Simon Forshaw: The Man From Metropolis
June 2010 Issue 130
Former medical student Simon Forshaw talks to Mark Cunningham about how a simple idea for a gig by Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp evolved into one of the world’s most successful summer festivals...
Over the weekend of August 21-22, Kings Of Leon, Kasabian, Paul Weller, Faithless, The Prodigy, Florence and The Machine, Cheryl Cole, the Pet Shop Boys, Mika, Goldfrapp, Madness and The Specials will be just a few of the major acts performing across the twinned sites of Chelmsford’s Hylands Park and Weston Park in Staffordshire at the 15th annual V Festival.
That 22nd letter of the alphabet evokes a whole range of bizarre memories for me — not least of the wild and wacky years aboard the SSE tour bus, the much-frequented backstage bar that TPi and the PSA took over from the then-defunct Live! magazine, a less-than-sober conversation with Liam Gallagher who insisted that he knew the meaning of life, and a defining performance by Faithless at V99 that confirmed once and for all that God was indeed a DJ.
One man who knows all about the challenges associated with delivering the best possible package for an ever more demanding audience is Simon Forshaw, the festival manager at promoter Metropolis Music, who has been a key figure in V’s evolution since it began in 1996.
Sitting in the boardroom at Metropolis’ office in Kentish Town, north London, Forshaw remembers the early challenges. “The first few years were difficult,” he says. “I’ll be honest — in 1996 we didn’t really know what we were doing and it took two or three festivals to get a lot of issues ironed out properly.
“Now that we’ve got to the place we’ve always needed to get to, it’s just a case of making small improvements each year and making the audience experience that little bit better.”
Those who attended V96 would hardly recognise the festival as it stands today, says Forshaw. “It started out with Pulp wanting to play a pair of outdoor shows — one up north and one in the south — so came up with Victoria Park in Warrington and Hylands Park in Chelmsford, Essex as the best locations.
“In the north, it was just a regular one-day Pulp show but we had two days in Chelmsford with Paul Weller on the second. It proved to be very successful and we just progressed from there.”
It could be argued that timing is everything when launching a new festival. And in the case of V, it’s timing — precisely at the height of the BritPop boom — was perfect. Forshaw appears to agree.
“It wasn’t timed for that reason but, yes, in hindsight it was a great period in terms of a resurgence of interest in live music, so it was a very fortunate coincidence. Of course, back then we didn’t have the saturation of festivals that we have today, and it was felt that there was plenty of room for a new one.
“We’ve always been at Hylands Park but we moved swiftly from Warrington to Temple Newsam in Leeds, but that didn’t work out too well in the end. Our current northern site, Weston Park in Telford, was a major improvement and we’ve certainly settled there now. It’s really grown up to be a lovely place for both the audience and us.”
BEST LAID PLANS
If his original career ambitions had been fruitful, Forshaw would now be a practising doctor. He relocated to London in order to study at St. Thomas’s Medical School but was shown the door after a year. Another three years of study followed at the London School of Pharmacy for three years but Foreshaw dropped out of the finals.
“Meanwhile I was pushing boxes at the Students Union,” he says. “There used to be a lot of gigs at ULU, run by Bob Angus and Paul Hutton, who was the social secretary there and is now a Metropolis director. I started working on the stage crew and gradually did more and more with Bob, who founded Metropolis in 1985. I joined a few years later.
“Metropolis started out by cornering the Goth/indie market but by the time I joined we were doing arena tours with likes of The Christians.”
Apart from jointly running the GigsAndTours.com online ticket facility, Metropolis Music and SJM Concerts spend the majority of each year competing for live acts. The V Festival is an exception where they come together on common ground.
Denis Desmond, Bob Angus and Simon Moran — the respective MDs of MCD Productions, Metropolis Music and SJM Concerts — are the V Festival directors who share an interest in both sites, with SJM looking after the northern site while Metropolis manages the south.
