Backstage with Beckie Parsons
Who remembers the early days of festivals? Before the running showers and clean loos? Before WIFI and phone charging stations? This week’s ‘Backstage with YTL Arena’ guest does.
Beckie Parsons has over 25 years’ experience in the live entertainment industry, starting out in artist management and tour support across the UK live music scene and Europe, before shifting her focus to event and festival production.
Beckie is now a Director and Event Producer and Project Manager at Judgeday, a live events production company based just outside of Bath, who’s impressive portfolio of clients includes Peter Gabriel and WOMAD, Kate Bush, The Bath Festival and Greenbelt.
Keeping reading to find out more about what a career looks like in the non-stop, high-risk and high-reward world that is live events!
What first attracted you to the world of festivals and gigs, and how easy was it to get your foot in the door?
I fell into it! My first love was horses, and I went to college for Farming and Equine Studies. When I left, I kicked around for a bit and then took on some part-time temp work with Judgeday Ltd, founded by David T (the tour manager for Peter Gabriel and a family friend). That was 26 years ago, and I haven’t really left since! I’ve learnt from the ground up, with a brilliant mentor and teacher, who empowered me to help develop the company to where it is today. I became a director in 2011, and we’ve built up a small but fantastic team. The business is very much part of me.
During the early years, Judgeday was an artist management and touring company more than a festival and events business. I assisted on the artist management side of things and got very involved with a newly signed band at the time. I was learning the process from record deal to record release and booking gigs across the UK on what was affectionately known as the “Toilet Tour Circuit”. I coordinated tour plans across the UK and Europe, and also worked on a few festival productions and standalone shows. I was getting to learn all aspects of the live industry.
Things just grew from there, and I was then lucky to work with Peter Gabriel on the tour coordination/management side of things for his live shows across European arenas and festivals for a few years.
The transition to festival production came a bit later. In 2005, the company made a conscious decision to branch further into festivals and events. Within two years, we had signed contracts with Cornbury Festival, Soho House Festival and WOMAD, all of whom we still work with today, as well as other longstanding clients.
You’ve helped produce some iconic festivals, from WOMAD here in the South West, all the way to World Beat Festival in Trinidad. In your experience, how has the UK festival scene changed since you first started?
This is a big one, as festivals have changed enormously since I first started. Essentially, they’ve grown up! 25 years ago, the festival scene was still very much centred around the music, but it was changing. Looking back, there were the legendary greats such as Glastonbury, Reading Rock and a handful of other brilliant smaller festivals, but they weren’t as mainstream as they are now.
Festivals have always been considered quite left field, particularly Glastonbury which expanded massively in the 1990s becoming the institution it is. In that decade, something shifted, possibly where elements of the rave and traveller scene started to converge with the UK festival scene as well as a general increase in media exposure. There was so much creativity and excitement. Audiences began to see a rise in the experiential, theatrical and visual as well as the music. There was a push for exploration and delivering new worlds, where audiences could lose themselves. This paved the way for more boutique and independent festivals such as Shambala, Wilderness and later, Boomtown. The idea of boutique glamping, fine dining, circus, theatre and a venture into the unknown became part of the landscape of festivals.
With that, came the expectation for a lot more bang for buck when choosing which festival to go to. I remember the idea of having a shower at a festival was unheard of, and the loos? By Sunday morning on a festival site, you couldn’t find anything that wasn’t overflowing. That’s just not the case anymore. Flushing and cleaned loos are now normal, as are showers. The comforts, hygiene and standards at festivals have vastly changed.
What I love is the mixture of the crew and creative talent behind festivals – the technicians, the build crew and the operations teams. There are the old guard, who came out of the hedonistic desire to party in a field, but who bring with them a wealth of vital knowledge and resource.
Then there is the new wave of event managers and festival producers, who have studied systems and good practice, but are driving forward festivals into the future. Technology has improved the audience experience. We are much more connected at festivals now than we were. I lament the days at Glastonbury, where meeting friends would be carefully planned in advance. “We’ll meet by the cider bus at 4pm on Saturday”. If you missed it, then that would be that. Now, online systems, mobile phones, festival apps, virtual worlds and RFID wristbands dominate. But then, that’s progress and enhances the audience experience.
On health and safety, thankfully, the standards at festivals have improved over the last 10 to 15 years. It just had to. The industry needed to grow up and set safer standards both with the crews working to set up and de-rig, as well as crowd safety. The risks involved are vast. There is still work to be done, but certainly that has changed a lot since I first started.
Lastly, the diversity in festivals is also changing. Over the last few years there have been so many new lifestyle festivals. DogFest, CarFest or events like Pub in the Park. There is literally something for everyone. I am currently working with some brilliant people to put on a festival for horse lovers, HorseFest, which goes full circle back to my first passion.
