FEATURE: Summer Streets Festival | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Last year’s inaugural Summer Streets Festival – held in Thompson Park in Sunderland, one of the city’s best-kept leafy green secrets – was a one day spectacular of music and culture that brought the community together and helped to put the city’s underprivileged north side on the map. Together with members of the Cultural Spring and a wealth of figures from around the local community, ex-Futureheads man and current Frankie & The Heartstrings member Ross Millard has once again put together a spectacular event within the park, featuring music from acts such as Hyde & Beast, Big Red and the Grinners, Hillfolk Noir and Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. This year’s festivities also extend across two days, with an Alice In Wonderland themed Sunday aiming to provide a day of culture for some much younger punters.

With the recent expansion across the whole weekend and an impressive array of local music, arts and crafts taking place over the two days, Summer Streets is already establishing itself as a highlight on Sunderland’s cultural calendar. I talked to Ross about the success of the event, what’s in store this year and how the festival is carrying a cultural beacon for the city after the untimely demise of Split.

So how has planning for Summer Streets been this year?

It’s been really beneficial to have already done one last year. Last year was a little more difficult because even just explaining the idea behind it wasn’t easy. But a lot of those local community groups or artists have either been involved last time or were involved as a punter or had heard about it. So there’s a bit more of an easy way in this year. Making it better is the priority, so we’ve gone to two days, more people are involved, there’s more things going on and just more outreach things in the build-up.

What’s the plan for the site?

A bit like last year, really. Apart from the weather everything that could have gone well for us did, so there’s not a lot to change. There’s four main stages and performance areas, and then we’ve got two tepees. One will have Pop Recs in and in that one there’ll be crafts and storytelling, and then in the second tepee there’s some singing workshops and some theatre. There’s lots of food, lots of street food, and Wylam Brewery are here this year, which they weren’t last year.

The Sunday is a lot more children-focused because as part of the cultural calendar we agreed we’d have a tea party, croquet, a film screening, food based around that too. There is some live music on the Sunday but it’s mainly on the Saturday.

On the Saturday we’ve got Hyde & Beast as the headliners and they’re gonna do a bit of a set with a community choir that the cultural spring have set up. We’re mindful of the fact that the majority of the bill is local music and that is what it’s all about, but there still has to be something special about it to make the festival significant. So we’ve also got Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra coming over, who don’t often play in Sunderland, Big Red and the Grinners, they’ll go down well I think. And we’ve got a few things coming over from the Americana Festival as well at the Sage. Loads of local bands on the community side of it too.

There is quite a range of different genres at the festival, and I was wondering why you decided to try and make it diverse.

I think for us, really, often a music festival is set up with different things in mind but there’s always a commercial factor. Having a very specialist bill is standard practice at the majority of festivals. But because this is a Cultural Spring thing, we didn’t want to be concerned with that and wanted it to be more of an introduction to what’s happening here. Especially by having it in Southwick, where there isn’t a great deal of live music going on, even though there’s a lot of enthusiastic people there. What we wanted to do was just to be an across-the-genres glimpse of what’s happening locally. It does expose people to a wider variety of music, and that’s the main aim. This year, even though 90% of the artists are different, the approach has been very similar.

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“because of doing this, I was introduced to a whole world of musicians who are doing it with totally different ambitions”

Has it been difficult to continue that approach at all?

It’s been rewarding for me because you get in this situation where you think you know what’s going on like with Split, you think you’ve got it all down and then all of a sudden because of doing this, I was introduced to a whole world of musicians who are doing it with totally different ambitions. I lot of these people aren’t in bands or into music with lofty ambitions of playing in front of a massive audience or getting a record deal or traveling the world, they’re just doing it for the love of music and to do something, just get out of the house and be sociable. And it just so happens that a lot of that sort of music is outside of the traditional, typical indie-rock bracket.

It’s funny you bring up Split because obviously it happened last year and so did Summer Streets but now there’s no more Split, would you be looking for Summer Streets to fill that hole a little bit?

