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XpoNorth: Belladrum founder reveals 'Bella might not still have been here ...' in conference's Putting A Region On A Map: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival Past, Present & Future

By Margaret Chrystall

XpoNorth embraced the theme of storytelling this year as the creative industries conference returned in online form – and there were certainly many stories to inspire and learn from at the sessions and keynote speeches.

Joe Gibbs, founder of the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival.
Joe Gibbs, founder of the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival.

It was opened by Neil Gray, the Scottish Government’a minister of culture, Europe and international development with special responsibility for refugees from Ukraine. He welcomed delegates to the conference and highlighted some of the events to come, after outlining some background about the creative industries in Scotland – and the Highlands.

On Wednesday, there was a fascinating insight into the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival in a session called Putting A Region On A Map: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival Past, Present & Future.

XpoNorth’s project manager Alex Smith was in conversation with the festival founder Joe Gibbs and CEO Stuart Galbraith of Kilimanjaro Group [profiles of both below], which now owns the festival.

Stuart Galbraith of Kilimanjaro Live, which now owns the Belladrum festival.
Stuart Galbraith of Kilimanjaro Live, which now owns the Belladrum festival.

Alex introduced the discussion, “a candid look back” at how the event got started, moving on to talk about Belladrum’s present and a look at the future.

The conversation was wide-ranging and looking at the impact Covid and the cancellations of festival 2020 and 2021 had had.

Joe Gibbs said: “In some ways it was such ill-fortune for Kili [Kilimanjaro Live] that they took over when they did with Covid.

“But had it just been me, I very much doubt Bella would still be here. They had to shoulder a lot of responsibilities. It’s amazing what they have done – and investing in the years ahead.

“An outfit like Kilimanjaro has the critical mass to be able to do that.

“So though I think it was unlucky for Kili they took over when they did, it was very lucky for Bella.”

Belladrum crowds moving through the site. Picture: Callum Mackay
Belladrum crowds moving through the site. Picture: Callum Mackay

Earlier, Joe Gibbs talked about the early history of the event, and difficulties at the start.

“It lost money hand over fist for the first five years,” he revealed.

And part of the learning curve, Joe revealed, included taking advice from the Highland and Islands Development Board (now HIE) that Joe should think of devoting 20 per cent of turnover to marketing.

“That paradigm has changed enormously now because of social media,” Joe added.

The first involvement of Kilimanjaro Live was perhaps earlier than people know.

Joe explained: “I approached Steve in 2011 to help us to book headliners.

“After the first few years the bills had been getting bigger and the fees of headliners had been increasing significantly. And you really need to speak to the agents 50 weeks of the year.

“With booking, there is a level where it becomes a profession not a pastime.”

Belladrum in 2018. Picture: Gary Anthony
Belladrum in 2018. Picture: Gary Anthony

Stuart said of the involvement from 2011: “From then we came up to the festival every year.”

He revealed the first year they had had to head into Inverness to get warmer sleeping bags!

“Now Belladrum is a highlight or the company and our families’ year.”

He said that when Joe indicated they might be able to get further involved with the festival, they did.

Asked later if the return this year is about getting things back on track for Belladrum’s future, Stuart said: “I see it changing but also don’t see it changing. It’s recipe is unique.”

Alex Smith asked about what Bella’s unique aesthetic is and why the festival has connected with the community more widely.

Joe said: “Without getting too mystical, and I don’t know too much about feng shui – and ley lines, I don’t really understand, but there is something about that area. It has a very powerful atmosphere naturally and it’s a beautiful place too.”

He mentioned that people who have come to live there for a short time, end up never leaving!

“And having staved off a wind farm, I’ve also become aware of how fragile it is.”

Also, Joe paid tribute to the people who work for the festival who also give the festival its atmosphere and he talked about the team at the heart of the festival.

“It is nice to see Kili keeping on the core team who have been there since the first year. A lot started off very young and now export their skills to other events around Britain.”

Stuart Galbraith added: “Bella is a special, special festival and it is not just about the people who run it, but also the people who come to it.

“When we were trying to work out what the ‘uniqueness’ was, it was that Belladrum is a festival in the Highlands run by Highlanders for Highlanders.

“The postcode analysis shows that 85 per cent of those who come live within a two-hour drive of Inverness. We do get customers from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but in a tiny minority. On site it’s hard to hear an English accent.

