Music

Soulfest promoter John Denison: “I don’t think this country can handle big festivals anymore”

At a time when major festivals are struggling, promoter John Denison has made the bold move of announcing the debut of a boutique neo-soul event. Just days after confirming Soulfest’s lineup, he spoke to FL about why he believes the event will be a success and how he managed to secure a bill with Maxwell, D’Angelo and Mos Def.

Billed as Australia’s first ever neo-soul, jazz and hip-hop festival, Soulfest has announced a lineup featuring the Australian debuts of Maxwell, D’Angelo plus the return of Mos Def, Common and Aloe Blacc. With nine international artists nominated for over 50 Grammy awards it’s certainly a head turning lineup – even Questlove is impressed. But in an industry hit by cancellations and falling attendance figures is there room for another niche event?

Promoter John Denison and his team at IEG clearly think so, in fact they’re already making plans for the 2015 edition of the tour. “I’ve never cancelled an event in my life,” Denison tells FL. “Would Maxwell and all these artists be tweeting and we’d spending hundreds of thousands on marketing just to cancel an event? Do you think we want to do that?” Keenly aware of the (perhaps undeserved) reputation hip-hop festivals have in Australia, Denison is also keen to stress that Soulfest is not a hip-hop event and explains why he severed his ties to the failed Supafest tour. He also has plenty of opinions on the state of the scene, why major events are struggling and why other boutique events including Harvest faltered.

First of all, congratulations on the lineup. Could you talk me through how you put it together?

It’s an amazing lineup and something that has taken six or seven months to put together. A lot of research and a lot of coercing. Artists like Maxwell and D’Angelo have never played together – not even in the States. Just to get them on the same stage is something amazing. I take my hat off to the agents over there; they all wanted to make it happen. When I went there with the idea of a neo-soul – not a soul [festival] because we wanted to keep very niche on this. There is a movement out there with great local acts like Hiatus Kaiyote and Ngaiire but people probably don’t understand what neo-soul means. It’s an interpretation of the new breed of soul music. It’s growing here and it’s been growing for a while. People like Maxwell, Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill are the champions of the genre. To have them on one bill showcases what this music really means.

Then there’s the hip-hop element – it’s not hip-hop, it’s conscious hip-hop. People go “hip-hop’s all the same” they don’t understand the difference with a Common or a Mos Def. They’re very different to a Lil Wayne or a Tyga. It’s important that the hip-hop acts merge into the neo-soul. It was almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle to make sure that artist nine matched with artist one, and artist three spoke to artist four. They all fuse together so you don’t get a mismatch of people and fans saying “I don’t want to go to this festival because I only like two of the artists”. It’s a very fine balance. It was very hard.

The lineup definitely has a clearer flow than many festivals.

I call the strap line dumb but I wanted a line that spelt it out. It’s neo-soul, jazz and hip-hop. The team said that you don’t need to spell it out people know what it is but people will be lazy. Lazy journalists will say “Oh, here’s another hip-hop festival that’s doomed to fail.” I said “No, you have to dumb it out in year one and really spell out what people are getting.” I think people will appreciate it. The connoisseurs don’t need [the strapline], the people who listen to your triple j’s, Triple R’s, FBi’s – people that like different sort of music styles. I think people will want to go to an event like this because it is quite different.

You touched on one of the reactions to the lineup. Watching the response on social media people are excited but there’s also a fear about similar festivals and the problems they’ve had with cancellations. What would you say to fans who are cautious about his festival because of that?

The main thing we did was to engage the artists and management. We said “The main thing is that you guys have to support this as much as we support you.” Maxwell has already come out on Facebook and Twitter. Over the next couple of days you’ll see all the other artists coming out saying “Hey, can’t wait to come”. Anthony Hamilton leaked the fucking thing. And that got offside. “Guys, why did that go up? It’s the wrong art work. We gave that to you back in October to look at.” They pulled it down really quickly, but it shows that they were very keen to get going.

The best way to tell the people is that these artists – Maxwell, Common – have no history of cancellation. D’Angelo has a history here and there in the US when he was going through a thing, but he is really on-point right now. He’s got a brand new album, Maxwell’s dropping a brand new album, Common’s got a new album, Aloe’s going through the roof at the moment. So [cancellation fears] are all hearsay. Look at the way the artists are communicating on their social media.

Look at Soundwave they have an unbelievable reputation and look what happened this year. There were bands dropping out left right and centre. As AJ [Maddah] would tell you, you can’t help those kinds of things. You pay your deposits; you market as clearly as possible. I know Maxwell can’t wait to get here. D’Angelo’s manager spoke to me yesterday saying “Dude, you won’t believe the backlash we’re getting here in the US. People are hammering us: Why is this going to Australia? Why can’t we have it here?”

