How to run a festival

Isle Of Wight Festival boss John Giddings explains how to handle diva demands, book bands and what to do if Paul McCartney needs false nails...


The Who, Queen and Stereophonics with Faithless are confirmed as headliners for Isle Of Wight Festival.

But how does the bill get put together? How do you handle a megastar being a diva? Is Isle Of Wight Festival organiser John Giddings scrapping it out with Glastonbury boss Michael Eavis for the best headliners? What happens when the campsite gets flooded.

Giddings is also the promoter of tours by The Rolling Stones, Pharrell Williams, Iggy Pop, Blondie and Little Mix. He worked with David Bowie for 30 years until the singer’s death in January.

Having run Isle Of Wight Festival since it restarted in 2002, Giddings shares his secrets with Loaded….


The best headliners take years to book

It took absolutely years to book Fleetwood Mac before they played in 2015. They have more managers than I have hot dinners and you have to know every single person involved. All the planets have to collide for someone like that to happen for you. But it was worth it. Mick Fleetwood was so overcome by the reception the band got, he came back on stage to thank the audience. But he took so long doing so that the rest of the band had done a runner in their cars by the time he got backstage again.



The bigger the star, the more professional they are

The big headliners are more professional. It’s the bands lower down the bill who are more difficult. They’re less capable of getting to the island on time. They learn the hard way, as they don’t have the same professional level of staff working for them.



Musicians have weird demands

When Paul McCartney played in 2010, his manager phoned me at 11am on the ferry over to ask if I could organise acrylic nails. I assumed it was for Pink, who his manager also represents, but I was told it was for Macca. I thought ‘He’s taking the piss. He’s asking for something impossible here, like striped paint.’ But it turns out acrylic nails make your nails stronger to play acoustic guitar with. None of the make-up stalls at the festival had any on site, so I phoned a woman in Cowes who sorted it for Paul and and ended up having dinner with him.



The buck stops here

It’s your money, no-one else’s. And if it goes wrong, everyone else will walk away.

David Bowie with his tour promoter John Giddings
Starman David Bowie with his tour promoter John Giddings.


Admit when you’ve got it wrong

Someone asked me at an industry convention panel two years ago who the headliners in 20 years’ time will be. I said ‘If it’s Ed Sheeran, we’re fucked. He’s really boring.’ I went to the MTV Awards a few weeks later with U2 and Ed was sat in the corner in catering. I thought ‘Shit, I’d better say hello…’ I didn’t want to like him, but Ed is really, really good fun. We went out with Larry and Adam from U2 and I’ve seen Ed a few times since. He’s a good guy and I’d have him play the festival in a heartbeat. And even when I slagged him off, I should have realised that the song in Sons Of Anarchy that I really liked was one of Ed’s.


Help other promoters

Michael Eavis and Melvin Benn, who runs Reading And Leeds Festival and Latitude, are good friends. We compete, but we have a good laugh. I’ve helped Michael and he’s helped me. I helped get The Rolling Stones and David Bowie to play Glastonbury for him. But when I began Isle Of Wight Festival, Michael advised me to just put on Jools Holland with a load of guest singers. Stupid idea.



Always look out for future stars

Even for the smaller stages, you have to book acts six months ahead. People see names like The Struts or The Shires and go ‘Who the hell are they?’, but a year later they’re massive and it’s ‘Oh yeah, I saw them at Isle Of Wight and they were brilliant!’ You need to think they’ll happen in the future. It’s not always bands I like personally, it’s ones who you think will entertain an audience in a field. It’s definitely gambling. I enjoy Second Suns, who sound like a new Rolling Stones to me and I want to see them live myself.



Don’t assume you’ll get to enjoy watching the bands

I’m always doing the job. My mobile is permanently ringing with someone asking me a question. There’s always a drama going on somewhere: someone’s fallen in the river, or someone’s lit a fire on the campsite.


But don’t be afraid to be self-indulgent

I’ve indulged myself lots of times by putting on the artists I loved as a teenager: Donovan, The Zombies, Jethro Tull, Procul Harum… People might think ‘Why are those old bastards playing?’ but once they see them it’s ‘My God, they can really play.’



Borrow ideas from other festivals

I go to other festivals all the time. You pick up ideas all the time and you learn things like the fact that cashless festivals don’t work yet. You have to believe in your way of doing it, and you do that not by bullying people but by persuading them that what you think is right.


Festivals need more rock bands

I’d like to see more good rock bands. My dream would be to manage a band like U2 or Free. There’s a lot of good new rock bands out there, but it’s harder for them to get the exposure. Royal Blood stick out like a sore thumb. I’d love to have AC/DC or Aerosmith headline the festival. As for Guns N’ Roses reforming, I’d take a chance on them headlining, absolutely. I love them. Whether they’d go on stage on time is a different matter.


Plan ahead

I’m looking at 2018 headliners. And the festival won’t necessarily always be at Seaclose Park. We own the farm where the campsite is, but one year we had bad rain and had to spend £250,000 building new roads. I couldn’t have afforded that without my other touring business. Retirement? My doctor says if you retire, you get ill. I don’t like gardening or golf, so I’m fucked. Besides, how many people get the opportunity to invite the best acts in the world to the south coast, invite their mates and have a great time?

Isle Of Wight Festival stars The Who, Queen, Stereophonics, Faithless, Richard Ashcroft, Jess Glynne, Busted, The Cribs and Adam Ant on June 9-12. Tickets are here.


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