Breaking Down The Business Of Strawberries & Creem Festival
2018 marks the 5th anniversary of one of the most invigorating and thriving festivals on the UK calendar, Strawberries and Creem. From running small but successful club nights to identifying the unpenetrated potential of delivering diverse urban-orientated music to discontented demographics of Cambridge, the small team of 7 behind this now mammoth festival has achieved a lot.
Curated by the youngest festival team in the UK with an average age of just 24, this year they are bringing the likes of global superstars such as T-Pain to some of the UK’s most exciting talent out from Not3s to Ghetts and more grace the stage of Haggis Farm, Cambridge. Here’s the story of how they did it.
So it’s been said that part of the motivation behind you guys setting up Strawberries & Creem festival was the frustration at a lack of diverse music in the town. But why a festival? Why not an online platform or something else?
Strawberries & Creem Festival was actually born from running club nights for Cambridge University, Anglia Ruskin and local Cambridge residents – it was an organic progression. When our founding father Will Young returned back to his hometown of Cambridge from Manchester University, he saw that the city was lacking in a diverse, credible night life. In his first year he linked up with fellow founders Preye and Frazer (who were freshers at Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin respectively). Together they put on successful nights playing Garage, Grime, Hip-Hop, Afrobeats and Dancehall. I (Chris Jammer) joined later that year and by March 2014 we were running 2-3 club nights for around 200-400 people each week. We decided that month to put on a ‘Garden Party’ at the end of the year to celebrate our one-year anniversary and named the event ‘Strawberries & Creem’, as our club nights were originally called ‘Creem’. We managed to book David Rodigan, Shy FX and Jus Now and the Festival was born from there.
The event was a bit of a horror show to be honest, but we believed the idea had legs, and when we returned from the summer holidays later that year, the plan was to host the event again, but bigger and better. So in a nutshell it was all organic! We never thought about online platforms etc. We just wanted to build on the foundations we had started as freshers. We are all partyers at heart, I don’t think anything else would have worked for us!
What’s the set-up of the team, how do you work together and how challenging is it to put on this show?
The core team this year has grown to 7, however Head of Operations Louise, and I, are the only full-time members of the team. Louise is wonder woman, dealing with all the nitty gritty elements of the festival as our Event Coordinator and Head of Operations. She effectively puts the whole thing together from the toilets to the stage construction, as well as keeping the finances and the group’s often overly ambitious plans, in check.
I look after the revenue side of the business overseeing sales, marketing, sponsorship and the general creative direction for the brand. There is a lot of cross over between myself the rest of the team but we all have our areas that we are mainly responsible for.
Preye (while somehow managing to hold down a full time job at Columbia Records) is mainly responsible for the music and booking the line up. He is also very active on bringing in new brands and partners to collaborate with.
Similarly, Will also plays a big part in sponsorship but his main role this year has been business development. He has expanded the company by creating another festival called the Cambridge Club, which takes place the day after S&C, on the same site. We have Gabrielle headlining this year alongside Trevor Nelson and ‘Craig Charles Funk and Soul’ which should make for a really nice Fathers Day excursion! Will has also been instrumental in our latest venture – the ‘We Love Food Series’, 4 food festival taking place in Spitafields market across July.
Sam Mellor is our head of marketing and he looks after the day-to-day content we produce to help sell out the events. He manages to do this in his spare time while working during the day at Just Park. Frazer, works very closely with Sam here doing a lot of the content for social media as well as being in charge of our wide network of reps and pushing sales in the local Cambridge area.
Finally, Our newest recruit Tunde has been instrumental in providing some much needed structure as well as heading up our influencer guestlist. We all meet most days after everyone has finished their respective jobs, which allows us to keep coordinated and on top of what each other are up to. It means very long hours but we are all very good friends, and (most of the time) it doesn’t really feel like work, as we all enjoy what we do.
The challenge is really finding the time/manpower to construct a lot of plans and ambitions we have, particularly while trying to crack on with our day jobs. Going forward we are looking to employ a lot of the existing team full-time and also bring on a few new additions. It’s crazy to think we work effectively all year for one weekend so there is a lot riding on the success on each event. It is a challenge, but we love it to be honest.
Cambridge is obviously renowned for its academic-orientation. How do you feel this, perhaps accompanied by the social structures and demographics of the town, have contributed to 1, the lack of this musical diversity, and 2, how things like your festival are being received?
