Winner Profile: Teddy Rocks

Teddy Rocks, winners of the 2023 Sarah Nulty Community Impact Award is a festival dedicated to founder, Tom Newton’s young brother Ted, who died from cancer aged 10. From a fundraising gig in a pub to fully fledged festival raising thousands each year, we managed to grab precious time with full time firefighter, touring musician, festival organiser and fundraiser, Tom to chart the festival’s rise.

First things first, congratulations on winning another UK Festival Award

“I know, yeah. Two years in a row. Unbelievable.”

Does your life in festivals pre-date the founding of Teddy Rocks?

“The way I got interested in it? In all seriousness, there is a, a massive, massive show called the Great Dorset Steam Fair; hundreds of thousands of people come to it. It’s the largest vehicle and heritage show in the world on a massive 600-acre site. A friend asked if I wanted to come do some summer work, so I went and I parked caravans for nine days. I was hooked, I didn’t know what events were, but I was hooked and that was it. I loved it, worked there every summer and sort of did all the fencing, the pit barrier, the, the scaffolding, traffic management, I just fell in love with it. That first year there opened my eyes to how wild events can be, and I was hooked from that point.

“Obviously, you know the story behind Teddy Rocks and you know why we’re here doing it, but I never intended to do this, ever.  My little brother passed away, and I was furious. I was 21, I was angry at the world, I though well, I’ll get my mates and we’ll put some amps in the pub and we’ll put a gig on. And that’s what we did; we moved like four tables and chairs out of the way, put a gig on and rammed the place, had a few beers, raised £400 and we thought, whoa, this is cool. We were counting the money physically at the end of the night, like with pound coins and pennies going, we’ve made like £400, us idiots just raised £400, that’s really cool. And it just lit a spark, that was it. That’s literally how it all started, and to date it’s been quite a ride.”

What an amazing reaction though, to channel the hurt and the anger. But one wasn’t enough, right?

“I definitely ask that question a lot more these days, but yeah, I remember I thought ‘that was cool’.

“We had a town hall in Blandford where I lived, and I thought, oh, that’d be really cool if we could get the town hall, which to me was Wembley back then, and this little town hall in a Georgian town to me was like, whoa, we’ll never be able to put a gig on in there, it’s massive. It’s like 500 cap.

Teddy Rocks Festival 2023. Credit:

“We did; I put a post on Facebook. I was working in the pub where I did the first gig, I was about to go to work for a shift on the bar for the evening, and I put a Facebook post up saying, I’m thinking about doing like an all-dayer, like a festival, does anyone want to come and play for me sort of thing? We’ll raise loads of money for children with cancer in memory of Ted. I put my headphones in and I walked to work, about 15 minutes later  I got to work and I had like 40 bands confirmed, and I was like, oh, blimey, okay.

“And I was like, well, it’s now a two day. I managed to get the town hall for two days and the local pub, The Greyhound, where we started, they came and ran the bar for us, got fully involved.

“We went over to the town hall, and it was the worst festival in the world, it was horrendous, we didn’t know what we were doing. My mate was like, ‘we need we need pit barrier.’  They were like, ‘leave it with me’. Off they went, then, half an hour later, they came back with some, fluorescent orange road barriers, God knows where they got them from! So, our stage now had Orange fencing going straight across it. That was our first ever pit barrier.

“We raised five grand. No idea how.”

You must have a hell of a network in the local music scene.

“I play in bands, still do to this day. I’m lucky enough to be in a touring band. You play shows, you make friends, and one Facebook post and 40 bands were like, I want to play. I think they all saw, you know, they all lived through what was happening with Ted back in the day, a lot of mates were asking how it was going. And, you know, I think for our generation at that time, being 20/21, I think out of all our mates, something tragic hadn’t happened. I think it was a lot of people’s first tragedy like, oh my God, I know someone that’s happened to, like in our clique. Yeah, I think it really resonated with a lot of people. Like, poor Tom and his family and Ted, that’s just awful. And I think, you know, putting a gig on, they were like, well, we want to play a gig. And it’s a really good thing to do. And that was it, it just snowballed rapidly from that really.”

After the town hall, you return to the pub?

