Melvin Benn, Promoter Behind Reading and Leeds Fests, on Fest Economics, Bringing Lolla to Europe

Melvin Benn
Marc Sethi

Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic.

As head of Festival Republic, veteran promoter Melvin Benn is the man behind some of the U.K.'s biggest and most popular music festivals, including the award-winning Latitude (35,000-capacity) and dual-site Reading and Leeds Festival (170,000 combined capacity), which has already announced Metallica as its first headline act for 2015.

Outside the United Kingdom, Festival Republic operates Ireland's Electric Picnic (42,000-capacity) and annual Berlin Festival (20,000-capacity), while this year sees the London-based company partner with C3 Presents to launch the first ever European edition of Lollapalooza, which organizers hope to attract between 30,000-40,000 music fans and takes place at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, September 12-13.

In recognition of his 30-year career at the forefront of the U.K. and European festival market, Benn -- who started off producing political and campaigning festivals in the late Seventies and was the licence holder of Glastonbury Festival from 2002 to 2012 -- is to be honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's European Festival Awards, which takes place Wednesday 14 January in Groningen, the Netherlands, held in conjunction with the Eurosonic Noorderslag music conference, Jan. 14-17.

Billboard caught up with Benn to discuss the challenges, rewards and potential pitfalls that come with working in the festival industry, as well as the key to succeeding in today's hyper-competitive market. "Sometimes I wonder if it is nothing more than being stupid enough to continue," he says with a chuckle.
Billboard: Congratulations on winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. How did you feel when you first found out?
Melvin Benn: It's an odd feeling to start with. It's sort of like getting an honour for going to work and doing what I love doing. But actually when I started thinking about it and reflected on the previous people that have been recognised -- Marek [Lieberberg], Jan [Smeets], Michael [Eavis] -- then I realized how important it is. These are all people that I admire hugely and therefore it feels like a really wonderful achievement and I'm very proud to have it.
In one capacity or another, you have been working in the festival market since the late Seventies. Looking back, what are some of the biggest changes to have taken place in the industry from then to the present day?
From when I first went to a festival there has been a very significant change in terms of festivals being interested in their customers rather than just their artists. Historically festivals were quite blasé about their customers and focused only on the artist and I think nowadays festivals are giving equal importance to their artists and their customer.
In 2006 you launched Latitude festival in the U.K., which broke new ground by giving equal billing to theatre, poetry, literature and comedy alongside its music offering. What was the thinking behind the event?
It was intended to be a genuine game-changer. I wanted to rewrite how festivals could be done and, without blowing my own trumpet, I think we did that. It's fair to say that when I announced to my team here at Festival Republic what I wanted to create with Latitude they thought that I had lost my marbles. I wanted to use the Glastonbury year off to create a festival that became a reflection of where my cultural life was and what I wanted to festivals to become. I think it pushed the envelope along a little. Festivals are better as a result of Latitude being in the market.

What else do you consider to be among your proudest achievements?

I'd like to think that when Vince [Power, Benn's former partner in the Mean Fiddler Group] and I came into the festival market in 1989 with our first year producing Reading festival that was a real game-changer. At that point no one was interested in festivals at all, and Reading had gone bankrupt as a result. We went in and changed things -- bringing different genres in and having more than one stage operating at the same time. After that, loads of other festivals followed. The other one for me that was a game changer was the first U.K. Tribal Gathering in 1995. The government at the time decided to make raves illegal and I very much wanted to put two fingers up to the government and say that rave music should be celebrated. So we created the first legal outdoor rave here in the U.K. I wanted to prove that it could be done legally and we did just that.    

In business terms, how did Festival Republic perform in 2014?
Actually, 2014 was my best year since 2008. Here in the U.K., Reading, Leeds and Latitude festivals were all amazing. Electric Picnic sold out well in advance and was absolutely amazing. Berlin Festival was something that moved on quite significantly following its move from the old Tempelhof Airport to the Kreuzberg Arena Park. And we announced that we were going ahead with Lollapalooza in Berlin as well, so 2014 was a phenomenal year for me.

Joseph Okpako/Redferns via Getty Images
Eminem performs on stage on Day 2 of Reading Festival 2013 at Richfield Avenue on August 24, 2013 in Reading, England.

