News Sŵn 2013: John Rostron: ‘It’s Not A Job To Us’

Something incredible happens in the pocket-sized city of Cardiff every year in the autumn. A buzz begins to rise to the surface as bunting goes up in twenty venues across the city and excited volunteers seem to sprint about the city in bright coloured shirts as van after van delivers bands to their respective venues. Sŵn – pronounced ‘soon’, is Cardiff’s home grown independent music festival, quite aptly taking its name from the Welsh word for ‘Sound’ or ‘Noise’.

For the second year running DIY are taking over a stage, or more accurately two stages, on the Friday. In the fantastic Clwb Ifor Bach DIY’s bringing you Wolf Alice, Drenge, Pawws, Bo Ningen and Pinkunoizo. We caught up with John Rostron, co-founder of Sŵn Festival to discuss the origins of one of the UK’s best independent festivals.

“It all started in Texas” explains John. He and fellow Sŵn-Founder, Huw Stephens were sitting at breakfast, reading an article that showed how much the world renowned SXSW Festival does for the Austin creative community and it didn’t take long until they had decided to bring the idea to the opposite side of the Atlantic. “At the time Huw & I were living in Cardiff. It’s a place we both feel very passionate about; we saw most of our shows around the city, knew the bands and we realised that Cardiff is flat, small and both the venues & local acts were great: all the ingredients we needed for our festival! We got started as soon as we got back and looked for an autumn date, which lends itself to the multi-venue platform we wanted to adopt. The aim was to urge people to head to venues they wouldn’t normally go and see shows from promoters that they may not have heard about before, hopefully enticing those people into returning to these places throughout the year – helping to boost the general music scene in the area.”

Moving into its seventh year, the Welsh music festival is balanced nicely on the fence between major well known acts and fresh-faced newbie’s. Both Rostron and Stevens are constantly immersed in new music; you only need to spend ten minutes in a room with them before an artist you’ve not heard of is suggested. “After a while we realised we had a core audience that trusted our choice in bands. People started coming to Sŵn and filling our venues to the brim, going nuts for bands that they may or may not have heard of. Watching bands that may not have much of a pull performing to full and responsive crowds at such an important time in their career is a huge buzz for us. A small band gaining those 50-150 fans in one night is far more influential than if it were a bigger well known artist – it’s this that really excites us. So I guess we have shied away a little from the mainstream acts, there are loads of big festivals for those guys and that’s great! But it’s not us.’

Sŵn is a Welsh music festival, so when it comes to looking for artists to play is there a conscious lean toward the Welsh applicants?
The percentage of Welsh bands has always changed year to year. Of course more often than not it leans toward a Welsh majority – apart from one year. At that time competition was fierce early on in the year and it just fell that way. Sadly we have to say no to a lot of bands every year. so we respond by adding more venues, just to allow us some more stage times to fill. Every year we expand and keep thinking “one year it has to go down, surely?” but we’re yet to see the day.

Does the festival also include areas of other creative industries across the weekend, similar to SXSW?
We work closely with like-minded creative organisations to help capitalise on the high volume of people that the festival brings in and love that if people wish to, they can go to Welsh Music Foundation seminars on industry topics or art exhibitions in the day and go to shows all evening, for example. We try to ensure there are no major clashes in the schedule so that people can attend as much as they possibly can over the weekend. This is particularly important for those who may have travelled to Cardiff, we want to offer them as much as we can – and this is exactly what made us love SXSW.

With so many festivals going into administration or folding, how does Sŵn continue to stay afloat and even expand?
To be honest, I don’t know! Maybe people just have a great time, go home and tell their friends about it. It’s great value in terms of price and we put on a strong line up year after year. Maybe it’s down to the whole experience. We’ve found a lot of people come from all over the UK and sofa surf with friends in the city – you don’t have to worry about tents or the weather or anything, it’s very different to a lot of other festivals in that respect. These weren’t strategic or even conscious choice though; it’s just the way things have developed.

