The Maverick Festival – keeping the faith but losing money
The Maverick Festival seems to have everything going for it. Top-class Americana on four stages over three days in a beautiful rural setting, perfect weather for the past two years and even with two nights’ camping it’ll only set you back £55. It was recently named by the Guardian as one of the top 10 small festivals in the UK.
But for promoter Paul Spencer it’s been a constant battle for recognition and audience numbers and a persistent fight with the local council. All of which means he has lost money every year. He's committed to this year's festival, but says he can't go on like this indefinitely.
“When I started out doing this I really thought it would be easy, but it’s a real struggle,” admits Spencer.
Now in its third year, the Maverick Festival takes place this year July 2-4 at Easton Farm Park, a working farm that’s usually open to the public, just outside Woodbridge in Suffolk. The location makes it particularly suitable for children, with plenty going on on the farm to entertain them even if the music doesn’t hold their attention.
This year’s lineup includes Chris Scruggs and his band, Kim Richey, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, Rod Picott, Chris Difford, Hank Wangford and Rayburn Anthony. Thomas Dolby, star of the 1980s who hasn’t made a record in 20 years until the release of his EP Amerikana this month, will also be performing with his specially assembled band The Toadlickers and promises a new and different sound. Among those playing with him are pedal steel guitar legend B.J. Cole and fiddle player Aaron Jonah Lewis, formerly of the band Special Ed and the Shortbus who many feel stole the show at the first Maverick Festival.
The first two festivals were held in glorious weather, and organisers are keeping their fingers crossed for this one too, but they are making preparations for all eventualities, with three stages under cover. The new Peacock Cafe will provide an intimate setting, with an all-female lineup there on the Saturday night – Richey, Suzi Ragsdale, Amanda Shires and Stephanie Lambring.
The event also includes films, workshops and the festival’s now-traditional Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning.
Spencer, who has long been involved in the music industry and lives in the village where the farm park is located, started the festival very idealistically believing he could run a purely Americana festival that would attract thousands. The headline acts for the first year included Sam Baker, Devon Sproule, Elizabeth Cook and Mark Olson. But he acknowledges that he has had to become more realistic and now looks at a wider range of artists.
“The reality is there are only a very small amount of people who would come out for those artists, so I’m hoping – without going too far from my brief – that I can push the boundaries so I can draw in a few more people,” he says.
He’d like to see about 2,000 people attending the event, but so far that hasn’t happened, and ticket sales to date this year don’t look any more promising.
“Both previous years we’ve had around 1,200 people,” Spencer says. “It’s enough to make a nice event for people but I’m losing money year after year. It’s very difficult because I want to put on a high-quality event – I won’t scale it back – but at the same time I can’t put on all this music if I don’t sell a certain amount of tickets.”
He says he’s surveyed previous attenders to see if he’s doing something wrong, but the most frequent complaint he received was about the road signage – something he promises is better now.
In the first year of operation, Spencer’s plans for a much larger festival were scuppered by the local council, which refused him permission. The festival went ahead, but with a much lower maximum number and with music in the evening moved from an outdoor stage to a large barn. Still, there has still been a lot of local support, particularly from BBC Radio Suffolk, which broadcasts from the festival every year. Local acts, including children’s groups, also have the chance to perform.
The campsite – only a couple of minutes’ walk from the festival – has been the centre for numerous late-night jamming sessions, and a new innovation this year is the Tepee Village, providing luxury camping and a private barbecue area. For those who can’t face a tent at all, the festival has a deal with a campervan rental company and provides lists of local hotels and B&Bs.
Those who go to Maverick often come back. This year, if the event is to continue, Spencer hopes they’ll bring some of their friends with them.
Maverick Festival on Backroads.
Backroads will be at the Maverick Festival this year. Watch this space.