Trailblazer: Julia Lowe, Neverworld/Camp Wildfire
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 live entertainment 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 Kyō’s Godwin Pereira, here.)
Part music festival, part adventure camp for adults, Camp Wildfire – co-founded by Lowe and LeeFest founder Lee Denny – “combines the thrill of learning new skills, challenging yourself and adventuring like kids with the hedonism of a traditional music festival,” Lowe explains. “Adults get to spend a weekend in a beautiful pinetum with likeminded people, while turning their hand at things like hovercraft racing, bushcraft, astronomy and craft.”
Ahead of the events’ return this August (last year’s pirates’n’mermaids-themed Neverworld was headlined by Bastille, Clean Bandit and Declan McKenna), Lowe talks taking inspiration from Wes Anderson, applying her design background to festival stages and why she’s going to keep on nailing her three-point turns…
How did you get your start in the industry?
Mine was actually a combination of coincidence and excellent timing! Ten years ago, I was playing in a band [Keston Cobblers Club] and had just graduated as a graphic designer. We were booked to play at Neverworld, then called LeeFest, and the graphic designer had dropped out. I got wind of this and offered Lee [Denny] my graphic design services.
I loved festivals and live music, and desperately wanted to be involved. We spent the rest of that summer working every hour possible to turn around a rebrand. Therein began a harmonious friendship – after spilling boiling hot tea on his foot – and soon, a fantastic business partnership.
Tell us about your current roles.
As with any creative start-up, Lee and I both pitch in with anything and everything that is thrown at us. As a general trend, though, Lee is more numbers and production, and I am more design and creative, though we meet in the middle at strategy: we are both obsessed with telling clear stories, and consistency and experience.
Who, or what, have been the biggest influences on your career so far?
I spend a lot of time surrounding myself with other artists and brands who are ‘nailing it’! I am inspired by so many different things, and I believe that immersing yourself in other people’s talent and skills makes your desire to improve and learn even stronger.
I have also always been fascinated by theme parks. As a teen, I used to sit in geography class, secretly drawing rollercoasters in my notebook and fantasising about running my own park. I love the immersiveness, the excitement and the timelessness of it. I think a lot of my design for music festivals is influenced by that sensation.
I am also obsessed with film and production design. The director, Wes Anderson, has had such a huge influence on me. Moonrise Kingdom was one of the original inspirations for Camp Wildfire. We love it.
Both of our festivals are immersive; a world where you can lose yourself – and maybe your drunken friends – for the weekend. I’m pretty sure that both films and theme parks have played a huge part in that.
“Both of our festivals are immersive; a world where you can lose yourself for the weekend”
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I’m always awestruck by the transition of the stage design from paper to reality.
It all begins with a sketch, colour palette and moodboard – then a few months of hard work later I am standing there at Neverworld behind 5,000 people, looking up at a real-life version of that sketch. It’s quite breathtaking. I feel so lucky.
How about the most challenging?
Firstly, we had to learn an awful lot in a very short space of time. You read as much as you can and try and learn from the best, but at the end of the day you just have to hold your breath, cross your fingers and dive in. There have been some really, really challenging moments.
At Camp Wildfire, in the second year, the weather was biblical, and torrential rain turned the beautiful forest into a boggy quagmire. It set us back about three days, and we’d been quite ambitious with the activities, so at one point were dragging a climbing wall/high-wire tower through the mud! Because of the nature of Camp Wildfire, and the fact that we’d had to re-site some of the adventure activities and bands, we spent a solid five hours on the first morning, directing hundreds of customers to their activities. Coupled with a week of barely any sleep and a few angry customers shouting at me…
Luckily, 99% of people were really kind and patient and our friends and family were incredible – they stepped in as extra stewards to get people to the right place!
Secondly – and this sounds clichéd – but being a woman is pretty challenging in this industry. You have to keep fighting to be heard and respected, and be noticed – but also not noticed too much, so that people think you’re making a fuss.
I had a really funny moment while doing a four-point turn in a gigantic lorry, in a tiny back-road, one year at Neverworld. There were six male site crew on a tea break all watching me in a slightly supercilious way. I felt really smug when I did it in slickly in three moves!
I am very lucky, though: Lee and my other close colleagues are complete feminists; they’re wonderful.
“It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact thing that prevents a lot of women getting into the industry, but I’m doing my best to help break the cycle”
How has the business changed since you started out?
