The world is full of rags to riches stories, but in the world of festivals, there are perhaps more stories of fortunes heading the other direction. As the classic gag goes, if you want a million quid, start with 5 million and launch a festival, it’s probably better to start with nothing like James Dean, whose eponymous events company has enjoyed an impressive, sometimes bumpy, growth curve from the humblest beginnings.
Raised in a family blighted by their father’s drug addiction but seemingly united in their journey out of poverty, Dean didn’t see any option but to leave school early, without a single GCSE to his name, to earn the money needed to provide food and shelter, the notion of even attending a festival nowhere in mind. The journey begins, as Dean explains:
I left school and I went to work at the Emporium nightclub in Coalville, which I subsequently went on to be the managing director for. I was a glass collector on Friday and Saturday nights, then I went to volunteer at Our Price records, so that they would give me a job and I’d prove to them that I am good and I do know what I’m talking about. And then in the evenings, in the week, I worked at an independent record shop called Ikon Records. So music was a seven day a week thing for me. That went on for a while, but I had to think, right, where do I want to go? And like everything, if you want to really get somewhere, you’ve got to learn about it. Obviously I had no I had no GCSEs so I couldn’t go to university, so we cobbled together about £1,000, my mum and my sister actually lent me the money and I had to commute to London every single week to London City University to do an event management diploma”
Diploma in hand, the next stage was a hospitality degree with something quite new at the time, a slat towards festivals:
“I learned everything to do with the Purple Guide and full event management spectrum. From that, I only really learnt the legal side of events at university. No one can prepare you for howling wind and rain and tornadoes and all the stuff that you get in a portacabin when it’s all kicking off and there’s 10,000 people at the gate. But yeah, in terms of learning, that’s how I sort of got into it”
Was this a case of ‘got the degree, now I’m a festival organiser? Not really…
“It was almost but it was already actually running an event called the Ecstatic Summer Festival. It was a small one day event with 1000 capacity at Catton Park. I kind of knocked at the door of the owners and said, ‘I want to put a festival on’. And it was like, wow, you need to really know what you’re doing; and I was like, well, I’ve got a degree now and literally convinced them to let me have a crack at it. And really from there, I’ve been the longest event organiser at Catton Park. But ultimately yeah I got the degree started Ecstatic Festival but really I really wanted to do it because when we were growing up on the council estate, you know, everyone was talking about Glastonbury, Glastonbury was the big thing. And I was thinking, how can I do this?”
The next step for James Dean Events was to be influenced by an encounter with a Mintel Market report into consumer trends, flagging gin and cider as the next big thing; Dean spots an opportunity:
“So I created a festival in my local park called Swadlincote Sausage and Cider Festival, we were at the forefront of the cider revolution, but I recreated the Glastonbury line up but as tribute bands and it was I think four quid to get in. So, I was putting events on for people that were in my hometown that were still on the same estate that I grew up on, just so that they could enjoy it. But it turned out that three or four thousand people enjoyed it. And now we’re like at 15,000 a day, 30,000 over the weekend. And that’s kind of how the sausage and cider festivals really popped up.”
Of course, two successful events leads to ideas for further expansion, which proved to be challenging financially and physically.
“We started with one festival and then I kind of got big headed; when one or two people tell you you’re great at something, you think you’re invincible. So then I went off thinking great, I’ve made a bit of money, let’s go and do Peterborough, Hereford, Swansea, Manchester, Essex…and ultimately, I won’t lie, it didn’t fail, but most of them didn’t work. The year we had like 16 festivals, I think 2015 or 2016, I nearly killed myself because I was exhausted. It’s almost one festival every weekend, I was doing classical concerts, jazz concerts. Half of them failed, we literally bounced off the edge of bankruptcy and had to borrow from my mum keep the company going; I love my mum for it, she kept us from literally going bankrupt. But what it taught me was, don’t be a cocky twat because, you need to make sure that what you put your foot forward, it’s going to work. But the good thing is, out of all of those rough stones, we managed to sift out a couple of really good diamonds.”