I think what it offers is very different to what Split offers. But the premise of Summer Streets is more sustainable in Sunderland because it already has the support of the Arts Council and the Cultural Spring. It kind of, in a weird way, does more for more people. I mean I miss Split and I think the last one we did was probably the best one we did. Our audience for Split plateaued at 2500-3000 punters, and we were at that for about three years and couldn’t get beyond it. And financially it’s just not possible to run a festival of that scale on those ticket sales without corporate sponsorship or other things that we didn’t have. So in a way, Summer Streets has a very different set of goals. I do think that if this year’s a success and we do it again next year, then we might start considering booking bigger artists from outside the area. That would be something that could expand the festival.

I think Split highlights the fact that at the moment in music live agents and bands in general are making so much more of a living out of touring than they are selling records, to the point where the live side has almost had to become more lucrative for the bands. And that means the festival organiser has to pay so much more for that artist than they would have five or ten years ago.

I mean you had some massive people on, I can only imagine how extortionate they must have been!

It was through the roof! And we were always scrapping around trying to get the best deals you know. But for its size I think the line up was comparable to anywhere in this country for a festival with 3000 people at it… The line up was similar if not better. But what it takes to make that next step up is so astronomical in terms of the finance that it was never going to be possible for us but I think someone will come along with a great idea and a really savvy knack for booking artists that have got an amazing following.

It’s tough you know because disposable income and that isn’t the best and we were desperately, at some points, trying to make Split free entry, and if we could get the money back from the bar and advertising. It just marginally wasn’t possible. So you have to go the other way and charge a reasonable amount for tickets without it being crazy expensive and then you know that you’re gonna be down on numbers, so you can’t really win in the short term. But if someone is crazy minted and wants to back the arts comes along and put it on from scratch then… you know.

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“there’s a lot of things going for Sunderland at the minute. That’s not just going to dwindle away and die”

That’s the thing, it’s getting the right people in the right place at the right time isn’t it?

But there’s a lot of things going for Sunderland at the minute. That’s not just going to dwindle away and die. I think there’s enough going on underneath to help it get better.

Green shoots, things are happening slowly.

There’s a lot of people with the best intentions and I think that does count for a lot as well you know. As long as you can turn that into action you know.

So at the minute the Sunday at the Summer Streets is fairly small but would that be the next step for expansion next year if it went well?

I think it’s a testing of the waters to see if we can do it over two days because the turnout was really good last year I thought. I mean, the first few hours of the day was just glorious sunshine and then the weather was so, so bad that it really suffered. Electrical storm and all that, so as bad as it could probably get! I think this year it should be better, and free entry helps. From our perspective we’re always going to want more people and the more densely populated it is makes for better festivals, the best response, best atmosphere. Sunday is a bit of a trial in terms of doing something slightly different, changing the format, it’s been dictated a bit by us agreeing to do some of the Alice in Wonderland stuff but I think that’s good because it’s given it a bit of an identity. And coming away from the festival last year they were wanting there to be more stuff that pretty much caters for families, since the schools have just broken up.

It’s good for them to have something else on the calendar.

Yeah well, you know, that’s it. Hopefully this is something that people look forward to you know, a thing in the calendar that’s always there. That would be really great. It might outlast something like the Cultural Spring itself, as long as people take to it. Especially in the Southwick area, it’s been really well backed by the local community in terms of preparations for it. You’ve schools and little groups doing installations for the park, and working on other little projects too, so that’s quite exciting.

Do you think it’s that community aspect that gives it that extra edge and identity rather than being something a bit faceless and corporate?

That’s definitely what it can’t be, even if it is financed by the Arts Council it can’t have that corporate look or feel about it. And you know what’s Sunderland’s like, anything that’s successful is built on that community, DIY element and people fancying doing something and going and doing it. So that’s how it’ll get bigger and better. And the community aspect hasn’t got to be code for poor quality you know, just because there’s some local groups involved doesn’t mean they’ll be out of place against anyone else on the bill, you know. There’s still standards. It’s not like “aw I know such and such who plays the bagpipes let’s get him on.” I wouldn’t want to be involved in it if it was like that and neither would other people, we wouldn’t get a regular audience. The only way you can build on the audience is if it’s good. The proof is in the pudding but I’m pretty confident.

Summer Streets takes place at Thompson Park, Sunderland on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th July.

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