Forshaw, whose senior colleagues are production site manager Tony Wheeler and SJM’s north site festival manager Andy Redhead, says: “I can’t see our division of sites changing because it works so well. One of our shared goals is for the sites to be a mirror image of each other. So we offer the same facilities and the same suppliers for corresponding stages in the north and south, enabling those companies to communicate effectively and deliver the identical packages. By doing that, it becomes a seamless transition for the bands.”
Many of the production companies hired by V have been involved since the festival began, says Forshaw. “Tony Wheeler of Nine Yards has always been our production site manager and a lot of the recommendations came from him because, basically, he knew better.
“We’ve acquired a lot of knowledge over the subsequent 14 years and although we don’t want a completely new set of companies turning up each year, we have made a few informed changes as we’ve grown up. It means that occasionally someone can come in with a fresh eye and spruce things up a little.
“For instance, Flying Saucers were our caterers for what seemed like forever, but then Eat To The Beat (ETTB) came in last year when we put the job out to tender. What I love about ETTB is that they have some brilliant, often surprising ideas for menus, and that’s what makes them the best in their field.”
The SSE Audio Group is one of V’s ‘pioneer’ production suppliers and will again be supplying the sound systems and crew for the two main stages — the V stage and Channel Four stage — this August.
Forshaw comments: “Capital Sound were previously the second audio company on the gig and they ran stage three [currently unsponsored] for several years. When we introduced stage five, we brought in Adlib Audio to run that, and that was their toehold into the site. Then, after we dispensed with stage five, we gave them stage four.
“Through a tendering process, coupled with the fact that we do a lot of other work with them over the year, we decided to pass stage three to Adlib as well. I think it’s testimony to how much Adlib have matured over the years.”
ESS had been the main stage supplier for a long period and “did a very fine job” but Forshaw’s team reassessed the situation a couple of years ago, bringing Stageco into the mix.
“Stageco are incredibly quick at loading in and loading out — it’s almost miraculous!” praised Forshaw. “They deliver exactly what they promise and they’re very efficient at doing so.
“I’m not saying that everyone else isn’t but Stageco just have certain qualities that distinguish them. It’s no surprise that they’ve earned some of the biggest touring contracts in the world.”
Meanwhile, the Star Events Group continues to provide stages two, three and four [Virgin Media Union stage], as well as towers and rigging. “We get a very good package from Star and always have,” says Forshaw.
The annual tendering process appears to be a formality across most disciplines, but Forshaw says that lighting escapes it. “We’ve never bothered because Dave Ridgway at Neg Earth Lights has always delivered an amazing service across both sites and I see no reason to reinvent that wheel. Dave knows the budget and aligns the spec to fit, and that’s the same for most of the firms.
“Power Logistics handle our generators and they’re another example of this, as are Mojo and Event Solutions for barriers, Eve for trackway, Stage Miracles for stage crew, Rollalong Hire and Search for temporary offices and toilets, and Tony Ball’s Show & Event Security who cover the whole site [G4S operates the Weston Park security].”
Video is the one area that differs between the north and south sites, in terms of suppliers. “Creative Technology provide video screens at both sites and XL Video supply the cameras and PPU at Weston Park, while Blink TV give us a larger package for the V and Channel Four stages at Chelmsford because all the filming for TV happens there.
“XL will also be bringing in cameras and side screens for stage three at both sites this year, which we’ve never done before.”
Other regular V vendors include Arena Structures, Kayam and AJ Big Tops (tents), CBA (Internet & phone system), Steelshield (fencing) and NRB (radios).
Forshaw and his team hire the services of Phil Storr at West Yorkshire-based MRL to assemble the appropriate documentation for risk assessments and general event safety operations, as well as looking after on-site health and safety.
“For me, one of the greatest practical advantages of the Internet is the ability to upload all of that information to a secure server, so that we can give the local council instant access to those crucial documents,” says Forshaw.
“Given the amount of paperwork it used to generate, we must now be saving a couple of forests every year!”
