Successfully crowdfunded event? Check. High profile mentors? Check. For Samphire Festival’s newbie organisers, the festival industry is a serious business.
Who puts on a festival?
It’s a question that is this magazine’s modus operandi – shedding light on what drives someone to stick their neck out and throw a party in a field bigger than most people’s wedding.
Think about the successes within the festival world, those who denied convention and decided to make their names in the events industry by building iconic brands from little more than a green field filled with cow dung.
On paper and in today’s hyper-vigilante world, putting on a festival is a mad idea: the coordination, the booking, the build-up, early job insecurity and the financial uncertainty.
Building a festival into a yearly essential for attendees in such a crowded event marketplace is a not an easy thing, often taking organisers years to simply break even on their monetary investment.
But for generations in the UK, it has been the ultimate dream – and there is no reason to believe that people will stop launching festivals any time soon.
This is getting philosophical. All this is Access’ long way of trying to get inside the heads of Flora Blathwayt and Josh Beauchamp.
At 29 and 25 respectively, and each with no experience running any kind of event, Flora and Josh are taking a wild leap of faith putting on Samphire Festival in Porlock, Somerset this July.
There are a lot of legends about first-time festival organisers, people who threw together a backyard raver that grew year-on-year to become a coveted annual event. Then-16-year-old Lee Denny started LeeFest when his parents went away for a weekend; Secret Garden Party’s Freddie Fellowes fell upon his festival’s site and premise by accident; Michael Eavis threw a free shindig in 1971 that grew into – well, we all know that story.
Samphire’s founders are this generation’s answer to those earlier innovators. Products of the digital age, Flora and Josh cemented their place in festival history early on, before a single tent was pitched or guitar plugged in. In January, the two uploaded a video and description of their festival to the crowdfunding website Crowdfunder. Within days it surpassed its initial fundraising goal of £20,000, becoming the fastest-ever funded festival on the platform. It eventually raised more than £42,000 over the campaign’s 56 days.
“One of my friends suggested to me right at the beginning that we use Crowdfunder, and I didn’t think much of it,” Josh tells Access when we meet him and Flora in a Notting Hill pub just 65 days before Samphire opens its gates.
“Then we got to the point where we needed to start selling tickets and questioning how we were going to do that. The benefits of Crowdfunder became clear: it condensed our idea. We had to sell our idea with just one webpage. It was a really good exercise.”
Money, money, money
Crowdfunder wasn’t just a good theoretical exercise, though – it was the only clear way the pair saw of raising enough money to make their idea a reality.
“We were worried about money,” admits Flora. “We knew we had to have it upfront. We couldn’t just think, ‘We’ll borrow that and hope that we sell tickets’.
“I also liked the idea that you’re spending what you’ve got,” she says. “You know the money in the bank and that’s what you’re able to spend. Because so many festivals go bust. You just read the news and it’s terrifying – they do one year or two years and then they sink financially.”
Neither Flora nor Josh approached putting on a festival with rose-coloured glasses. The fear of failing – of not raising enough money, of not living up to the expectations of their backers or of disappointing the local community – is something that gets brought up several times over the course of two meetings, one at the Notting Hill pub and another on their festival site on Porlock Hill. Their seriousness about what they both consider to be a long-term business endeavour is what led them to the crowdfunding website.
“A lot of people can have a really good idea, and they can have the knowledge and the skills to put it together, but they don’t have the money,” says Josh. “By nature, putting on a festival is a very risky thing to do, so with crowdfunding you’re mitigating the risk because it’s only going to happen if you reach your target.”
For Flora, whose family has lived and done business in Porlock for at least three generations, the project and the Crowdfunder campaign held a special significance. Even so, she took a rational approach.
“I would have been absolutely gutted if we hadn’t reached our target,” she says. “We wouldn’t have done it. If it had failed and we hadn’t got to £20,000 – never mind £42,000 – it would have been an absolute no-brainer that it wasn’t happening.”
