Sheffield: Fest City

So this summer, we’ve had two festivals in Sheffield – Tramlines, now into its fourth year, and the brand-new Sheftival. I was at both – I did A LOT OF THINGS at both. And before I say anything else, I want to stress that I really enjoyed both events.

So my review of both has to be read in the light of this – I’m a big supporter of Sheffield events, I had a great time overall and although there are a few things I think didn’t quite work (especially with Sheftival – but it’s the first time they did it, of course there would be things that didn’t work), there were loads of things that did, and my review of the two is going to acknowledge both what was brilliant about the two festivals and what was less brilliant. I’ll inevitably say more about Sheftival, because, well, for one thing, you were probably all at Tramlines. You know how that goes. And you most likely weren’t all at Sheftival.

Which brings me to the first, and most important point. Well, really, it’s two points, but they’re inseparable: the timing of Sheftival and the Tramlines/Sheftival relationship.

If Sheftival happens again, they absolutely cannot put it on two weeks after Tramlines. We’re all knackered and skint. The two events come out of the same pay packet for most of us – and let’s make no mistake, Tramlines is free, but it’s also, for many of us, very expensive if we don’t take all our own food and drink to the whole thing. In fact, even including my tickets, I spent much less at Sheftival than at Tramlines. But it’s still too much in one fortnight – and I don’t have kids to pay for. While we’re on the money issue, by the way, there have been grumblings about ticket prices – but I think they were excellent value even if you paid the full £24 – which I didn’t – with the Tramlines voucher code I paid £18 plus a £1.50 booking fee, and then I got a fiver refund for walking to the festival on Saturday, so only paid £14.50 for the tickets. But I compare that to Mychoone, which I attended last year in Derbyshire, which was a bargain price and was still dearer (and had less going on) and other similar local festivals – Sheftival is cheap. Very cheap. However, the timing is a problem here again, because two weeks ago, we all got a lot more stuff for no entry fee. Tramlines spoils us a bit.

So there seem to be four options for the future really – and this ties in with the relationship between the two festivals (further muddied by the ‘Tramlines arena’ not having Tramlines’ branding anywhere on it – and it being paid for, when Tramlines markets itself as free forever):

1) One of the reasons given for Sheftival was that the Saturday pop stage at Tramlines was getting too popular and becoming a health and safety risk (I’m not entirely sure that was solved this year anyway – the Saturday was still very popular). If that’s the main reason, then one option would be to make the Don Valley area another Tramlines venue – you could run the bigger stage at either the bowl or the stadium and have smaller stuff on elsewhere. It’s not an ideal option – even putting the cost aside – as it makes the focus split between town and Don Valley – but Tramlines uses non-town venues anyway, and there could be busker’s trams/barges/buses etc between the two. (It could also be run as the paid for arm of Tramlines, but this would ruin the Tramlines free-for-all ethos and be seen as trying to make a mint out of kids).

2) Another option would be to run Sheftival at another time of the year – say Easter, spring bank holiday or August bank holiday – and keep the Tramlines affiliation in terms of it being run in conjunction with them, but maybe not brand things as being a Tramlines venue. I think this is probably the best idea, as it gives sufficient space between the two for people to have the energy and money, and it stops the spectre of Tramlines looming too large over Sheftival. Sheftival was ultimately a really good event (especially the Saturday, which I will come on to) but the timing was not great – and next year there won’t be the Olympics to tie in with anyway.

3) Reinstate the pop stuff at Tramlines as it was, given the Saturday at Tramlines was mental regardless.

4) Carry on just as they did this year – but I think that will be an issue time-wise… I would certainly think twice about how much I could do at both events in terms of money and energy.

It’s also worth pointing out the problem with the Saturday/Sunday element of Sheftival here – Tramlines’ Sunday main stages put the last acts on at 7.15 and 7.45. Sheftival’s Sunday headliners were on at 9pm and finished at 10ish. This is far too late when people have to get up for work – and the poor Lightning Seeds, who were great, had a meagre crowd – the rain, work and the 100 metres final kind of did for them. Had they played an opening set on a Friday night or even closed the festival at 7ish, they’d have gone down much better.

