Rhythm Festival: “the inside story”

The Blockheads on stage at Rhythm Festival 2011

Mention “Rhythm Festival” within my earshot and I guarantee you I will cringe. Maybe even start to sob.

But why did I do it? I constantly ask myself. Why? Oh why? Oh why?

Starting a music festival from scratch was definitely one of my wilder projects. It’s up there with starting The Do-Not Press, even though I knew nothing about book publishing. And promoting two tours for Jerry Lee Lewis. Not to mention, writing a textbook on how to write novels, without first having written one myself.

My advice to anyone thinking of getting a music festival off the ground is “Don’t.” With a capital D and a few exclamation marks to follow. However, I did, and this is what happened to me…

Rhythm Festival 2006 @ Twinwood Arena

The first Rhythm Festival took place in August 2006. Though the serious planning started three years earlier. My motivation was that I simply couldn’t find a music festival I wanted to go to.

The Rhythm Festival Experience

For instance, Glastonbury was way too big and I wasn’t keen on the hypocrisy that portrays it as a benevolent, almost charitable event, rather than the money-generating machine it really is. Consequently, I was determined not to fall into that trap.

Another example, Cambridge Folk Festival was OK, if a little too, er, “folky”. Similarly, there just wasn’t enough happening for me at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. One stage in a relatively small field. And if you didn’t think the “The Greatest Folk-Rock Band in the World’s” were worth fawning over for four days, you were stuffed. Likewise, Reading, Leeds, V and suchlike were too regimented and aimed at younger people. And back then, that was about it.

By this time, I was at the scrag-end of my forties, I knew a lot of people like me who wanted to spend a pleasant weekend away. Ideally, listening to good music in relative comfort. Munching on decent grub and supping pints of better than average real ale at prices that wouldn’t make Donald Trump wince. As the Dragons have it, I had perceived a gap in the market. Maybe I could fill it.

But that was my first big mistake.

The Perfect Festival Site?

Above all, what a great festival needs is a great festival site. I was lucky. One of my first Google searches came up with Twinwood Arena in Bedfordshire, purpose-built around the wartime airfield out of which Glenn Miller took his final flight in 1944. Site owners, the Wooding family had been putting on a relatively small festival commemorating the wartime bandleader since 2002 and so knew about outdoor events and what it needed.

After a few meetings, David Wooding and I realised that if we weren’t exactly singing out of the same hymn-sheet we were at least in roughly the same congregation. We agreed on terms around Christmas 2005. I’m not sure if the name came before the dates or the other way round. But eventually Rhythm Festival was up and running. Scheduled for Twinwood Arena over the weekend of August 4th, 5th, 6th, 2006.

Best Rhythm Festival Acts

Secondly, a good music festival needs good acts. Bands, comedians, solo performers, DJs, and more. Booking the right performers can make or break a festival. So can getting the wrong acts (but that’s just break, there’s no make involved with that one. The music industry and agents, in particular, have a schizophrenic attitude towards festival organisers.

On one hand, they treat you as one step up from a con-man, fully expecting you to go bust at any moment. Consequently, they will demand that you pay them in advance for all their acts. On the other hand, they act as if you’re making a fortune out of exploiting musicians and so ask for hugely inflated sums, often many times the act’s normal fee. For instance, a band perfectly happy getting £1,500 for playing the 100 Club would think nothing of demanding £5,000 to play on an old airfield in Bedfordshire.

Rip-off Britain

It took a while to book the headline acts. But eventually, after a series of email and telephone negotiations, I arrived at a bill headlined by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm, Donovan, Arlo Guthrie, Seth Lakeman and, most importantly, Roy Harper who had secured agreement from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to appear with him. We had the site, we had the bill, we had the Festival. All we had to do was sell 2,500 tickets to break even.

What could possibly go wrong?

Find out in the next thrilling instalment of “Rhythm Festival: “the best small outdoor music festival in Britain”…


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