East Neuk Festival Director Svend McEwan-Brown on the joy of small festivals

Small regional and rural festivals are national treasures reckons East Neuk Festival Director Svend McEwan-Brown – and well worthy of your support.

There’s something brilliant about going to a concert in a barn wearing your wellies. Put more seriously: concerts in special places make your listening deeper and more intense than, say, at a weekly subscriber concert. Wellies are sometimes needed at my festival in coastal Fife – the – though it is no Glastonbury: folk like a seat rather than a field. They also prefer barns or even caves to fully kitted up concert halls. For some reason, those places make them more open to more kinds of music, the same kinds I had great difficulty selling in Glasgow’s concert halls. ENF’s large-scale new commissions this year were among the first things to sell out, even De Profundis for 60 amateur brass players in the dark. That event and its big audience represent a kind of magic, also worked at other music festivals across the UK.

Laura Snowden
Laura Snowden plays the Presteigne Festival.

These festivals are national treasures. Their work may start with music, but it extends powerfully into the fabric of our communities just like my local bookshop/cafe. I live in the country, and love that something so excellent is right there on the High Street. It has become part of village life: people meet up there surrounded by books and food. It goes further: it brings famous authors to speak; its ‘book bus’ takes writers into local schools. Its 5* rating on TripAdvisor puts us on the map, so visitors come from afar for words, cakes and coffee. It makes our village a better place to live. Substitute ‘music’ for ‘book’ and you have what many regional music festivals do in their communities.

Ever since Benjamin Britten founded Aldeburgh Festival, these festivals have been popping up all over our map. Few survive year one, but those that do are run mostly by people who don’t want to just put on a few concerts: we want to leave audiences with amazing memories of the intense joy of live music. We want it to permeate our community, to inspire local amateur musicians to share the stage with the big names. I have talked to many people whose life has been changed through such experiences.

Many of these festivals put more prestigious, better-funded events to shame when it comes to programming flair and commitment to new music.

Britten taught us that ‘regional’ or ‘rural’ should never mean unambitious or second-rate. Many of these festivals put more prestigious, better-funded events to shame when it comes to programming flair and commitment to new music. Take a look at the programmes of Cumnock Tryst or Presteigne Festival. We proudly play our part in the local economy: 60 per cent of my audience comes from beyond Fife: they have to eat, travel, stay somewhere; they like to shop and visit local attractions. It all adds up to a cash injection for the area.

Sadly, the things that make these festivals so special are also their challenges. Like other rural businesses, we operate far from the big cities, so have less easy access to lobbying politicians, media, funding, sponsorship and population than our city peers. We just have to shout louder and better to be heard – and that is nothing new. But the additional challenge of coping with funding cuts right now puts an ever-tighter squeeze on budgets, and some of these festivals will find themselves unable to continue. If they do go under we will lose so much, much more than the chance to wear wellies to a concert.