Trailblazer: Becky Stewart, Cambridge Folk Festival
Welcome to the latest edition of Trailblazers – IQ’s regular series of Q&As with the inspirational figures forging their own paths in the global concert business.
From people working in challenging conditions or markets to those simply bringing a fresh perspective to the music world, Trailblazers aims to spotlight unique individuals from all walks of life who are making a mark in one of the world’s most competitive industries. Read the previous Trailblazers interview, with WME’s Sam Kirby Yoh, here.
In the hot seat this time is Becky Stewart, operations director for the UK’s long-running Cambridge Folk Festival, which celebrated its 54th anniversary last month with a bumper bill topped by big-name headliners Patti Smith and First Aid Kit.
Here, she speaks on her journey from adolescent morris dancer to running Britain’s best-known folk music event; the challenges of competing with moneyed corporate festivals; and why she’s proud to lead a mostly female team in a male-dominated world…
How did you get your start in the industry?
Well, I blame my parents, really. They took me to my first folk festival, which was Warwick, when I was about six years old, and then we spent every summer from there after dancing – yes, morris dancing. At around 17 I worked out I could get a ticket for free if I volunteered, but it would take a few more years till the worlds collided and I got to start doing the fun stuff.
I worked artist liaison at Shepley and Beautiful Days, then I stage-managed at Towersey for about five years. In ‘real life’ I ran a pub, then started working in the events world. There isn’t one single point I can say that was my start – I just kind of ended up here. The first year I came to Cambridge I knew I wanted to work here, though. Never thought I’d end up running it.
Tell us about your current role.
I am operations manager, which in the simplest terms means I make it all fit together. I make sure everyone from staff to artists have all the information they need to do their job; I manage the booking and contracting of all artists, staff, caterers, traders; and I programme and book the fringe performances, street theatre, morris teams, workshops and sessions. Other things we look after include merch, site art, transport, accommodation and anything else you can think of.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
So long as most people have a nice time, I’m happy. That includes audience, staff and performers.
And the most challenging?
I take things very personally. If we get a complaint, especially about something that that person probably has no idea about, it annoys me. I try not to let things wind me up but they do.
Also budget restrictions –they upset me massively!
“At our core is the want to be a musicians’ festival, giving a platform to the best in the business”
What achievements are you most proud of?
This! I am apparently responsible and grown-up enough to be in charge of Cambridge Folk Festival. It still blows my mind. It’s great.
How has the business changed since you started out?
In some ways, not at all. In others, massively. In my case, folk music has a very interesting way of flowing in and out of mainstream music. Cambridge very much sits in a bubble between mainstream music and the smaller folk festivals, and I think that transfers to how we run as well.
We have lead the way in innovations in terms of how to run a site environmentally. We have a 50/50 gender split on our bill, as well as on our crew; we have a female sound tech, the majority of our crew heads are women and the core team are predominantly female. There are still things that we, and the industry, need to get better at.
At our core is the want to be a musicians’ festival, giving a platform to the best in the business – we’re not about bells and whistles.
“We need to be better at looking after ourselves and each other”
What, if anything, could the music industry do better?
We are an independent festival and we, along with many others, are getting priced out of the market by the bigger agency-run festivals.
Gender balance is a big thing. We’re super-proud to say we’ve got it pretty good at the moment, but we’re always looking to be better.
Look after everyone at bit better: we talk about mental health in the music industry, but it’s about life in general, really. We live in a world that is too fast for us to keep up with, and I think we all feel that at some point. We need to be better at looking after ourselves and each other.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to make it in music?
Work, take opportunities, volunteer at everything, take in everything around you. Learn skills – knowledge of what sound and lighting techs do, even if you don’t want to do it, for example.
And if you want to go to uni, do something with a skill attached. I’d much rather employ someone with a proven work record than a degree.
If you’d like to take part in a future Trailblazers interview, or nominate someone else for inclusion, email IQ’s news editor, Jon Chapple, on [email protected].