Forecasting The Future of Independent Music Ecosystem with Paul Reed and Kieran Yates
We met with the CEO of The Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF) and renowned music journalist at Archipelago Festival 2019.
Words by Febrina Anindita
Foto: Moses Sihombing
In the era of constantly evolving technology, access to discovering new music is no longer a challenge. Not only has it changed the formula for how – established or indie – artists promote their work, it also redefined music media as we know it. When people’s preferences has become a priority that fueled organizers or collectives to emerge and share music from their point of view, what is the condition of the independent music ecosystem we’re facing today? To answer this question, we met with Paul Reed (P) the CEO of The Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF) and renowned music journalist Kieran Yates (K) at Archipelago Festival 2019 to discuss the future of music media, the independent music ecosystem as well as finding the best formula for music festivals.
Paul, last year, you were upped as CEO of Association of Independent Festivals in the UK. From your perspective, how far removed is the development of the UK music ecosystem in catering independent festivals?
P: I think the landscape of independent festivals is in a bit of transitional place towards streaming and live has become kind of a rocket fuel that can power an artist’s career. I think festivals are a huge part of that. There was only about 7% of our members that existed in 1987, so there’s been an explosion in kind of smaller boutique festivals or certain festivals that catered for very niche musical genres and they’ve found their audience and they’ve built that loyalty.
The majority of people in the last 10 years bought their tickets based on overall experience and atmosphere of the event as opposed to a single musical act
I think festivals are great incubators for emerging talents, enabling artists to get their first experience playing a festival and I think audiences are more open to discovering new music at the festival. We’ve done quite a lot of research around why people buy tickets to independent festivals and we found that the majority of people in the last 10 years bought their tickets based on overall experience and atmosphere of the event as opposed to a single musical act. So that’s an interesting trend in itself, but I do think that means people are more receptive to discovering new artists in that kind of environment, whereas with a concert it’s a bit more prescriptive why you bought a ticket for an artist or there might be a few other artists on the bill that you’d find interesting.
There was a little bit of elitism that if you were in print media, you’re a proper journalist, if you’re just doing things online, you weren’t.
What about from your perspective as a music journalist, Kieran?
K: I think what I’ve seen – we’re in a relatively unique position in that I’ve seen the move from a quite healthy print media to a decline and then the boosting of digital media. So, I started off with a blog, but not a lot of people were doing music criticism, writing, or reviewing online. And digital journalism wasn’t really taken seriously by a lot of mainstream press. There was a little bit of elitism that if you were in print media, you’re a proper journalist, if you’re just doing things online, you weren’t.
Of course we know that has completely changed, and so journalists have caught up, artists, promoters, DJ’s, everybody has really caught up and the people that did really well are the people that understood how important the internet was in the beginning. In the UK, we had a very rich forum culture where dance music, dubstep, grime, and other music genres all gathered together in an online forum where they would share tracks, parties, flyers for raves and club nights. And those people then became collectors – first online, then, real life – and a lot of them still exists as record labels and promoters now. So, there’s early adopters of the digital age who’s doing very healthy now. The people that didn’t really take it seriously are struggling, which is why you see a lot of music media folding or losing money and finding it difficult to know what’s happening next.
It actually happened here in Indonesia, as Rolling Stone Indonesia folded up. And it’s interesting as everybody can be a selector, because the future of media is in everyone’s thumbs. This also affects the formula for artists to promote the music. What AIF have done as a strategy to adapt to the changing trends of information? Do you embrace the music media as one of your strategies?
P: I think a lot of is just having a really clear strategy. If you’ve got a campaign such as in recent years we’ve had a couple of campaigns around sustainability that were really impactful. So we had “Drastic on Plastic” and “Take Your Tent Home” this year, so very audience-facing. I think you have to put a lot of thought into these campaigns, really know what you want to say and really push yourself in terms of – before you think about a press release being drafted, is there a story here? Is it compelling? What are we actually saying? Because I think the news cycle has moved very quickly now, there’s a lot of stories, there’s a lot that gets written about festivals and you have to cut through the noise of that.
