Festival kingpin speaks...

As far festivals go, Vince Power has been there and done that.

Born into poverty in rural Ireland, Vince Power left home to find work in London when just a teenager. Establishing a successful furniture business, the entrepreneur then decided to swap upholstery for live music.

Opening The Mean Fiddler, the promoter never looked back. Vince Power bought another venue, then another before entering the festival world.

Taking control of Reading when it was an archaic metal festival - full of sweat, beer and leather jackets - the promoter helped turn it into the British summer institution it is today. Selling The Mean Fiddler group back in 2005, Vince Power took a couple of years sabbatical before roaring back into the festival scene.

Opening The Hop Farm, Power now also controls Benicassim. Rapidly emerging as one of the finest events in Europe, the Spanish festival is just weeks away.

ClashMusic tracks down the festival kingpin for a rare interview...

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You grew up in rural Ireland, were you surrounded by music?
Yes on a traditional level. I grew up in rural Ireland and there wasn’t much to do – we didn’t have a TV and we just about got radio in the 60s. A lot of what there was to do was singing in the house, and playing instruments like the accordion and the fiddle and stuff.

What drew you to London?
I think everyone was pretty much the same all over – just looking for work. I wanted to take pressure of my family, my mother and father had seven more children so I just wanted to get out, really. Try and do something. In those days it was the normal thing to get out when you were big enough and send money back.

You initially build up a furniture company, did you always harbour ambitions to get involved in the music industry?
I did various jobs to begin with. My very first job was in Woolworths and then I worked in a department store filling beds. I was very unsettled for the first couple of years, before getting into furniture. But I always loved music, I always loved buying records when I could. Then when I was better off, got married and had kids I used to go to Nashville quite a lot. It was like a lightbulb going off above my head, that’s where I got the idea to build the Mean Fiddler – from a bar in Nashville, basically.

That must have been seen as a fairly risky venture?
Times have changed but the emphasis on country music still remains fairly low. I was still doing quite well in the furniture business so I just wanted to do something to please myself. I never realised that it would become such a big business. But once I got into it I realised that this is where I wanted to be. It wasn’t like I wanted to get out of the furniture business – buying and selling furniture was my business and the Mean Fiddler initially was my hobby. It was a disaster really for the first eighteen months and didn’t have much appeal really to anyone apart from myself. I liked getting in all these obscure acts, but London isn’t the ideal place for cowboys on the street.

How did you get sucked into the music industry then?
After eighteen months of not doing well in the mean Fiddler I decided I’d either have to change or close down, so I got in a couple of younger promoters and we started to look at different music. Really, when I look at it, when I got rid of my own tastes we started to make money. We initially put on a lot of country, a lot of folk but when we got quite commercial I got a new set of folk and started to book bands. That happened around 84, 85 when we started to book bands like Jason And The Scorchers, Pixies who were coming up then, coming to London. They liked the idea of a proper venue with a PA, dressing room and proper showers. In London in those days there wasn’t much to choose from between Dingwalls and The Marquee. So it went from strength to strength and we were doing very well so I bought another venue and then another venue. Then I bought another festival, then another festival. In the end, it became huge and I sold it all six years ago.

When you took over Reading the festival scene was very archaic, what made you become involved?
I love a challenge. All my life I’ve been driving myself into challenges, I mean even now when I should probably be at home sitting in a chair somewhere. I thought, we’re doing well so if this is a disaster I can actually withstand it. I had some ideas about how we could change it to bring it more into date. I had been festivals and it was like a football match with beer, they just chucked the beer at the band if they didn’t like it. The beer was probably not drinkable anyway. So the whole thing changed, we brought different bands in, we brought in multiple stages. Looking back on it now it changed the face of festivals, because a lot of what we did has become quite normal.

That was a career that lasted fifteen years, was there any defining moments for you?
I think probably the third of fourth year into it, when you can sell out. After you put the tickets on sale it’s always a hard sell and you’re selling right up to the last minute. But then it all changed in the mid 90s when the ticket buying pattern started to change, when people could buy tickets on the internet. Before you had to write in and they would send you a ticket and it was a nightmare. Now it’s so much easier. So a defining point is when we began to sell out well in advance. That was really great, to be honest!

Reading has become a right of passage for many young British people.
When it’s their very first festival to go to you notice the parents dropping off their kids with instructions – “I’ll see you back here Monday, in better shape!”

Why did you get back into promoting?
I’ve moved on now, I sold the Mean Fiddler and I’m involved in Benicassim which is a fantastic festival. I’m putting on The Hop Farm which is a brand I’m trying to build up. I just love doing things, really, even if its something that doesn’t work out financially the way you want it to. As long as I’m doing things, for me I like being out, putting things together. I’m happy doing that.

The Hop Farm has enjoyed huge success without the use of sponsorship or branding, what led to that approach?
When I sold the Mean Fiddler that gave me time to think about the whole thing. We were at the old heady days when everyone had money and everyone had VIP and people were always upgrading. If you had a cheap tent from Halfords it wasn’t good enough, you had to upgrade your tent. You had to upgrade your ticket if you went into a festival you always felt the actual ticket that brought you in wasn’t good enough. We had no choice anymore. If Tennants or Carling are sponsoring you then you can get anything you want providing its Tennants. The drink was just Tennants, so I thought it would be nice to bring it back to basics and make it all about the customer and the music. It’s funny because it’s working that way now as well, as lot of festivals are going that way. It became over advertised, it got to a point when every festival you went to was completely covered in boards. The customer wasn’t taken seriously. The customer doesn’t get anything out of advertising – doesn’t get a cheaper ticket. So it’s just my idea, I don’t say everyone should do it. I have a lot of sponsorship for Benicassim which is a different scenario. I just thought for Hop Farm that we should do it back to basics, really. It’s about the customer, and making the customer the important person rather than the person who is in the tent selling fancy cocktails which you can’t get in unless you’ve got something special. My own rant, really!

How did you become involved in Benicassim?
I’ve known Benicassim for a long time and it’s a special festival. It’s a promoter’s dream, as if you put on Reading or Glastonbury – as I did for five years – you put it on and you can’t account for the weather. I suppose you can’t account for the weather in Spain eight but nine times out of ten you’re going to get sun. You’re by the beach, it’s a great site. Also you don’t have the same restriction on sound you have here. You don’t have to stop at eleven, it can go all night. The first act doesn’t go on until nine at night and doesn’t stop until eight. People have the feeling that they’re on holiday, it’s got a different atmosphere. It’s always been an international festival. We get Irish, Scottish –Spanish, of course. We have different lanes for different languages, and we get about six or seven different languages at the event.

Where to now?
I don’t know. I’d like to keep going. I haven’t done everything right in my life, but I have done a few things right so I’ll keep going. There is a little bit of room to build up festivals elsewhere in Europe, like the new European countries. There’s little room in the UK and Ireland as it’s a saturated market now.

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