You built your own festival - what inspired the first ever instalment of Threshold five years ago?
Yeah we did. It’s funny to look back at five different festivals and clearly see how it’s developed. It’s absolutely flown by, but at the same time the first one seems like a lifetime ago. We had a strange beginning at the CUC with all artist, production and marketing costs covered by the venue. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had. The inspiration behind it was something close to Kaya (Threshold Co-Founder and my wife) and me from the start. it was these fantastic creative scenes in the city which seemed to be bubbling away on the verge of erupting. We wanted to represent and present as much of it as we possibly could in one big festival. This was never going to be entirely possible, but so many people were willing to come along with us. It was an insane weekend.
The festival is described as being "by artists for artists" - what do you feel are the benefits of artist-led programming such as this?
It’s got it’s pros and cons. The big pro is what we hope is an empathetic and worthwhile showcase for artists, the type which we would like to be involved with ourselves. We represent the parts of artistic community that identify with our values. These artists come on board and they genuinely grab hold of it by the horns. In fact the best examples of artists who play, perform or exhibit with us are the ones who come back the next year and join the team. The best thing we can hear from an artist or collaborator is: “We get what you’re doing here, how can we be involved more?”.
The cons are that not all artists have the same goals as us; we’re not for everyone, and that’s fine with us. We just keep going in the direction we feel is right and fair, and try to be as inclusive as we possibly can. The only other con is that we have had to learn how to do everything from scratch. Nobody teaches you in a drama degree that one day you might be trying to apply for Grants for the Arts to fund a major festival. Or maybe they did, I probably wasn’t listening. We’re not natural business people (come to think of it, who is?) so it has been a very tough five years of trial by error.
The festival seems to have grown in scale every year - were things always building up to this?
I guess so. It’s really difficult to put into a few sentences, but ultimately, if we didn’t start to think strategically about where the festival was going and what it meant to us, the artists and the audience, then it would have died on it’s arse after year one. We want to reach more people, but we don’t want to betray our grass-roots status, so growth needs to be slow and sure. This is not always the case; we’ve stretched ourselves in the past and had to rethink and reassess. Nobody likes an empty room at a gig and thankfully that’s not happened to us for a long time. The main reason for this, is planning, funding, marketing, evaluation… all those kinds of exciting words.
FACTLab is all about experimenting and discovering something new - is this the sort of approach you seek out in the acts in Threshold's lineup too?
That’s exactly what we do, especially with the performance art programme in terms of experimentation, that’s where we really shine in terms of our more ‘out there’ bookings. Discovering someone new is what drives us, we all buzz off that moment we see someone explode onto the stage in front of a new audience. What a boss experience, it beats the buzz of actually being a performer for me. Hands down. Then place that new exciting performer into a line-up with a more established national touring act, that’s what we aim to do.
One of the key themes of our current exhibition is supporting communities and working together to improve life through art. Can you explain more about Threshold's grass-roots politics?
We create opportunities. When we first started out, there was this mantra amongst the team who were speaking to artists, “Have you got that idea you’re not sure about, that might be a bit weird, or you’re not sure it will work? Try it out with us.”. That still rings true now, and people’s faces when you say “yes” to that bizarre idea are generally of surprise and confusion.
What usually happens during the festival is that partnerships are created and developed. We’ve seen dozens of collaborations stem from Threshold and many of them have become solid ongoing projects, businesses and friendships. The name Threshold came from a discussion on how difficult it can be to get into the music and arts industry. When you’re into a circle or network it gets easier, but crossing that Threshold is tough. I remember it myself starting out in theatre and it was like a tangible wall preventing access. We aim to be an access point, we think for the most part it works. We’d like to take this further, an artist development programme like we’ve done with Dominic Dunn, an ongoing commitment beyond the three day festival. It’s difficult to sustain though; we all work full time on top of the festival organising, which is something most people probably don’t know.
What are your hopes for next year - will you be taking things up a gear again?
I hope next year can be the best festival we can possibly create. It doesn’t need to get any bigger, not yet. We’ve grown steadily alongside the Baltic Triangle and the area still embraces us, we have a lovely synergy. We want to maintain some of our key aspects, the artist friendly environment (we were described this year as “the office party for the Liverpool music scene”).
The feeling that you’re walking into somewhere nobody has ever been before to see something completely new and exciting. To continue our successful use of an annual theme for the event (this is still in development, watch this space). Lastly I just hope it’s a success, I hope we can start our next five years with an event that stamps us on the map in the UK as well as locally. We’re getting there.
There are lots of Liverpool-based music festivals from LIMF to Sound City and Africa Oyé - what's different about Threshold and why is visual art such a core part of the programme?
In some ways we are vastly different from all of these events, yet we share some of their values. LIMF Academy (who collaborated with us this year) is a great way to meet one of the core values that Yaw Owusu set up in 2013, which is “Discover the New.” They’re nurturing talent in the city and pitching on a national scale.
Sound City is about attracting the global music industry to the city, it’s a great asset to Liverpool, it showcases the more established scene and pushes them onto a platform where any number of career successes become a possibility. Africa Oyé is our fave, a free, massive celebration of the continent where this all started in the first place. It’s when you realise Oyé is 23 years old, that’s when you know what true resilience is - a commitment I respect beyond anything I could have comprehended before I become a festival maker.
We are multi-arts, we are trying to push all of our disciplines up to the same standard and size as the music. This is something which is getting better all the time and having dedicated people to represent this (artists and curator Jazamin Sinclair and co-director Andy Minnis for visual arts, Frankii Phoenix for performance arts) is helping massively. The next step is to build up the film offering and we’re working with local film makers to do this. What sets us from a lot of festivals, is the chances we take and that freedom of creativity is never compromised. If we’ve invested in an artist, then we back it up by supporting them 100% in their choices. For better or worse, we maintain integrity and every step forward we take is with the belief that we’re doing what’s right for them.
Finally, can you give us some facts and figures about what it takes to "build" an event like this?
There’s three company directors of Threshold Festivals CIC, then a dedicated team of volunteers run the planning group for about 8 months of the year. In the month leading in to the festival we grow to about 40 people, then about 100 of us on the weekend. 60 sound engineers and lighting techs create the incredible noises and sights while over 600 individual performers and artists do the amazing things they do without which none of this would matter. 1000 people come and see it all. Then a lot less of us take it all to pieces the next day and sleep for a week. it’s awesome.
We agree! Follow the progress of Threshold 2016 and look out for announcements here. Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing and FACTLab are open at FACT until 31 August.