In 2011 we were lucky enough to catch some time with Joe Gibbs, the festival promoter of Belladrum. This year we managed to catch up with Joe again;
IG – The headliners this year can’t help but grab the attention, how do you feel about the festival being able to sign the likes of Tom Jones to play?
JG – It’s a delight and an honour to sign Sir Tom. I’m of a vintage that can remember watching him on grainy black and white Top of the Pops.
I was also involved in Rockness when we booked Razorlight to headline there and it is great to be able to welcome back to the Highlands in a headline slot.
IG – Can you tell us a little about the process of getting Tom Jones to Belladrum?
JG – His tour programmed for this summer would make a man half his age consider his energy levels – so hats off to Sir Tom for that alone – but we managed to slot in to the schedule nicely (he has a gig in Cheshire the next day after Bella) and the whole deal was done with the minimum of fuss.
IG – How involved are you now in booking bands, how much does your personal taste impact on the line-up?
JG – I have to be very involved because ultimately the buck stops with me. Booking bands is a complex and frustrating business. I have a team of very experienced bookers in London and the Highlands who work with me and together we will start putting together a line-up for 2015 straight after the 2014 event.
We will be tweaking it almost up to the day of the event. the complexity comes from keeping the wide number of genres that Bella has always featured, satisfying the wide age group that attends the event, keeping within budgets which have to cope with the constant upward pressure on live performance fees, coping with artists’ and managements’ perceptions of their images ensuring the Scottish and local artists feature strongly, finding the right headliners and dealing with the pressures that competitors can bring in terms of the availability of acts.
IG – When we spoke in 2011 you described the growth of the festival as organically evolving, is that how you still see the festival or does it by it’s own success require a more structured approach now?
JG – It has to remain organic in the sense that it has to remain responsive to its audience and maintain its roots in the Highland community. But it also has to retain the ability to delight its audience with surprises. As a festival organiser it is critical to remember that although it may be the entertainment that brings people to your event, it is the audience themselves who are the festival.
IG – Belladrum as a festival has grown through a time where even the most established festivals have struggled, why do you think that even in the midst of recession that people are so committed to the festival?
JG – I think because we have grown organically and because our audience genuinely feel an ownership stake in the event. People can sense that it has developed in response to their tastes and preferences.
If you are formulaic as an event, or come across as being exploitative, or taking anything for granted, you lose the affection and loyalty of your audience. We try to answer personally every email query we get from minor to major issues and to treat people as individuals. Besides this, I think the event has become a great big ceilidh for the Highland community (which comprises 60% of the audience) and has become a fixture in people’s calendars to meet up and see their friends, and a milestone in the wider Scottish cultural calendar.
IG – How did you feel about the news that Rockness was postponed this year, do you think it has any impact on Belladrum?
JG – Bella had already sold half its tickets by the time this announcement was made, and announced our headliners at around the same time too. So, although we have seen a little evidence on social media of people coming to the festival because Rockness is not on, it is has been a very small element. Historically, our audience profile has been very different to that of Rockness.
IG – In a recent interview (see the interview here)you talked about the bias towards booking Highland and Scottish emerging talent for the festival, how do you feel about the new music scene in Scotland, and how has that changed in the last few years?
JG – I think highly successful showcase events like goNORTH in the Highlands, support from media such as your own, the addition of music courses to the University of the Highlands and Islands curriculum, the appearance of great venues like the Ironworks and Hootananny have all contributed to an increasingly high standard of professionalism amongst Highland musicians.
But with all that, you still need to have the raw talent there, and that is not something we have ever been short of in the Highlands.
IG – Over it’s time, what are the points that you feel have vindicated your faith in the festival, and what keeps you motivated to work on the event?
JG – The challenge of maintaining what is good at the event while reinventing it to some degree every year, and adding to its attractions, is what keeps me going. Ultimately, though, you come back to the people who make the event, the audience. There is a sense of responsibility to keep the party going as so many people seem to look forward to it every year and it has become woven into the fabric of so many people’s lives with births, marriages, birthdays, engagements and other life events flowing from it and making up the collective memory in the Highlands.
Sometimes it seems a bit surreal to be putting in crazy hours for 362 days of the year all for the remaining 3, but then you remember what it means to people. It has also become an important part of the local economy and if we are lucky enough to have a successful year, it is reinvested into the local community via an ongoing programme of restoration of the buildings and grounds of Belladrum.
Finally, I have an incredible team who work with me on the event. Some of them have been in it since the start. Some of them have now exported their skills to events all over the UK. In many ways it is as much their creation as mine, and they too provide a great motivation to press on.
IG – Belladrum consistently manages to sell out of tickets, has there ever been the temptation to increase capacity, expand the site, more stages etc?
JG – We are in our sixth sell out year but we always assume each year that we are not going to sell out, and set about it from that perspective. It would be short-sighted and foolish to take things for granted and make assumptions. We have increased capacity this year in order to cope with some extra costs and to try to hold ticket prices down as much as possible.
Since our tickets include parking and camping (except campervan/caravan) – unlike many other events – we feel they are great value and would like to keep them that way. But with ever increasing costs and a desire not to increase capacity much more, there will come a point where they have to increase.
IG – You have talked passionately about the influence of going to festivals in your youth, do you still get the opportunity to attend festivals as a paying customer, if not why not?
JG – I try to go to at least one a year. In the past few years i have been to Wilderness, Bestival and Electric Picnic, all of which I highly recommend for a visit. They have filled me with inspiration and equally made me gnash my teeth with jealousy at times.
In a way I prefer not to go to too many other events because I don’t want Bella to become just another festival. I want it to retain its individuality and not to be too heavily influenced by what goes on elsewhere.
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