“We were looking at whether to create a Welsh equivalent. But they don’t have The Dangleberries or Tomatin, not that fervour, nor the kilt – there’s not another in the world.”

He went on to talk about the “agonising” moment it was decided to also pull the 2021 festival, having had to cancel the 2020 one because of Covid and the lockdown.

“It was an extremely agonising decision – none of us wanted to do it,” the CEO revealed. “In hindsight, it was the right thing to do. All the staff looked at what customers and the area was saying. We could have pushed on, but it wasn’t what the Highlands wanted.”

He added ruefully: “It was a really expensive decision as well.

“But within days – hours actually – we knew it was the right one.”

At the heart of the Belladrum festival Picture: Callum Mackay
At the heart of the Belladrum festival Picture: Callum Mackay

He went on to talk about some of the challenges the hiatus has left for Belladrum.

“We sold tickets in August 2019 [for the 2020 festival that was postponed to 2021, then postponed again], and we’ve had two years of inflation. And in that time some things, the price of them, have gone through the roof. The fuel bill is double what it was in 2019 and there are shortages in our sector, things like stage crew and riggers. The budget has been decimated,” he continued.

“It will be good to kiss this budget goodbye, but unfortunately we will have to see some increases – but mitigating where we can on long-term expenses.”

Such as? Stuart revealed the festival has bought its own stage and will pay for it over five years.

Alex Smith asked if getting the workforce back had been possible?

Stuart said: “In the pandemic, so many people have had to leave the industry to get jobs in security, or as stewards in vaccination centres.”

He mentioned some services such as toilet suppliers and marquee suppliers were no longer around. Speaking about the skilled people who make a festival happen, he said: “Many now are not able to come back and have a different career.”

He illustrated problems the events industry has by saying he had met a promoter the previous week who will be flying in six riggers to the UK from South America to have them available over the summer for two major stadium tours. And he knew of a big event for 50,000 people that was having to postpone because they couldn’t find a PA for the planned date.

Alex asked what solutions might be coming on-stream to these kind of problems.

“Where Belladrum can benefit is from being part of a bigger organisation,” Stuart said.

“We do a retro festival called Let’s Rock, an 80s festival that goes to 12 different locations and their gear is available for Belladrum though it will pay to rent it. But it means we can guarantee marquees will be available.”

Alex complimented the festival on its “incredibly diverse” bill this year.

The festival’s signature programming over the years offered emerging artists, local talent, established names and introducing quirky ‘discovery’ artists.

Joe said: “Booking is an incredible Rubik’s Cube of trying to have something for everyone, always keeping the demographic in mind and its such a complex process.

“But it’s on that that Bella hangs a lot of its success.

Stuart replied – mentioning Van Morrison and Nile Rodgers and Chic.

“It’s brilliant that we have been able to maintain the vast majority of the artists booked originally.

“With Emeli Sande [brought up in Alford near Aberdeen] in what is really her hometown festival. And it is the first time she has played here since 2011, she’s coming back to repeat her performance that year, the first year we were involved.”

Stuart then referred to perhaps one of the most exciting prospects this year, getting to see the Eurovision hero, Sam Ryder, booked for Belladrum before he turned round the UK’s abysmal results since 1998 to win over the huge TV audience to come second.

“Dougie Brown and the team have had the foresight to book things ‘of the moment’ and somehow we have been able to bring Sam Ryder here and I’m fascinated to see his set based on his vocal in Star Man!” Stuart said.

“Though I think that is a potential ‘road block’ moment!”

But if the audience for the artist is huge, as well as the main Garden Stage, Stuart revealed there will be the Hothouse Stage which is open rather than in a tent this year.

Asked if there were was one artist who Joe had felt had turned a corner for the festival, Joe replied: “Two extraordinary things happened over the festival, the trajectories of artists’ careers. Some have enjoyed a relatively modest rise, but for some, it’s been a vertical take-off!

Ed Sheeran. Picture: HN&M
Ed Sheeran. Picture: HN&M

“Kili booked Ed Sheeran and it was a fantastic booking. He was just a sound on Spotify, but by the time Belladrum came around, we could have had five times the size of the audience. It showed how you can book ‘sleepers’ – Lewis Capaldi was another. And then your heart is in your mouth if they have become so popular and it’s wonderful for the festival.”