I think we’re able to do that by – because we represent 65 festivals in the UK of various shapes and sizes. So the headline around the campaign is more about independent festivals taking collective action rather than AIF itself, which is a trade association – it’s a very niche thing, trade association for festivals to your average sort of festival, a person wouldn’t be that interested in it, but certainly to some more high profile independent festivals like Boomtown Fair, Shambala, and many others, I think that’s where the hook for the story is, the fact that these festivals are taking some collective action on plastics or safer spaces and audience welfare. So it’s that collectivism really, and I think that enables you to frame the campaign and also the activity that you do is very important.
Over the years, one of the kinds of methods that we’ve used is digital campaign, so all the festivals will simultaneously have a kind of take over on their home pages. So for the plastics one, they were kind of ‘wrapped in plastic’ digitally, and then there was a lot of statistics and other information. So that creates a kind of flash point for people who’d gone to those sites to find out more, and I think that’s how you become impactful. When you think about what it is you’re going to say, we often have commitments charted as the best practice around those campaigns as well, so therein lies a story as well. Festivals has taken a 3 year pledge to completely eliminate single-use plastics and I think timing is everything with campaigns or stories actually because if we’d done that 5-7 years ago, there wouldn’t have been as much interest from the media or customers.
I think it’s timing those campaigns, the climate crisis now is at a much wider conversations in society. It obviously goes where the other festivals and festivals are kind of these microcosms of, miniature of society when it comes down to it. So I think the timing is really important in the planning of campaigns and to be really meticulous, to not do anything for the sake of doing it, and to not do too many media campaigns either – we tend to do 1 really big campaign a year and then we’ll do a lot of reactive works throughout the year. Not overdoing it, and having something genuinely compelling to say when you have a campaign which takes a lot of planning, discussion, groups, having the right partners challenging you on ideas and really kind of sculpting and refining it until you’re convinced that you’ve really got a strong campaign and story.
Back then, people need to check on music. Now, as music discovery is in your thumb, do you think music journalism still matters?
People will always gravitate towards a filter, someone who creates a filter for them in the digital age that is very broad
K: I hope so (laughs), because I need to eat. I think people will always gravitate towards a filter, someone who creates a filter for them in the digital age that is very broad, very vast and the pace of which can feel very overwhelming and clustered. So, I think that people will always look for informed, legitimate voices from within the music scene, people who understand the music, who are thoughtful about the music, people who could make the lines between social behaviour and music behaviour, and always see how the music is affecting society at large. They will always gravitate towards people who have first hand relationship with dancing in these spaces, building relationships with these artists, being very excited by it. And so, whether or not that takes music magazines or music radio or just someone you follow on Twitter, hopefully that can be monetized.
I think that people will always look for some kind of filter and in some ways it’s been very refreshing to see the old world of music journalists – who in the UK were often very sort of 40-50 plus, white, males, predominantly middle class, slowly changing. What we’ve seen now is that the people who are the real kind of tastemakers, or music journalists coming through from very diverse backgrounds – maybe working class, women, maybe from immigrant communities, queer writers, South Asian writers like myself. And I think that’s very exciting. I don’t think there was anybody like that when I was younger, so it’s been very refreshing to change who gets to tell the stories about what’s exciting musically.
I think that’s very important for us not to reflect things that already exist because then you’re just PR.
How do you decide which music to write about? What goes into deciding what kind of music needs to be told?
K: For, it’s always about physical space first. So, I was very lucky in that, I was going to clubs, live music events, falling in love with the music and then trying to find the community around it. So with grime music, a lot of electronic music, like now Afrobeats and UK rap, I was finding music in real life in spaces like gigs and clubs, then meeting people. Because sometimes I go on my own, then finding them online and realising that there was an online community, and then investing in some of the music and just listening to it because people weren’t really making money from it. You couldn’t really buy a lot of it, and then as that became those underground scenes. I then thought there’s a gap in the market no one’s really talking about a lot of this music.
It’s always about finding interesting things that are not being represented in the media.
And so that’s always the way that I work. And even now as a journalist, it’s always about finding interesting things that are not being represented in the media. If I haven’t read the story before, or I don’t think the story’s been told effectively enough, then I’d always try and do that myself. Or, commission someone if I’m editing someone to do that. I think that’s very important for us not to reflect things that already exist because then you’re just a PR.
