The Blueprint to Independent Music Festival Success

Standon Calling Festival
Standon Calling Festival, Hertfordshire

Start your own company, manage your own bar, host your own music festival; these are dreams people aspire to achieve but few ever do. Yet, Alex Trenchard, the founder of Standon Calling Music Festival made it possible. Albeit, this was a dream he never even knew about until it happened.

More than ‘Just a Party’

How does one even start a music festival?

For Alex, it began as a barbeque for him and 100 of his closest friends to celebrate his 23rd birthday at his parent’s manor in Standon, Hertfordshire — a small town just over an hour outside of the big city (London). This may be slightly larger than the average birthday affair but by no means did it resemble the music festival that it is now. At least, not yet.

Each year, more friends showed up, more live acts, and even more scheduled festivities. As the day’s event reached over 500 people, Trenchard decided to build his own wooden stage with a full lineup of artists and performances to entertain his guests. As expected of amateur stage-builders, the stage blew down the first time around. His early improvisational ‘do-it-yourself’ approach was indicative of his passion to produce extraordinary parties. It also demonstrated just how much he knew of what he was doing; which Trenchard jokingly admitted was very little. But something intangible was slowly being built. A charming sense of community was beginning to form out of the unique recurring gatherings he held each year.

By 2005, Trenchard knew he might have struck an opportunity of a lifetime. It was near midnight when most party-goers thought the event was over. As people started to head out, a group of performers dressed in fairy costumes suddenly appeared amongst the crowd and herded everyone down past an old overarching chestnut tree to an enchanted pasture.

The crowd entered into another musical realm where people danced until the break of dawn while remnants of the fairy costumes were passed around. Unbeknownst to the crowd at the time, they were taking part in what was to be the very first Standon Calling Music Festival.

Standon Calling Festival

As Trenchard recalls his fondest memory, he remembers noticing the glint and excitement in people’s eyes. It was at that moment he realized his welcoming small town country party could be something more.

“I learned on the go, I pretended I knew what I was talking about…it [producing a music festival] was easier then because there weren’t as many festivals. Generally speaking, the fees you had to pay for artists were lower because the music industry was still selling records, whereas now they are selling [music] streams. This is a change in the industry that has meant that now live music festivals have to pay more for the act and there’s much more competition. Artists now make more money from live music then from records.”

With the instability of the music industry revenue streams, live music is the one channel that has seen positive revenue growth over the last decade. This holds particularly true as the festival segment has become more mainstream. Detailed in an article written by the Rolling Stones, Outkast (an American hip-hop group), earned USD $60 million playing at 40 festivals. In contrast, they played 46 shows throughout their Stankonia Tour to gross only USD $4.8 million.

Unquestionably, the festival industry is growing; in the US alone, over 32 million people attend at least one music festival each year according to Billboard. And this trend is mimicked throughout the world. To supplement greater demand, the number of music festivals have grown from 496 (2007) to 1070 festivals (2015) as listed by Efestival. However, The Telegraph reports only a handful of the smaller festivals are financially lucrative in an overcrowded marketplace while most get discontinued including, Summer Days Festival (UK), Future Music Festival (AU), and Squamish Valley Music Festival (CA).

“There are so many people wanting to do what I did and there’s just so many festivals that don’t come back the next year.”

Successful, new festivals are few and far between before being established. Most take years to build, while some fall victim to a string of pitfalls and are left behind. Similarly, Standon Calling encountered various factors that threatened to undo years of hard work.

Cost management, in particular, is often underestimated by first-time event producers. Trenchard warns, “It’s a risky business. You’ve got your artist’s costs, your production costs…just a number of moving parts.” He alludes to additional cost variables that are introduced when festivals scale their production. This results in a larger and more diverse cost base that amplifies the risk of overspending. “The more things you have that can be over budget, the riskier it is. So it’s managing that number of different cost lines while effectively taking a gamble on whether you will be able to sell the tickets.” Trenchard explains.

Overcoming Pitfalls

Although there is certainly no recipe for success, Trenchard laid out several guidelines to avoid the typical pitfalls when producing a festival.

Keep it Simple: Don’t Overreach

Undoubtedly, event organizers are a creative breed in search of new ideations and event concepts that differentiate themselves from their competition. Immersive concert experiences? Unique food services? Vintage amusement park rides? It’s understandable for event organizers to overreach. With so much that already needs to be accomplished, Trenchard advises defining specific goals to complete over time. “If you are starting out on your own, the most important thing is to start off really simple. Have one or two stages and don’t overreach. When you overreach, you can end up in a bad place. A music festival is something you build up over 5 to 10 years. Because there’s so many of them [festivals] now, you’re never going to crack any one of them [at the start].”