“That’s right, yeah. They had a really cool courtyard and we thought, well, we could build a stage out of scaffolding and have a captive audience; let’s just go to the busiest pub in town and dump this gig on them. They’re going to be there anyway, right? That’s what we did, and it was wicked. The backdrop of that stage was a hand printed bed sheet from my art teacher from school, which we still have to this day. I still put it up at the festival every year in our HQ just to remind us of where we started. You know, I was buzzing about this banner, and we hung it up, and I think we raised £6500 that year.

“It was the first year where we put a very, very small amount of budget into artists, I got a couple of tributes down, and it was just hilarious, everyone came and got involved

“The next year we did it again at the pub, we redesigned the stage and actually we did a really good and we raised 15 grand. And then the year after that, 2015, which was our last year at the pub, we raised 24 grand and just about completed the pub; we couldn’t have done anything more there. The pub was like shaking, the toilets were blocking, it was breaking the pub, it was wild.

“It was just no one was there holding our hand, no one was there telling us, we had no idea. We literally just went, well, we’ll try that. And that’s what we did.

“The next year, this is the big bit of the story, this is God’s honest truth: Max, who plays bass in my band, he bought an eight by ten flight case for his for his bass rig, and it had a big orange ‘H’ on the flight case. It turns out he bought it from an ex touring company, but it used to belong to a band called The Hoosiers.

“We couldn’t believe it, that’s the Hoosiers bass case in Blandford, that’s really funny. So we just kept taking the mick out of Max, saying the Hoosiers want that back. ONE night, Max got very drunk and he went round the pub with orangE gaff tape, and he put orange H’s just everywhere, including one of my guitars, I’ll never take it off. And he was like, oh, that’s the that’s the Hoosiers guitar or that’s the Hoosiers whatnot. It was so unfunny. But you know what? It’s like a group of mates. It becomes really funny. I stupidly said, imagine if I booked the Hoosiers to play Teddy Rocks, their stuff would be everywhere. That’d be really funny. So I emailed the Hoosiers for a laugh.

“My main job is I’m a full time firefighter, so I was sat in the back of a fire engine coming back from a job, and my phone was going off. I said, boss, do you mind if I take this? And he goes, yeah, go for it. I took the phone call and it was a guy called Vinesh Patel from Coalition Talent, and he was like, Tom, the Hoosiers, they’re in.

“I just remember going, oh my God, oh, that’s wonderful news. Brilliant. Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, we’re thrilled to have them. And then it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, I can’t put the Hoosiers on a scaffolding stage at the Greyhound in Blandford, that’s just not going to cut it. And that’s the truth. That’s the truth of why I went to a field.”

Sounds like you felt it was time to get a bit more professional?

“We’re still here to tell the tale, but I, I’m always really honest with this stuff because if anyone’s wants to get into events or wants to run events, I now pride myself on running the most professional and safe events I can possibly deliver. But you only get to that standard through learning, and you can’t go to school and learn events. I don’t have an event qualification; I didn’t go to Uni for events. You’ve got to get out there and and learn it, and that’s why I’m always really open and honest. Because, you know, if you look at our website now and you look at the effects that we’ve got, we’ve got the most unbelievable team of people that work for Imagine Dragons, Drake, Stormzy, some huge acts. And that’s such a big point for me; what started with two mates has now become incredibly professional, almost setting a standard for small festivals in production through the support and because of the cause. And I just think that’s wild.”

Teddy Rocks Festival 2023. Credit:

Do you find that people work with you because of the cause?

“No-one gets paid, I don’t take a penny for expenses, none of my friends do. We all do it for free, every single person. And you know the amount of hours involved with events. I’m sat here today currently doing the event safety management plan, traffic management, noise management. I do all the documents myself, just through learning hard lessons and having some amazing support from people in the industry through the years and just constantly knocking on the door, asking for help, being really annoying but just still knocking. And yeah, it’s quite a journey to go from that to this, but we’re here.”

You’ve obviously grown, has the budget for acts had to grow too?

“What’s really frustrating, as with most bands in the industry, you can’t just go, oh, ‘I’d like those, please’. Oh, they’re that much. It’s ‘make an offer, mate’. Yeah, well what’s an offer like? I don’t want to over offer you by ten grand, but I don’t want to under offer you and look like I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s like, what does this show mean to you? And what do you want to do it for?

“That’s been the hardest thing out of the whole event, without a doubt, the main stage artists, because the bands don’t know. They don’t know that we’re having these conversations about them, you’re speaking to agents and managers, you don’t get to the bands.