Anyway, all of this leads nicely onto the next point – who are these festivals for?

One of the nice things about both festivals for me has been that they’ve gathered all age groups and ethnicities. But do they both want to do that? Tramlines 2011 was marketed as being free for all (see above) but this year’s publicity and line-up seemed to aim away from that emphasis a bit – however, this didn’t change the clientele – so do Tramlines want kids and young people there or not? It seems a little unfair that “their” music (i.e. chart stuff and pop) is pretty much excluded from the free festival. The only people I saw moaning about Tramlines on Twitter were the teenagers, FWIW.

However, the paid for festival isn’t solely for them, either, with loads of reggae/world on the second stage and, on both stages, some clapped out bands doing the retro circuit for the 30-60+ year olds (like me). And then there are the local bands, the heart of Tramlines, most of them relegated to the fringes of Sheftival (but more on that later). Pop’s not the only genre excluded from Tramlines, of course – there’s no classical and very little country – but Sheftival wasn’t entirely pop, either. Again, I think distance between the two events – or reinstating the pop stage at Tramlines somehow – would overcome some of these issues. Except the classical one – I’m not a classical buff myself, but I think to have it missing from both festivals was somewhat remiss.

That aside, Sheftival had another big issue, namely: the sport angle. It was a lovely idea to tie in the British and Jamaican Olympic medal hopes with Jamaican Independence and music and sports activities and other stuff but the combination of things was also part of the problem with it. The biggest issue here was probably the relationship between the sport activities ad the music ones. On Saturday night, I wasn’t watching the Noisettes – even though I like them, and I only saw a bit of Toots and the Maytals even though everyone says they were the best bit. Why did I miss the two Saturday headliners? I was watching Jess Ennis and Greg Rutherford and Mo Farrah making history in Don Valley Stadium. On Sunday night, I wasn’t watching the fastest 100m ever, I was watching the Lightning Seeds. In the rain. All of those activities would no doubt have been better if everyone at the festival could have participated in them. This isn’t like at Tramlines, where you’re choosing between a bunch of music acts – this is a festival meant to be about sport and music, about celebrating British and Jamaican athletes, but when the crunch came, you had to choose: sport OR music (and many of those who chose sport will have chosen to stay home and watch sport). Not having big screens in the main arena was a real shame.

As well as this, there were confused messages about the sport. Did you know that there were loads of activities at both Don Valley and the English Institute of Sport that were free, whether or not you were a paid up Sheftival-goer? I suspect not. The staff at Don Valley suspected not too, given the lack of people there in the early afternoon (though it did pick up later). Pre-festival communication was very sketchy on what was free and what was paid for – and I know people who thought even the big screen was a paid-for event.

The EIS events needed some sort of timetable printing out – we ventured in there on Saturday afternoon and though some kids were running round in the athletics arena, nothing else was happening, despite the programme saying there’d be loads of sports in there.

Credit where it’s due though, the sport stuff I did see was great. Loved the big screen at Don Valley – seeing Ennis, Rutherford, Farah and Murray getting gold sitting there with hundreds of others was really special and there were so many activities for kids within Don Valley, EIS and the main arena – and if I’d had kids of my own I totally would have joined in (I do think they could have been clearer about what their classes/activities/etc for adults were for those of us in Olympics-induced-delusions about being sporty). Making ice skating free for pass holders was also inspired – just a shame the friend I was with can’t go on the ice so we never made it. I also really enjoyed the Olympic rhythmic gymnastics rehearsals at the Arena.

There were also loads of things for kids in the main arena that weren’t sporty – drumming, craft, Museums Sheffield – I would heartily recommend this event for families if they did something similar in the future.