Moving up from London to Cambridge for University, I think myself and Preye noticed the massive cultural difference between the two cities. The White British population of Cambridge is 73.5% compared to London, which is only 59.8%. We both have Afro/Caribbean Heritage that has heavily impacted on the sound we chose for our club nights and Strawberries & Creem. When you add the fact that there isn’t a huge ‘party culture’ within the city, you may expect us to be fighting an uphill battle with how the festival was received in the city.
We’ve been fortunate with the rise in the popularity of urban music over the last few years. I remember when we first booked Skepta back in 2015, of lot of the University had no idea who he was. It was only after his release of ‘Shutdown’ and his appearance on stage at the Brits with Kanye that our tickets sales started to pick up. Combined with Mungos Hi Fi and General Levy on the bill (both of whom had played in Cambridge several times before) we were fortunately able to sell out much quicker than expected.
We’ve often found that Cambridge has previously been slightly slower to pick up the emerging talent coming out from around the UK. This impacted our decision on when to book acts. For example, J hus was one of the first names on our provisional line up for 2016. However after some debate and market research we decided we would be better off booking him a year later. It worked out very well as he was the artist on everyones lips in the summer of 2017. This year we have seen that more and more talent from London has been picked up in Cambridge earlier than it previously was, with emerging acts such as Kenny Allstar and D-block Europe being incredibly well received by students in Cambridge. I think it shows the evolving taste of people in the area, as well as the continued rise of these urban artists. We like to think we have grown with the sound and the culture, and want to continue to be a pillar for this kind of music that we love and have grown up with. Having said that, we want to be more than that too, and continue to book artists outside of this ‘sound’ (the House Gospel Choir, Heidi and Max Chapman for example) to continue to differentiate ourselves from other Festivals.
And where do you see this change heading in the future?
I expect this trend to continue as long as the urban sound stays commercially relevant. I think it is also down to us as a platform to keep pushing emerging artists who we rate highly. I think a number of people in Cambridge have used Strawberries & Creem as a discovery platform on a number of occasions for new music. It’s important for us to really sell each individual artist on our line up, so people are aware of the talent we are bringing to the city. We publish individual artists biographies and links where our consumers can listen to to the line-up prior to the Festival, which we think is an important and personal touch.
Now the majority of us live in London having left University, I feel we also need to be aware of our market so we can analyse trends, and try and stay as relevant as possible. Frazer still DJ’s weekly in Cambridge so has an insight to what sound the students are feeling. It’s all about keeping our ear to the ground and making sure we are in touch with our market. Having said this, we are very proud of the brand we have created and are unlikely to stray too far from the original music policy we created five years ago (an eclectic mix of credible music that celebrates heritage and champions future).
You’ve obviously had some amazingly huge headliners, from Skepta, to Nelly, to this year, with Not3s and T-Pain. Did you have experience in the industry before and how have you found your experiences in organising the event change over the last few years?
Prior to launching Strawberries & Creem, Will had a number of years experience in booking talent for events, both in Manchester and Cambridge. Before launching the first festival he had put on shows hosting the likes of Lethal Bizzle, Tempa T and Ms Dynamite, as well as artists across other genres such as Kidnap Kid, Cyril Hahn and Artful Dodger. This gave him good relationships with a few agents, making it easier to secure acts for the festival. A big breakthrough for us was booking Grandmaster Flash in 2015, our first international act. Since then we have always looked to bring in a nostalgic act from across the pond with Nelly, then Shaggy and this year T-Pain.
Since starting his job at Columbia, Preye has also been instrumental in making this process easier for us as he works with artists, management and agents. He builds relationships that can directly benefit the festival. As we have grown in size we are now often approached by artists and their teams to play at the festival. This is a great position to be in and a real reminder of how far we have come as a festival. The remainder of the team have just grown into their roles as the festival has grown year on year. We have taught ourselves, made a fantastically large number of mistakes, but are just keen to keep learning and get better. We only have an average age of 24, so I have no doubt we have a lot more to learn!
And dealing directly with the talent, how have you found that experience? Could you share any crazy/wild/inspiring stories about any of the headliners/performers?
Dealing with artists is always an interesting experience and we often have to jump over a number of challenging hurdles to ensure they are looked after properly. However, they are the stars of the show – and we know they need to be accommodated correctly.
There have been a number of incidents when an artist’s rider has not been 100% to their liking and they have threatened not to go on stage. One time this meant we had to chop up towels to make the specific number of 12 handkerchiefs one of our headliners required.