“I always say, if I met Dave Grohl in a pub for ten minutes with a pint, he’d play Teddy Rocks because he’d be like, this story is wild, this is amazing, this is what it’s all about, you know. But you can’t get to these people. Instead, it’s agents who want their fee and they know what they want to get. Mix that with exclusivity and you’ve got no chance. We get treated the same as 100,000 event, we’ve had bands asking for six figure sums to play Teddy Rocks Festival. A 5000 cap children’s cancer event in Dorset run by volunteers, with 100% of profit going to support children. Yeah, we need £100,000 to make that work and it killed it for me. It killed that part of the industry for me.

“Is that band going to drop a ten day UK tour and potentially upset a certain promoter to come and play your charity gig where they don’t earn money? No. And and that is where you sit. That’s where you sit at our level. We are right at the bottom. It was infuriating. It was really challenging.

“So, in November I announced that we’re dropping all the main stage original acts, and I’ve gone full tributes on the main stage and the support from the public has been overwhelming. Our ticket sales are strong.

“The reason we always announced our headliners in December is because it took us that long to confirm them, whereas now moving to tributes on the main stage, I could announce it at this year’s event if I want for 2025. Give me a day and a half to make some phone calls and we’ll have an amazing lineup booked and we just accept that that’s just the league we’re in. We we can’t compete with these huge festivals, we can’t pay these crazy money. Sadly, there hasn’t been an overwhelming amount of support from certain parts of industry to help give us acts because they’re all trying to put food on their own table. That’s what it comes down to.”

Have you had many outside influences that have helped you on the way?

“Absolutely. Again, it’s just it’s that knocking on the door thing isn’t it? For me, being a firefighter, you do learn a lot about regulations and bits and pieces like that, it does change your mindset, so that attitude mixed with being in an original touring band, meeting people, telling them the story, playing at venues, playing good shows, playing bad shows, you learn just as much from either one, that all sort of comes together. Mix that in with my experience of working on event sites from a young age, they all help each other.

“I don’t mind going up to someone and asking for help. I’m the first person to say I don’t understand this, can you please help me? I’ll always do that. To me there’s it’s not about ego, it’s about output. It’s about how can we make this show brilliant? It doesn’t have to be my idea; it doesn’t have to be me. I think just being surrounded by good people and not being afraid to approach people that intimidate you, either.

“I’ve gone up to people in huge companies and just gone, hiya, I’m Tom, I’m doing this gig and I think you’re awesome. And you know what? Some of those people are still main sponsors and directors of my event today.

“When I first started, for example, with licensing, they heard that this lunatic with his hat the wrong way around, covered in tattoos, was going to put a rock festival on in the middle of town. I thought, because I had permission to use a field, that’s all you needed. I genuinely thought, that’s how it works. I got called into the local authority offices and I met the head of licensing who just destroyed me. I remember sitting there and he was like, I want to see your event safety management plan, your risk assessments, your fire risk assessment, your site map scale 1 to 100, your security deployment, security staffing schedule, security plan, medical plan, lost children policy, drugs…It goes on and on. As you well know, traffic management, noise management.

“I sat there, and I remember myself just getting so red and angry. You know, you feel that heat on the back of your neck. And I went, all right, I’ll do it. I basically went away and just picked up the phone to anyone that said they knew someone.

“Everyone helped. Every single person helped. And I help everyone that calls me now, anyone that calls me for an event because I run an events business now. I run an American rock and roll monster truck festival, I run a country park festival professionally and play at events professionally. I just think if someone picks up the phone asking for help, it’s just super important to answer that call. You might not be able to help, but just having a human conversation with them or some reassurance or some, come on, you can do it. There’s not enough of that.”

Do you find that you get other people now use Teddy Rocks to channel their needs to help because they’ve lost somebody and you are a place where they can help a charity.

“You’re right. I think anyone can relate to Teddy Rocks. It’s loss and you want to do something. I’m not a medical person, I’m not a surgeon, I don’t work on oncology, I can’t cure cancer, I Fully accept that I can’t do anything, and I can’t bring my brother back. But what I can do is use what I’m good at to try and do something positive in this world. And that’s what I feel strongly on. And that’s why I put myself through some of the hell involved with events, because why not? You know, I’ve got this experience. I’m going to use it.