Standon Calling Festival

Passion and Patience

Trenchard’s passion and vision to bring people together never wavered. Producing an event, let alone a music festival does not happen overnight. The same can be said about building up a brand. A brand is built on your audience’s loyalty and trust; attributes that can only be attained naturally over a period of time. “The audience will come back to the festivals that they trust. And it’s building trust for repeat customers that’s important” says Trenchard.

Event organizers need plenty of passion and plenty more patience to carry them through to overcome the unpredictable obstacles that they will eventually face. Once they enter the festival world, plan for the long haul.

Surround Yourself With a Good Team

Standon Calling enters its 10th anniversary this summer, a substantial milestone that took a devoted team dedicating years to master the logistics of operating the festival. Through the ups and downs of the festival, Trenchard’s team stood behind him throughout it all.

A large part of Trenchard’s success lies with his acute leadership ability to surround himself with a capable team. People working in the event space tend to gravitate towards each other. Nevertheless, it is the event organizer’s responsibility to network and attract the top talent who specializes in each component of festival operations. In Trenchard’s case and point, Standon Calling is highly regarded as one of Europe’s top independent festivals due to Graham MacAvoy (festival production director) and his production team. “You get people who come on board who know what they are doing. And I’m really lucky that my production guy is Graham. He’s really experienced and has been in the game longer than me. He basically turned it (the festival) — a bit of a ravel — into something that’s pretty slick.”

Standing Out Through Inclusion

For so much of our lives, we remain transient, not knowing when another day has passed us by until it’s over. In contrast, Standon Calling allows the audience to immerse themselves in a unique environment; “We want to create a culture where people feel they can get along and feel the experience nudging people into their own self-expression.” explains Trenchard.

Standon Calling embraces inclusion within its community where all walks of life are able to enjoy the wide offering of festivities, including a special dog show, on-site pool, and an eccentric carnival with flamenco dancing and voodoo rituals.

“It’s a very inclusive culture, it’s the independent festivals that do it the best because they tend to be very passionate about the things that they do.”

Standon Calling Festival

Standon Calling is renowned for enlisting emerging artists to perform before they reach superstardom; such past acts include, Mumford and Sons and Florence and the Machines. But more so, the festival is recognized for setting the bar for its themes. It has evolved in producing greater and grander fantasy worlds. A particular theme is chosen each year that inspires the festival’s free-spirited community and appeals to a greater imaginative experience. From the days of pixie fairies to gods and monsters, this year’s festival theme, ‘Tales of the Enchanted Valley’ will be encapsulated in the festival’s production, design, and entertainment to tell a unique story that captures the attention of festival-goers and elevate their experience.

Ironically, festival-goers truly find themselves only after getting lost in the world that’s been created by Standon Calling. Trenchard recollects about a friendly couple that came up to him this past year. He found out that the couple had attended the festival for the past six years before they revealed that the man proposed to his fiance at the spot they had met six years ago. Trenchard explains, “That was a sweet moment…It is quite sentimental and it shows the community aspect of this festival in a world where festivals are increasingly bigger and a bit impersonal. The whole point for me is that people come together and create friendships.”

Looking Forward

As with all businesses that face growth, it is a fine balance to maintain the core culture that shaped Standon Calling currently while expanding production. “We want to take it to a 20,000 capacity level. We don’t want to make it any bigger than that. At that size, we can have the best acts that we want whilst maintaining it’s community, intimacy, and inclusivity… which is what the ethos is all about.” said Trenchard. Over the next two to three years, fans will see new acts and bigger headliners to support the festival’s growth. Nevertheless, as the Standon Calling grows larger, so will the accompanying themes. Trenchard assures, “It’s really important to the show. It’s not about the music, it’s about creating experiences and opportunities for the audience to get involved themselves rather than watching.”

As for this year, the excitement is already bubbling amongst the production team. With Orbital and Clean Bandit headlining, Trenchard hints, “We got a few surprises up our sleeves…definitely stay on the Sunday night. Our Sunday night headliner that we haven’t announced yet, I’m really excited about. Beyond that, there’s a big surprise after the close of the main stage. We’re doing much more on the build in terms of the world we’re creating — Tales of the Enchanted Valley will really blow people’s minds.”

As the exclusive ticketing partner for Standon Calling, Universe is thrilled to announce that we’re giving away 2 free weekend passes (£192 value)! To enter the contest:

  1. Follow Standon Calling on Instagram
  2. Follow Universe on Instagram
  3. Tag a festival friend in the comment section below

The contest will close on March 25th, 2017 at midnight GMT. The lucky winner will be contacted via Instagram the next day. For more information to this year’s festival, check out Standon Calling for all the details. Good luck!

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