How takeover aims to keep Sheffield’s Tramlines festival on track in 2018

Audience members watching Twin Atlantic on the main stage at Tramlines last weekend
Audience members watching Twin Atlantic on the main stage at Tramlines last weekend

As Sheffield takes stock after the ninth annual Tramlines festival, there’s much to consider. A ‘streamlined’ focus on the three larger outdoor stages brought a slew of high-profile bookings - in particular indie rock band The Libertines, the biggest-ever headliners - while there were also continued efforts to simplify ticketing and cut queues.

But further, wider change is on the cards for 2018.

In April, the Sheffield-based Music City Foundation had its £1.2 million bid to take over the festival accepted, in principle and subject to shareholder approval, by the Tramlines board, and announced its intention to follow a public ownership model by offering shares to supporters and traders.

The aim was to keep the musical celebration’s local feel, retain its links with the city centre and - crucially - prevent it from being sold to a larger operator that could bundle the event with a portfolio of festivals across the country. It is felt that preserving the programme’s unique edge is important, given the industry’s competitive nature and a spate of festival closures in recent years.

Summer Sundae has failed to return in Leicester after hitting financial difficulties in 2012, Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire ended this summer and next month’s inaugural Festival on the Wall, set to be headlined by the Pet Shop Boys in Northumberland, was pulled because of ‘operational challenges’.

Sheffield DJ Winston Hazel, one of the not-for-profit foundation’s directors, said talks were being held about Tramlines’ future and momentum was building ahead of a crowdfunding appeal expected to be rolled out soon.

“I can’t wait to get my hands on it. It’s been on hold for way too long now. But this is not to take anything away from the current shareholders and organisers - it’s not a hostile takeover. We’re responding to a request they put forward. We don’t want it to be sold to a commercial enterprise.”

The bid was below the market value but the present owners - Tramlines Events - gave their consent in order to encourage investment from city people and businesses.

“It was always meant to be run by the traders, because those are the people that know the Sheffield market,” said Winston.

“It gives them more autonomy.”

He said the festival had become ‘fragmented’, and that it was important to protect its fringe element - the free performances and activities in scores of bars, venues and shops that add to Tramlines’ vibrancy, but are not subject to the official admission fee.

“The wristband element has become separated from the rest of the festival. It was meant to be Tramlines Weekend - not wristband and fringe. We want to bring the festival back together again.”

When the festival began in 2009, entry was free, supported by the council and major sponsor Nokia. Charges were introduced in 2013 when the mobile phone company pulled out.

Winston accepted that successive yearly ticket price increases have been necessary in order to secure bigger acts, meeting demand, but said the festival should be ‘a little more inclusive’.

He envisioned Sheffield split, ‘like Glastonbury’, into different zones offering distinct styles of music.

“It needs to be more consistent, with a more simplistic structure.”

The prospect of Tramlines becoming part of another operator’s collection was a very real one, he contended. “It would be one of those situations where an organisation comes along, buys something, doesn’t understand how it operates and then shuts it down. We think there would be a risk of that.

“The other option would be to take the wristband element and put it in Hillsborough Park with a bigger fence around it, ramp up the prices, put bigger bands on and drive it out of the city centre.

“In that case, have another festival in Hillsborough Park, rather than change the DNA of Tramlines. The fringe is worth so much to traders in the city.”

Six thousand shares are to be offered, with a minimum investment of £200 required. Winston explained that shares would be divided with 4,000 going to traders, and 2,000 to the public, ‘give or take 500 or so’.

“The reception was amazing,” he said of the launch in April. “We got close to 1,000 people registering their interest, so we have all those people on our database.”

The proper sale of the share packages is on hold while the foundation is restructured in preparation for its purchase of the festival, but Winston isn’t worried that potential backers might have cooled on the idea. “It won’t be difficult to get people enthused. We’ve not taken any money off them yet.”

There will be benefits to being a shareholder - trading rights for five years, for example, or ticket discounts, offers at places to eat and passes for other city festivals.

“We need to approach the Tramlines database too, which we can now do,” said Winston. The ownership model being proposed is a UK first for a festival, he added, and ‘could be rolled out elsewhere’.

“You could do it in Bristol or Newcastle,” he suggested.

In the meantime ‘super early bird’ passes, priced £27.50, are on sale for the 10th edition of Tramlines next year, with the team promising to ‘really pull out all of the stops’. It will be an outdoor affair again in 2018, and will not operate inside any venues.

Foundation ‘committed’ to big-name headliners

Winston Hazel said the Music City Foundation would be ‘absolutely’ committed to booking big acts as the new owner of Tramlines.

The present organisers moved the main stage from Devonshire Green, its home for six years, to the more expansive Ponderosa in Upperthorpe in 2015 to accommodate crowd-pulling headliners. The city centre spot has since been reserved for up-and-coming artists.

“A lot of local acts use the Devonshire Green stage as a way of getting into Tramlines and maybe eventually headlining,” said Winston.

A significant sum was spent on hiring The Libertines last weekend, a group that ‘wasn’t exclusive to Tramlines in any sense’, Winston continued.

But he added: “I don’t think it matters that these bands are doing the circuit. We’ll always be able to get them. People can see big name bands, they don’t have to camp and they can go home at night.”