Being located a safe distance from residential areas, neither site suffers from notable environmental noise issues, explained Forshaw. “We have Vanguardia Consulting on board to oversee that but, in any case, SSE have a lot of experience with setting up their PAs so that the sound is directed with minimal spill outside of each arena.”
Then, of course, there is the matter of protecting the audience from hearing damage. Forshaw explains: “A couple of years ago we got involved with a company that makes very funky-looking specialised ear plugs and we sell these at a discounted price from the merchandising stands and wristband exchanges. But for those not wishing to part with money, there’s always the plain, disposable foam plugs available free from stewards.
“The uptake seems to be slower in the UK than on the continent and people here tend to still think of ear protection as a bit lame, which is a worry.”
In relation to event safety, it’s interesting that whilst there is a perception that all promoters compete — sometimes ruthlessly — against each other, Forshaw points out that they are constantly swapping notes about how to deal with H&S legislation and site issues because, as he says: “They affect us all so we can agree to make changes all at once.”
This August’s line-up of artists is typical of the high quality that V has consistently maintained, and yet Forshaw insists that it’s the icing on the cake for the regular crowd.
He says: “People come to V for the overall experience and if they’ve been a few times, they know the kind of acts we’ll be booking. In fact, the way they are treated on-site is about as important as the bands on stage because it’s all about having a great weekend.
“We sold 25,000 tickets this year before we even announced any bands, and that’s often the case with some of the other established festivals.
“This year we’re moving a couple of existing things around. We introduced a fairground last year and we’re changing how we do that. We still have the four stages in the same positions along with the Strongbow and Bacardi bars.
“We tried having a Friday night disco in the stage three tent before the cinema starts, taking our lead from Weston Park, and it was a roaring success — the tent was rammed! So we’ll be doing that again this year.”
The camping infrastructure is one aspect that has had to develop due to high demand.
“We’ve had camping in Chelmsford since the start when we had roughly a 9,000 capacity on one [Blue] site. It wasn’t anywhere near the smooth operation we have now!” admits Forshaw.
“There were people stumbling around in the dark trying to queue up for wristbands and three box office windows that couldn’t cope. So we learned a lot from that and made some massive changes to the way we handle the whole camping scenario.
“The Red and Yellow camping sites were added later on land owned by local farmers, which allows us to use more of the park itself for parking and helps reduce the amount of on-site rubbish that camping generates.”
The festival has always been promoted under the Virgin Group sponsorship umbrella and been used as a vehicle to market specific products, such as Virgin Cola at the inaugural 1996 event and, currently, Virgin Media.
Encouraged by the success of V in the UK, a North American Virgin Festival was launched in 2006, followed by Australia’s own V Festival soon after. Forshaw insists that there are no links whatsoever with the UK production, other than sharing the sponsor’s name.
“They are Virgin-driven and organised events that use local promoters, but they’re nothing to do with us. There was talk about us possibly advising the Australians but it didn’t come to anything.
“It’s funny, we’ve actually received letters of complaint addressed to Richard Branson. People think that because the festival is brand as V, Virgin run the event. It’s a bit like complaining to Carlsberg about the performance of Liverpool F.C.!”
This seemed as good a time as any to ask Forshaw if he’s grown sick of claims that V has become too commercial and is designed for people who would not normally attend a festival. “Yes, because it’s not and those claims have become a bit tiresome,” he replies through gritted teeth.
“If you look around, nearly every festival is branded and it’s a commercial reality that you can’t possibly put on an event of this consistent quality without sponsorship. A lot of people have no idea of how much these events cost to run. It’s more a case of how to be sensitive with the branding and how much of you have.
“It’s difficult because we’ve got that tag but the branding is no more visible than anywhere else. And, for the most part, the people who come to V have no problem with it and if they did, we wouldn’t be sold out every year.”
As my visit to Metropolis Towers comes to an end, I ask Forshaw if he has a favourite memory from the past 14 years at V. “It has to be The Prodigy in 1997,” he beams. “They absolutely stormed the place; the park was bouncing and the hair on the back of my neck literally stood on end. It’s moments like that make me realise why I do this.”