Inside The Return Of Bristol Sounds

Overcoming challenges in live music to produce something special...

With summer nearly upon us, Bristol is readying itself for an eclectic mix of shows in its unique harbourside setting. As organiser Conal Dodds explains, there’s never been a trickier time to programme a city festival.

Now entering its tenth year as one of the city’s many festival staples, Bristol Sounds continues to pride itself in its eclectic line-ups. Charting everything from rock and pop punk to dub and dance music, its line-up of seven different shows over the course of a week ensures that there’s something to cater to all tastes.

A welcome alternative to those unable – or perhaps unwilling – to make the trek to Glastonbury, this year’s line-up boasts headline appearances from the likes of Skindred, Gentleman’s Dub Club, James Arthur, Busted, Placebo, Annie Mac and The Breeders, while the support acts are just as varied. 

Taking place over the course of two weekends and three mid-week dates, the events are no small undertaking. So what’s it like booking a lineup of this nature?

“Painful,” Dodds states bluntly. “It’s hard. It’s not just like compiling a list of acts on your phone and you approach seven acts and they all say yes. It’s really, really difficult because these days it’s very much a seller’s market for European events like this.”

Having organised every event since its inception – first as Bristol Summer Series and now as Bristol Sounds – Dodds has experienced every high and low along the way.

“The live opportunities for artists and acts that can play to that many people are enormous across the whole of Europe,” he continues. “Effectively from July or August in any given year, the agents are effectively air traffic controllers for all their acts and they’re just looking to see where they can land those planes next summer.”

It’s no secret that live events are going through a particularly difficult patch, with the recent news from the Association of Independent Festivals that at least 42 UK festivals have either postponed, cancelled or announced closures this year. While rising costs are undoubtedly to blame, a saturated market and increasing competition is making the reality of organising events like this difficult to plan.

“If I’ve offered someone £70k and someone else has offered £80k, suddenly we’ll have the rug pulled from beneath us,” he continues. “It’s a lot of juggling and a lot of haggling. It’s not straightforward.”

Rising artist profiles can have an impact too. An act booked years in advance may have a sudden boost in popularity, which can – despite all best efforts – occasionally lead to bigger things on the table. This often leaves comparatively smaller events, like Bristol Sounds, in the lurch.

“That’s just the way it is,” Dodds concedes. “You get times where an act’s on the crest of a wave and they’re going up. Similarly, you might get them on that crest and it’s going the other way. We can pay an act £100k so long as the ticket price is high enough. You might have an act that’s worth £100k this summer, but in two year’s time, because they’ve overplayed, they’re worth £50-60k. But we’re generally negotiating a fee about a year in advance. So it’s tricky. Don’t ever be a promoter. It’s a mug’s game.”

Another major consideration, perhaps unsurprisingly, is cost for the average punter. It’s little surprise to any music fan nowadays that gig tickets can be prohibitively expensive. Finding a balance of affordable acts that will draw a crowd whilst also taking the running costs of a festival site into account leads to a complicated juggling act.

“We are a luxury industry and we need to make sure that we’re seen as value for money,” he adds. “People need to know that they’re going to get a good night out for forty quid. But obviously, it’s not just that – it’s the babysitters, it’s the transport, it’s the food and drink. I don’t underestimate the sacrifice that people make to come to these gigs. That’s why we try to make the bills as good as we can and make sure that they know that they’re gonna have a good time when they get there.”

In terms of content, Bristol’s own varied musical tastes are a huge motivator for programming its lineup, with diverse genres being crucial to the overall event’s success.

“That’s obviously deliberate,” he states. “There’s no point putting on five indie rock nights, because there aren’t enough people here that are going to be able to afford to go to five of those shows. So we’ve got a variety of artists. We hadn’t really done out and out pop in the past because whenever I’d done it, it’s been hard work… But in the last five years, two of the best shows we’ve had have been Craig David and Mika, as they put on a real show. So it’s nice to have the benefit of something that is slightly different and it brings a different audience into the event as well.”

For Dodds, the key measure of success – aside from securing great acts – is that Bristol Sounds is seen to provide value at a time when live music is increasingly becoming trickier to access.

“You need to have an audience in mind when you’re putting something together and think about the cost implications for those people. The live music industry is very top heavy, so it’s up to promoters like us to make sure that we’re trying to be fair to people and trying to put on good events for a fair amount of money and not rip people off. That’s the core of our business.”

Bristol Sounds runs from 22-30 June at Canons Marsh Amphitheatre, Bristol Harbourside. Tickets are available here.

Words: Paul Weedon

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