Disaster averted, company stabilised, a philosophy of reinvestment develops. Fencing, bars, food, are all provided in-house, enabling a low ticket price that ensures income from attendees when on site. The next growth market that Dean spotted was nostalgia, enter Back 2 Festival.
It was 2015 and it was just a few artists I think we just had Wigfield, S-Club and a few [other] artists. In those days there was Rewind Festival and there was Let’s Rock and then Reminisce, but that was kind of it; we got a lot of traction, I think we’ve got 550,000 organic Facebook followers on our Back 2 page because we don’t just talk about our own show, we talk about nostalgia in general and now we’ve got to these of £100,000 of acts. But it’s only because the agents really understand what’s good, what we were doing. We brought our own fence in, we bought all our own gear so we could keep the costs down, so that we could keep the ticket price low. So, for example, bootleg Beatles, one of the largest tribute bands in the world, Belinda Davids arguably the largest, definitely the biggest Whitney Houston tribute, she’s flying in from Australia. It’s £15, including everything else for the day to see them. Can’t physically make any cheaper than that, right? Well, that’s because we own everything.”
Ownership of physical kit like fencing and marquees is one thing, but ownership of perishables such as beer and cider at the end of a show, with no outlet doesn’t make great business sense. Of course, making a name for yourself and building an entertainment business does get you noticed. A local council director got in touch, asking Dean if he can ‘do something’ with an empty Grade 1 listed Victorian building. What started with an outlet for excess stock is one of half a dozen businesses, he liked it so much he bought the building which houses Ice and Slice, another of Dean’s half dozen or so businesses which, ever the opportunist, includes glamping provision at other festivals.
Owning their own kit has, especially recently, led to calls from other organisers looking to rent, but during the Covid crisis, rental income wasn’t on Dean’s mind:
“We have all this equipment and because all my family are in the army or the NHS…so I was like, right, you can have all my cabins, all my toilets, all my fencing, all my marquees. So we went off and we set up [vaccination sites at] Chesterfield Football Club, we did Toyota, we did Pirelli, we did my hometown, all for free. I was like the buffer, the event coordinator, between the NHS and the army and using all our equipment. Luckily from what I did for the NHS, they actually got me a couple of private contracts for other bits in the NHS and then paid me for it, which I thought was outstanding. That contributed to helping us get through the pandemic. But you know, what is the point of having all of this kit sat in a yard in Derbyshire? That could set up loads of sites, and there were loads of people willing to help and volunteer. So, we’ve just gone and done it because the quicker we got all that shit over, the quicker we get back to doing what we do best.”
We touch on pre-pandemic positivity, specifically within the festivals side of the business:
“[In] 2019 we started to get ready for the ‘kerching’ moments in 2020. We’d gone past 10,000, we kind of got to a critical mass level and we’re getting established, we’d won a few awards. We kind of said right, we’ve worked hard, we guarantee people the lowest possible ticket price, the best possible experience, we don’t scrimp on toilets, we always make sure the security is polite, we still keep the drinks under a fiver, we nailed this! And then obviously the pandemic kicked in. I just called a company conference with everyone across the board, I was like, Right, nobody’s losing their job, If I have to pay you myself my own pocket, we’ll do that. And luckily furlough came along and then some of my staff wanted to help the NHS.”
An approach that helped to retain a staff of 45, with 9 working full time on the shows, allowing the company to be in the starting blocks and ready to roll out 2021 events. As we all know, that wasn’t without its hazards. With shows scheduled for 15 days after the proposed ‘Freedom Day’ the issue with bringing artists in from Europe was the main concern, leading to a late switch in line-up which itself caused problems, with new headliner Dizzee Rascal facing a charge and subsequent conviction for assault: another cancellation, another line-up change. Dean continues:
“You couldn’t even make it up and that wasn’t even the worst of it”
Instead of generators there was an email, an apology and a return of deposit, bigger money was available elsewhere. Structure providers were the same, staffing agencies too. “There’s a picture someone took of me, I’ve got a fag and I don’t smoke, and I’ve got a neat Macallan 18 whiskey, with my head in my hands three days before the show.”