One of the things they did at Sheftival which was novel was to (mostly) stagger the action on the two stages in the main arena, which were both fairly close to one another. When this worked, it was brilliant – you could avoid watching dull soundchecks, and as one band ended, another was about to begin. However, it didn’t always work: The Crookes’ final song – a ballad – was interrupted by lively reggae from the other stage, and the Jungle Lions had their set cut short to accommodate main stage bands. There was also a problem with the timings on Sunday afternoon – Marcus Collins came on before 4.30, which probably pissed some people off, and there was therefore a gap on both stages around 4.45 with nothing happening at all. If they get the timings right next time, though, this could be great. The JuJu club stage did have a lot more atmosphere than the main stage – and this was probably a combination of it feeling a smaller space and the more ‘goodwill’ type music. I LOVED that you could see both stages at once and keep an eye on what was happening. (I hated all the comperes, but that’s what happens when you need radio stations to sponsor you).

One of the things Tramlines has nailed in the past couple of years is its sub-stages (with a few exceptions sneaking into the line-ups here and there). The Folk Forest at Endcliffe Park, the Acoustic stage at the Cathedral, the World Music (and Youth) stage in the Peace Gardens, the new Jazz stage in Leopold Square and so on – and often the food and drink available has helped these key sites have their own feel.

The smaller stages at Sheftival needed some work. There was a whole Jamaican bit on the bridge area with a DJ booth and barbecue – and yet there were lots of reggae acts in the main arena on the World Music stage. Surely this is a case of splitting the market? They should have brought the barbecue into the main arena and the DJ tent could have been in a corner somewhere.

The Jettyside stage was a lovely space, but hardly anyone was there – and that’s because it lacked branding. Many of the acts here and on the busker’s barge were local acts, but it wasn’t billed as a local act venue (and some of the acts on the main stages were local too). Some of these acts seemed much less comfortable on the Jettyside than they did at Tramlines (although went down a storm on the barge for the most part).

What might have been better would have been to theme the Jettyside more strongly and theme the bar, food stalls and other activities appropriately. I would have maybe moved the local bands to either where the Jamaican stuff was or within the market place area and had an emphasis on local food produce and drinks there, made it a real Sheffield-focused section. And local buskers about the site would have been wonderful, in the many gaps, especially that central one where all the paths converged and there wasn’t much there.

As for the Jettyside, there are several potential themes which would work better, for example:

Teas, cakes, vintage crafts and tea dances
Jazz, soul and cocktails
Classical music, pimms, strawberries and cream teas
Blues and real ale

…and so on

One of the best bits of Tramlines for me was cocktails and jazz in Leopold Square on sunny Saturday afternoon. That, or something similar, at the more beautiful setting of the Sheftival Jettyside would have been utterly wonderful.

Also – the Jettyside probably shouldn’t have carried on as late as it did (especially on Sunday) – an early finish might have been nice. The dance stage, on the other hand, seemed to be more popular by the end of the night.

One of the gems of both festivals has been the busking transport. Lee has done a cracking job curating the Busker’s Buses and Busker’s Barge (although shame on the bands who pulled out of the Tramlines buses and left them busker-less at times). The Busker’s Barge at Sheftival was nearly always over-full, though, and the confusing queueing/ticketing system did not work at all. If they can persuade another barge company to take part, two barges, each running in a different direction, would be epic. A real shame the barge couldn’t run all Saturday afternoon as well.

And Stagecoach can call themselves a partner of both festivals if they like, but only one tram gig? They should be putting on special festival route trams (Using a colour they don’t use already perhaps? Or no colour?) and have buskers on them – and there needed to be way more hometime trams on both Sheftival evenings. Come on Stagecoach, get into the spirit of things.

The walk to the Sheftival site on Saturday was a nice idea (and saved me a fiver) but I got the impression it’d be led and co-ordinated – it wasn’t. We had to do it under our own steam, and via the canal path rather than Five Weirs – quicker, but narrower and muddier. Having people from the event leading this would have been wise – maybe even a busker or two leading us in sing-songs?

OK, this is proving to be the longest blog post ever, but just a few more points. Organisation, marketing and programmes have been a challenge for both events. The decision of Tramlines to move to a paid programme was somewhat controversial, especially given that if you wanted to get a programme in advance, you had to buy one in town and many venues sold out. This would be simply solved by doing three things: 1) Making the app more reliable and available quicker, 2) selling programmes at non-town venues and 3) Having a paid-for pdf version people could download from the site (this last one is a no-brainer, why on earth they didn’t do it is beyond me). That said, the Tramlines programme was a work of beauty (the app less so – though good idea). The Sheftival programme wasn’t amazing – it needed more info on the sport, particularly, and read like a feature supplement, with the programme element a real afterthought.

