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Starting a festival from scratch: Local & Live

The rise, fall and resurrection of the live music event

Part two on local festivals sees Dave Robinson talk to professional golfer by day, Paul Dunton, a hyper-busy live music events organiser and promoter – and performer in his own right – at all other times. “I am really passionate about new original music and in particular unsigned up and coming soloists and bands,” he says.

For the last ten years, Dunton has been the lynchpin of the Local & Live Music Festival in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The festival has grown and grown over the years… until this year, when L&L had to take its foot on the accelerator and regroup.

How did Local & Live take shape?

PD: In 2006, I really wanted to do something to mark Tunbridge Wells’ landmark 400th birthday and so I decided to stage a small festival of local original acts on the historic bandstand situated in The Pantiles area of the town. This took place over the August Bank Holiday weekend and, despite our very low budget PA system and very limited resources, the event was really well received. It inspired me to make it an annual festival, ‘Local & Live’ was born the following year. The ethos of the event is all about showcasing a selection of the town’s leading original acoustic acts and bands. I chose these from the Local Music by Candlelight showcase I started in 2005 at The Grey Lady Music Lounge in the town: at that stage it was a weekly event and I had built up a roster of around 50 acts in just one year.

What were the biggest issues you face setting up the festival?

Attaining permission to stage the event was not a straightforward process! It required many letters of approach, and details of what I was planning to the then landlords of The Pantiles. But once a firm understanding was agreed, the next set of goals included arranging public liability insurance, attaining a ‘TENs’ license from the local authority [so alcohol can be sold there on a temporary basis], booking all the acts and persuading my good friend Ollie Nicholls to run the sound. The final hurdle was to endeavour to market and promote the event on a budget of £75!

Did you involve local businesses?

Nothing at first; then from 2007 onwards , a number of Pantiles food & drink traders agreed to make a contribution towards the festival and we staged a late-night after-party at The Grey Lady Music Lounge. We also received organisational support and sponsorship from local business Insafe Ltd.

You started to expand…

Each year, the festival became more popular and well-known, so there was a natural growth to the event. We found all our major costs spiralled upwards: insurance, security, a medical team, refuse bins and collection, PRS License, equipment and staging, marquees, sound and lighting engineers. Sponsorship was absolutely vital to help us fund our costs and over the years we have had varied success in this regard. [Peavey and Fender supported L&L on a couple of occasions.]

And you grew…

Local & Live grew year upon year in terms of attendance, artist programme and the number of days. By 2008 we were a 3-day festival; by 2009 a 4-day event; by 2011 we had a second stage to run. At this point I was showcasing over 125 acts and drawing an attendance of around 15,000 people across the four days. We then ran after party gigs on all four nights at The Forum [central Tunbridge Wells venue] and The Grey Lady to supplement the late night programme. I was driving the expansion: my vision was Local & Live to become a leading free festival of unsigned, original music. Something the local musicians and community could be proud of.

And grew…

2012 proved to be our last year staging the festival on The Pantiles. This was due to lack of room as the attendance was beginning to out grow the space we had available.

After a scaled-down fundraising year in 2013, playing indoors at the Forum and the Grey Lady, I knew that for 2014 and beyond, it was time to find a new home for the main stages. Calverley Grounds, a beautiful park situated in the heart of the town was the new venue of choice and provided an idyllic setting and the much needed space for the crowds. We were given permission to run the music across two days in Calverley Grounds, with a medium-size main festival stage.

I felt we needed to create a ‘fringe’ element for the festival to support our new main stage and ensure the majority of the Local & Live roster could have the opportunity to perform too. Fourteen venues were invited to participate: a mix of bars, cafes and pubs alongside The Forum and The Grey Lady. The fringe venues ran music from late afternoon through to late evening. In 2014 a total of 220 acts took part in the festival. I am pleased to say Calverley Grounds proved to be a wonderful setting for the festival and the fringe model worked really well. With a few tweaks and improvements 2015 was the arguably the best Local & Live ever.

But, you were a little too ambitious…

Whilst last year’s festival was a success in terms of attendance, presentation, music and atmosphere, the event failed to attract enough

funding and sponsorship to cover its outgoings, resulting in a sizeable debt, something we are still trying to resolve. I also felt very tired having organsied the event for the past 10 years! So for 2016, I felt the best plan was to stage a scaled down indoor fundraising festival again: a small entry charge applying at each of four venues each day, or the opportunity to access all the venues for the duration in the shape of a £20 golden wristband. Proceeds from this year could then help us alleviate the shortfall from last year and help us put some money in the kitty for next year, and an intended return to Calverley Grounds and the full festival scale format. Significant sponsorship and funding will still be required to achieve this goal however.

What lessons have you learned?

In short, we failed to attract a main sponsor. We certainly put 100% into our sponsorship endeavours and we have attracted major sponsorship in the past, however it just did not happen for us in 2015. The event offers massive exposure for any business or company seeking very positive PR and brand awareness. I believe we will secure this again in 2017.

You have done an enormous service to music in the area, Paul! What’s next?

For the foreseeable future, I will continue running all my original music showcases at The Grey Lady Music Lounge, The Pheasantry (in London), The Music Room (Maidstone) and Local & Live events at The Forum and Trinity Theatre (both in Tunbridge Wells) which all total to around 220 events per year. I plan to continue to run the Local & Live Music Festival on a yearly basis, perhaps with a year off now and then! On a personal note, I am currently working on my new album for my band The Paul Dunton Orchestra which we plan to release in the winter of this year.

Pictures: First: The relaxed vibes of the festival. Second: The Paul Dunton Orchestra. Third: The Organe Circus. Fourth: Paul Dunton (left) with Mike Wilton of The Standard Lamps (headline band of 2015). Last David Midgen and The Twisted Roots Photo credit: All pictures Live & Local