What It’s Really Like to Run a Music Festival

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, Josie da Bank—creative director and producer of Bestival, the UK-born music festival coming to Toronto on June 11 and 12—gave us a glimpse into her daily grind

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Bestival Toronto Josie da BankAge: 42

Education: Studied fine arts and textiles at Goldsmiths, University of London

Length of time at current gig: 12 years

What was the first music festival you attended? I went to Glastonbury Festival when I was 18. That was the year I met my husband Rob. He proposed to me about five years later when we were at Glastonbury, so these festivals have been in our lives for a long time.

What is it about festivals that you love so much? If you’re going to a festival for the first time, it can be completely life-changing to step into an environment that doesn’t have the same amount of rules as general life. I think you discover things in yourself that you didn’t know you had until you actually free yourself up from the everyday grind.

You and your husband started Bestival in 2004—what was the impetus? There weren’t many festivals then in the UK. We felt like there was a gap in the market for events—boutique-y type of festivals. I owned a bar at the time and I’m very good at organizing, and Rob’s great at booking talent, so it just felt like the next thing that we should be doing. There was never a big plan to turn it into what it is now. We just thought, “Let’s throw a festival and see where we get to.”

So, what are your roles? My husband books all the music. We decide on what kind of venues we’re going to put into the show and then I create it. I come up with the theme, design the show, its layout, how it flows, and all installations, and big stages. All the furniture, fabrics, cushions and everything, are also made in my workshop. That means everything from the Bollywood area, complete with a temple entrance, parasols, and colourfully hand-stitched tents, to the massive fireworks display at our Sunday Night Spectacular.

What is the overall vibe you aim to create at Bestival? I like it to be colourful and playful. I think a lot of live events lack that. They’re very much about the bare bones, the sounds and lights. I’ve create lots of different venues and content—whether it’s theatre or gay cabaret or the world’s biggest bouncy castle—I just like it to be as broad as possible and do as much as I can. It’s a job that I really do for the love of it.

Where do you get your inspiration? I just tend to have lots of ideas. I think a lot of it comes from traveling a lot in the past. I’ve got three children—ages 4, 6, and 8—and a very creative husband and we bounce a lot of ideas off each other. They just seem to come quite naturally.

How does the theme play out in the installations you create? Our big flagship show in the UK, the theme for this year is “The Future.” So we’re incorporating that into areas like The Spaceport, a sound and laser-lighted area with a 20-metre-high rocket. The theme dictates…not everything because we roll a lot of venues over into each year, but it inspires a big stage build, the parade, the theme of the carnival and smaller installations around the sides.

What’s your schedule like? I live on an island called the Isle of Wight, off the coast of the UK—where the original Bestival is held every year. Monday and Tuesday, I’m in our central offices in London, with our team of about 15. The rest of the week, I work from home so I can try and do the school runs and hang out with the kids like a normal mum. I just try and fit my work into the time I’ve got between that. It’s a very fine balance.

Between being a mum and planning these massive festivals, you’ve got a lot on your plate. How do you keep it together? Both Rob and I do a lot of yoga and meditate a lot— and we don’t go out that much partying.

Does the lineup of artists influence the themes or settings? Not really. They’re very separate things. Rob does his thing and I do mine. He might say for example, that he’d want a reggae venue, and I’ll create that, but we don’t tend to chat much about those things.

Bestival

Festival attendees just see the tents, shows and fun—but what goes on behind the scenes? A lot of organization. People don’t realize that it takes all year to organize one festival. We’ve got six festivals this year and it’s just non-stop. As well, people don’t get how much a festival costs to put on. It’s an unbelievable amount of money. Our event on the Isle of Wight cost about £9 million (nearly $17 million CAD) to put on. Just to manage that budget is really hard work.

How has the festival changed over the years? Our main festival has gone from being around 7,000 people to 50,000 people and the audience has changed. I think as I’ve gotten older, they’ve gotten younger.

Has running the festival changed as well? Quite a lot has changed, such as the costs of bands. It’s probably about three times the price compared to when we first started. There didn’t used to be a set way of doing things, we’ve all sort of learned together with the whole UK festival industry.

What made you decide to bring Bestival to Toronto? We saw a gap in the market in Toronto and the people that live in the city seemed to be quite likeminded to the British audience: very creative and open to quite quirky ideas. Last year we brought our giant inflatable church, home to its own vicar and congregation, over and the Toronto audience absolutely loved that. I think Toronto was more appealing that the US in that way, we seem to like the same things.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing at Bestival Toronto? I really love The Cure. They’ve played Bestival before, and they played our UK show. Jamie XX is also great, there’s a lot to look forward to.

What’s the best part of your day? Setting up the festival and getting outdoors for a few weeks prior to the show, and creating it and making it. At the actual event, it’s quite tiring and stressful, but I love it late at night when you see the crowd really get engaged with the headliners and you see all the lights. It’s exciting.

What the worst part? I don’t like the morning if it’s a camping festival because I don’t want to hear any bad news, but in the morning is when I find out that information. When you’re in charge of 50-70,000 people, something is bound to happen to one of them, so there’s a huge worry there. That’s probably the worst bit, but it’s always been—touch wood—OK.

If someone wanted to work in the festival industry, what attributes do they need? They need to be really, really hard working because the hours are long and the weather is not always on your side. You need to live and breathe it, be able to be away from home and meet new people, and be quite confident.

How do you unwind after Bestival? As soon as the show’s over, there’s a lot of paperwork to do and we very quickly need to get the next show going so there’s not really a break. We need to decide on the theme, do the artwork. I like to do all of that straight away so then I can relax.

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