We’re putting together a movement that supports the event every year. Hopefully the event is here in three years’ time – obviously second year we’ll be here because we’re committed already to an artist. There no doubt that this year will go down well. It’ll do very well; all we have to do is avoid any cancellations. Any cancellations and everyone will jump all over us. Irrespective of who it is – even if Leela James cancels they’ll be down our throats.

Soundwave has had issues with cancellations but the festival has been going for over 10 years and AJ is well known to FL readers. You and IEG are not so well known – although obviously you were involved in Supafest. Could you talk me through you’re own promoting history?

The last 12 months we did Mariah Carey, The Jacksons, Jill Scott, and Brian McKnight. I don’t think we have to prove ourselves. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. Supafest was out of our hands. My role was more on the left-hand side: marketing and branding. I had no control of the artists or of the money. I had a role that was very hard to deal with. But in respect to what we’ve been doing we have an impeccable record. Jill Scott was fantastic, Brian was a great tour, and Mariah Carey was her first time in Australia and a sell-out. Out of those relationships we managed to put [Soulfest] together. The Jacksons are managed by Maxwell’s management. Jill Scott spoke to four of the artists on this bill. That’s where half of the ideas came from: Jill Scott and I sitting down. We put Jill on as an experiment to see how the neo-soul movement worked.

“I don’t think this country can handle big festivals anymore”

I don’t think we should be talking about whether it’ll be staged. We should be asking: “Does this event have space in the market place?” Yes. “Is it niche?” Yes. “How many people actually care about neo-soul?” Probably very little and the market’s probably about 100 000. Nationally, it’s not a big market. Our research was quite clear that it’s a very niche audience that doesn’t like social media much. They’re very introverted. They’re cafe culture, they like reading. We went through all this [research] to get where we are today. We didn’t throw a dart at the board and say “Yeah this might work, we think.” We said there’s 100,000 people, but if you give them this event they will turn up. We’ve only got 40,000 tickets to sell across the nation.

Only 40,000 across the whole tour?

Yeah, it’s only 40,000 tickets so it’s going to go. And the whole thing is about the food as well. What’s the experience here? Forget the music – the music is undoubted. We researched the food, the beverages, and the lifestyle. We’ve got over 60 eateries that are across the whole soul food and Cajan experience. We’re building an “Eat Street”, so you’ll be able to walk into the venue and there’ll be a laneway of pop-up eateries. Then there are 12 or 13 pop-up bars. We’re just trying to put an experience together because the demographic is a little older so it’s hard to hold people there for 10 hours.

I don’t think this country can handle big festivals anymore. I think our country is an 8000 to 12,000 [capacity] festival country. That’s what I believe. There are only a handful of festivals that can handle the magnitude and we all know what those are – your Streosonics, Futures, Soundwaves, Laneways. Those guys are where it’s at. I just wanted a festival that was 10-14,000, no more. If we sell out in 10 seconds we’re not going to grow year two or year three. We’re going to keep it boutique. That’s a commitment I’m making to myself.

You’re using unfamiliar venues – at least in Sydney and Melbourne – how did you find them?

I went to Erskineville [Sydney Park] where Soundwave happened [in 2007 and 2008]. I wanted to go inner-city: Newtown [in Sydney], Fitzroy [in Melbourne]. I wanted to be where music and food can fuse together. I didn’t want to be in a music venue. I wanted to make sure there were a lot of parks and transport and where people can walk home. So I went to the councils and they knocked me back on Erskineville Oval here in Sydney. They said, “John, forget about it but there’s a better venue here: Victoria Park.” It’s on Broadway, right on the strip. It’s amazing. It only fits 14,000 people.

“To have Maxwell and D’Angelo even in this country is monumental”

I was a little surprised to see Maxwell billed above D’Angelo. Surely D’Angelo is a bigger draw card?

With D’Angelo and Maxwell it was a co-headline originally. Maxwell knocks back half-million dollar gigs every day of the week in the US. He just picks his moments. For us to have Maxwell and D’Angelo even in this country is monumental … it’s a headfuck, it’s amazing. It’s not just my doing. The people over there [in the states] wanted to make it happen. Management wanted to make it happen. Agents wanted to make it happen. Maxwell and D’Angelo have equal prowess in the scene. I saw Maxwell’s tweet last week; that was “Wow did you just say that.” He’s a massive fan.

D’Angelo is a very quietly spoken introverted person – he doesn’t really do interviews or anything – he doesn’t have a Facebook or any social media. This is a co-headliner as far as I’m concerned. One goes on last, the other goes on second last. Let’s not forget the other artists either. Common, Mos Def – even though he had a troubled tour the last time he was here, and we’ve all heard the stories. We thought about [booking] him I thought “Shit, we can’t afford to have one drop out.”

If the headliner can knock back half-million dollar offers, how can you afford to keep the festival at such a boutique capacity?

