INTERVIEW: Oliver Jones of Deer Shed Festival  1

INTERVIEW: Oliver Jones of Deer Shed Festival

Half the people I know have this constant fantasy about promoting live music, and grandiose ideas about putting on a festival. One person who has moved that fantasy to reality, and with some success, is Oliver Jones, who with his partner Kate Webster runs Deer Shed Festival. Now in its third year, Deer Shed runs over 20 – 22 July in North Yorkshire. GIITTV’s Mike Hughes spent time chatting with Oliver and found him remarkably frank and forthcoming about just what they are trying to achieve with Deer Shed, and what it takes to make a success of things even in the year when some big established names, and a few of the young pretenders too, have pulled the plug.
Deer Shed main stage crowd

Deer Shed were one of only 4 festivals shortlisted in the Best Family Festival category in the 2011 UK Festival Awards. Oliver told us that they have very deliberately kept the capacity at 6,000, and are on track to meet their own expectations that 45% of these will be under sixteens. The ages are even more polarised than that though.  There will be teenagers of course, who will no doubt have a great time, but they will be sharing the weekend with quite a number of under 10-year-olds. The funny thing is that alongside the family audience, it also very definitely attracts people, grown-ups, who are NOT there with children, but appreciate a … to put this? ….slightly more mature crowd, which is what you get when the kids have taken to their camp-beds and air mattresses, or earlier in the day when they are otherwise occupied with the large amount of alternative activities that will be on the go over the weekend.

Deer Shed space hopper

Having recently shared a train journey with a gang of frankly still-drunk 19 and 20-year-olds on the way back from another festival, I can see the attraction of Deer Shed’s demographic and agree with Oliver when he emphatically says that he ” doesn’t see that at all as a problem” and that his view is that you do one or the other. He’s keeping his options open though, saying that doesn’t mean they would never get involved in a festival aimed specifically at 16-25 year olds.

When I spoke to Oliver, I disturbed him cutting up pom-poms and silver paper, essential given that they are determined to keep this side of arrangements firmly in their own hands. As he said “we’ve got two and a half thousand kids who will all want to do a workshop, and all at the same time, so it’s kind of important that we get things right. We’re making sea monster scales as we speak”. As in past years, there is a theme, and this time around it’s monsters. Anyone who wants can get involved in putting the finishing touches to this fabulous sea monster, which will evolve and then get a chance to show off its swimming (or sinking) skills in the lake before the weekend is out. The reason for this fanatical insistence on quality is that Kate and Oliver and the rest of the Deer Shed crew have a remarkable belief in customer service no matter what the age of the punter, quite refreshing when you’ve quite probably felt like cattle yourselves at other festivals. They were also determined not to fall into the trap of ripping people off for that extra hidden five or ten quid to park or pitch your tent. The ticket price is a fairly remarkable grand total of £73.85 even when you add on the booking fee. Oliver was very upfront that in trying to keep the cost realistic, they might well have pitched it a tiny bit on the low side, and as he says, he will “have a word with his advisers” when they think about planning for next year. I still can’t see it jumping to anything like the prices you might pay is some other quarters. His view is that “hospitality and customer service has to be the evolution of what is still quite a young festival industry”. It’s not all philanthropy – as he says, it’s a real business benefit if you can rely on a fair proportion of your audience to come back as repeat customers. He was also very upfront that they will not shy away from putting opportunities to spend money in front of their customers, but it still feels like it will be a fair transaction.

Deer Shed bar

There will be involvement from not one but two museums, Eureka!, the ‘National Children’s Museum’ and the National Media Museum who will be bringing the monster theme to a more mature audience via a screening of the 1922 ‘vampyre’ classic Nosferatu, in my book still a very creepy watch. At Deer Shed it will be accompanied by a live pianist, which will serve the double purpose of enhancing the atmosphere and getting round the late night noise regulations.


Giving away some definite trade secrets, Oliver told me that, in common with most festivals, they will only know when they sell the last 10% of tickets whether this year will run at a profit or loss, and even then a huge amount depends on the weather, which might make people decide to cancel travel plans at the last minute. The fact that, like the Eavis’, they own the farm, means that they’re in it for the long haul. I asked Oliver exactly why he puts himself through what has by now become a full-time job, and he was pretty clear that like most entrepreneurs, he simply gets a huge kick out of being his own boss. He is also hugely motivated by the great feedback that they get, and things like those Festival awards that we mentioned. He talked about last year, when they had a birds of prey demonstration, something typical of their festival if not of others, saying “when that first kestrel went up in the air, everyone looked up, there was a sharp intake of breath, and that’s when I thought – YES, we’ve nailed it”. There’s a couple of London promoter’s that I won’t name who could do with learning from this take on affairs.

I make no apologies for the fact that we spent a fair amount of the interview talking about business. I will be equally honest that what attracted me to Deer Shed (yes, I will be there) is absolutely none of the above. I don’t have kids of that age. The idea of sharing a field with maybe 1500 pre-teenagers would otherwise have given me the shudders, but if the upside is a distinct lack of drunk lads falling over my tent in the middle of the night, that’s fine by me. Without sounding like a total geek, in a UK summer when there must be over 100 viable options, what attracted me to this particular festival is purely and simply the lineup. Villagers, Los Campesinos, Saint Etienne, for heaven’s sake they’ve even got School Of Seven Bells. That’s what made my ears prick up, and then when you see some of the exciting newer home-grown bands halfway down the poster, names such as Beth Jeans Houghton, or Dutch Uncles who were so very impressive at this year’s SXSW, it just gets better. With all due respect though to the British bands on the list, Oliver says that it was when they secured SVIIB that he felt they’d “made it”. He himself is particularly excited about the Janice Graham Band, and busy though the weekend will be for him and Kate, that’s probably the one he will insist on making time for. He is careful though to recognise mass appeal too, saying “if you made it too fussy, it probably just wouldn’t work”.

Deer Shed band performance

He and Kate both have a background in music industry. Oliver has probably seen more than most, having himself played at Glastonbury in ’98 as part of briefly semi-famous and now defunct Sun House. He describes Glasto that year as a bloody affair, atrocious weather, knee deep mud, ill-fitting Wellington boots and not sitting down all weekend. It’s perhaps no wonder that following the band’s demise, he stayed in the business, but in the more comfortable area of web design.

The ‘biz’ has always been Kate’s livelihood too, in her case handling some of the admin and finance side for bands. They relocated from London to Yorkshire a couple of years ago but the connections remain. They are perfectly upfront and realistic that being known in the trade has helped them to steal a march here and there, to build confidence with band’s agents, and Oliver credits this with their ability to secure American bands such as SVIIB. There are also well keyed into the ways of the business, deals such as the one he was offered in an earlier year. Without naming names, it was something like “…you can have such-and-such band that you want but only if you also take my other band…” – actually quite a common practice amongst agents and promoters.

It’s pretty clear then that they’ve got a definite vision. It might just be that Kate and Oliver happen to be on the same wavelength as me musically, in which case I’ll accept the happy coincidence. Even if that is the case, it’s got a good chance of working – I see enough of the same faces in the front couple of rows of the gigs that I go to to realise that much as I revel in my eclecticism, my tastes are not unique. If I hadn’t given it too much thought, the idea of that many kids on site would have given me the heebee-jeebees, but once you see the bigger picture, and the trade-offs in terms of a more mature and less rowdy experience, it starts to sound like a damn good plan. Role on July 20th, let’s hope for decent weather in Thirsk, and who knows I might come back with a sun tan in between watching Los Camps and SVIIB. Either way, we’ll be bringing you a full report.

Deer Shed 3 A4 Monsters Poster1


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.