Cards on table: I love Cumbria. It’s a hell of a trip from Insights Towers down here in the South West but any excuse is taken, including a couple of days at Kendal Calling, where I took the opportunity to have a chat with co-founder, Andy Smith, about what makes the event and how they’ve turned the tough issue of tent waste into a game. Oh, and the small matter of torrential rain at their Bluedot show the week before.
Here we are, at Kendal Calling, to talk about Kendal Calling but first things first, the not insignificant matter of last week and Bluedot…challenging times?
“A fantastic team with a great enthusiasm for the show and a really good morale; they pulled it off against all the odds. I could easily have seen that being a cancellation if the team wasn’t strong and their preparations weren’t as they were. But they knew what the weather was going to be and forecast, appropriately. So, we had all the contingencies in place before we needed them.
“When it came to it, It’s so strange, it’s almost like the audiences come together and grow stronger under adversity, like the weather; we’ve never had such great feedback from the audience as we had this time. I think it’s our seventh edition, it’s hard to keep track, but it’s been the most well received, which considering everything is just phenomenal, a fantastic success; lots of mud, lots of joy.”
130 tons of wood chip doesn’t appear out of thin air though.
“We’re very lucky there, we know Mr. Jenkinson. Up and down the M6, up and down the M5 you’ll see his wagons delivering wood chip to places. They are five minutes down the road from Kendal Calling. When you need wood chip, he is the man in the country to go to. We’re fortunate having them on our doorstep and very fortunate, when it comes to times like [Bluedot 2023], they were closed, we called them, they delivered, fantastic.”
You have two festivals, one weekend after the other and two very different lineups. When you think Kendal Calling line-up, who are you thinking about, audience-wise.
“What we’ve just been doing in the past half hour, I was just watching Dick and Dom with my nine-year-old niece and my parents, and with other people’s grandparents and everybody was loving it. And that is the purpose of Kendall Calling; we are something that attracts a lot of people from Cumbria, a lot of people from the north west and a number of people who travel for further afield.
“When you’ve got that kind of regional audience, it’s important to have something which appeals to everybody. We’re not a niche festival, we’ve not got a niche line-up, we want to be something that everybody in the village wants to go to.
“It’s very much a village mentality., I grew up in a village. Me and my brother, we do a lot of the organising, we lived in our village, Arnside, and that whole village is here.
“What’s strange is, we just realised about three days ago that we’re the third largest town in Cumbria at the moment, which is just bizarre.”
What’s the booking climate at the moment. Is it a booker’s market or a bands’ market?
“I don’t think it’s ever been a book is market, not since 2006 anyway. It’s always tough, but we always get there. I used to do the booking for, probably about 14 years, before I handed over the reins and my god, what a relief that was.
“It always feels like, ‘oh, no, this is the year we can’t get the talent that we need,’ but my brother’s called me the boy who cries wolf over that. Touch wood it’ll never be a problem, but yeah, we sold out every single year for 17 years so we get there in the end.”
Is that more to do with the ‘something for all the village’ approach rather than the big names on the top of the poster?
“Yes. I mean, a lot of people still really just look at the headliners when they make a decision, which is strange because you’ve got such fantastic quality all the way down. It might only be 1 p.m. on Saturday but Dick and Dom, they’re playing to 6000 people. That was a great moment. That’s what the weekend is, you’re here for 84 hours or so, 92 hours, whatever it is, four days, and those 90 minutes of the end of each night, don’t make or break the experience. They’re the cherry on top in my eyes.”
Who, from this weekend’s line-up, do you think are destined for future headline slots?
“Lottery Winners. they’re doing very well.
“I know with bands, when they’re going to make it, because it’s a rule of three. If you hear your hairdresser talk about them, or you hear somebody in the pub talk about them and then your friend sends your text about them, you know it’s going to blow up.
“That’s exactly what happened to Ed Sheeran, Mumford & Sons; you just hear in one week, you have like three completely different people telling you, check out this band you check out the Facebook and it has 1000 likes and it’s like hmm, yeah, but there must be something going on there.
“That’s exactly the same with The Lottery Winners. Obviously they’ve just had their number one, but they played here for the past three editions, going from much smaller stages until now, they’re on the mainstage, and I can fully see that, in a few years’ time, they’ll be headlining.”
Couldn’t agree more. Other than The Lottery Winners, who’s your personal must see act this weekend?
“Well that leads me nicely onto something I want to show you.
“We’ve got a band called Lancashire Hot Pots playing every single year, they’ve got a slot on the main stage every Sunday. They’ve always opened the main stage and they get the largest audience of the festival.
Everybody comes out to see them and I’ll show you why everybody comes out to see them, this is a part of our sustainability strategy:
That’s fantastic, how did it come about?
“It’s absolutely fantastic, and they are so wonderful. We sent them an email saying, ‘hey, could you write as a song, please?’ And two days later, they were like ‘what about this?’
“We had a big sustainability push last year, because the number of tents getting left behind was increasing each year as other festivals have seen. We had to do something about it.
