We’re always happy to pay more for artists, but in terms of sustainability, it’s getting harder.

How about raising ticket prices?
I think we’ve reached the ceiling of ticket prices. We did a fairly hefty hike this year, we certainly won’t do that again this year. So, then we’re looking at cost.

There’s some cross pollination between our events, because we have seven shows around the world. If we run a successful event in one part of the world, we can use any profits we get from that to support events in another part of the world. We’re very lucky, that a lot of our events get public sector funding from governments in the various countries. These factors all help.

But we’re now in a situation where we’re actually having to look at reducing the size of the festival, because if we can’t generate more ticketing income, and the price is not going to go down, what we have to do next is start to think about just dropping a stage, or stop doing this or stop doing that. At this precise moment, we’re looking at budgets and the cost of everything, and we’re saying, ‘what is core to WOMAD’s values?’ And if it isn’t, we have to think about not doing it, which is not a position we want to be in.

A lot of staff left. Where are they? Did they just find something more attractive? And is this business just not attractive enough anymore for them to return? Is it too uncertain? Do you have any ideas how you can address that particular issue?
First of all, during the pandemic, the film industry didn’t shut down. There’s a skill set match, I think, between the festival and the film industry, so a lot of our crew were hoovered up by the film industry. A lot of people realized you didn’t have to be working 18-hour shifts and travelling all the time. You can actually spend time at home, be with your family. If you’re an electrician, or whatever, you could earn good money and not be away from home all the time.

We’re actually now seeing people coming back, people that have had the experiences of home life, and decided they much prefer it on the road. It still isn’t easy. It’s a tough life, it is a lifestyle choice. If you want to work in our industry, you are choosing to do this. And if the financial return isn’t there…

Festivals, the business I got involved in 40 years ago, [has changed a lot]. I see the professionalization of it. People would maybe do a summer in the festivals, or maybe just do one festival, because they’d take a holiday and come and work in a festival because it was a great experience. Now we’re seeing seeing people building careers in it, and getting degrees in it, and that changes the attitude. They’re not just there, and this isn’t a criticism, they’re not just there for fun. They’re there, because it’s their profession. That changes things hugely.

I don’t think, as an industry, we’ve sat down and talked about that. Maybe it’s about more collaboration, because if we do one festival in the UK, we can give a chunk of work to a small group of people, but we can’t give a year’s worth of work to people. But if we were able to collaborate with one another festival, we can potentially create jobs that are more stable, etc. I don’t think that conversation is happening. And the reason that conversation isn’t happening, is because of the division within the industry, where you’ve got the big commercial producers, and then the smaller, independent ones. There’s a fracture in the industry that is preventing that kind of development and growth of the sector.

Staples Jr Singers
Staples Jr Singers performing at WOMAD 2023. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

How have you maintained calm, and continued to deliver, under the intense pressure of these past years?
You’ve got to believe in it. We’re lucky, because it isn’t just about putting shows on in fields. It’s actually about an ethos. We are building from scratch this incredible cultural experience for our audience, and we’re passionate about it, and what kept me going is a) making sure that we survived, and b), now more than ever, what we do in the industry is really, really important.

The notion of society, the notion of community, the notion of people coming together rather than being separated on electronic gadgetry is stronger than ever. The human race survives as communities, survives in groups, physically together. And what keeps us going is knowing how important that is.

Society is getting less and less tolerant. From what I see, the States is no different than here in terms of racism, fear of immigration. It is more important than ever that we create opportunities for people of all cultures to come together, and celebrate just how amazing it is to be human. Simplistically, that’s what keeps us going. That, and the mortgage.

But it has been much harder than I thought it would have been. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve been in the sector for a long time, and I was surprised how difficult it was coming out the other side and starting again.

Can you give a break down of the different WOMADs around the world, and how they operate?
We don’t franchise, we partner. We always have a local production partner, but we retain creative control. We don’t tell people what to do, but we guide, and advise, and support. And that’s how it succeeds. Our year starts in March in Adelaide, Australia, a very successful show. Then we go straight over to New Zealand the consecutive weekend. We have a couple of weeks break before going to Santiago de Chile in April. Very different events. It’s a free event in one of the deprived areas of Santiago. Fantastic event with a real South American madness about it. Creatively, they are amazing, organizationally, they’re quite different from us, but that’s fine. We work in their culture, we’re in their country. We’re here to learn.

Then, in May, we’re in central Spain, at a beautiful world heritage city called Cáseres, a free event, 40,000 people, funded by the city council, quite extraordinary. This year was our first year in Italy, we did a festival in Rome, but it was rained off. We had catastrophic rain on the last day, so we actually lost the last day. From Rome, we went to the UK, then we had a very small event in South Africa, which had more of a hold-in role. It would have been our second show there, but politics a very complicated. This was just about making sure we still have a presence, quite a small show, but important for us to be in South Africa and keep it going. The final show of the year is in Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, an island away of the Spanish coast.