“For some people, they may have lost their dad, they may have lost their mum, they may have lost their sister, their auntie, their cousin, their friend. You know, we all lost a friend this year through cancer who was our age – horrendous. Teddy rocks is a way of just channelling, do you know what I’m going to go in that field and I’m going to litter pick for an hour. I’m going to put that fence up. I’m going to carry that scaff pole there physically, tangibly doing something to improve a situation.  And I think that’s what makes Teddy Rocks the most beautiful thing ever, I think that’s amazing to be able to give that to someone.”

So it’s not just about the money raised?

“It’s all about that individual. One thing I really pride myself in, and I’m really proud of myself at Teddy Rocks, is that if I let someone take control of a department, which I do, I absolutely delegate. You can’t do it all. I let them be in charge of it because that person then completely lets themself out, they take complete creative control and they create something amazing. Lots of the team have experienced loss, pain, suffering. They’ve seen bad things. They’re channeling it,

“Teddy rocks for me is an absolute coping strategy, 100%. I don’t know where I’d be without Teddy Rocks today, for me it was a focus. I was going to show the council that I can put a rock festival on. That was it. It wasn’t going to sit in my room and think about what the hell we’ve just been through for 18 months. No, I’m going to I’m going to show the head of licensing that i now know what a traffic management plan is.

“It was that focus and that drive, I think so many people use it for that. Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of people now work professionally in the industry because of Teddy Rocks. Kids that were at the local school because I approached them and asked if they wanted to use Teddy Rocks for their GCSEs, for live sound, for audio, for production. They all came and got marked at the festival. They now work professionally for Glastonbury, Boardmasters, Tom Jones, Little Mix. They’re doing it OB trucks, filming the lot and that’s because of Teddy Rocks. They come back every year for free and bring students. And I just think that’s a really beautiful thing. People are aware of what it is. They’re aware of what it can be to someone, but also it can get real world results for people that may not have a look in at getting an opportunity in this industry. It’s all about who you know and Teddy Rocks has made its own ‘who you know ‘and I love that.”

With such strong good will, have recent cost increases affected Teddy Rocks?

“I mean, we wouldn’t be here if we were paying everyone. Covid has certainly changed the game without a shadow of a doubt; costs have gone through the roof in some areas. But because of what we are and what we’re about, people volunteer, and people stick with it. I think if it was commercial, people would have given up a long time ago.

Like I said, I do run my own events company, I do run my own festivals commercially. One event, when Covid hit saw 98% refunds, Teddy Rocks saw 3% refunds. I think that kind of sums up the event. People love it, they want it to be here, they know how important it is and we keep it cheap. We keep it accessible because we want everyone to be able to support the cause. We’re not out-pricing people, because of that, it’s for everyone.”

It also seems that its growth and success is down to the changes you’ve made.

“I think you have to diversify. If you just accept a good thing when it’s good and refuse to change it, you’ll get caught out. I’ve got mates that run festivals and I’ve seen them on the trajectory, and you know it’s coming and their festival folds and it’s heartbreaking. But they’re chasing something which is running away from them because of cost, because of this shift in behaviour. End of the day, agents and bands and managers, they’re not bad people. They’re trying to survive in the industry and make a living, I fully get that, I get the costs involved, but you can’t just keep putting the money on to the consumer. You can’t just put another 20 grand on because it runs out. I think some people don’t know when to stop, and that can be the difference between that festival opening its gates or not.

“If people want to be part of it, great. We could have announced the tributes, and everyone gone, I want a refund, I’m out.  My biggest learning curve from this is that I realised that with Teddy Rocks, the bands aren’t actually that important to people, and I always thought it was. I think maybe that’s a confidence thing, you know?  I put this pressure on.

“I announced the tributes, did a really heartfelt, honest message on a video telling people this is why we’re doing it, we want to still be here we’ve got a job to do, we’ve got to support these young kids that need it, and the love is overwhelming.

So now I’m thinking, wow, we’ve now got this love for this event, It’s still working, tickets are going well, not far off the same as last year with tributes, compared to these big names we’ve had. So we just go wait and see what happens.”

You seem to have got those two magical things, the tribe and the vibe

Yeah, exactly that. I think a tribe is a really good word. And I think once you come to Teddy Rocks, as a punter, for press, for an artist, you get it. You know, I remember Feeder coming up up to me before, and they were like, we didn’t realise this was a charity gig, we feel really bad. And I was like, well, yeah, it is. And I told them the story and they were like, ‘My God, this is unbelievable’. Next thing you know, the drummer has just bought merch and he’s on stage wearing it whilst they’re playing and you’re like, yes, that’s amazing.

