John Empson talks Senbla’s new concert series
Promoter John Empson has spoken to IQ about the first year of Sony-backed Senbla’s new boutique UK concert series On The Mount at Wasing.
Almost 30,000 people attended the maiden edition, which ran from 22 June to 2 July. Curated by Empson, it featured 6,000-cap headline shows from Gabriels, Jack Johnson, Primal Scream, Ben Howard and Sigur Ros.
The unique eco woodland venue – a natural amphitheatre surrounded by trees in the grounds of Wasing, Berkshire – had previously hosted the Glade dance music festival in the mid-late 2000s, and currently hosts the Medicine Festival.
“We were looking for somewhere completely unique in that 5,000 to 7,000 capacity range – somewhere like The Eden Project, but in a different part of the country,” says Empson. “The idea was to try and do something completely different and shake things up a little bit.
“People have less money in their pocket, so are probably going to fewer shows. So I think it would be foolish to go up against the big commercial festivals. That’s why we’re doing this type of thing.”
“We were trying to create a different experience for the audience”
Empson was instrumental in setting up Eden Sessions (now run by AEG Presents) in 2001, and still works on the event. He also programmed Wilderness, Citadel and Somersault festivals for Mama Group, prior to joining London-based Senbla to lead the company’s experiential events business at the end of 2020.
“It’s great to see something come together that you’ve spent so long working on,” he says of On The Mount’s debut. “Feedback has been 100% positive. I don’t think we’ve had any complaints, which is unprecedented for outdoor events in the UK.
“We were trying to create a different experience for the audience. There’s a bar and food available right there when they arrive. The entrance looks great – you get greeted and have a 10-minute walk through a beautiful forest, which is lit up with lots of sculptures around, and then you enter this amazing arena. Immediately you’re going, ‘Wow, this is something completely different.’ So the feedback has been incredible.
“The artists also seemed to react very well to the venue because the dressing room area is in spectacular woodlands and it immediately put them at ease. Some of them went swimming and had ice baths and saunas, so when it comes to the show, they are very relaxed and consequently give a great performance. There aren’t many venues where you can have an ice bath before you go on stage!”
“We’ve planted our flag in the sand with this venue and we feel we’ve created something really special”
Ticket sales for year one were pleasing to organisers, despite the level of competition in the UK marketplace this summer.
“We did really well,” says Empson. “All the shows were really busy. Jack Johnson was the most successful in terms of numbers: we had 5,000 for Jack, and nearly that for Ben Howard and Sigur Ros. Primal Scream were not far below that and Gabriels were a little lower but it’s quite early for them and we were trying to put on something that would set a precedent moving forward, but it was still a fantastic show.
“For me, the highlight was probably the final Sigur Ros track where it was a full moon, the audience were entranced and the lights and sound were just perfect. All the trees were lit up and it was a perfect crescendo.”
Empson confirms the event will return for a second year, with ambitions to make it a staple of the summer season moving forward.
“We’ve been doing the Eden Sessions for 22 years now and we see no reason we can’t do a similar thing here,” he says. “We’ve planted our flag in the sand with this venue and we feel we’ve created something really special.”
“We’ve got some new and interesting venues that we’re about to announce in the UK for ’24”
According to Empson, Senbla also has a raft of other potential projects in the pipeline.
“We’ve got some new and interesting venues that we’re about to announce in the UK for ’24,” he reveals. “We’re fully into curating for summer ’24 now. Senbla has shows going on all the time so it’s full on. I think we’ve done 25 outdoor shows so far this summer, which is exhausting, but rewarding at the same time.
“Senbla is a great place to be for me. It gives me an opportunity to be creative. I think I bring quite a lot to the party and the team is great, so I’m very happy here.”
Sony Music Entertainment’s Sony Music Masterworks division acquired a majority stake in Senbla back in 2019, with Senbla founder and chief executive Ollie Rosenblatt continuing to run the company, working alongside Sony Masterworks’ chief operating officer Mark Cavell and UK label head Sarah Thwaites.
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