Your City Festival
‘‘Make sure you have your shit together so that you can enjoy your party instead of running around like a muppet.’’
– An Interview with Nixon and Hearn.
Written by Caleb Allport.
Music festivals. Proper ones, remember them? Ben Nixon and Richard Hearn of Your City Festival certainly do too, and are working vigorously on their vision of their music festival amid the ‘’unprecedented times’’ brought to us by COVID-19. I caught up with them and discussed themes regarding future plans for music festivals (specifically their own) and the value of festivals in our society. Let’s crack on shall we?
‘’Your City Festival is an annual, multi-venue event that is spread through Stoke-on-Trent’s most prestigious venues. The team is made up of local musicians and music professionals who aim to establish Your City Festival in the national festival roster.’’ In festival founder and event coordinator, Ben Nixon’s words. ‘’Your City Festival started out in 2017 as a project to try and create an event that we could celebrate all local artists within, initially using venues throughout the city. As the concept grew, we realised that we needed to concentrate the festival within the city centre venues. From there we’ve grown the capacity and level of artists that are now playing at Your City, from local artists to national artists. This will naturally expand into bigger named artists and also international artists.
The dawn of preparation period for Your City’s 3rd year in 2019 entered Richard Hearn, who would go onto accompany Ben in the role of event coordinator. Hearn discusses his experience in the industry and his initial encounter with now colleague – Ben Nixon. ‘’My experience of booking shows was limited to my own bands gigs until about 7 years ago when I started booking UK & Ireland tours for a French guitarist. I also run a non-profit artist development company called Indie Music Matters, which is focussed on bringing things like music industry panel sessions into Stoke and the rest of Staffordshire. This is how me and Ben ended up meeting. We quickly realised that we saw eye to eye on how we wanted to help and nurture the local music scene with the projects we were developing, it just made sense for us to work together. I’d never attempted anything like a festival.’’
Whatever the state of planet earth, amongst the ‘’glamour’’ of organising a music festival comes it’s hurdles that must be conquered. In Nixon’s eyes ‘’one of the the biggest challenges from the start has been trying to piece all of the components of the festival together, however this has become a breath of fresh air since we’ve found the right people to take on the individual roles within the team. It now means that myself and Rich can concentrate on other aspects.’’ Richard adds that another challenge to festival organisation in Your City’s case has previously been funding, and explains ‘’Ben has done a great job at finding sponsors so far, but as the vision for the event grows, so does the overall cost!’’
It appears that job satisfaction in the live events industry is very much in existence amongst the stress and uncertainty of its nature. ‘’The most rewarding part for me is on the last night of the event when I can take a seat to sit and watch people having a good time with our creation,’’ explains Nixon. To expand, Hearn says ‘’the most rewarding aspect is definitely seeing it all come together and the positivity that comes from all involved when (the festival) takes place and afterwards. I guess, as stressful as it can be, you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t find the effort rewarding.’’
We went back to Nixon to finish off our query, where he tells us ‘’You have to be a specific type of person to remotely enjoy being a festival organiser. You take on so much stress for 11 months and 3 weeks just to have one banging weekend!’’
Now, of course the relationship between the music industry and the pandemic makes it impossible not to explore the issues it has posed to Your City. When 26% of UK adults went to a festival last year and attendance levels were at their highest in four years, it would seem an understatement to say that COVID-19 has been a hindrance towards UK music festivals and their momentum. Ben talks us through Your City’s encounter with 2020. ‘’We kept a stiff upper lip with COVID at first. We felt it was important to wait and see how everything would pan out and it was just when we went into lockdown we decided to pull the festival. At this point, we had pretty much all artists booked in, just about to send off for printing and collect the funding/sponsorship which we had coordinated.’’ He also sheds light on a huge wound that was losing some of the bands they had booked in. ‘’We managed to salvage a handful, but I guess everyone doesn’t want to move with how uncertain everything is.’’
Naturally, this leads us to the matter of government handling in regards to COVID-19, particularly in the music industry’s live sector. Ben’s thoughts are that ‘’there has been a lot of questionable actions with Government response and handling of the virus. When it comes to the live industry, I feel quite frustrated that we still don’t have a plan to follow. At the moment venues that are open are working on approximately an 80% reduction in capacity. Where as other hospitality industries haven’t had to sacrifice the same amount. Everyone would feel better if we had a strategy in place in relation to the virus. We’re all just in the dark with this and it’s one frustrating process.’’ Richard adds that ‘’there are clearly holes in what the Government have been able to do and people in the live industry will suffer as a result. Bits have been propped up, but it wont last forever.’’
This discussion brings us onto our hopes and fears for the future in regards to festivals. A very direct statement of ‘’Hopes: That festivals get back to full capacity safely. Fears: That they wont’’ from Hearn, is just the kind of answer every interviewer seeks. Nixon expresses his views thinking that ‘the future of festivals is now dependant on the fallout of COVID over the next 6 months. I can foresee that it will be a long and painful process at first. However, once it bounces back, it will bounce back hard. As soon as the audience has confidence to come to live shows again, people will be more likely to come out to events compared to pre lockdown life.’’ Hearn also spoke upon a future prediction in the sense of how we consume live music. ‘’Artists have risen to the challenge and are starting to create things that might well challenge On-Demand TV and Netflix. It will be great to help grassroots venues by enabling them to sell an extra few hundred tickets to the livestream format of a show.’’
Like every Politician in the UK says nowadays, these ‘’unprecedented times’’ pose questions about how we envisage the course of our future. As well as our general hopes and fears concerning music festivals, what is Your City’s plans for the future, ahead of the2021event? Exploring this, the festival coordinators say, ‘’at the moment we are planning everything as if the full event will be happening, however if social distancing is still enforced by then, we’ll still be moving forward, just at a significantly lower capacity.’’
A ‘’step up from last year’’ is what we should expect from Your City ’21, including some very exciting additions to the festival revealed by Nixon, we can look forward to a series of fringe events, a brand new partnership with an undisclosed Manchester based organisation and an exploration into discovering ‘’ways to ignite the streets of Hanley (Stoke-on-Trent) with live performances instead of everything being focussed within venue walls.’’
Festivals like Your City constitute an important role in the foundations of our grassroots music scene here in the UK. To apply some substance, we turn to this interviews very own Richard Hearn, and a little story he shares with us. ‘’I remember what Mark Page from Humber Street Sesh (Festival) in Hull told us at the start of this year – He had some involvement with a potential investor and mentor who was asking him what type of festival he was running. Mark said ‘it was a music festival.’ It was then presented to him that no, in fact Humber Street wasn’t a music festival, it was a community festival and that’s why it’s doing so well. We look up to Markand what he’s achieved with Humber Street, they do something like 40,000 tickets now, and I feel that it’s that part, bringing a community together that is the most valuable thing we can aim for as a music festival in Stoke. It brings both artists and music lovers together.’’
The advice of Ben Nixon to any aspiring event organiser out there is as follows. ‘’Make sure you have your shit together so that you can enjoy your party instead of running around like a muppet.’’ As sound as this advice may be, he wishes that if any of you may be seeking a role in events management, you are very free to come and have a chat with the fantastic people at Your City Festival. And if you have an idea for an event/festival within Stoke, please proceed. ‘’The more festivals the better.’’
Written by Caleb Allport
As well as Your City’s socials and content below, you will find two artists that featured in Ben and Richard’s answers when asking about their top picks for Your City Festival’s gone by.
Article image Credits: Mark Vyse Photography
Your City Social Media
Average Joe (Mentioned)
The Kings Pistol (Mentioned)
Lo-Tide Social Media