In its final year, we ask Cornbury founder, Hugh Phillimore to sum up fourteen fantastic years of fun filled festivals.
As I approach my 14th and final Cornbury Festival I wonder what was the point of the whole mad adventure? From a financial point of view the whole festival model makes as much sense as taking your house down to the bookies and gambling it, at very bad odds. Since we started back in 2004 the festival market has been completely saturated with fellow idiots following the festival dream. ‘It will be our own mini-Glastonbury stuffed with all our friends and we’ll make enough money to live on the land forever’ they cry – NO NO and NO. What no one tells you is that Glastonbury took 11 years to turn a small profit and is still a pretty scary ride for the independent Eavis’s. Your mates won’t come anyway and if it just happens that they aren’t busy doing something much cooler they certainly won’t be paying for a ticket! If we’d sold every ticket we’ve given away over the years, I could have built a reasonably large refugee town which would have made losing our shirts a little more palatable. The problem is that running a festival is an addiction, a sticky trap – yes really. As long as you manage to pull off your first year without too many disasters (the AA lost our order and forgot to put out our signs) some people will have had a good time, assuming they can remember it. The local school will have raised a bit of money on the Tea Tent and there will be HOPE for the future – so on you’ll push. Unfortunately there will be a lot of competition – there will be several other festivals within a 20 mile radius (there normally are) and of course the idea that you might base your entire mental & financial well-being on the vagaries of the British weather is an act of pure genius.
Most medium to large festivals in the UK are now owned and run by large companies. They can better afford to roll with the punches, when the loss of a few thousand tickets can mean £250k in lost revenue. Independent festivals teeter on the financial cliff and quite a few of them are choosing to retire gracefully. Along with us, Secret Garden Party has announced that 2017 will be its final year; Scotland’s T in The Park is no more; Larmer Tree in Dorset is taking a year off and others are looking decidedly wobbly. Glastonbury owner, the great Michael Eavis, had possibly one too many ciders (whilst falling in love) at the Bath Blues Festival in
1969, when he decided to start his own festival and he’s had many, many rocky years. Only since the BBC took such a full involvement with the festival could the organisers use the huge worldwide TV exposure as a bargaining chip, when negotiating artist fees. Chances are that if I’m playing £10k to secure a hot new US country star, Glastonbury will be paying a third of that.
So why continue with this ridiculous and marvellous endeavour? Because it’s the closest us mere mortals come to the artist’s drug – the roar of the crowd – and we’ve all seen how addictive and confusing that is. We’ve run the nicest, poshest, safest festival in the UK for the past 13 years – one arrest, lowest policing bill of any event etc. We’ve booked some frighteningly fantastic talent over the years; Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Amy Winehouse, Joe Cocker, Ray Davies, Buddy Guy, Bryan Ferry to name but a few. And we probably raised over £250,000 for local good causes, including a local girl who’d had a quadruple amputation following meningitis, we helped buy her blades to walk on. We’ve created lots of life changing moments for lots of people at our lovely warm little event – ‘a farmers market with a dancefloor, a village fete with a rock ‘n’ roll twist’ – one family have their annual reunion with us every year to commemorate a son who died of cancer. The ladies from the Finance Department of Croydon Council have been with us since the beginning and are now joined by the Tuneless Choir – an admirable group of ladies from an august Nottingham based ensemble and we’re hugely grateful that Cornbury has become their regular summer event. 74% of our audience comes every year.
I’ll not forget the bear hug from my hero Joe Cocker, the wet kiss from Amy Winehouse or the dry peck from Debbie Harry. The funny insult from Robert Plant (‘your festival is very beige’), the lovely support from Waterboy Mike Scott (‘a charming inclusive eccentric English gathering’) or the thank you letter from the great Humphrey Lyttelton (‘as jazz musicians we are not used to being looked after so well. Thank you’). All for this and the reward of doing a thing well with a lovely team. Being supported and treasured by the local community, providing some gainful employment for youngsters, an essential first musical experience for hundreds of Oxfordshire children and yes, having a jolly lovely party. Will I miss it – heck yes! Will I miss the shaking stress, the night sweats and crushing financial blows – possibly?