We’ve all done it, drifting apart from school friends as our own lives, careers, businesses, and families lead our focus away from those carefree days. Old school friends Joe Courtney and Lucy Bateman’s lives followed a similar pattern until a certain similarity in career paths led them to team up and launch Soultown, which celebrates its 4th edition in Beckenham in September. We caught up with Joe to learn more about the birth, development and growth of the festival and brand, as well as asking…why soul? A question that others had already asked, apparently.
“Yeah, it’s strange when I tell people my age, I’m 33 and my business partner, Lucy is 35. People say why soul and Motown? You’re so young to be in that genre. Me and Lucy went to school together, not losing touch, but just had our own lives. I saw that she was doing some smaller festivals in conjunction with a restaurant she owned at the time that was in Beckenham, just community events and the like. I’d always toyed with the idea, I grew up listening to soul and Motown music with my parents, I never saw anyone doing that genre of music. I was doing club nights at the time, I have a couple of pubs and we put on a couple of Motown nights, we were absolutely packed, and I just thought that there’s definitely a niche there for this kind of music. Then I thought, there’s no outdoor events or festivals; you see all the young 18- to 25-year-olds going to these festivals, and there’s nothing really for the older generation or the older clientele to go to. So, we kind of tapped into that market and I met up with Lucy, told her about the idea; Lucy came up with the name Soul Town and we ran with it.”
“There was talk at first that we might do just some tribute acts, then we got in contact with an [agent] who had a had an in with all these acts. Then all of a sudden, we booked Alexander O’Neal and it was like, right, we’re actually not doing tributes, we’re actually doing someone that can sell out ten nights in a row. So yeah, it soon jumped from what was going to be a very small sort of community event to a major festival.”
This entry into the festival market was a welcome change for Courtney, from club night promotions in the UK and overseas, reeling in the early morning finishes as family commitments took priority. Soultown’s first appearance wasn’t without its risks and challenges, meteorological and otherwise, as Courtney attests:
“It was risky because we didn’t have any investors and we didn’t have thousands behind us; we were kind of like, ‘right, we need this to sell. If it doesn’t, we don’t know what we’re going to do. But we need this to sell.’ And luckily enough, the ticket sales were coming in, it kind of funded the festival at the same time… apart from it pouring down with rain on the first year, from ten in the morning to ten at night. But you know what? The first year went really well. People came away saying, what a fantastic event. I think the rain kind of helped the atmosphere because people that maybe wouldn’t have got involved were just soaked and thought, you know what, if we can’t beat them, join them and let’s just dance in the rain.”
“We really were proud at the moment where we thought we were putting on a bit more of a community low key [event]and it turned into – even our friends that turned up were like, wow, this is – a proper festival. We met some great contacts along the way, and friends and family pulled together to help us get it over the line. It was it was a real breath-taking moment when we got that one out of the way. But then we realised what kind of kind of monster we had on our hands and the potential growth.”
With no investors and a true DIY spirit, year one meant the pair had hands on every element of management which, on reflection, Courtney sees as their primary lesson learned:
“Yeah, hands on deck; hands on deck. We’ve obviously met a lot of festival organisers along the way now and we’ve done a lot of market research. When we go to events where we’re speaking to other festival organisers about the roles that we were doing, and things we were doing to get our hands dirty in the build-up and post event…towards the end we had to get off site by a certain time and we naively didn’t book enough litter pickers. So, then me, Lucy family members, just all mucking in to get this thing over the line. And yeah, they were the real things that shocked us that. We just figured that we can’t do everything, we’re just two people. You do need a team around you and it’s key.”
That realisation was timely, given the growth in ticket sales from 5000 in year 1 to a year 2 audience of 7500. A further capacity increase was planned, increasing to 10,000 for 2020, achieving 50% sales before…well, we all know what happens next. With two successful years under their belt, the Soultown team spent the Covid closedown keeping the brand alive with a number of community activities. Courtney explains:
“Through the whole pandemic. We sort of said, what can we do to sort of uplift spirits through the pandemic? We actually started off with NHS hampers, then we came up with the live stream, we did it on YouTube so people could have the DJ on their widescreen in their front room.
