Ben Ruth Interview

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For someone who has never heard of the festival before, how would you describe it?

The official festival begins on Thursday 8th October to Sunday 12th October (week 1). It’s always planned to be in the first weekend in October, just after Fresher’s week. […] The Borough hotel (where we met for the interview) will be one of about 50 locations. All over Dalton square, all of the pubs, a bunch of the clubs, and Lancaster castle. The main stage is in the Castle Courtyard, that’s the proper rig, with a stage built and everything. Nearly all of the events are free; although entry into the castle costs a whopping £1. The Yorkshire House usually charges a little bit as well. We got about 40,000 thousand people last year, it’s no small festival.

How did the festival start?

It started in 2009, and it was in response to the number of venues in Lancaster, and the number of acts. I came back from the States, and saw that the music scene was considerable but under appreciated. No one else was going to do anything, no one else was going to put the music festival on, and it was crying out for it to happen. There have been a few times I’ve cursed myself for it, but we’ve got a good team. When we first started, the meetings with venues would typically take about 5 minutes; they were up for it straight away. It started with 19 venues, and The Lancaster Guardian estimated there were about 4,000 people over the 3 days.

How has the festival grown over the years?

It’s become a company, a proper organisation within its own right. We’ve got a great variety of music acts, and some really great home grown musicians, some of whom are doing very well now. We’ve got several acts we’ve booked in previous years, who are now too big to be playing in Lancaster. We get so many international artists wanting to play here, just for the opportunity to play in the U.K. We charge £10 for national and international acts, to cut down on the number of applications [which] goes towards paying their costs, but for local acts it’s free. This year we’re having performances in Barclays bank, building on the Busking in the Bank performances we had last year. It’s a cool atmosphere. They’ll have cake stalls and everything as well. They’ve agreed to stay open on Sunday, which is the first time in the country!

So you felt like there was a really strong music scene in Lancaster?

Definitely. I got frustrated by people saying “nothing ever goes on here”. We’ve got 21 live music venues, how can there not be something going on? It’s still the case though. The problem is that there’s not one portal, there’s not one place to find out everything that’s going on. Right from this spot we can see at least 6 or 7 music venues. It’s ridiculous; there are probably 80 concerts a week in Lancaster, if you know where to look. We’re hoping this year to launch a festival phone application, with times and everything on it. It’s a local company that’s producing it. We’re hoping to roll that out across the year, and bring together all the other events we’re going to be putting on across the city, so we can get the word out. We’re hoping the application is the answer to these problems.

With all the free venues, how is the festival funded?

We pride ourselves on not taking any government funding. It’s a community run event so there’s lots of barter with sponsors. Local businesses pay a fixed fee to take part in it. So we run the festival on a shoe string budget, we had a £30,000 production budget last year, and we brought in about £1,000,000 extra spent in the city, so it’s a massive return on investment. It’s unique and the vibe is just tremendous. The Romance Festival, Punk Fest, Maritime Festival all started here and they were all dependent on government funding, and then that got withdrawn.

We realised that we are a city, and that we should have enough resources to put this on. With all the people coming into town all the businesses thrive – all the hotels are totally booked out, the beer sales are record breaking, the ATM’s run out of money. Ultimately the festival should be able to pay for itself and we don’t need to rely on government funding, because it’s dependent on the political climate and what other bids are out there. We wouldn’t know from year to year whether we’d be able to put it on. This way we’re risk-adverse.

Is there much involvement with Lancaster University?

We do get involved with the university, primarily by booking university acts, who will be performing at The Tap House, which is run by Jeremy – who used to work at Lonsdale bar. So we’ll have acoustic and semi-acoustic University acts playing there. This year, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts (LICA) is going to be putting stuff on, Tuesday through Thursday. Live at the Oaks is going to do something similar. We didn’t want to have them running at the same time, but it’s a nice lead up for the festival. There are also volunteer opportunities so we’re working with LUSU on that. We see it as an add on for the campus experience. You get all the excitement of Fresher’s week and then you turn around and go “Oh, there’s a free music festival”.

What can you tell me about the acts that will be performing this year?

There were about 176 acts last year, and this year we’ve got over 200, with about 250 performances. We’ve got an international stage at the Judge’s Lodgings. We’ve got maritime, soul, punk, hip-hop, alongside the usual rock, pop, indie stuff. We’ve got something for everyone. We even managed to get a gospel choir in this year.  We get artists coming back every year. There are three international acts coming back this year [as well as] Lacey Younger, a singer-songwriter with a four-piece rock band. Overall, we’ve got 7 international artists including this extraordinary award-winning guitarist from Australia called Adam Miller.  We’ve got two acts coming from Brazil this year, one’s a jazz group and the other one is this jazz, hip-hop collective with a real Brazilian feel. And we’ve got this amazing Polish new wave band called U Fly, who are really popular in Poland but not especially well known here. They drive here in their Volkswagen Transporter, takes them about 19 hours.

Was the diversity of acts intentional?

Absolutely. We want to have as much diversity as possible. We want to represent everything that’s already going on here; we’ve got great diversity already.  The demographic is broad; it’s young kids to old kids. We’ve got family stuff at the castle courtyard, and the clubs and pubs will be banging away until the early hours.

Is the festival popular with performers?

Definitely. We get way more applications from acts than we can actually put on. I’ve got 100 emails on my phone right now from acts.  We get enquiries daily from artists wanting to apply, even though the application window closed in July. The venues book a lot of the acts themselves, we just come up in with the international artists and crank it up a little bit. So from Thursday onwards, there’s music pretty much constantly. Monday becomes our unofficial bank holiday because we noticed people were taking time off anyway, and the organisers all needed a break.

What are the plans for the future of the festival?

We’d like to start bringing more nationally known artists, or international artists. Through my company I help bring a lot of international artists to the UK, but most of them are too big to put on at the Lancaster Music Festival. We need to build up the infrastructure, and capitalise so we can afford to take on the risk of bringing a big artist to the city. Next year we’re planning on setting up a more typical festival site at Greaves Park, with stalls and everything, to provide a centre for the festival. We’re also hoping to get some concerts up at the Ashton memorial.

 

 

 

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