The Sheftival map was also kind of rubbish – the graphics were too big and the map bit not that easy to read. In these instances, function over form, not the other way round, please. Sheftival would have benefited from more stewards helping direct people like the ones at Tramlines – the security weren’t briefed on anything and must have been sick to death of people asking them questions.

A shout-out has to go out to the litter-pickers and the council for clearing up both festivals admirably, by the way (and to Domino’s for not flyering Tramlines to death like last year). Tramlines could still do with more bins though.

The portaloos at Tramlines seemed better than those at Sheftival, which stank (and one of the walk ways passed through the toilets which was really unpleasant) – neither site had the loos cleaned or replenished enough – and investing in the portaloos with soap/handwash might be a nice thing in future – or at least having stalls selling anti-bac gel/wipes.

Something else to point out: Sheftival had the most beautiful festival wristbands ever! Works of art!

The Nokia glowing wristbands at Tramlines though? Rubbish. We stood towards the back of Reverend and the Makers and no-one around us had a glowing wristband at all. /sadface. The range of those things should have covered the whole of Devonshire Green, not just a tiny patch.

(And note to both festivals on using Twitter: #shftvl and #lumialive did not exactly happen. A tuny fraction of people used these tags, everyone else was using the far more sensible #sheftival and #tramlines – who wants to follow two hashtags? OK Nokia might have forced the LumiaLive thing upon Tramlines, but the idea of using shftvl was just plain stupid!)

OK, home straight now – food and drink. On the food score, Tramlines generally outperformed Sheftival. The Northern Streats market on Fargate was ace, as were the stalls in the Peace Gardens, even if Jackie from Masterchef’s Hungry Gecko stall was never open at lunchtime. The stalls within the main arena seemed OK too. At Sheftival, there were some really nice food stalls on the market area outside EIS, but the ones in the main area were vile. Why not have local food within the main arena? And why only ice cream vans and not Our Cow Molly and Yee Kwaan? Why not go to the likes of Tamper or other local outlets for coffee, or Whirlow Hall Farm and co for the meat? There was a real opportunity missed for celebrating local and multicultural food (see also the Jamaican BBQ comment earlier on).

There were more bars at Sheftival than Tramlines and they were always empty. People brought their kids to Sheftival. They drove. Far fewer people were ever likely to drink booze there than at Tramlines, which only had two, fairly small, bars in the main arena this year, both of which were a nightmare to get served at. Tramlines needs more bars, Sheftival needs fewer (and I think Sheftival’s bars were more expensive than Tramlines’ – not so good). And the champagne bar was far too expensive – plus, it was apparently the main wine outlet, but was branding itself as champagne rather than wine – and this would have been another good Jettyside bar rather than a main stage one, potentially. The Sheftival and Tramlines ales were both quite nice though.

Overall, then. Sheftival had a lot of naysayers, and it certainly wasn’t the flop many of them anticipated. It wasn’t an unmitigated triumph, but it was a very good start for a festival in its infancy. Tramlines is now strong and established but I don’t think it’s entirely solved the issue of what to do with teenagers and kids and whether or not it wants them (I think they should be welcomed, personally, even if it does cause some problems). But what they both have above anything else, is a lovely atmosphere. Whether it was watching the sports on the big screen at Don Valley, being spellbound by Sarah Mac at the Library Theatre and on the Busker’s Barge, experiencing the rush at the end of 65daysofstatic’s set at Barker’s Pool, dancing to Toots and the Maytals at the JuJu club stage, chatting to young adults attempting the high jump at EIS, seeing kids taking penalties on Don Valley bowl, chilling with a burrito and watching people going mad in the dance tent or marvelling at Oxo Foxo singing a choral version of Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ in Sheffield Cathedral and watching people doing the dance in the pews, these were events that made me proud to be Sheffield – and events that deserve support, respect and love.

But now I need some time off to recover!

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