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Bestival’s Ben Turner discusses taking festivals international

By | Published on Monday 11 May 2015

Bestival Toronto 2015

Bestival co-founder Ben Turner appeared at the Live Touring Summit at Canadian Music Week last Friday, ostensibly to discuss the festival brand’s move outside the UK via its new Toronto edition due to take place next month, though he also had plenty of thoughts on the international festival market as a whole.

Explaining how Bestival differentiates itself in a crowded market place, Turner cited its creativity as being the most important factor, reckoning that when the festival first launched in the UK it did so in a sector dominated by events that just offered “burgers and bands”. But that creativity has cost implications. “We looked at selling Bestival six or seven years ago”, he admitted. “But the minute buyers saw our creative spend they said, ‘These guys are crazy, let’s not go near them'”.

Ultimately, he said, the decision to keep Bestival independent was the right one, even if he understands why other festivals look to ally with major players. Though he reckons such alliances are bad for the independent festival sector in general. Noting Bonnaroo’s recent deal with Live Nation, he said: “I think the Bonnaroo owners are pretty strong willed, so I don’t think Bonnaroo will change, it’s a strategic alliance, but that’s still a concern”.

Though the biggest challenge for the festival market, Turner mused, is the increasing cost of big name acts. “The agent world has to take note of what we’re saying”, he told his audience. “It can’t always be a million dollars, two million dollars a time. We have a huge internal fight for talent budget every year at Bestival. Every year the prices go up, but we have to compete or die”.

Nevertheless, Turner was positive about the future of festivals, identifying Asia – where his dance industry conference IMS recently launched a new event – as a particular area for growth. “Asia is a hugely exciting opportunity. IMS decided to do something in Asia, just to see what we could do. We had a local partner, and we learned about the amazing opportunity that’s out there”.

As for further growing the Bestival brand, he added: “We’re getting bizarre offers for Bestival in unusual places. I think you’re going to see a growth in international festival brands. The interest Coachella gets around the world is mind-blowing”.

But, he cautioned, it’s important to be careful when taking an established festival brand into new territories. “We’ve dealt with promoters who’ve built up something independently over the years in their home territory, and then in rolls the Ultra Festival and that means the existing event will never be able to book any of the big acts again. It’s not right that the little guy gets squeezed out. I really hope that Bestival has been seeded into Toronto in an honest way. We were going to come in and potentially do something bigger, but I’m glad we haven’t, we’re starting small, just like we did in England”.

Of course not everyone can travel the world to experience all these festivals and, as a slight aside, Turner noted the hype surrounding virtual reality, suggesting that, while the focus is currently on gaming, it could be a big deal for the live music industry too. “Virtual reality is the next big ticketing innovation”, he said. “Watching bands in your living room. I don’t think you can recreate the club experience that way, but for live gigs and sport, I think it has really exciting potential”.