Features November 6, 2015

Q&A: Steve Symons, Glastonbury Festival

Former Editor

Steve Symons is the Stage Programmer & Event Production Manager / Artist Booker for the world’s largest greenfield festival, Glastonbury.

Since joining the fold 18 years ago, he has played a major hand in the event’s trajectory, now hosting 200,000 people and 24 bands over five days in England each year. Most interestingly, the juggernaut which won Pollstar’s Best International Festival award this year, gives most of its profits to charity.

Ahead of his visit to Melbourne for roots music and arts conference AWME, Symons chats to TMN about the global festival landscape, where Australia sits in that landscape, and why its organisers “don’t really do systems” when it comes to booking acts.

Considering a lot of the booking for Glastonbury is done so far in advance, what kinds of systems are in place to make sure you’ve got your finger on the pulse of breaking acts?

Ha ha! We don’t really do systems. What you have is a collection of bookers with an amazing amount of autonomy to curate their particular stage or stages. To a degree we compete against each other to produce the best lineups. Glastonbury has a way of inspiring everyone who works for the festival to do the best job they can. We’re also incredibly fortunate that we start the booking process in September, sell all the tickets in October but don’t announce the full lineup until as late as May so we can pick up really hot emerging artists almost up to the last minute.

How persistent can labels and managers be when they’re lobbying for a spot on the festival?

Well, it’s more agents than managers and labels that apply the pressure. A few years ago I was offered an artist I really like but didn’t have space for so had to reluctantly decline. The agent responded by asking whether it was him or the artist I hated. I had to point out that I receive literally thousands of submissions for 24 spaces so my job is mainly about saying no – but luckily for me most agents take it with good grace. You have to be very tactful from the outset.

Where do you see Glastonbury in the future? Will it ever feature a conference component?

I don’t think we can or would even want to grow much bigger. We’re already the largest greenfield festival in the world with 200,000 people, a 900 acre site with and eight and a half mile perimeter. The challenge is always how to improve things – reinvention and rejuvenation is a constant process so we don’t get stale.

I think a conference component would be incredibly unlikely. In many ways we stand outside ’the industry’ and all our focus is on the public. Glastonbury’s always been quite political, it almost has its own ideology and we exploring new ways of promoting those values. We want to engage with the world beyond the musical sphere.

Has Glastonbury ever been affected by the financial climate since its inception in 1970?

We’re currently enjoying the most stable and successful period in the festival’s history but there is absolutely zero complacency about this. There’s no corporate cushion and the huge risk in staging this event falls squarely on the shoulders of Michael Eavis and his family. The costs are incredibly high, most of the money that is made is given to charity and we eschew all corporate sponsorship. If someone wrote a business plan based on Glastonbury it would look insane.

Do you have a favourite Glastonbury lineup?

With about a thousand acts on the bill every year it’s difficult to talk about favourite lineups as a whole. I take great pleasure in little sequences of acts. Programming is like putting together a mad three-dimensional DJ set with peaks and troughs. So this year, Run the Jewels followed by Caribou and then Hot Chip made for a great party. Another from a few years ago was opening the stage with the London Sinfonietta with Johnny Greenwood playing the music of Steve Reich, followed by the Afro-futurist hip hop of Deltron 3030 with a full orchestra and then the Sun Ra Arkestra. It’s always fun to see whether you can break your production people halfway through the first day.

Australia has very few festivals run by international operators, is this a good or bad thing?

There’s no doubt that the big global players can bring expertise in production and licensing and achieve economies of scale but it comes at a cost. That may be their lack of commitment through the tough times or the inevitable homogeneity of experience that they tend to offer. A great festival needs proper roots in the community that hosts it and a deep empathy with its audience.

You’ve experienced market booms and lulls throughout your career. What’s your view on the current global festival landscape?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak on a global scale but running festivals is a high risk business and in the UK the market it can get oversaturated, which every few years leads to some high profile casualties. This inevitably leads to over excited journalists coming up with a rash of ’Death of the Festival’ headlines. In fact the reality is that the total number of people buying festival tickets has increased year on year for over two decades.

Its becoming a cliché to point out that in the digital age the face to face communal experience gains greater importance but it’s a cliché for a reason. 

You’re heading to AWME next month, will you be holding any meetings with artist reps for next year’s festival?

Absolutely and I’m very excited to be coming to Melbourne in particular because you’ve got a lot going on at the moment. As I mentioned above though, I do have limited spaces and many will already be taken by the time I get to AWME. However, for me it’s about playing the long game, tracking acts to book in 2017 and beyond.

Coming to these kind of events also allows me to build a global network of reliable contacts who can keep me informed of what’s going on for years to come. If it’s appropriate I’m also happy to try and assist bands by giving them contacts for other European festivals, booking agents or anything else that could be helpful.

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