We had over 200,000 people tune in over the whole lockdown. It was brilliant and people would send us in their videos, we would put them on the screen and people were saying ’we can’t wait, it’s just keeping us going’. Then we had a meeting in my pub, socially distanced, of course, and we came up with ‘Doorstep Sessions’. We bought a bus and we sent our resident singers out to people’s doorstep to sing on their wedding days that should have been going ahead, to cancer patients that were having chemo, a lady that was a stroke victim, we sort of went round to their house, sang three songs to them on their doorstep and really uplifted spirits doing that. So again, that was a massive thing that enhanced our brand through the whole lockdown. We just thought, look, let’s keep busy, let’s keep the brand in people’s faces, let’s do something nice to give back. And it just made us grow into a whole new audience as well.”
That work hasn’t gone unnoticed, with Bateman having had people approach her about awards for women in the festival industry and Courtney having just been given a mayor’s award in the Lewisham borough for our work in the pandemic.
Audience growth hasn’t just been numerical, with geographical sales extending beyond the initial Beckenham, Bromley, West Wickham areas, Courtney adds
“Slowly we were building; it was like, ‘Oh, someone’s coming from Essex’, then we were getting people from Dominican Republic, last year we had people from 27 different countries.”
With 2020 sales becoming 2021 presales, Soultown returned in with a sold-out show and the addition of a second day with a different name and a very different audience profil;, enter Raver Tots, a family festival held using Soultown infrastructure but programmed by a different organisation. Courtney explains:
“The reason we took on somebody else to do the event and we just turned the site around was to actually do kind of a dummy run to see if we could turn the site around in time, get the litter cleared, restock bars, get the teams ready, change the branding. And we did, we were sort of 95% there, were a few things we weren’t happy about, but we got there. So that’s why we decided this year to do two days.”
“It was crazy in hindsight with all the issues still going on, which really kind of bit us in the backside last year, we should have maybe postponed the event one more year because, anyone who’s familiar with the event industry will know, staff shortages were a massive issue. Obviously, you have the track and trace the ‘ping’ process in place; 36 staff members were either tested positive for COVID or pinged so they couldn’t attend the event, so we were 36 staff short. We had [wholesalers] turn up two days before the event due to bring 17 pallets of drinks saying there’s one pallet.”
“We were so happy that it was on, and it was so nice to see people dancing again. But then all these staff shortages and supply issues, even the security were light on their team and pulling in subbing people from other companies that didn’t know the event, hadn’t had a proper brief. Yeah, we were let down quite a lot last year, but we’ve combated all those problems and we’re confident [2022 is] going to be our best year yet.”
We return to marketing and audience development, especially given the older than average typical attendee, we wonder if that’s more of a challenge.
“That’s something we would do want to work on a little bit more. We have our Soulfresco garden party which is sort of the younger brand , we really do a lot with that throughout the year. But with the older demographic, we don’t do so much. Next year we’re going to be putting on [more of our] over 25 brunches, and we’ve done an event at the Indigo 2 at Christmas, Soultown Festive, for the older demographic. The older crowd love it and we always get compliments on it, we’re really looking forward to doing it again and we will be doing some more pop ups for those people.”
We move to the tricky question – the act that he’s most looking forward to.
“There are loads actually, it’s really hard to choose because I’m a massive M People fan, we have Heather Small performing this year and there’s a song that I sing with my daughter, ‘What have you done today to make you feel proud?’ And it’d be amazing instead of sort of record that from backstage for her.”
More are mentioned, but that’s always going to be the case when a festival develops from a love of that particular genre, but editorial privilege allows us to pick the dad and daughter favourite and stick with it.
The final question, as is usual, turns to footwear, with trainers being the choice for Courtney, just not white as he explains:
“I always wear trainers at the festival, I’ve never been one for trainers, but I always wear trainers. But there seems to be a thing on our site though, we have to put a message out: ‘Don’t wear white trainers’ because there’s some sort of pollen on the grounds where we do the festival, they go home orange, you go home looking like you’ve been working on a building site in your trainers. So do not wear nice trainers.”
From a handful of local postcodes to 27 countries, 5,000 tickets to 10,000, one day to two and a lockdown spent giving music to their local community, Soultown’s development from an idea to a growing brand has been swift, arduous, and not without its hurdles. Last words to Courtney though, as anyone connected with the festival industry will understand, the rewards exist in the view from the stage:
“We still get blown away now, no matter what pandemonium is going on, we always try and go up for the last act on the stage. And when you’ve had the stress of the day, you just look out to a sea of people and think it’s crazy what we’ve achieved in such a short space of time.”