The key to building a loyal audience for a family arts festival? It needs to come from a place of integrity, says Rowan Hoban.
When we set up Just So Festival seven years ago, we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted it to be like. We wanted to tap into the magic of weekend music festivals – when audiences come together in a different place, space and frame of mind, with some of the nostalgia of an English childhood made up of camping trips, campfires and midnight feasts, but in a curious and surprising landscape.
We were the parents of young children and, at first accidentally then gradually more deliberately, we set out to create the perfect weekend for families like ours.
With the greenfield festival market crowded and competitive, many of the festivals that thrive are those coming from a place of integrity
Sitting between the arts and music sectors and focusing entirely on a family audience, we avoid the pressure that many greenfield music festivals face of ticket sales being dependent on announcing headline acts. We invite the audience to buy into an experience and a lifestyle, rather than coming to see specific acts. (It can be frustrating though, when the announcement of our favourite street performance is met with indifference.)
One of the motivations for producing the festival was our heartfelt belief that families deserve the highest quality art. They can be overlooked at greenfield festivals where the bulk of the budget is allocated towards the bands on the stages.
By making the decision that our headliners would be circus performers, poets and children’s theatre producers, we gave ourselves the freedom not only to invest in a diverse mix of programming, but also to see some of the add-on elements of festival programming, such as visual design, storytelling, games and incidental interventions, as integral to the success of the event, and worth allocating the budget towards.
Much of our year-round work is now focused on supporting great art to be created in and for natural landscapes, through artist residencies in our woodland creation space, and our volunteer programme.
This has led us to set up the Northern Festivals Network, which works with greenfield festivals to increase the programming of high-quality family work. It has also helped us to diversify internationally, with the first Just So Festival Brazil taking place later this year.
Our understanding of and affinity with our audience, our assumption that they are our friends, is absolutely what has enabled the festival to grow. But it hasn’t been a marketing exercise. Our relationship with our audience is what makes the festival work, and it is an authentic one.
With the greenfield festival market crowded and competitive, many of the festivals that thrive are those coming from a place of integrity. Where organisers have a passion for a theme or specific direction, and are creating an event that is close to their hearts, it shines through in the ethos, marketing, and most importantly, the reality. In taking audiences out of their usual landscapes into different worlds for a weekend, that world needs to have a strong identity to create a coherent experience.
Over time, we’ve figured out that the most amazing moments for our audiences are not the ones on the main music stage, but the ones where the audience are integral and invested, where they come together in a moment that they have created.
Our clearest example of this is the tribal tournament. In 2012 we invited the audience to join one of six animal tribes, where for example the foxes learn to foxtrot together and the frogs have a mass leapfrog. We thought it would be a small element of the programme, but from the first year the audience latched on to the concept with an enthusiasm that left us amazed.
Costumes were created, Facebook groups popped up, and competing for the gold pebbles that count as points for your tribe became a matter of life and death. By 2015, the finale of the tribal tournament had become without doubt the headline moment of the weekend. Our audience had moved from audience to participant to co-producer.
Having a clear vision for the festival, and knowing just who our audience was in that first year was just the starting point on a journey. Each year we try to balance the reassurance of familiarity and tradition (some families have been coming to the midnight feast every year), with the desire to surprise them, and offer something they didn’t even know they wanted.