One story which impacted us as a team was last summer when Wiley arrived to the festival 4 hours early! We were well aware of previous stories of last minute cancellations, not to mention him tweeting a week before that he was cancelling his next show due to a sore throat which left us all in panic mode. I am pretty sure I saw Will well up when he saw that tweet!
When he arrived backstage our whole game plan changed. We turned our only dressing room into Wiley’s own private area, (thankfully Shaggy came with his own tour bus). We had to make a few trips to Nandos and restock on specific drinks that he requested on the day, however him being there so early really changed the atmosphere backstage for the better. He was really happy to engage, take photos and do interviews, which set a precedent for other artists backstage. It was also a great testament to us that the only other UK festival he came to that summer was Glastonbury too. Big up Wiley…
What have you learned from doing it yourself? Would you recommend independence is the way forward? And have you received interest or support form any majorly-backed corporation?
Doing this ourselves has been such a blessing but as you can imagine has come with some real challenges. I would most certainly recommend others to remain independent for as long as possible as I am a firm believer that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. If you had told me 4 years ago when we put on our first festival for 800 people that in 4 years time we were going to hosting 18,000 people over a weekend I would of thought you were crazy. However remaining independent has allowed us to maintain creative control and build the festival as we see fit, not adhering to conventional norms and allowing us to set our own trends and direction. I think with independence also comes an element of respect and credibility – we have been forced to grow up ‘business-wise’ very quickly, and have had to take any falls on our own.
We have done this without any hand-outs or financial backing, relying and believing in our product to make ends meet. This has often left us in a position where we couldn’t pay ourselves due to cash flow issues but we are still alive and kicking, that is what matters!
This year we have been approached by a few big corporations about acquisition and investment however we’ve all felt that it was too soon to give up complete control just yet. I suppose there will come a time where we have to weigh up what’s best for the company in the long term. For the time being though, it is ours.
Now, music of black origin/urban music, is infiltrating the main stream more and more. This is great for the industry all round, but how has it affected you guys, if at all, and how do you compete for the festival-goers money with other festivals who are also bringing through the big names of the game?
The rise in popularity has been both a good and a bad thing for us. It has firstly increased our market as more people especially in the Cambridge area are becoming accustomed to the music that we have championed since day dot. However the challenge now arises from the fact that we have to be more creative/clever with whom we book for a few reasons. Firstly the price of the artists has shot up enormously.
Being independent we don’t have anywhere near the budgets of some of the major festivals like Wireless and Lovebox, which can sometimes limit our options (not that we would change one name on the line-up this year). The Stormzy’s and Skepta’s of the game are now out of the question for us despite booking Skepta in just our second year. We have had to be brave on a number of occasions and book artists early, trusting Frazer and Preye’s ears about how well they think an artist is going to do in the months leading up to the festival. We were really lucky with J-Hus, securing him straight after our 2016 festival before he dropped his mercury nominated album ‘Common Sense’, which made him one of the hottest properties for the summer of 2017. Similarly this year with Octavian, we managed to book him a few weeks before his Drake ‘co-sign’. We are buzzing to see him this year
We also have to try and stand out somewhat for the crowd and book artists that aren’t all over the summer circuit. We were fortunate enough to book T-Pain on a UK Festival Exclusive which has been a real USP for us this year, giving people a reason to come to us rather than staying in London and seeing similars faces play closer to home. This also pushes us to develop other areas of the festival in terms such as our onsite content and exclusive areas around the festival. We want to be an adventure playground for 18-26 year olds rather being a big concert in a field. We are also one of the only 18+ festivals in the UK, which impacts the vibe on the day too.
What can we expect for the future of the festival and you guys?
There is a lot in store for the development of Strawberries & Creem and our company as a whole. We will definitely look at expanding across two days in some capacity as it makes a lot of economic sense and we feel that the demand is there now.
There has also been some discussion about using the brand for other events in different locations or even starting up completely different festival under the same umbrella and benefiting from the economies of sales and the 5 year experience we’ve gained. All of this depends on how things go this year and if we can afford to grow the team to expand the business. As a group we are a really tight unit and have developed a strong friendship off the back of working together, so I expect we will continue to grow as a group. We all buzz off each other and are constantly thinking of new ideas for the direction we want to take the festival in and the company as whole.
I think our aim over the next few years will be to grow the festival capacity and create a mainstay of the UK festival market, with a recognisable brand that is on the tip of everyone’s tongues as summer approaches each year. We can only pray…
Strawberries & Creem takes place on Saturday 16th June 2018 at Haggis Farm, Cambridge. Final tickets are available from: www.strawberriesandcreem.com