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Starting a festival from scratch: Ampthill’s AmpRocks

The organisation, the planning, the risks and the rewards

In part one exploring local festivals, Dave Robinson talks to Mark Frary of Ampthill’s AmpRocks and discovers the rewards and the risks of growing a music festival-style event from the ground up

“We just had a bit of a Spinal Tap moment,” laughs Mark Frary. “We unwrapped all the banners, and one of them has come out three foot wide, instead of the width of the stage.” It’s Stonehenge all over again. You couldn’t make it up. “Every year you get something unexpected… but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

Frary is a key cog in the AmpRocks machine – a group of volunteers who put on a ‘big Friday night’ of bands in in Ampthill Park in Bedfordshire as part of the three-day Ampthill Festival.

What started as a fairly humble Sunday summer fete several decades ago has evolved into something far more exciting. Frary takes up the story: “Eight years ago, there was a discussion among the organising committee: it cost a lot to hire a stage for music on the Sunday afternoon, so why not do something on the Saturday night too?”

Hence a ‘proms in the park’ event was proposed, and executed the following year.

“We formed a ‘scratch’ orchestra just for the event, made up from members of the other local orchestras. We have a very strong music department at our local upper school too.”

The classical event attracted 2,500 people to the park on a Saturday night. “That got the committee thinking… and it was suggested we could add something for the younger people, on the Friday…”

At the point Frary, a journalist by day but already a volunteer at the festival for some years, rolled up his sleeves and really got stuck in. Working alongside fellow enthusiast Francesco Bove and Chris Hayes, the first AmpRocks was launched. “We had Pauline Black from The Selector; we probably had about 200 people in the Capability Brown-designed park. It was a lovely night, everyone had a good time, we probably didn’t’cover our costs, but everyone thought, that was a great night…”

Then another local, Andy Hampshaw of tour arrangement specialist The Appointment Group jumped in.

“We started doing it more formally from that point on,” recalls Frary. “I got the job of being artist booker and liaison, Fran sorts out stage management; Andy does pretty much everything else. Every year, we’ve grown a bit bigger, a bigger audience, bigger acts. This year we increased capacity to 6,000… and sold out in three days.”

While AmpRocks attracts festivalgoers from further afield, around 90 per cent are from “just within the postcode”. “That’s why I think it works quite well,” says Frary. “That’s why people buy tickets without hearing the line-up, because they know they’re going to have a good time. It’s two minutes down the road to their local park, and it’s not going to cost them a lot. You look at prices in general and how they have rocketed in recent years – but our top price ticket is £30. For that sort of money, you wouldn’t be able to get to London and see a gig. We’re not doing the whole weekend for that price but it’s still very affordable. And also, the price is a differentiator: we’re not competing with other festivals around the country.”

This year’s event featured The Fratellis as the headliner, with the Pigeon Detectives and Fickle Friends (just signed by Polydor) earlier in the bill. An innovation for 2016 was installing Radio 1 presenter Huw Stephens to host the night and spin tunes between the bands. The opening act, meanwhile, continues a tradition of inviting a local act to play, sourced via a ‘Battle of the Bands’-style competition at a local school.

“The whole festival is run by something like 100 volunteers, they fit it in around their day jobs,” notes Frary.

AmpRocks, then, is very much about serving – but also involving – the local community, in as many steps along the way as possible. “Boutique festivals is an over-used phrase, but we like it,” says Frary.

In the current climate, it would be foolish to think that running this festival is – as it were – a walk in Ampthill Park.

“We’ve seen a number of festivals go under over the years,” agrees Frary, noting how the number of UK festival has been reported as growing from around 100 to perhaps seven or eight times that number – in just ten years. “It’s a challenging time to be a festival. There’s much more competition now: not just in attracting festivalgoers, but also in the fees that bands charge; they are far more in demand, so we’ve seen their fees go up.

“We spent a few grand in the first year – and now the fee that some bands are asking has more than doubled; so if you are a festival trying to make ends meet it’s a real challenge now,” he says. “It’s not just the UK either – there are new festivals popping up in Europe too – and Britain being a world leader in music globally, British acts are very much in demand.

“We have this meeting every year now where we say, we are probably going to have to dedicate more money to paying the bands, but how do we stick to our ethos of not being too expensive? It’s a challenge.”

The expectation has grown, notes Frary, for the ticket-buying public: it’s about the whole experience. It’s a common discussion at the AIF (Assocation of Independent Festivals) meetings which Frary attends. “People want more than just to listen to a band,” he says. Well, of course: and for every addition, there is a cost. “Things like oil prices are not helping, that rolls into everything. Plus production costs have gone up…”

While AmpRocks has been fortunate in its the organic propagation, with locals committing time and effort to ensure it goes ahead each July, the festival has also reached its “allocated capacity”.

“What do we do? Increase capacity and risk changing the nature of the festival?” postulates Frary. “It’s a huge park and there’s no reason why we couldn’t double or triple the number of people there, but, do we really want to have that impact on the small market town of Ampthill [Pop: 7,500]? We always make sure we have minimum impact on the site. The legacy after the event [is paramount]. You don’t want the main attraction of the town to be unusable afterwards…”

This year’s event took place without a hitch, bar a couple of power distribution issues earlier on, in early July.

What advice would Frary pass on to aspiring festival promoters? “If you are passionate about it, you can make things like this happen,” he says thoughtfully. “It can seem incredibly difficult, all these hoops to jump through, but you should not underestimate how passionate people get and are prepared to share their time…”

Look around your community and work out who are the people that have the skills to make it all happen, says the journalist. “We have a really good mix of talent here from their day job, they can bring those skills to a volunteer committee.”

The other big challenge is booking acts, he admits. “In the early days it’s incredibly difficult. You’ve got no track record whatsoever, it’s difficult to get agents to even speak to you in the early days. Typically they won’t answer their phones to you unless they know more about you, so there’s a lot of legwork in that early stage.

“But don’t give up! Go to gigs for acts that you like, book up-and-coming acts, and don’t forget your local community: you never know who is out there…”

Pictures: Top: Everyone loves AmpRocks, especially the volunteer bar staff. Photo credit: Joshua Sherwood. Second: The crowd is showered in confetti. Picture Credit: Beth Mercer. Third: The Pigeon Detectives were second on the bill this year. Photo credit: Katy Layton. Fourth: A commanding view of the main stage. Photo credit: Debbie Gillett Fifth: The show is a favourite with locals. Photo credit: Chris Shotton