Paul, when we talk about independent music ecosystem, what exactly are the main or usual challenges that you face in the UK when you’re trying to sustain it?
P: Of course, we exist as a collective voice for those independent festivals. There are multiple challenges really, so the types of issues that we’ve lobbied the government on are things like police charging at events. There was a movement in the UK to effectively privatize elements of what is a public service and push towards that it would’ve been very detrimental to organizers, so we lobbied and we managed to get the consultation stopped in its tracks. Because sometimes we are lobbying for the current system just to be maintained. Other things are like business rates in festivals and event site, we’ve triggered parliamentary debates around that. It involves doing a lot of research, having a really clear argument and finding some sympathetic parliamentarian who understand the industry and the challenges being faced.
And then outside the government as well, we’ve called upon competitions to scrutinize the position of major transnational companies in the UK that do have quite a stranglehold on the festival and events industry to vertical kind of integration, large transaction companies like LiveNation that own over 25% of festivals in the UK over 5000 capacity, also promote a lot of concerts. They have Ticketmaster which is the world’s largest ticketing company and they’ve got this control over all the elements of the supply chain, so it’s not a level playing field for the independent (music festivals) when it comes to things like artist deals and artist exclusivity. It’s essential that the government are aware of those issues and the effect that it can have on independent operators and entrepreneurs. And then, it’s not necessarily all about the government either, so we lobbied the PRS for Music, which is a performing rights organization in the UK that distributes live royalties to songwriters and composers. And we actually lobbied and achieved and reduced rate on that for festivals. So it increased for concerts but it reduced for festivals, but some of these things are very behind the scenes, kind of entrenched, 3 year processes that were very long battles and I think that’s the power of an organization like ours is not only the collective network and the power of that community but being able to stay on those issues and being really diligent. Whereas promoters individually wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to do that, or wouldn’t have the time. They’re promoters, they want to focus on producing their events, I think we existed to provide that support network and to an extent deal with all the things they either don’t have the time or don’t want to engage but will ultimately benefit.
When we try to sustain the ecosystem with festivals, of course we need certain formula which is not only to entertain people, but also educate – like what Archipelago Festival has done. What makes this formula works best?
P: Yeah sure. I think essentially festivals are definitely more than just escapism. They can be platforms for social and behavioural change, and to create conversations whether it’s around sustainability or welfare. I think the ultimate objective there is to create conversations and hope that people will then carry it over into their everyday lives. Perhaps people would have their beliefs challenged, and I think festivals are really the only environment where all these different kinds of all forms can collide. Music is an important part of the mix but also spoken word, immersive interactions, creative productions, where people can experience all of these things and I do feel that as communal experiences they’re more important than ever in the digital age for people to have that escapism and that visceral offline experience.
K: I agree with a lot of that. He’s the festival expert. (laughs)
What about in the UK, what festivals you usually come and experience that you think it good in sustaining ecosystem?
K: There’s lots of educational things that’s sort of driven towards talks, we have a Red Bull Music Festival that has a lot of talks, interesting curations and lots of parties. Boiler Room is doing a festival, I think it would be worth looking into. There’s Independent Dance Festival which is predominantly kind of talks and then parties in the evening, there might be an Ableton tutorial in one room and someone playing some noise music in another.
What about Converge festival? Is it good for you?
K: Yeah, I think it’s okay. It’s slightly not my kind of music but they do some interesting things with space. So there’s this space in Kings Cross in London, which is like a skate space, so they play music and do parties in there and that’s really cool. And that’s something you can definitely think and learn about creative solutions to space. But then I also think that for you looking at places like WOMAD, there’s definitely conversations you could be having with them even if it’s just discussing for the future how to get visas and artists over.
P: I think it’s coming to Indonesia as well, there’s certainly conversations about that. I have just a couple of recommendations, I think the festivals that really are at the frontier in the UK are events like Boomtown Fair which is a 60.000 capacity festival which is just an incredible production, each year is a chapter in an evolving story and this year’s story is very much focused on social change. Also, things like on a smaller scale, there’s a festival called Bluedot. That’s an amazing combination of science and music. The site’s incredible because it’s actually in the third largest telescope in the world. I think if you have a unique sight and a concept like that, that’s where the cutting edge is really.