Well, I’m not saying that we paid that kind of money. Every artist said “Oh my fucking god how did you pull this together”. There’s never been a bill like this anywhere in the world. They all wanted to play with each other. We were in the right place at the right time. The way that I sold it to each artist was “Here’s the bill, here’s the wish list. This is how I want it to be”. I didn’t just say “Hey, do you want to play Soulfest?” I gave every artist the bill, with unconfirmed artists on there. “This is that dream, what do you think?” They said “If you can lock away Maxwell and D’Angelo we’re in.” They didn’t talk about money. They were calling each other because this [sort of lineup] just doesn’t happen. Management was calling other management. There was a lot of excitement in the bill. Will it be that easy next year? Probably not. It was a combination of sacrifices from all the artists.

You’re right. How do you fit 14,000 into $140 tickets? You don’t get $2 million of value for your money – well, then there’s bars, merchandise, sponsorship. We all know the ancillary income. But the fact is that everyone bit the bullet a bit on their fees, including the headliners. There’s four shows including Auckland. In Australia we’ve only got 40,000 tickets to sell, there’s probably another 20,000 in New Zealand: there’s 60,000 people attending. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that 60,000 by $150 equals nine [million]. There’s where it starts making business sense. The break evens are -.look, there’s nothing that can go wrong here. Even if it sold fuck all – 5000 tickets a show – there’s no reason to cancel because the losses are minimal if you take in the bars and merchandise. The only time a festival cancels is when they’re staring down the barrel of an unbelievable loss.

“Harvest got lazy on the bill”

Harvest immediately comes to mind – they were trying for a similar older, boutique market. Did you look closely at them?

Harvest year one and year two, you had goosebumps. But they got lazy on the bill. Last year was a bullshit bill. They changed venues as well. They just got it wrong. It became a ‘90s event – stuck in the ‘90s in the UK somewhere. That’s how I interpreted it. I think that Harvest had a great feel but they had a lot of logistic [issues]. Our number one focus is on sound. Our team is unbelievable. Our production, our aesthetics. The way that you flow into the venue. There’s NO WAY you’re going to have a wait to get in. If there’s a five minute wait I’ll walk you through for free. There are 15 lanes to come into. Harvest will come back – I think there’s a big space a festival like that. I think it’s an amazing festival, I really do. I think there’s a space for that kind of stuff. Who knows what went wrong? But I sometimes think that when you have 30 artists on a bill you’re asking for trouble.

You hinted last year about launching a festival called Hype. What happened there?

That was bullshit. It never got off the ground. It was something that I played with. Then Movement and Supafest cancelled the same week and … Supafest moved to the first week of November, which was my date. I was nowhere near announcing, all I’d done was lock in the dates and paid some deposits to a couple of the artists. I never went public. I think I tweeted something that got blown out of context. I never said anything formal.

We ran news off that tweet – whenever a promoter makes an announcement on Twitter it’s news. Maybe that’s why you’re not on Twitter anymore?

[Laughs] IEG Presents is my Twitter account now. At the time the whole hip-hop thing got pounded … When Live Nation cancelled Movement that] sent shudders through everyone. I wrote to all the agents and said that I think hip-hop is dead [and] it’s going to take something monumental [to bring it back], which thank god it did with Eminem’s [Rapture Festival] this year. That was great.

How far do you think that will go in restoring people’s faith?

I think what will happen next year is that Dre will headline [Rapture] next year. I think Eminem will make him headline – that’s the only way it’s going to live. You need something that big again. What else are they going to do? There’s only one Eminem and you can’t roll out a 50 [Cent] or something – it’s just not big enough.

Obviously Dainty is a fantastic promoter so it’s always going to be run well. I think it restored it a little bit – Kendrick, J Cole – it was a great event. It wasn’t spectacular, it was nothing ground-breaking. Just six acts, nothing more than just music. But I think it restored people’s faith that if it’s done well and promoted well by professional people, the genre deserves to be given a space. I just felt that hip-hop at the moment in the space that Supafest played and that Movement tried to play, you’re dealing with an audience that’s underfunded. It’s a younger audience; they can’t afford an expensive ticket. It’s very hard out there, you have to find a space. At the time with Hype I felt that I had to get out because if I put my event up people would be double guessing if the event would even happen irrespective of the bill. I couldn’t afford to take a hit.

Soulfest lineup

Maxwell

D’Angelo

Common

Aloe Blacc

Mos Def

Anthony Hamilton

Angie Stone

Musiq Soulchild

Leela James

Ngaiire

Nathaniel

Ms Murphy

Miracle

Milan Ring

Thandiwe Phoenix

DJ Trey

Soulfest dates and venues

Saturday, October 18 – Victoria Park (Broadway), Sydney

Sunday, October 19 – Yarra Park (MCG Precinct), Melbourne

Saturday, October 25 – The Riverstage, Brisbane

Sunday, October 26 – Auckland