Interview with John Drysdale

2012 is reluctantly becoming the year that the festival fell asleep. Cancellations, years off, dwindling sales and price increases all colour mainstream opinions of mudslinging as either unsustainable, unaffordable or out of touch. In light of such constraints, I met with the man behind Beacons, John Drysdale, to throw some light on the future of the fragmented notion of the festival, and why its salvation may lie in the authenticity of the region.

Beacons began as the Moor Music Festival, based in Ilkley. Steady growth, rebranding and relocation have brought big names such as Wild Beasts, Factory Floor and Roots Manuva, who headline this year. The event’s relative affordability and focus on new music are proving popular with an ever-growing clientele.

“People are recognising that your average festival-goer has less expendable cash in their pocket. If you go to any reasonable festival nowadays for a weekend, you can spend five or six hundred quid: that’s a holiday to most people”.

Drysdale has a clear view of the success of recession-defying events. “That’s a lesson I’ve learned from Beacons last year, the lesson that’s reinforced this year: the price of your ticket, certainly in these harder times, will reflect in your sales”.

He believes that not only is the strain on the pocket a factor, but the strain of the market’s saturation on the breakthrough of truly huge acts. The absence of British world-beaters from the line-ups of bigger weekenders favours what John terms “strength-in-depth festivals”, citing his own and Field Day as prime examples.

The unified realisation of Beacons’s product rests in its breadth of influence and format, from the bands and DJs to its food, drink, crafts and on-site fare, be it vintage clothes or artisan pork-pies. It’s all distinctly individual and high quality. Take for instance its beer, a subject which Drysdale is passionate about.

“There’s a strength in real ales, people’s palates have changed, nobody wants to get lairy on 5% lager any more. So certainly the sort of audience we go for is more in line with that, the more considered and considerate clientele”.

Such a focus on the discerning reveller, the thoughtful festival-goer, makes the smaller regional festival so refreshing at a time of crushing banality.

The emphasis on quality relies on the local. “I think where a lot of people go wrong is in not opening dialogue with the locals, whether it be local people, local businesses, public safety liaison groups, any kind of stakeholder really. It can be your downfall. You need a policy of inclusion, giving them cheap tickets, offering them stalls. It’s about having a good open relationship with the communities”. Yet such a healthy, ongoing discourse with broader communities is only the start for Drysdale…

Shifting from a broad focus on his home county, John’s latest venture sets its sights on his home-town of York. YO1 Events brings together local businesses, promoters and musicians on 2nd June for arguably the biggest date in York’s cultural calendar. Dub legends, folk upstarts and trendy jangle-types will play across various stages (including our own Circulation stage), whilst the fine people of York Does Vintage ply their wares and some ruddy good food and drink gets bandied around. Oh and Craig Charles is putting in an appearance as well.

“It’s an event about York. So whether it’s involving someone who sells chips or someone who’s in a band, the local flavour is absolutely key to its success. Over the years there have been events put on in York where people have tried to organise festivals or day events that have no concern for the genuine or the actual people from York who build and make communities”.

Establishing and upholding the identity of an area is always a difficult task, as attaining the unity of divergent tastes can be awkward, and inclusion is not necessarily always sincere. But Drysdale seems committed to the bringing together of differing factions of the community, in reaching out to brooding hipsters and pushchair enthusiasts alike. The vision of YO1 seems to be that of a truly immersive cultural celebration of the region.

“YO1 is definitely the sum of its parts, it’s not just about a stage; with the inclusion of the dance groups or the arts groups, it ends up being a lot more immersive than just music in a field. It’s creating something accessible for all but still ticking those boxes for music-lovers. It’s about being open to everybody”.

And it’s this sense of inclusion and intimacy that seems to be the foundation of John’s own take on the festival. ‘I love festivals. I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t. I love the atmosphere, I love people’s resilience. What inspired me to start doing festivals was a 450-person event in Sherwood Forest, organised by some friends in 2003. I’d been doing a lot of free parties up until that point and then I thought ‘wow, it can be amazing’, I realised it doesn’t have to be this huge event’.

Yet while the immediate scale of his events may be small, Drysdale’s ambition for the projects certainly isn’t. “I once went to a seminar given by the guy who founded the Edinburgh Festival. He said that year on year, 80% of tickets go to people living in Edinburgh. So although it’s an internationally recognised event, people from out of town aren’t always guaranteed tickets. And I think with the YO1 event we’re aiming at the same mentality”.

Such confidence in the growth of his region’s cultural identity, along with his emphasis on authenticity, proximity and choice, instils you with more confidence than the ailing ‘big beasts’ of summers-past. So whether you’re in Yorkshire or elsewhere from June to August, it’s never been a better time to get down to your local.

Dan Cere