January 12, 2012
THEY say that necessity is the mother of all invention.
So when the arse fell out of the Irish music industry in 2007 a collective of musicians, photographers and artists decided to tackle the problem head on by setting up their own music festival to provide unsigned bands with a platform to promote themselves. The only independent, volunteer-run festival in the country, KnockanStockan is now in it’s fifth year and will this weekend lure 3,000 punters to their beautifully scenic location, overlooking the Blessington Lakes, for some hippy-infused revelry.
They pride themselves on being a festival for musicians, by musicians and use the event in Lacken, Co Wicklow, as an opportunity to gain exposure for the numerous bands struggling to get noticed on Dublin’s heaving music scene.
“Because there is no way of getting an unsigned band any airplay in this country we figured the best way to get 1,000 people to hear them at the same time was by attracting them to an event like this” says Graham Sharpe, one of the core organisers of KnockanStockan and guitarist with punk blues outfit Scarecrow Disco.
“It’s strength in numbers. Some of the acts would be somewhat established in the unsigned music scene and they bring down the crowds for the lesser-known bands,” says Sharpe.
Held across two stages, the KnockanStockan festival is run for passion, not for profit, and relies on 150 volunteers to get the whole thing up and running. “The whole idea is that if everyone has volunteered to be there, then they WANT to be there and it creates a great, family atmosphere,” says Jenny Guirean, photographer and self proclaimed ‘gig wench’. They have literally zero budget at the offset, with volunteers having to provide their own petrol and credit so “when people are ready to sit in the trenches with us when it gets tough it means that they really believe in what we are doing and want to contribute”.
The workload is massive and there is an endless amount of tasks to be dealt with before a chord can be struck. “We started work on the festival in January,” says Guirean. “We meet with the farmer who owns the land and make sure that he is happy for us to come back another year.”
Then they have to deal with the guards and the local authorities, sort insurance, paramedics, drinking water, security: “All the endless little headaches needed to have the craic.”
They have built close ties with the people of Bracken over the years, donating to the local school’s fundraiser by helping raise €10,000 through a barn dance for which they provided the PA system, artists and decorating services. So far, they haven’t had any objections to their annual event.
There is a core crew of 20 volunteers, who congregate in a tree-lined, gated 170 acre estate just outside of Dublin, Knockan-Stockan HQ. At this time of the year, it’s littered with schedules, whiteboards, demos and rigging. Twelve people (and three dogs) live there all year round, with the rest of the crew decamping for the summer. While the recession may have led to a funding vacuum in the music industry, it has also led to a major slump in rent and it is this that allows them to reside in such a lavish abode, equipped with a bar, poolroom and stables, all of which come in handy when road testing acts for the line-up.
“The demos are piling in all the time,” says Sharpe, “and there can be three to four of us listening to one at a time”. They run gigs in town, as well as in the house, so that they can see as many of the acts as possible. They received 600 demos in six months, which they whittled down to the 102 acts who will play this weekend.
They have faced criticism in the past for being cliquey, but as Sharpe points out: “It’s different to most music festivals where there is a budget and people get paid. This is a collective of musicians who decided there is nowhere for them to go. So they do it themselves. That’s why you see a repeat of the bands.”
The week before the festival they move, kit and caboodle, to the location, where they are joined by the rest of the volunteers who help set up the stages and sound systems, create the artwork and prep’ the site so it can hack such large numbers. Once the punters arrive, the volunteers act as stewards, feed the crew, help bands turn over, moving gear on and off stage, registering instruments and working the box office.
“It’s chaos,” says Peter Keogh, another core organiser, “but it is a much friendlier, much more approachable festival than any other. Everyone’s smiling, not freaking out. All the musicians are mingling with the punters. We don’t have that separation, backstage nonsense.”
The first few years slapped them around but now, they feel they have honed the art of festival organisation. “We’ve tried every stage imaginable,” says Keogh. “Truck stages, tent stages, stages made to look like fish”. “Stages,” adds Guirean ” that weren’t there when we woke up in the morning.”
During the typhoon-like 2009 festival, the Melty Marquee stage was blown down after one particularly nasty night of huffing and puffing. “But last year we nailed it,” she says. “One hundred and four bands played and only two started late.”
It costs in and around €100,000 to stage Knockan-Stockan, traditionally making a ‘nice loss’, which they carry with them to the following year. Most of the money comes from ticket sales and traders but they would love sponsorship of some sort.
“We don’t want booze or fags or corporations like Lynx and Boots. But people like Marshall Amps or Rolling Stone, companies connected to music and art would be great,” says Guirean.
The Arts Council has knocked them back two years in a row. “I don’t understand. We are five years old, proven to be feasible and doing a lot with less than nothing. Yet they turn us down and support other festivals.”
“I read an Oireachtas report which revealed that Hard Working Class Heroes received €100,000 from the Arts Council,” says Keogh. “That’s a gig that could be ran with a week’s worth of work in Dublin’s city centre. Plus they are charging on the door and bands have to pay €10 or €20 submissions?”
Given that the festival was started up to act as a showcase for the best unsigned Irish acts, has it achieved its main goal in life?
“Not as much as we had hoped,” says Sharpe. “We are trying to get the promotion companies down this year so they can see these bands playing in front of 1,000 people and see what it is like. And we’ve had MCD bookers looking for slots, which is a big development.
“But on a smaller scale, if nothing else, we’ve helped out countless of bands with an unbelievable amount of talent, who weren’t getting it anywhere else.”
* KnockanStockan, Blessington Lakes, Wicklow, until July 24, Weekend ticket: €75 website: knockanstockan.ie