Sonic Arts Waterford – A DIY Festival Success, by Mick Shanahan



mick-shanahanThe purpose of this article is to give a brief outline as to how our small community festival of experimental music and arts came together and has become self sustaining in four years.

Sonic Arts Waterford was formed as an organisation in 2013. During the first two years, the festival was called SAW Fest. From 2015 onwards the festival name has been changed to Sonic Dreams which has a more international sound to it.

The original goal was to create an international festival of experimental music and arts. All the music would be live and mostly electronic. None of those who worked at the birth of the festival had ever run events before. For myself, I’ve been working as a musician in the area of experimental electronic music for over 30 years so had some contacts but little else..

Four years later, and with much heartache at times, I’ve managed to build the festival I always dreamed of and surrounded myself with a great team to take it into the future as I slowly step back.

Here are some of the ways I’ve managed it.

‘Community’ has been at the heart of SAW since the beginning. Nearly all of the artists who perform at our festival each year have applied to perform with us. As our festival grows, the number of artists applying increases. And here’s the thing, we don’t pay fees. We sometimes cover travel costs. The reason artists are willing to forego fees is that we’ve gained a reputation as a festival where artists are truly looked after as family. International artists can arrive a few days before the festival and are housed comfortably with festival volunteers. In reality, they get a free holiday in Ireland in exchange for an hour’s performance. That’s the big difference from what most touring musicians usually encounter. We offer artists and crew the finest in freshly made organic food during the festival. A contented artist is going to perform better and that benefits everyone.

Experience has taught me that surrounding myself with the right people is going to make life so much easier. So who are the right people? As a festival organiser you consider the skills you’ll require and then ideally find people who can meet those needs and also have the same passion as you for a community festival. The initial tendency is to bring passionate friends on board and try and learn together. In most cases this will end in strained friendships. Perhaps consider qualified acquaintances. People who you know slightly but seem to pop up at the same events that you do. The team who now run SAW with me are people I hardly knew 2 years ago. Way less stress and they know what they are doing better than I do. As the ‘public face of SAW’ I can do what I do best and forget about the things I do badly.

‘Selling’ is the part so many find difficult. Once you embark on a festival you still have to spend time flogging it to your local community, media, funding bodies, artists, and just about everyone else you can. You approach it in exactly the same way as if you were selling any product. Features and benefits. Everyone has to see what the benefit for them is in supporting your dream. That may all sound very clinical. It has to be. The time for hippie trippy stuff is when the audience are in the house.

Getting the local community on board.

This is crucial and often comes back to selling. It took a few years for us to get to a point where we are recognised as not just another festival but one that has it’s heart and soul in the concept of people helping each other for fun and not profit. The selling part is all in how you discuss your festival with other people. Let them know about the community aspects to what you are about. That’s what you are flogging.

We made a decision at the start that we would be forever non-profit and have never wavered from that. There are no corporate sponsorships of any description. We do apply for and receive a small grant from our local Art’s Office. This benefits us in that it gives us a financial cushion and also gets our City & County Council involved in promoting our festival. Most of the money raised to run the festival comes through the local community via promotional events and donations. The advantage to this approach is that it engages people throughout the year. It also allows us to sell festival tickets for very little. We still run some free events but found that an entirely free festival resulted in little interest. People sometimes don’t appreciate free stuff.

Our festival is cutting edge and international. That’s where we have placed ourselves and for good reason. Quality has to be at the forefront in all decision making, from the standard of the sound system used right through to the comfort of our audiences. And we achieve this while being very financially conservative.

Anyone undertaking a project like starting a festival needs to know that they are going to pay a considerable personal price. In my case, I lost all my (small) savings, experienced several serious health scares relating to stress in the early days but mostly my ability to earn money due to the festival taking up so much time. Along the way, I lost some friendships that still hurt. I paid the price and now see the benefits to my community.

The future for SAW is looking very good indeed. We are already receiving applications from artists to perform at the 2017 edition which is twelve months away. Personally, my goal is to complete the process of giving the festival away to the current team so I can concentrate again on my own musical career that has been sadly neglected in the interests of SAW. The future’s so bright …..

Mick Shanahan is the founder of Sonic Arts Waterford.