I think festivals are starting to recognise the need for strong creative and powerful stories. Having come from a design background, it has always been incredibly high priority for me – I’ve never been a fan of ‘clearspan tent chucked in a field’…
Being in a band means I play at a lot of festivals, and as I travel around Europe seeing different set-ups, I get an overarching sense of what’s working and what isn’t.
What, if anything, could the music industry do better?
More women. But you already knew that!
Being a woman myself. and being lucky enough to have been raised by a wonderfully powerful mother, makes it hard for me to pinpoint the exact thing that prevents a lot of women getting into the industry, but I’m doing my best to help break the cycle.
I’m hoping that by hiring women to join our team, as well as keeping on nailing my three-point turns and never not doing a job because I could ask a man to do it, will gradually help change perspectives.
It’s even harder on tour in a band, because as the only woman I can go for days without even seeing another girl. I’d love more women to get into the tech/production side, too. So, if you’re reading this, and you know a girl that’s interested in music, festivals, tech or design, send them my way!
What advice would you give to someone hoping to make it in the festival sector?
Work. Really. Hard!
I pretty much lost my social life for three years marketing the festivals – unless you count hanging out with Lee in the office at 4am, drinking dregs of rosé wine because it’s the only thing left in the fridge and nothing else will keep us awake, as ’sociable’…
It’s completely worth it, though, when you see all those people enjoying the festival.
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].
LeeFest becomes Neverworld from 2018
The organisers of UK festival LeeFest – which began life in 2006 as a party in the garden of the family home of teenager Lee Denny, and grew to a 5,000-capacity event in the ten years since – have announced Neverworld, a new festival for 2018.
Replacing LeeFest (subtitled ‘The Neverland’ in 2016 and 2017), Neverworld will debut next August on the former LeeFest site at John Darlings Farm in Kent. Described as a “step up from a traditional festival”, the event will be divided across three “realms”, with all festivalgoers encouraged to join one of three tribes – the Pirates, the Mermaids or the Lost Boys – and take place across 11 stages.
Musically, Neverworld will continue to be programmed by the team behind LeeFest, which has helped launched the careers of many formerly emerging artists, such as London Grammar, Years & Years and Bastille, although the focus will be on creating “fully fledged immersive worlds” for festivals. Capacity will be limited to 5,000 ticket holders and 250 artists.
“Instead of just a festival, we want to build a whole new world for our community to thrive in”
“The story of LeeFest and its origins in my back garden all those years ago was the seed for something incredible, but it’s time for the next chapter,” comments Denny. “When we started this crazy adventure we did so by pushing personal boundaries and creating something awesome for our friends. However, now the story is much bigger than us.
“As the LeeFest community has snowballed, so have our ambitions. Instead of just a festival, we want to build a whole new world for our community to thrive in – a world that encourages growth and creativity. Discover your inner pirate, mermaid or Lost Boy. Welcome to Neverworld – a place you never have to grow old.”
Neverworld 2018 will take place on 2–5 August. Tickets are available now from www.neverworld.co.uk.
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Giddings, Parkes, Denny for Festival Congress ’16
Isle of Wight Festival promoter John Giddings, LeeFest’s Lee Denny, Zac Fox of Kilimanjaro Live and the Network of Women in Events (NOWIE) and Brixton Academy founder Simon Parkes are among the first speakers announced for the 2016 edition of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF)’s Festival Congress.
Taking place at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 1 and 2 November, the event will host over 400 UK festival delegates and this year have a ‘day of the dead’ theme, with props from production company House of Bestival.
It will also once again include the Festival Congress Awards, at Cardiff’s Depot warehouse venue, which has four new categories for 2016 – new festival on the block, smart marketing, mind-blowing spectacle and festival live act of the year – and will feature a performance of Bestival founder Rob da Bank’s tribute to prince, ‘Purple Rave’.
Giddings and Denny will take part in a fireside chat, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, while Fox will lead a discussion exploring gender issues in the UK festival industry.
“It’s going to be a really special, jam-packed couple of days”
Parkes, meanwhile, will host a quick-fire ‘Talking Heads’ session, in which he will discuss buying the Academy for £1 and turning it into one of Britain’s best-known venues, while industry consultant Sammy Andrews will speak on the connection between streaming and ticketing and the potential of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
“Festival Congress is the one time in the year when independent festival professionals and the wider industry can get together and share their experiences, so we have started putting together a fantastic programme of events to maximise our time together,” says Paul Reed, general manager of AIF. “From our legendary congress party and awards to a brilliant line-up of speakers, it’s going to be a really special, jam-packed couple of days.”
Tickets are on sale now through headline sponsor and ticketing partner TheTicketSellers. More speakers are still to be announced.