In terms of keeping the whole thing afloat as a whole, neither Huw nor I get paid for it. It’s not a job for us, so we don’t take anything from the festival. This alone is probably a big factor in keeping it sustainable. We put in a lot of our time for the love of what we have created and we have huge support from people at all levels that do the same. From people working the event for cheaply or even for free just to make sure it happens year after year. They believe in the concept as much as we do and that’s incredible. I think if we forced ourselves to look into the finance of it all, that’s probably it! It comes down to people power.

What is your approach when it comes to the tough task of ticket pricing?
We’re rubbish businessmen. We’ve never scrutinised the process of pricing the tickets, we look at what is fair – we do a lot of cigarette packet account balancing and ponder the outcome of setting the tickets at x amount and hope we make it out of the other side, really. It is tough because of the nature of what we do.

Everything has an impact on everything else, so the acts we get may determine which venues we use – and venue choice changes our costs dramatically. If we set a tight budget from day one I think the spirit of the festival could get lost along the way and we’d probably only have about 20 bands play. Little things like ticket costs only covering necessary parts of the festival – our programme for example is a 24 page book, and we give it away for free. But that’s what we like to do – and we feel it’s right for our event. We didn’t start as a business, we did it to showcase and we are massively lucky to be able to run it as such.

Planning an event of this size is no easy task, when does one year end and the next begin?
Me and Huw are constantly finding new music – so for us I guess it’s a year round deal. Our event manager, Gemma White, starts working on all the production details in the early spring. Most of our key venues instinctively hold the dates as they want to be a part of it all, but it’s the spring when dates are finalised and everything starts ramping up from there onwards really.

Of all the venues under the Sŵn banner across the weekend, do any of them act as particular hotbeds of brilliance?
There was a time where the Saturday night slots upstairs in Dempseys seemed to hold certain mysticism. We have had The Drums, The Vaccines (their fifth stage performance) and Alt-J to name a few. Incredible considering its size, really. The venue itself is upstairs above the pub – capacity sits at about 100, so those who manage to squeeze in have seen some incredible sets. Also next door in Clwb Ifor Bach (often shortened to ‘Welsh Club’) have always had great acts like Ben Howard supported by Lucy Rose, The Jim Jones Revue and The X who really blew the roof off. That’s a show people still talk to me about. For me I really get excited about the new venues that may not be used to putting shows on. Seeing the staff fall in love with the bands and getting into being a part of it all. We have two new venues to add this year; The Angel Hotel and St John’s Church in Canton. St John’s is a lovely space so I’m very excited about that one. We’ve got Marika Hackman, Nick Mulvey and Plu (pronounced Plee) who are a fantastic trio that play traditional Welsh music.

How do people tend to get involved in the festival?
A lot of people start working with us by volunteering. It was only in the second year that we decided to do this, and we haven’t looked back! We took two brilliant volunteers on and the following year they took responsibility of a few others and it has snowballed to the point where we have over a hundred this year. We love them all and we don’t know how we got by that first year without them. For most, it’s their first time working in this kind of environment and they are not only a part of it, but they’re integral to the whole thing. We see our vols’ getting picked up as sound engineers, tour managers, drivers, backline technicians, promoters and all sorts, sometimes getting the work because of what they learned with us: and that is exactly what we want. If they’re passionate about music enough to want to work in it, then we want to help in providing a route in. It’s fantastic to get involved because a great deal of the bands are relatively new; very different to working at one of the main festivals I imagine, as although you get to rub shoulders with the stars, they are not likely to hire a totally fresh face. But our bands are looking for people and our volunteers are the guys they liaise with, so it is a natural progression. This is also true for the bands. They make friends, start collaborative projects or setup gig swaps and it just creates this awesome buzz.

Finally, who are your top tips for Sŵn 2013?
It sounds like a cliché but I love so many of the bands it’s insane. I’m excited to see Dan Bettridge from Ogmore – he’s a guy on his way up, Plu – got a lot of time for Plu. A band from Scotland called Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson who play traditional Scottish music, something we’ve not had before which is great. Obviously Waxahatchee I’m really excited by – I’m a huge fan of her album so that’ll be lovely. There’s also a guy called Land Observation whose album was one of my favourite last year, a bit of a mellow electronic act, that’ll be great on the Sunday. Can’t wait now…

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