Undeterred, local farmers and football clubs were drafted in, providing their backup generators, and a large extended family rallied to staff bars. But it was crucial to deliver in 2021, rolling 2020 sales over for another year wasn’t an option.
We venture to ask how he’s feeling about this year:
Well, I mean, my overriding emotion is excitement, right? All of our customers saw what we were doing for the NHS, they saw we were keeping the costs down. [Beer suppliers] have been putting their wholesale stock price up by 5% every year, so what we were paying five years ago is now 25% more. Purely on keeping the tickets low and keeping the drink prices below a fiver, that’s been the most challenging, but people show their respect for it and and people have showed their respect for me, we’re well over 10,000 for the Sausage and Cider Festival, We won’t be far off that for Back 2 festival, but probably we’ll have the most we’ve ever had any year, which is best news ever. And if we can help if we can help a couple of other festival organisers that haven’t made it, if they want to offset some of their people to soften the blow.
Efficiencies are not the only route to profitability for Dean.
“We own all the food, we own the drinks, we own anything that we can find. We brought loads of those air beds that you waft in the air to fill them up, we bought all the phone chargers and stuff and branded them all up. We’ve monetized every single section of that site so that one person, they might be worth 60 quid for a ticket but they’re actually worth 300 quid to us when they get to that site.”
It’s this approach that attracted an offer of £3m in investment from ITV, which Dean soon learned, came with a pull in a direction that he wasn’t comfortable with so a pricey exit was negotiated. In discussing this, it’s abundantly clear that Dean cares deeply about his audience and reputation; in the past that’s driven him to levels of anxiety that required professional help, he openly talks about his therapist and how he’s learned to keep grounded, raising the bar but pausing to sit on the bar to view what’s been achieved.
Talking of grounded, the final questions of on-site footwear choice and the act he’s looking forward to most this year:
“Okay, because I insist on actually moving to site on day one, being first on site and last off site, I stay there every day, I’ve got a variation of footwear, so I have some classic good quality walking boots that are waterproof, my absolute number one are high end Barbour wellies. Literally, you slide into them, and you feel like you’re standing in a cloud. And then my final one would be good quality, not stylish, but just good quality, working trainers, but they’ve got they’ve got steel toe caps in them. And if you can, my top tip, no one ever thinks about it, but if you’re on site for like two or three weeks, every fifth or sixth day, get a masseuse to come and actually massage your feet. Just because, when you go for a massage, you go to a spa, it feels great. It will super intensify that feeling if it’s a time when your feet need the most care. The first thing you need to do, get a masseuse booked in. You know, when you’ve got people walking around and do deliveries and you’re sat there with a towel over you, someone massaging your feet, it doesn’t look great but….
And the artists?
“I’m going to say for Sausage and Cider, it’s Belinda Davids, she’s the greatest Whitney Houston tribute. For Back 2 it’s going to be difficult but I’m going to say David Rodigan.”
For yours truly, who’s looking forward to catching Squid and Bob Vylan at Dot to Dot over the weekend, to have ‘Whitney Houston Tribute’ in my search history is not a good look, but Dean is right, she’s good.
We’ve only covered part of the story so far, this is Festival Insights so Helicopters and property development are for other pages. but it’s a tale of lessons learned, opportunities taken, mistakes made, more lessons learned and dogged determination to succeed on his own terms, you can’t help but think that there’s always something else brewing at James Dean Events.
Tickets available for Sausage & Cider festival, 23 – 26 June 2022, Catton Hall & Park, West Midlands, https://sausageandciderfestival.com/ and Back 2 Festival, 30 June – 3 July 2022, Catton Hall & Park, West Midlands, https://back2festivals.co.uk/