Over the past decade, Green Man festival has carved out its own niche in the UK’s ever growing festival scene and has become one of the highlights of the season. Before this year’s instalment, Managing Director Fiona Stewart talks us through her highlights of the past decade, the tribulations of running an independent festival, and what makes Green Man just so special:
What’s been your highlight of running Green Man?
There are different highlights every year, but the first time we put up the Mountain Stage, and saw how incredible it looked framed by the Brecon Beacons – totally awesome moment. Robert Plant singing a ‘Whole Lotta love’ on the Mountain Stage. The looks of delighted connection on the audiences’ faces when they first heard previously less well known artists, such as Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Joanne Newsome, Alt J, Ben Howard and many others.
Kids and adults rolling down the banks of the auditorium giggling. The silence before the Green Man is burned each year and the whoops of excitement that go up from the crowd when it’s lit. The small but meaningful acts of kindness that occur between the audience, but also the musicians who come to the festival each year. They really are lovely.
Did you expect the festival to grow to the size it’s today when you first started?
I never really thought about it – it’s just grown naturally over the years in a way that fitted the event and, more importantly, the people who come each year.
What would you put your success down to?
I suppose it’s down to the brilliant team of thinkers and dreamers I work with. They have a zealous passion for bringing in new things or developing ideas – it keeps the festival fresh and different each year.
There is nothing singular about a successful festival. Every single action, thought and deed from every person involved creates a great festival. You could have the most incredible no expense spared line-up, but if a steward is rude, the toilets are filthy and it’s difficult to get your car out of the car park then that will be the thing that will be remembered.
A festival should offer the comforts and services to make it usable. But there needs to be a balance between things running smoothly and the experience becoming so bland and exclusive that an event becomes more of a mini-break with music. I like to keep a bit of feral in the mix – after all, why go to a festival if you can’t kick off your heals, forget your worries and find freedom?
What lessons have you learnt over the past decade? And have you had any near disasters?
If you work with people you respect and love you can pretty much get through anything. When we first started we used to sell tickets ourselves using a Lloyds Bank merchant account. But when the recession hit in 2008, Lloyds decided out of the blue that we were now considered a financial risk and refused to advance the ticket money until after the festival was over. We later found out that the Lloyds underwriter had gone into liquidation, which resulted in them being illogically risk averse.
If we had known that this was going to happen before we started selling tickets for that year then we could have made other arrangements, but they told me in the March before the festival. This created a massive cash flow crises as we were committed to payments before the festival. I tried everything to raise a loan, but even though we had a good credit history no one was lending – I even tried to sell my home but no one was buying.
I did raise a loan from friends and family using my home as security, but it didn’t cover the whole amount. I thought it was over and we would have to cancel the festival so I started to phone up the contractors so they could try and get other work and not lose money as well. It’s always challenging running an independent festival, but to go under because of this seemed like madness to me – it was a very sad time.
But one by one people came back to me and offered me credit until the festival was over, which was incredibly generous as they were taking a risk by doing it, and many were going through a hard time themselves. Most of the people I work with – including the contractors – are more friends than work mates, but it was still one of the most life affirming moments and incredibly kind. Green Man is still around because of it.
What would you say makes Green Man different to other festivals?
It’s got the friendliest festival audience in the world; it’s located in a breathtaking location in the Brecon Beacons; it’s owned and run by a woman; there is no branded sponsorship; it has the only UK 24-hour drinks licence; there are no Police on-site as it’s so safe; there is no VIP areas, so everyone is treated the same but very well.
We spend a lot of time finding new undiscovered musical artists to perform at the festival, and we are delighted when they go on to great things. As such, so many Ivor Novello, Brit and Mercury nominees and winners have come through the festival over the years, including: Mumford and Sons, Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, Seasick Steve, King Creosote and John Hopkins, Laura Marling, Michael Kiwanuka, Field Music, Metronomy, Ghostpoet, Villagers, Wild Beasts, Ben Howard and Alt J.
We do book well known artists but we always book a lot of unknown acts which you will be delighted to find out about. There is a sense of discovery in every part of the festival, with a good possibility that you are seeing those artists first. Food and drink is a popular subject at Green Man and it’s been described as food festival standard.
The age group is varied, so you will find families, as well as groups of people out to party. There are 10 entertainment areas, 17 stages and 1,500 performers in every art and cultural form. There is loads to see and do, but the most outstanding thing about Green Man is the incredibly friendly vibe. It is a family run festival and that family vibe runs right throughout the event – we like each other and we really like the people who come to the festival each year.
Can you tell us what’s new about this year’s festival?
Loads!!! A new arts area called Fortune Falls, with lovely art installations in one of the most beautiful areas of the site – just the place to drift about and have a bit of time out from the festival. Babbling Tongues is a new spoken word area with a literature and debate stage called Talking Shop – Caitlin Moran, John Cale, Julian Cope as well as many others will be entertaining us with their observations and experiences.
Last Laugh comedy area with Josh Widdicombe, Pappy’s and Isy Suttie keeping you giggling to 3am. Somewhere is a new multi-arts and media area, with loads to do for 13 to 17-year-olds. Little Folk is an area for under-12s, with an enchanted forest theme – let your little fairies and wizards run free with loads to do and their imaginations to keep them entertained.
You’ve launched a new music stage, Green Man Rising – who do you have high hopes for?
I have hopes for all of them and it wouldn’t be fair or good for their confidence to single out a particular artist. They are the cream of Welsh and English emerging artists and if they are on that stage they will be very good and well worth a look.
There will be scouts from all the agencies as well as SXSW and other overseas festivals, who will be scoping out artists at this year’s festival. It’s a lot of pressure for them, and we all have everything crossed that they get the opportunities they are seeking.
Which acts are you most looking forward to seeing this year?
Patti Smith – because she is a legend. Band of Horses, who are incredible, and Kings of Convenience who hardly ever play – so this is a wonderful result. It’s great to have Ben Howard back as a headliner after appearing much further down the bill a couple of years ago. John Cale and Roy Harper will bring the heritage music element, which we have every year. F**k Buttons were amazing at Glastonbury, and I can’t wait to see them perform at Green Man. There are over 400 music acts and great music right down the bill – there are too many to mention.
Where do you hope the festival will be in another decade?
Green Man has a life of its own now and develops year on year but the heart of it never changes. It is a creative, welcoming, beautiful world apart – so may wonderful things are ruined by people fiddling with them, financially exploiting them or making them bigger – it works, so why change it?
Green Man takes place on August 15-18 in Glanusk Park, Wales