Beyond The Threshold: The Realities of Running A Grassroots Music Festival
The growth of the DIY and grassroots sector of the music industry over the past few years has been impossible to ignore.
It is not the just recording industry that’s been affected by the shift. Over the last 10 years there has been a boom in the festival scene. Steve Jenner from the Festival Awards reported a 700% increase in the number of music festivals, from 100 in 2004 to over 700 in 2013.
An increase in demand for live music as well as DIY music events, cultivated partly by the collapse of the record label and the rise of social media, has seen more grassroots and DIY festivals springing up than ever before.
Liverpool is no exception and being a city with arguably one of the richest and most diverse arts and music scenes in the UK, it is no surprise we are seeing a number of festivals being set up and thriving around the city, including the Baltic District based Threshold Festival. First set up in 2011, Threshold Festival is now the longest running festival in the city’s unofficial creative district.
Chris Herstad Carney, co-founder and producer of Threshold Festival, is instantly likeable. It’s probably a lot to do with his down to earth personality and his healthy sense of humour.
“I did a drama degree which is the best way into not getting a job,” he says, explaining how his journey into the music and performing arts industry began.”
“Then I fell in with the ‘wrong crowd’ who turned out to be the ‘right crowd’, getting involved in warehouse parties of questionable legality, working on the door, putting up posters and such like.
“From that I randomly ended up DJing and ended up as part of a collective called The Mixnots who have gone on to do some crazy things. Crazy things like playing Glastonbury for the last three years.”
As far as the story of Threshold is concerned though, all that was simply a prelude to meeting singer songwriter Kaya, his now wife.
“We started promoting together, we naturally came together doing ‘Studio 2’ on Parr Street. We did a night called Under The Influence. A friend of ours said, ‘you guys could do something slightly bigger, I have this building called The CUC’ and so he asked us to do a festival in there.” And thus Threshold Festival was born.
For Chris it was the first time undertaking a project of that magnitude and the first time really seeing ‘behind the scenes’ of the live music industry.
“Running into Threshold was like opening a massive Pandora’s box that a lot of performers never really get to understand. It was a vertical learning curve.”
After 5 years of running the festival, learning how to do everything from sourcing funding to marketing strategy, as well as riding out the ups and downs, he can reflect on how manic that first year was.
“I felt like I had to do everything. I had an earpiece in during the weekend and every time there was a problem I thought that I had to solve it. I was running around like a lunatic. It takes a lot to realise that there are other people that want to do that job.”
The one piece of advice he would give himself if he could go back to that first year? “Don’t sweat the small things.”
“Perfection is not going to be achieved. You need to overlook some things that are not going to be up to that standard that you expect. If I had carried on as I was going in the first year I probably would have had a heart attack because it was so stressful to think that I had to do everything. It is just a show at the end of the day. It should be great, it should be wonderful, but it’s not a life or death scenario. People are there to see amazing things, they’re not there to see absolute perfection.”
The development of Threshold over the last 5 years has coincided with the gradual but significant development of The Baltic District which is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing digital and creative hubs in he country. It’s not hard to see how the festival has become part of something bigger.
Chris explains why Threshold has stayed settled in the Baltic District since its very first year, “The Baltic always felt right for what we wanted to do with the festival. So moving forward it’s felt like the district has kind of grown up at the same time as us.
“When we did the first one in 2011, that place was like a red light district, there were no street lights, the pavements were battered. Now [the council] have put infrastructure in there for these business and bars and cafes to start to flourish and it’s a really good thing, and so as we’re growing up and we’re starting to use venues around the area, more venues pop up, and I’d like to think that we’re a small cog in that development.
“We are the oldest festival in that area, You’ve got Independent festival ,you’ve got Baltic Block Party, all these really cool festivals that are happening. We were the first ones doing it, kind of blazing the trail a little bit there. So it almost feels like we’ve got a little bit of a claim to it as well.”
Although the main fuel for Threshold, like for so many grassroots festivals, is the sheer passion and determination of the team behind it, it is impossible to make it happen without money. Without big headliners to attract big sponsors, a lot of the financing comes down to funding applications, something Chris has had to become an expert in.
“I remember writing my first ever one in the wake of the 2nd festival when we realised we’d lost a lot of money and we didn’t have any money, and we were really panicking.
“I did an Arts Council application, for grants for the arts to try and pay for the festival we’d just done, and they went ‘You can’t do that,’ so I simply said ‘Ok, so I won’t don’t do that again’.
“The next year’s Arts Council application I submitted on the deadline and it was sketchy at best. We didn’t get it. Luckily the city council gave us some money, Baltic Creative backed us a little bit, but again we lost money and that’s when we realised that the next year, there was no way we could do this without funding.”
“I worked with a great bid writer called Nick Baskerville, he’s one of the directors of Constellations. He helped me along with the bid. It got rejected, we resubmitted it, it got accepted.”
“With the Arts Council, the money is there but they have a huge responsibility. When you apply for an Arts Council grant, if you don’t get accepted straight away you will be told why. You can rectify the issues and resubmit it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get it as you can also be rejected simple on the grounds that another application was preferred. It’s just the way it is. ”
“The earlier the better, and you can resubmit and submit, but there is still no guarantee. Speak to people in the Arts Council. Have someone help you with the form who is someone who works with the Arts Council. They still can’t guarantee you will be successful but the more you are in tune with their guidelines the better your chances are going to be. So read the guidelines.”
With demand for live music still strong, a DIY culture that’s growing ever stronger and and the promise of a recovering economy the future of the grassroots festival is one that at least for now looks very promising.
The future for Threshold? “If we’re not in this for the long run then why are we doing it? Let’s see what happens in 5 years time, do a tenth festival,” Chris says, smiling, “It’s definitely been the greatest adventure I’ve been on.”
Chris Carney’s top tips:
- Don’t sweat the small things. Perfection is not going to be achieved.
- When applying for funding, read the guidelines and reach out for help with the application.
- Apply for funding as early as you can before the deadline. If you are unsuccessful on your first application you will have the opportunity to apply again.
Words: Satin Beige
Artist submissions for Threshold open in September – visit www.thresholdfestival.co.uk for more details.