Enter through the forest and arrive in utopia – Green Man Festival

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Buying a festival is scarcely heard of, but nine years ago Fiona Stewart decided to purchase Green Man when it was in desperate need of rejuvenation. Stewart had previously been the manager behind the Big Chill – another popular Welsh festival  – but the Green Man’s ethical, utopian approach appealed, so she took a chance.

Straight talking Fiona is fiercely anti-corporation, her ardent resistance to commercial temptations in the form of sponsorships can only be commended – Green Man is only one of few festivals left in Europe who are completely corporate-sponsorship free – adding to the bohemian, earthy vibes. The festival site skirts the Brecon Beacons National park where a wash of green pine trees hem one side and the welsh hills roll off from the other, then mix in a tight programme of music that bridges over folk, indie, electro, rock and techno and it leaves no guessing to why tickets sell out most years.

Since taking over the festival it’s grown from 800 to over 15,000 guests, but Stewart’s quick to assert that it will remain small and intimate – she’s added a science garden, comedy tent and various performing arts that compliment the bigger name acts such as Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs and Caribou that played this year. Guests enjoy the festivities so much that settler passes were available for the first time this year, allowing visitors to stay in the site before the festival begins, offering just that little bit longer in the lush green valleys.

Fiona took the time out before this year’s festival to tell Glass about how she’s found herself here, her ambitions for her festival’s future and competing with the surge of new competitors.

How did you end up in the festival industry?
I grew up in Camden in North London and everyone I knew seemed to be running a night or were in a band so I fell into it. When I was young this role didn’t exist, it still doesn’t really exist now, people still fall into it rather than apply through the traditional routes.

What was your motivation for buying Green Man festival?
I had worked in all areas of the entertainment industry, the last being the Big Chill where I was the Festival Manager and I was involved in its development into a larger event. Although I had a massive fondness for Big Chill it was going down a more commercial route that I didn’t identify with. I like festivals being an alternative cultural event and that means keeping corporate sponsorship and other mainstream content out.

Green Man had been running for three years and was a small event of 800 people but was noticed and respected as a lovely, niche music event. Unfortunately it developed a few operational and financial problems so I was asked if I wanted to buy it in 2005. Purchasing a festival was not something I had considered but when I thought about the ideology around Green Man and looking back on it now, it was a bit fateful.

Through the change of hands, what features did you want to keep in Green Man?
I wanted to keep music as a central theme within the program, but I definitely wanted to open up the offer. Domino Records has some fantastic musicians and had been very supportive of the nascent event, but the festival needed to get bigger in able to offer more stages for different styles. It will always be a about quality and talented artist but there is so much brilliant new music out there which I wanted to include in the festival.

And change?
Firstly I moved the festival to a new site in Glanusk Park that had previously been an agricultural estate. The conversion into an event site was very challenging but it was well worth the effort as the result was amazing and it’s a fantastically beautiful place. Green Man has always been about supporting great music, amazing experiences and good causes, that will never change but it’s always evolving and now has 17 different entertainments and 1500 performers offering every kind of entertainment you can imagine. One minute you could be learning about quantum physics from a rapping professor in the science area, next you could be laughing in the comedy tent or sampling some of the 99 locally produced ales or ciders – there is so much you can see and do.

Where do you see the festival in the next few years?
Green Man is constantly evolving but its central ethos will never change. We have been running a number of training, community support and arts support projects to develop new and emerging artists for the last six years. This year we started a charity called Green Man Trust to enable our current projects to develop; it’s very exciting as this is an area I care deeply about.

Do you see the festival growing in size like many other festivals?
Not at all – the reason I was attracted to Green Man in the first place was to get away from over developed events.

Do you visit Wales regularly?
I spend around half of my time in Wales and the company is based there. I have been going since I was a child and Wales has always been part of my life. I am lucky enough to have fiends who live in various parts of the country and enjoy walking so I can explore the fantastic areas like the Gower and the Brecon Beacons where Green Man is located. I love being in Wales and hope one day I can stay there longer.

As the festival scene becomes increasingly saturated how do you respond to the tough competition?
Organising festivals have always been high risk. Since the change in the licensing law in 2005 it is easy to get an event licence and the festival scene has exploded. There are some amazing events out there and booking fees have increased by 200% over the last few years as agents take advantage of the competition not just in the UK but also in the European, and public funded festival scene. Festivals are still about relationships with artists, contractors and most importantly the audience and if you retain the honesty in your event but work hard to keep evolving and developing year on year then I believe you can retain the excitement and authenticity

How do you choose the acts each year?
Acts are chosen on their quality and sound. Many acts approach Green Man, and not just emerging artists. The festival is seen as a segue event which is an opportunity for acts to perform to a discerning audience. Discovering new music is a big part of Green Man and we offer separate stages for teen, regional and breakthrough acts – over a 100 agents scout the festival for new talents each year. With so many small venues closing its important to showcase less well known talented artists to protect the development of the UK music industry.

Why a science garden?
What used to be perceived as magic is now perceived as science that can seem boring. Environmental issues can be communicated in a way that is confusing or guilt people rather than engaging with them. I wanted Einstein’s Garden to be a place where science becomes magical again and new ideas and green lifestyles are presented in a way which seems logical, easy and exciting rather than dull and difficult.

What else would you like to add to the festival?
Music will always be at the heart of the festival, but I would like Green Man to be a showcase for other arts genres and not just music. National Theatre Wales and NoFitState Circus are old friends of mine and we have been talking for years about working together, and finally it is happening this year which is fantastic.

What makes Green Man stand apart from the rest?
We do keep commercial process out of the journey between human and creativity that definitely keeps things fresh and unique. We’re not interested in having similar content to other festivals so we spend a lot of time thinking of new things to see and do. We want people to experience great things at Green Man that they can’t find anywhere else. With the stages and all the performers there is enough to do at all times of the day and night to create whatever festival you want. Apparently people come back year on year because of the vibe, I can’t really put my finger on it, but it’s great, but not something we will ever take for granted.

What do you want Green Man to be?
A place where people can get away from the modern world, where the background noise is not media buzz and children can play without being insidiously sold into a commercial concept. I want Green Man to retain the freedom of the original festival scene, without the problems of safety and lack of services that was present at that time. It’s a pretty utopian idea but so far we’ve maintained this – Green Man is the only festival of its size that still remains sponsor free which has sometimes been challenging, but it means that none of the content has been manipulated or added to.

by Stephanie Clair


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Glass Online culture and arts writer

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