Sustainability is becoming one of the biggest challenges for the events industry globally. What are some of the ways Judgeday have been prioritising sustainability and what more do you hope to do in the future?
Sustainability is an area that saw an increase in the festival industry pre-pandemic, but still with a lot of work to do, and something we have always had a commitment to progress with at our events. Festivals are, by nature, large producers of carbon emissions and waste. It is a challenge to introduce sustainable ways of thinking with promoters, as often the financial bottom line will be the deciding factor, and the technologies have only been advancing in recent years to suit temporary events, which has been frustrating, but it is becoming easier and cheaper to incorporate sustainable systems.
That said, we’ve done some extensive work with Greenbelt Festival over five years to redesign our power across the event, and reduce our diesel consumption by over 50%. We’ve introduced hybrid and alternative energy sources, and this has proven to be cost neutral where the commitment to new technology has been offset by the saving in the cost of diesel. So, it’s all possible with the right drive behind it, and that’s the next challenge. To get promoters on board with the change that has to happen. Greenbelt have signed up to the Vision 2025 pledge and this is to significantly reduce climate impacts by 2025. We’ve concentrated on the areas of waste by improving recycling systems, and issues around food waste. Water is the next big consideration. We had started to look at how to filter and release to ground or recycle wastewater from showers. There are obviously environmental restrictions around this, and we’re still looking at cost effective methods at temporary events, which are slowly coming to market.
Our work is ongoing, and we’re looking forward to the next phases of this when we get back up and running.
There has definitely been a sea change amongst the event industry. I do worry that the pandemic has set this progress back a bit, but that shouldn’t detract from the focus on getting to net zero emissions and reduction in waste. The Festival Vision 2025 pledge and A Greener Festivals are key campaigners to drive forward this change amongst out industry.
If you could, what advice would you offer a younger Beckie Parsons when starting out a career in live events?
Firstly, don’t be afraid to ask. In the early years for me, I think I always felt a bit too shy to say, “I don’t know what this is, or what that is’. I always thought there was an expectation from colleagues that I should simply know what they were talking about. Actually, that’s silly because talking to people, whether it’s just sitting with a sound engineer at a mixing desk and asking what those faders do, or simply saying, “I don’t know, can you explain to me…’ will give valuable insight. It just speeds up the process, and also most people are happy to impart their knowledge on how something should be done, or what that button does. It could also open doors to ideas you haven’t thought about yet.
Secondly, remember to take some time for yourself. It’s so easy to get absorbed into the world of events when you live and breathe it. It can get stressful and demanding and all consuming, so it is important to take some time out to readjust. Whether that’s reading a good book in some down time, catching up with old friends, riding a horse or simply relaxing and switching off.
First gig, last gig, favourite gig?
First, age 13 at the Human Rights Now show at Wembley Stadium with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Youssou N’Dour and Tracey Chapman. It was pretty spectacular, and I was completely mesmerised!
Last big gig was in 2019. I don’t normally get to take time out to watch a full show when I’m working but managed to sneak out to see Orbital at WOMAD on the main stage. It was a buzzing atmosphere in the crowd, as the sun had just set, listening to those classic 90s sounds.
Although the last actual gig I went to was a few weeks ago at the Stone Barn in Box, Wiltshire to watch a gorgeous local talent, Kate Stapley and Lewis Miles. This was the first live music I’d heard since last summer, and a wonderful, intimate performance. Perfect.
Favourite gig? I think it has to be Pink Floyd at Earls Court Arena in 1994. The ultimate arena show, with awesome stage set, lighting and sound. I was so lucky to get to see them perform before they split, and they are definitely up there as one of my favourite bands.
Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood?
This is such a difficult question as I have quite a few! Am I allowed 2?
First off is Bedda at Home by Jill Scott. I’d love to see her perform live. This is the song I belt out when driving, or at home on my own! Tonic for the soul.
Second is Two Shoes by Cat Empire. I’ve seen them live a few times, and they are always guaranteed to get a crowd up and dancing. Definitely a mood booster.
Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at YTL Arena Bristol and why?
Pearl Jam – without a doubt. I had tickets to see them a few years ago, but the show got cancelled. I’m always looking to see when they’re touring, and it always seems to clash with my work commitments every time. I’d love to see them at the new YTL Arena Bristol. What a fantastic show that would be. They’re made for it. The management just need to make sure they check with me before booking though, so I can check my diary!
And finally, can you share an all-time favourite song/ a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?
This is in tribute to my lovely friends and colleagues at WOMAD Festival, who very sadly had to cancel the festival this summer due to the pandemic restrictions. Which has been a hugely emotional time for all of us, as it would have been our first event back in almost two years.
I’ve been listening to this song a lot recently - it’s from the new Immigrants album by Nitin Sawhney who was due to be one of the headliners at the festival. I love his music and was very much looking forward to seeing him perform.