“I’m really happy to say this and I hope they don’t mind me saying it, but the manager of The Zutons, they rang me up the day before they were meant to play and the management was like, they want to donate a large amount of the fee back they’re blown away by it. I worked out what I reckon it would cost them to be on the road. Those people on stage played for free that night and I was like, that’s amazing, that is insane. There are some wonderful people out there.

“We want to raise loads of money for children with cancer. We’ll have a great time doing it and put on an event that everyone just loves, that that’s what we’re about. “

Can you single out one ‘Pinch me, I’m dreaming’ moment?

“Well, I’ll give you two very quick ones. The band that made me buy a guitar was The Darkness. Simple as that. I heard a guitar solo for the first time, it was I believe, in a Thing Called Love and my head just exploded. I got Permission to Land,the album, listened to it on a personal CD player.

“I used to play cricket, an old boy comes up to me and goes, why are you constantly listening to? And I was like, oh, it’s The Darkness. And he goes, they’re rubbish. And I was like, what? They’re the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And he gave me an AC DC Live at Donington album. The rest is history. I’ve now toured the world as a musician and run events. Because of those two moments. The Darkness are incredible. What a band, I got them and they headlined in 2019.

“I had a quite a really cool relationship with the agent. I tried every year. I was like, hello? He’s like, no. It was like, no worries, speak to you next year. Hello? He was like, no, no, no worries, I’ll speak to you next year. And I went through him every year and in the end I started ringing him up and he was like, what do you want? I was like, The Darkness.

“And he went, look, they’re not going to be available. And if they are, I’ll eat my hat. I went, well, put an offer in. I’ll never forget the day he came back. And he goes, well, looks like I’m eating my hat. And the day we loaded The Darkness gear onto stage with their flight cases. Like the original cases from back in the day. I remember standing there in my little town thinking, whoa! I used to climb into the local pub to watch the covers band. And I remember watching a covers band play that in 2003, watching the guitarist play the solo and thinking, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. And now Justin Hawkins is on stage doing it. And they were lovely. And that that was, that was a really sentimental like, blimey, what have we done here?

“And a very funny one, quick one was the Vengaboys came last year. I went up to their dressing room, a portacabin, I opened the door and they went, Tom! And they grabbed me, and these four crazy pop stars started jumping up and down in all their multi-coloured spandex and stuff. I remember walking out of that cabin, no one was around to see it, and I was just thinking, what just happened?”

A rock and roll moment?

I was like, I’m in Blandford Forum, where I’ve lived all my life. The Vengaboys have just cornered me in a Portacabin. Will anyone ever believe this?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, what about an ‘earth swallow me up’ moment.

Easy. The year before last, at one of my other events, we got let down by a contractor very, very badly. There were some power issues. The supplier had bought a new bit of kit that day and he plugged in the stage. The stage tripped, doing its job, plugged it back in again, stage tripped…so he just took the breaker out, went straight in and blew up everything: the screens, the audio, the lighting, MacBooks, three traders that were plugged into it, the desks, the consoles, everything. I had two, three hours until the first act was on and I had 4000 women drinking for ladies night in a country park, waiting for the acts to come on.

“And I had nothing, I can honestly say I thought it’s all over, everything, I’m going to have to get the authorities involved, we’re gonna have 4000 very angry people drunk, wanting to leave earlier next to a highway. It made me think, what the hell are we doing? And by complete luck and having some very good friends in the right places and a lot of luck, we managed to replace kit.

“I managed to get new consoles, new laptops, screen equipment, new everything, and the first act went on 30 minutes late without screens. And by the second act, which went on five minutes late, we had a full show running on a third of the system, and we pulled it off. I can honestly say it makes me feel like physically sick remembering it, because we got very lucky. If those people I rang up weren’t half an hour down the road or that kit was out that weekend, I don’t know what my second phone call would have been.

“That was horrifying, events aren’t fun when that happens.

“I can honestly say that a lot of the fire training kicked in. I really did that, like incident command stuff of like, right, we’re going to break this down, what can we do? And yeah, without that, I think maybe that’s one of the reasons we got through it and pulled it off. But a lot of luck as well.”