Reading Festival, which this year grows to accommodate 105,000 festivalgoers per day, has sold out with more than a month to go
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The Festival Republic MD on Extinction Rebellion, Benicàssim and why music's never "been in a better place"
By Jon Chapple on 12 Sep 2019
Festival Republic managing director Melvin Benn has said live music can be an environmentally friendly business, as he reflects on the greenest summer to date for the UK festival promoter.
Benn, who is leading Live Nation’s Green Nation initiative alongside Tom See, LN’s US venues president, and Charlie Walker, co-founder of C3 Presents, partnered with Extinction Rebellion (XR) for four Festival Republic (FR) events, Latitude, Reading Festival, Leeds Festival and Electric Picnic, this year after being impressed by the group’s protests against global warming.
“In fairness to them, they pretty much partnered with me when they camped outside my office!” says Benn, just back in London after FR’s last festival of 2019, Lollapalooza Berlin. “I’m hugely inspired by them.”
“I’ve been waving a green flag for 20 years, and not one single person has noticed,” he continues, “but Extinction Rebellion have made everyone sit up and take notice – they’ve really put the climate issue back on the table. When you see fathers coming down from Sunderland to join the campaign, to sit in and bring London to a stop because they want to preserve the world for their kids, you think, ‘This is real’.
“So, for me, it didn’t even cross my mind not to be working with them when they were doing such good things. It was one of those natural encounters in a way, and we were really pleased with it.”
The partnership involved XR activists engaging one on one with festivalgoers, as well as using festivals’ big screens to amplify the campaign’s message. However, Benn tells IQ the alliance “wasn’t just about messaging”, but rather using Extinction Rebellion’s sway to encourage attendees to take their tents home.
“It didn’t even cross my mind not to be working with them”
“The principal thing we wanted them to work with us on was single-use products, specifically ‘single-use tents’,” he explains. “Obviously tents aren’t designed to be single use, but people often buy cheap ones and then just leave them behind.
“What we worked really hard with XR on is to persuade festivalgoers to not leave tents and have opportunity to reuse them at future festivals. The success of that was incredible: we had 60% less tents left behind this year, which is really, really amazing.
“I’ve been asking people for ten years not to leave their tents. But the first year I get Extinction Rebellion involved, everyone takes them home!”
While many have questioned whether a sector which relies so heavily on international travel can every be truly sustainable, Benn is adamant the live business can “absolutely can be a green industry”.
“A civilised society will always produce a footprint of some kind,” he comments. “But does it have to be a carbon one? No, it doesn’t. And as a society, we’re phasing out the use of fossil fuels in favour of more renewable energy.”
“What isn’t always taken into account is what people would be doing if they weren’t at a concert or festival,” Benn continues. “With Reading, for example, we have 105,000 people who are there for five days. Not one of them is using a hairdryer, not one is jumping in a car and driving to the local shop, not one is switching their TV or computer on and off all day. The consumption they would ordinarily be participating in – that all goes.
“What isn’t always taken into account is what people would be doing if they weren’t at a concert or festival”
“It’s not like you can get in your tent and leave the light switched on. If there’s one thing a teenager is capable of doing, it’s leaving the light on; they’re not doing that at Reading.”
While many festivals and associations, both in the UK and continental Europe, said earlier this year it was shaping up to be a slow summer, Benn says that couldn’t be further from the truth for Festival Republic.
“I had a great summer last year – I actually didn’t think I could top it this year, but we did,” he says. “I see all these doom-and-gloom reports and I just think, ‘I’m not living in that world at all.’ I almost feel embarrassed reading them. I don’t know what it is – whether these guys are trying to persuade people it’s worse than it is…”
“What’s odd,” he continues, “is that I don’t think music’s ever been in a better place. It’s in a phenomenal place. People say there aren’t any headliners, they aren’t coming through quickly enough, but guys like Post Malone, Travis Scott, Twenty One Pilots… they’re giants. Post [Malone] played Reading at 5pm last year, and this year he headlined on Saturday.” (As for teen pop phenom Billie Eilish, who the NME said drew the biggest crowd they’d ever seen at the festival after a last-minute move to the main stage? “Just insane,” says Benn.)
Rebuffing the suggestion that smaller festivals can find it difficult to afford top-tier headliners, Benn says: “Everything’s got to be bought at a certain price, of course, according to the size of the festival and the ticket price. But look at Community – that’s a little festival, and we did 35,000 tickets for the Kooks at £40 a ticket. So it can be done.”
“I don’t think music’s ever been in a better place”
Outside the UK, Festival Republic achieved success with Ireland’s Electric Picnic (headlined by the Strokes, Florence and the Machine, the 1975 and Hozier), which was “bigger and stronger than last year”, says Benn, and Lollapalooza Berlin, which “we pushed up to 90,000 a day and sold out”.
This summer also saw Benn say goodbye to Festival Internacional de Benicàssim (FIB), whose owner Maraworld, a joint venture between Denis Desmond’s MCD and Simon Moran’s SJM Concerts, sold the event to Arenal Sound promoter the Music Republic (no relation) in July.
“We had a good run on Benicàssim,” he explains, “but the return on it just isn’t strong enough for the amount of time it takes from me, and it doesn’t make sense having the office in Madrid producing a single show. We turned it around, but it was the right time to walk away.”
Other highlights for FR in 2019 included back-to-back sell-outs for Latitude (40,000-cap.), Reading Festival (105,000-cap.) and Wireless (50,000-cap.), as well as a sold-out Leeds Festival and the successful launch of its new Gunnersville concert series, including a sell-out for the You Me at Six show. “We genuinely couldn’t have asked for a better season,” Benn comments.
The secret to the company’s success, suggests Benn, is that “we’re passionate about our festivals, passionate about our line-ups, and we have great people, including incredible talent buyers within Festival Republic and Live Nation.
“As for me, festivals have always been everything – and that hasn’t changed.”
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