“So, I read all these books on human behaviour, there’s a whole encyclopedia of things out there, all the studies from like the Australia Olympics back in the 90s on their rubbish reduction campaign. I basically just crafted my own thing because there’s no one out there targeting, specifically, tent waste. We thought, we’ve got a number of challenges, but let’s take the big one first, the most visible one and then we’ll work our way through it. I think if you can tackle that, get everyone on side, then everything else follows quite nicely.
“We had thousands of tents left behind in 2019, uncountable tents. Last year we counted 284 10th, which have been left behind, which was a reduction of tenfold. That was a very visible multi-comms campaign, we even wrote a letter to every single ticket holder and posted it, in the post. You know, in the days of e-ticketing we sent out 10,000 letters.
“We did loads of different things. This year we’re doing the same but, you know, you can’t do the same marketing campaign twice and expect the same results. So we’ve got the wonderful song which has gone out, which has been very well received.”
And the video is filmed in the park where you hold the festival, with no sign of a festival
“Exactly. Last year I did a video saying, ‘this is a campsite at 10:00 a.m. Bluedot Festival on the Monday morning. Look around. Not one tent. Everybody has taken a tents home. Everybody’s put all their litter in bin bags, it’s the most clean festival site I’ve ever seen, this shows it can be done, we expect the same of you.’ We put that on the main stage.”
And you’ve turned it into a game, right?
“Yes, this year we’ve done Flappy Tent. (Smith then opens up a game on his laptop and, whilst continuing the conversation, display worryingly deft skills at a game that he’s obviously ‘tested’ extensively).
“It’s the day afTer the festival and 284 festival fans have left their tents behind grrr. Now the tents have come loose and are flying across Cumbria, so we’ve turned into a game. We find your targets, We’ve had about 100,000 plays of the game by about 55,000 people. At least everybody on side is played this game at least once. It’s still getting thousands of hits a day, three weeks after we launched it because it’s just it’s a pretty addictive game, really.
“We’ve got the main stage featured, we’ve got all these different levels of all different parts of the festival site before they start going down the M6, across the Lake District, and eventually you end up in a rubbish dump. It’s just a fantastic little game and it’s hitting the audience in different ways to make them, almost subconsciously, register the message.
“One of the reasons I’m so proud of the sustainability work is that we really want to get the message out there, because I know that there’s a lot of other festivals which have the same issue with tent waste. We’ve been very public about the success that we had, we are very open to helping and sharing.”
Outside of the usual music stages, what’s popular?
“Like the Octoberfest tent? I don’t know if you seen the Octoberfest. Absolutely hopping last night. It’s ginormous big top full of tables, oompah band, massive bar, lots of German flags and whatnot. That’s all it is, it’s not a stage, but it’s an incredibly popular place. So last night, 3,000 people in there dancing on tables to the oompah band, ale fly through the air, absolutely fantastic.”
You’re now under Superstruct majority ownership. Do you still feel independent?
“What is independence? The ability to make your own decisions and we’ve found Superstruct to be of their word, we are so happy in that relationship it’s unreal. It’s helping us in all the areas we needed help and it’s hands off in all the areas that we are good. They’re very, good at managing where they give assistance and where they have oversight.
“I think they said once, I can’t remember the exact phrase, but Superstruct, the name, comes out of support. They provide better support whether it’s been legal or just various things, they’ve got fantastic staff in every area, they’ve got a great marketing person, a great music person, law, accountancy…we’ve got somebody that we can go to when we need support and help. And they’re great doing all the things that we would never particularly grand at.
“The other part, which is absolutely fantastic, that I didn’t see before, is that they’ve got fantastic festivals all around the world and it’s a fantastic network, being able to speak to the best in various countries. Like sustainability, we went to Norway, that was pretty cold with a big drive but they basically introduced us to Øyafestivalen, commonly regarded the greenest festival on the planet. We learned so much from them. There’s other areas; pyrotechnics, go and speak to the [people] over in the Netherlands who are over that; let’s go and make things a bit more creative? Okay, go and speak to Elrow. So, we’ve now got access to the best people in the world, their advice and that is something you can’t pay for”
I’m left with the feeling that Kendal Calling will never stop developing, simply because the people behind it never stop looking, listening and learning. With 2024 pre-sales breaking all records, the loyalty of its fanbase is evidently strong, a dedicated core that know what to expect and how to respect the space that is given over to a weekend that the whole village can enjoy.
Or, as Smith puts it, reacting to a record 40% of tickets already sold for next year:
“Whether it’s the atmosphere on site, the fewest abandoned tents in the campsite, the amount raised for charity, the volume of euphoric feedback, everything points to this being the best festival yet – and yesterday’s record on-sale proves it. We’ve spent a fantastic weekend in the fields with a wonderful bunch of people and we can’t wait to start planning next year and doing it all over again.”
Best yet…until next year.
Footnote: Despite testing conditions at the end of this year’s event, abandoned tent numbers were as low as last year.