Fiona Stewart has ridden the ups and downs of the entertainment scene to turn the Green Man into one of Europe’s most-loved music festivals, writes Maria McGeoghan.
Fiona Stewart has seen the tide turn in the world of music festivals. From having eggs thrown at her during one particularly stormy licensing meeting to getting a letter of thanks from a local Waitrose for all the extra business from festival-goers, times have definitely changed. And, in the intervening years, Stewart has become one of the best-known names in the festival industry and the power behind the Green Man Festival held in Brecon every summer. Thousands of people flock to Crickhowell for an amazing music line-up, food, politics, art, crafts, film, comedy, Welsh beer and much more.
With no corporate sponsorship, and a green and sustainable ethos, The Green Man is one of the few independent festivals left and is seen as one of the best in Europe. And, from the moment she starts to talk about her beloved Green Man, which she owns and runs, you can tell that Stewart absolutely loves what she does and is proud to have come a long way in life after a difficult start.
“I’ve been around music all my life,” she says. “At a young age I was always helping out with bands and trying to see what they needed.”
The youngest in her family, Stewart left home in her early teens when her mother had begun to develop severe mental health issues. At 18, after a period of living in squats and on sofas, she found herself in a homeless shelter with a new-born son.
Stewart then began working with the drag artistes of Camden, who looked after her and brought her in to their family. Eventually, Stewart and her son were given their own flat, which was to signal the start of a whole new life and she eventually went to university to study psychology.
Stewart’s experience of living on a low income with a little one to look after is a thread that runs through the whole Green Man experience. “I know what it’s like to be a single mum with not much money, so we have amazing things for kids to do from learning circus skills to learning to DJ in our teenage area called ‘Somewhere’,” she explains. “Teenagers need that space to do their own thing.”
The Green Man site is also open for “Settlement” the week running up to the festival, which allows families a low-cost camping holiday before the festivities begin. And again, tickets are priced with families in mind, with kids under five free and under 12s costing £30.
Stewart’s association with festivals started in the late 1990s when she was asked to try and turn around the famous Big Chill Festival and bring it back from the brink. “A friend told me it was having problems so I went as a consultant to try and sort it out,” says Stewart. “Then I had to stay to see it through. I loved it. I was building it up to be how I wanted it to be. It was a terrific time of development. We went from 3,000 tickets to 42,000 in seven years at different sites around the country.”
And that’s when Stewart came face to face with the “Not In My Backyard” brigade, who were prepared to fight tooth and nail to stop a festival turning up on their doorsteps. “I negotiated the festival licences and tried to get the councils and the communities onside,” she says. “I remember one festival in Dorset when you would have thought the Vikings were coming. They even took everything valuable out of the church.
“I remember people screaming and throwing eggs at me at another meeting. It was up to us to try and create trust with the community.
“Then, in 2003, the whole licensing system changed and it was a lot easier to get permission after that. It was a much fairer system.”
Shortly after that, Stewart decided that she wanted to do something for herself and settled on the Green Man Festival. She says: “I’d always been in touch with the people who started it and the concept started to develop into a business.
“I’ll always remember going to a sheep farm in Crickhowell and we drove around it at what seemed like 1,000 miles an hour looking for potential sites.
“Then I saw a bungalow and a garden and I thought that that was the perfect spot. I thought it would make a great amphitheatre.”
The new Green Man was up and running and ticket sales went up from 500 to 6,000 in one year. It was the start of a real success story, which has seen the festival go from strength to strength with 15,000 tickets sold every year and up to 25,000 people on site during the course of the whole event.
In 2010, Green Man was awarded the “UK Best British Festival Award” and people come from as far as Norway, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, the United States, and Sweden to enjoy the event. But this successful run hasn’t been without its problems, particularly when the world went off a financial cliff in 2008. Green Man’s merchant account underwriters went into liquidation and money was in short supply.
“Oh yes, we’ve had some quite challenging times,” says Stewart. “No-one was lending any money so we had real cash flow problems.
“I re-mortgaged my house, but I still had to find £740,000 in a recession. I rang all the contractors and said we’re not going to make it this year.”
But then something amazing happened. “I got a call to say that they had all got together and they were going to give me credit until after the festival. It was a worrying time. My hair started falling out and I was looking like an old hag.”
Then in 2012 a horse trials held just before the festival damaged the site and the Welsh Government stepped in to help her sort it out. “That was pretty awful too,” says Stewart. “We lost £1.2m that year.”
Nowadays, Green Man sells 5,000 tickets even before the line-up is announced and is always a sell-out. And, despite the huge array of other treats on offer, good music is at the heart of the four-day August festival with names like the Fleet Foxes and The War on Drugs just two of the hundreds of acts performing.
“We’ve never had a problem getting amazing performers because the people we approach want to play Green Man,” says Stewart. “The music is very, very important.
“We’ve got six music stages, including the amazing ‘Big Mountain’ stage, which has the Black Mountains as a back drop.
American artists want to be on that stage, it’s such a dramatic background. When we spoke to PJ Harvey who played last year I think we just had to show her a picture of that stage to convince her.”
And there’s a lot more than music to enjoy. “The Green Man is a lifestyle event,” explains Stewart. “The food is as good as you will get at any food festival. We’re also proud to feature a Welsh beer festival and there’s a science area with representatives from universities like Cardiff and Cambridge.
“You can dance all night, stay up and watch comedy or sit in a hot tub looking at the stars with a glass of prosecco. It’s not for an age group or type.”
Unlike many other festivals, those who come are encouraged to go out and explore Wales, where they have a big impact on the local economy. Stewart says: “Around 75% of people are from outside Wales, so I’m pleased that we are a wealth creator. I once got a letter of thanks from Waitrose in Abergavenny for all the business we had sent their way and during the festival the local butchers said it was like Christmas day every day.
“We have every sort of accommodation from B&B to cottages to five-star hotels. Green Man is very important for the local economy.”
Even the worst that a Welsh summer can throw at you doesn’t appear to dampen spirits. “People say that it rains every year and yes, that is true,” Stewart smiles. “We are in the mountains. You can be muddy and sunburned all on the same day.
“They come well prepared. I’ve seen six-person gazebo tents with their own entrance hall and we give them rubbish bags, so they can tidy up after themselves. They take pride in the space. This is not a druggy event.”
Stewart’s company, Plant Pot, employs six people full time but, during the festival, it has 48 managers who come back year after year. “We do it all ourselves,” she says. “Bars, production, stewarding, everything is within the company. We could make more money.
“We are one of the few independents left and I value the choices we can make. I’m not down on sponsorship but I’d prefer to have 32 Welsh brewers showing off what they can do instead.”
Plant Pot’s turnover is £4.2m but that includes other ventures like the Kings Cross Welsh Beer Festival, which Stewart got off the ground a few years ago.
“Yes, Green Man makes a profit – but I’m not going to tell you how much,” laughs Stewart. “A lot goes in and a lot goes out.”
Green Man’s charitable arm has already raised £500,000 for good causes.
So, now to the big question. Of all the musicians she has encountered over the years, who is the best? “I once looked after hospitality for David Bowie at Glastonbury in 2000,” remembers Stewart. “He was my hero, so I spent a lot of time trying not to look muddy.
“He was supposed to arrive by helicopter but there wasn’t room to land so he had to come by car. Lots of people were banging on the car as he went past so he was a bit rattled by the time he arrived. He was a bit nervous about playing on the Pyramid Stage. David Bowie nervous. I’ll always remember how nice he was to talk to.”
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