But possibly a headache for organisers balancing the crowd and the capacity?

Alex turned to the festival’s reputation as a platform for supporting emerging artists – and particularly local talent – the Seedlings stage a dedicated showcase for both.

Lewis Capaldi, one of the artists of the year, perfect timing for his booking at Belladrum 2019. Picture: Gary Anthony
Lewis Capaldi, one of the artists of the year, perfect timing for his booking at Belladrum 2019. Picture: Gary Anthony

Joe recalled: “There have been artists like Twin Atlantic who in the first year of the Seedlings stage had to tell the audience to sit down or the show would stop, it was so busy. And they progressed up through the stages and played several top spots. They have been a good example of a young act becoming a festival favourite but there have been plenty of others.”

Stuart also felt emerging talent was an important part of Belladrum’s DNA.

The crowds went wild for Lewis Capaldi at the Garden Stage in 2019. Picture: Gary Anthony
The crowds went wild for Lewis Capaldi at the Garden Stage in 2019. Picture: Gary Anthony

“It’s essential and part of that equation in terms of the overall feel. Going forward I can see we will be booking Scottish artists who might previously have been further down the bill, such as Tamzene [from Cromarty and now signed to EMI Universal] who will be a huge important artist in the next few years and for obvious reasons we are delighted to have her at Belladrum this year. Potentially she will be a major headliner.

Tamzene at Belladrum in 2017. Picture: Callum Mackay
Tamzene at Belladrum in 2017. Picture: Callum Mackay

“Belladrum has to have that element of discovery.”

Alex asked Joe to look back and pick out some personal favourites from Belladrum artists over the years.

He laughed: “For someone my age, it’s people like Jefferson Starship.”

Later in the conversation he added: “I think Arlo Guthrie, if you really want an answer!

“But there is a moment that never fails to get to me. After the headliners on the Saturday night, the traditional British Legion pipe band play – and some of them might have been somewhere near the bars as they are getting to the stage,” Joe grinned.

“Kenny Smith from Torridon is there and all the sound and fury has stopped, the artists are in their dressing rooms, and there are just these guys and the Belladrum audience and it’s hard to keep a dry eye when a whole Highland community is singing in unison. So for me, it’s impossible for that not to be the highlight.”

This year’s Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival returns from July 28-30. More details: tartanheartfestival.co.uk

Joe Gibbs, founder of Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival

Following a misspent youth in the seventies going to rock festivals, Joe decided to start his own on a piece of ground that had once been the site of beautiful formal gardens at his home in Inverness-shire. Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival sprang to life in 2004 on a wing and a prayer, and next to no practical knowledge of running a musical event. The event grew to an attendance of 20,000 and in 2017 he sold it to Kilimanjaro Live Ltd.

In 2006, with two partners, he started RockNess, on the shores of Loch Ness. He has since been involved with partners in Groove Loch Ness, Groove Cairngorm and The Gathering in Inverness.

Joe’s daytime job involves running his mixed estate in the Highlands – farming, forestry, tourism in the form of weddings, workshops and let cottages. Prior to that he had been a journalist, and a film location manager, mainly working in the Highlands on movies like Mrs Brown and The Governess and on television series like Hamish MacBeth.

Stuart Galbraith, CEO of Kilimanjaro Group

Stuart Galbraith is the CEO of Kilimanjaro Group. Formed in 2008, Kilimanjaro Group is a subsidiary of DEAG and comprises Kilimanjaro Live, Flying Music Group, Gigantic Tickets, MyTicket, Let’s Rock Festivals, UK Live, Fane Productions, Singular Artists, Kilimanjaro Theatricals, Form, Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival (Scotland) and Christmas Lights. Each year the overall group of companies produces and promotes over 2000 music concerts, musical theatre, comedy, spoken word, festivals, family events and social media events. This highly varied roster of shows, artistes and authors includes Ed Sheeran, Andrea Bocelli, Stereophonics, Kew the Music, The Illusionists, Thriller Live, Margaret Atwood and Sir Ralph Fiennes as well as theatrical productions running on Broadway such as The Kite Runner and Hadestown and Tom Jones’ musical What’s New Pussycat in the UK. Kilimanjaro Group sells over 2.5 million tickets per annum across the group.

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