The 10-year plan
Though they’re careful about coming out and admitting it, part of the reason Josh and Flora placed so much hope in getting Samphire funded through Crowdfunder was because they see the festival, and indeed the events industry, as their newly chosen careers.
“It’s definitely a long-term plan, and the further and further along we get, the more we think about the future and how we’ll do this year after year,” says Josh. “This year has to go okay so that we can continue it; we want Samphire to be there in 10 years’ time and look back and say, ‘We did this on a whim and pulled it off’.”
Flora adds: “I ask myself sometimes, are we doing everything too orderly? Could we be getting away with more? But there’s so much at risk already in putting on an event; I want to make sure ours is safe and everyone has a fun time. If we had just decided to put 1,000 people in a field without an event safety officer, with friends as stewards and a couple of security staff, it could all go great and we might save £5,000 – or it could be a humongous disaster.
“This is our brand, we’re taking ourselves and Samphire seriously, and it’s going to be great.”
In good company
For first-time organisers with no previous connections to the world of events, Flora and Josh could not have picked a more auspicious group of people to make their mentors and support system. Represented among those who have guided them on the long journey to making Samphire a reality include festivals like Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party, Somersault, Lovebox, Wilderness, Sat in a Field, Festival No. 6, Lost Village and The Great Escape. There have also been numerous event professionals who have lent their time over a cup of coffee.
Both admit they’ve been extraordinarily lucky – with who they’ve spoken to, and the industry’s straightforward honesty.
“No one’s got a problem with telling you how it is,” says Josh, “because they all know that actually we’re the ones that have to put in the work, so they’re happy to tell us exactly what we need to do.”
“We’ve had so many people giving a helping hand and saying, ‘You’re the future of events in 20 years’ time’, and ‘Why shouldn’t you be starting now?’” Flora says – and then adds, with a wry laugh, “As well as saying we’re mad.”
Their most significant relationship has been with Ed Dolman, of Secret Garden Party and Wilderness fame. Tim Harvey (Lovebox, The Great Escape) recommended Dolman to the pair after seeing them become disheartened while applying for a premises license.
“Ed has been an absolute lifesaver,” says Flora. “The authorities were apprehensive about our inexperience. For him, he’s got this incredible list of 30-plus festivals, and he knows what to do if a natural disaster occurs. For us, if a huge storm comes in, we could have our evacuation points but we’d never experienced how to execute it.”
“The authorities don’t trust you,” adds Josh. “It’s completely fair enough – you can do a really good job, but if you’ve got no experience, you actually don’t have anything to base it on. So Ed coming in immediately took this whole portion off our plate, which meant that he could handle the authorities and the license application, because he had lots of experience, and we could concentrate on the rest of the festival, which was otherwise being left for dust because we didn’t know how to get the license.”
“There are days when I’m like, ‘Yes!’, and then other days where it’s just a bit terrifying,” Flora laughs. “For people who have never had any event experience it is like we are somehow madly winging it.
“I know now from talking to Ed that most organisers are 40-plus years old,” she continues. “But because we didn’t know that, there wasn’t any anxiety of us not being the right age. We just thought, ‘Why wouldn’t we do it now? What’s stopping us?’ We’re starting small and even though anything can go wrong at a festival, if you’re starting small everything’s a bit more manageable.”
And while the learning curve has been steep, both feel they are walking away with a skill set that will allow them to make that aforementioned 10-year plan a reality.
“We keep equating it to doing an event management masters degree or PhD,” says Josh, unknowingly wading into the eternal events industry debate over experience versus education. “We’ve learnt so much in this year that we could actually apply to doing other events.”
As our Notting Hill conversation comes to a close, Flora looks at her business partner and asks, with a laugh: “Would you do it again?”
It’s a fair question. Although they’ve been smart about who they’ve brought on board to guide and mentor them, and everything now seems to be ticking along in order, both are understandably a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what they’ve taken on.
It’s a testament, then, that Josh’s answer comes without hesitation: “Of course. Definitely.”
Samphire Festival takes place 8-10 July in Porlock Hill, Somerset. This feature originally appeared in the June issue of Access All Areas, out now.