And what were some of the musical highlights of the past year for you?
Arctic Monkeys really stand out. They have become this phenomenal, phenomenal act. I saw them around five times last year and they are just unbelievable. They were the band of 2014 without question. Another highlight was Lily Allen stepping in last minute at Latitude when Two Door Cinema Club pulled out a few days before the show [due to illness]. If she has played a better set in her life, I can only imagine it.
From a promoter's perspective, what are the biggest challenges you encounter working in the festival market today?
The single biggest challenge is exclusivity of artists. With the loss of income from record sales that artists have experienced over the last ten years, the income from live music has become really important to them. That's better for everybody as far I'm concerned, because the best way to enjoy an artists is live, whether it's in a small venue, arena or festival. From my point of view, my desire is to have as many of those acts play my festivals on an exclusive basis, but artists like to play lots of different festivals, so creating that individual line-up with exclusivity is the single biggest challenge.
Where do you draw the line in regards to exclusivity? If a popular big name act was headlining another U.K. festival would that dissuade you from booking them for your event?
Yes. Completely. Europe is considered a different territory so we have to respect that. At times we would like to consider Europe as one territory, but it's often not possible. We have had [European] exclusives on a number of occasions. When Muse headlined Reading and Leeds four years ago that was a European exclusive, but when that happens you have to pay to get the exclusivity.    
As production and booking costs continually rise, has it got harder to juggle the economics of running a successful festival?
Very much so. The only thing that really tracks inflation is the ticket price. Everything else goes up, so it is increasingly difficult to not keep pushing the ticket prices higher and higher. Ticket prices, I think, are still competitively priced for the offering. But nonetheless they are a big single payment, so you try to keep it down as much as you can. But it's literally the only price that has got any relation to inflation rates. Everything else seems to go well beyond.
A common complaint about the festival and live industry is the reliance on heritage acts and a shortage of new headliners breaking through. Do you believe that's a problem? 

Not really. I think there are still plenty of headliners around. I don't think we're in desperation mode at all. The great thing about music is that it continues to refresh and reinvent itself. At Latitude, for instance, I had three headliners last year that had never actually headlined a festival ever before [Lily Allen, Damon Albarn and The Black Keys]. Last year at Reading we two new headliners in Queens of the Stone Age and Paramore. So I don't hold with the thought that there are no longer any headliners. It's simply about trying to find the right acts at the right time.

2015 will see the first European edition of Lollapalooza take place in Berlin. How did you become involved in bringing the festival to Europe?
I guess if anybody should have been involved it should be me because Lollapalooza actually started as a result of Perry [Farrell] and Jane's Addiction playing Reading festival. That's where the inspiration for the festival came. For me, it's the most important festival in America and over the years the guys at [Lollapalooza promoters] C3 [Presents] have become good friends of mine. I hugely respect what they have done and I think outside of Europe they are the guys to be tracking and have got what it takes. They decided that they wanted Lollapalooza to come to Europe and Berlin in particular, and as I've already got a business and partners in Berlin they wanted to partner with me. The relationship is going extremely well.
And how is the inaugural edition shaping up?
We're very happy. We're really pleased about the names that we have got confirmed and we're going to announce the line-up in March and are delighted to be doing so. We've already sold significantly more tickets than we thought was possible to sell without a single [performer] announcement. We've had the tickets on sale in Berlin for a month or so and people are buying them purely on the strength of the name. 
Are there plans to launch Lollapalooza in other European territories?
I don't know. That would really be a call for C3 and [worldwide head of music, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment] Marc Geiger and Perry.
How about Festival Republic? Do you plan to launch any new events in the next few years?
I've got quite a lot of festivals at the moment and I really want to focus on what I've got and the development of Lollapalooza in Berlin, so certainly not in 2015. But I'm never one for standing still, so hopefully there will be something new in 2016.
Does the return of U.K. dance festival Big Chill figure among your plans? 
I've certainly been having active discussions about Big Chill coming back at some point. At which point I don't know, but Big Chill is certainly one that's still burning inside and I still want that to come back at some point definitely.
Festival Republic made its first foray in the US market in 2011 with the launch of Orlando Calling, which was cancelled after its first edition. Why do you think that event failed to take off in the same way that your European festivals have? 
I wish I knew. If I had been confident in knowing why I may have done another one. But I don't know. I still adore the line-up -- The Killers, Bob Seger, Kid Rock -- it was a fantastic line-up. I think perhaps it was the wrong time of year. Obviously, it's more complicated than that, but [November] was the wrong time of year and I decided not to continue with it after that.
This week has seen further scrutiny of the secondary ticketing market with a large number of U.K. industry figures calling for tighter controls in the sector. Where do you stand on the issue of scalping?   
The reality is it's a fact of life. Touting is probably the second oldest profession in the world and it's not going to go away. I think actually what a number of companies are doing in terms of being transparent and being open about it is probably the only way to deal with it.
How do you see the live and festival marketing evolving?

The explosion of festivals in the U.S. is amazing and various parts of Asia and India and China are going to do exactly the same.
You've been working in the festival industry for over 30 years. What do you consider the key to your survival and success?

Sometimes I wonder if it is nothing more than being stupid enough to continue [laughs]. It's really just a straightforward love of it. It's nothing more complicated than that. Just an absolute love of what I do.