Womad Festival In Caceres
Atmosphere at one of WOMAD’s Spanish editions, in Caceres, Extremadura, Spain. (Photo By Carlos Criado/Europa Press via Getty Images)

How would you sum up WOMAD to somebody who’s never heard of it before?
I like to use Peter [Gabriel’s] phrase, which is ‘the best music that you’ve never heard.’ And I think we’ve expanded. It has always been the World of Music, Art, and Dance, but it’s a whole cultural experience: the best art you may not have encountered yet, artists from international, often developing world backgrounds. We’ve gone very much into literature, and language, again, representing all over the world. It’s a celebration of world cultures. And lots of people say, the best music they’d heard was a band they’d never heard of. It’s about discovery, it’s about openness. This isn’t about being a commercial, multi-million dollar experience. This is about artists who may be massive are superstars in their home country, but are unknown in the UK or Europe. It’s about introducing all these diverse cultures through art and music to audiences all over the world.

One of our challenges in a soundbite world is selling the unknown. Once they experienced it, they get it, but if you advertise a festival that’s got a Nigerian headliner you’ve never heard of, versus whoever, you’re going to go for whoever. It’s a sign of the time, as well. I think people are less open. I suppose they’re spending a lot of money, so they’re less likely to take risks.

Where is this business headed? And how do you make sure that newcomers and also new genres don’t get forgotten?
It’s changed beyond all recognition. When I was young, a band would start in the pub, it would get picked up and gradually evolve. What’s happening now is a band, singer, or songwriter gets picked up on TikTok or, they haven’t built a career, a portfolio of music, and learned those skills. They get snapped up by a record company, thrown into a studio, produce an album, and that’s probably the last you’ll ever hear of them. And then out of that majority of artists there’ll be a thin crust that will get a second album, and an even thinner crust to get the third album. You see it in the UK, where the venues are closing now, because that group of artists, who just got together, played music and gradually built a reputation, and the performance skills to be able to go on tour, that’s certainly in decline. Will it come back? I think it has to. Events like WOMAD – and we’re not alone, but there aren’t many – are part of the future of our industry, our global industry. I think we are essential to the survival of the music industry. Others may disagree.

Everything has an ecosystem, and I think the ecosystem in the music industry is damaged, much like the ecosystem in the world is damaged. We have to repair it, and I think it will repair. We’re at a point at the moment, partly post-pandemic, but even before the pandemic, where the artist comes back into control. The artist needs to be in control. And Peter is a perfect example. He is an artist. He was part of a team that created WOMAD, and now he leads it. You can’t have too many artists running the world.

WOMAD Festival At Charlton Park, Wiltshire
Lee Narae of Leenalchi performing at this year’s WOMAD in Malmesbury, England, July 28, 2023. (Photo by C Brandon/Redferns)

How did you start out in this business, and how did you eventually join WOMAD?
I’ve been working with WOMAD for 20 years. The [original] plan was that I’d be there a couple of years, learn some stuff, help them out with a particular problem they had and move on. I started out in the theatre. I ran venues, I ran music venues, theaters, I understood how the industry worked. I also understood public sector and government funding all that kind of stuff. And at that point in time, WOMAD was moving venue, it needed to integrate itself into local practices, local government, funding, and I just had that skill set. I’d worked with WOMAD, partially, for two or three years before that, they knew me, and they said, ‘would you come in and do this?’ And I said, ‘yes.’ And then, suddenly, I was running the show and traveling the world.

I came in as festival director, but then the artistic director left, and I went on to [lead] whole shebang. But I’m going to have to stress this: it is so much a team community affair. I always say, I’m the one that goes to prison, if anything goes wrong, but in terms of its creation, it is a team of extraordinary people, and no one person is responsible for what WOMAD done. And that’s true internationally. It’s a community, it’s a team of people. I absolutely do not take ownership of WOMAD, I just feel I’m part of part of that picture.

What do you consider you biggest accomplishment?
I think a career in our industry is an accomplishment [in itself]. It’s the unexpected places that we’ve taken WOMAD. To take WOMAD into Chile, to take WOMAD into Rome. We took WOMAD deep into Russia long before Russia was what it is now, and that was an extraordinary experience. I’ve just been blessed to take WOMAD into so many different places. And in every every single country we’ve gone to, I’ve been proud of what we’ve achieved, because it changes the world. When we were in the Emirates, in Abu Dhabi, on the beach, we had Asian staff dancing alongside Arab princes to a Mongolian band. This is one of the most divided countries on the planet, and we had them all on the beach dancing together. Those are the memories, where something incredible happened, because this team of people believed and pulled together.

If you could pick one place where you where you want to take WOMAD, which would it be?
That’s a huge question. Thee first answer is, somewhere it’s never been. Somewhere it would make a difference, and, to be honest, that could be anywhere right now.

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