Tramlines Director On Cuts – Festival Will Go Ahead, Be Different
Sheffield Council's announcement of cuts on Friday brought a number of shocks. Chief among these was the demolition of Don Valley Stadium (apparently less than a week after an insistence from a council cabinet member that 'no decisions have been made…') and the proposed closure of 14 of Sheffield's 27 libraries. But the city's cultural landmarks are also under the cosh with confirmation of cuts for the likes of Sheffield Theatres, Sheffield Museums, The Showroom – and Tramlines…
It's strange to think how important a part of Sheffield life TL has already become in the four short years it's been going. It brings together bands, chums and strangers, puts us right on the map musically and lets us enjoy the likes of this –
And this –
– And this!
We spoke to Tramlines' Festival Director Sarah Nulty about what the announcement means, Tramlines' place within the bigger picture of the city-wide cuts – and how Exposed's readers can help make sure this year's festival blows the chuff out of 2013…
But first, trauma. How worried should we be about the council's announced funding cuts for Tramlines? “It's definitely a cause for concern,” A busy Sarah explains when we speak on the phone in between a busy day of meetings for the festival director. “We knew it was coming and we've always made clear that we want to rely on the council less and less. But the money we've been getting has been a huge part of our overall budget and it is quite a big cut so it will mean some radical changes for next year…”
Just how radical remains to be seen. The biggest threat to Tramlines is complacency – we can't be the only ones who treat the festival like a big party that's payback for some of the toughest times in memory, but the fact is the festival costs a bucketful of money to put together. “We've lost money every year [on Tramlines] and none of us can afford to keep doing that,” Sarah explains, a little wearily. And while there's been recognition with their award for Best Metropolitan Festival at the UK Festival Awards (and, ahem, at Exposed's own awards last year) – as well as spontaneous hugs from strangers whenever Sarah and the rest of the team tell them what they do, cuddles don't pay the bills… “We did look at whether it was viable to go ahead. We will have to put some kind of ticket or wristband or whatever on parts of the festival. Every year we've always gone, 'Well if we do it like this and we get that sponsor there and if we cut back on that…' But there's no other options now.”
The time's they are a chargin', then. But this new ask of audiences does come with benefits. “We want – we always want – to have free elements of the festival so that if you don't want to pay you can come and enjoy a good weekend still. But every year we do a survey and every year we ask what we can change and people go, 'Bigger acts!' Maybe if we can start getting into a ticket model we can get bigger acts and we'll be less restrained.”
A quick look at Tramlines' past lineups confirms that, even if the festival hasn't yet booked Coldplay yet (as if that would be a good thing), Tramlines can boast the likes of Alt-J, who, lest we forget, won the Mercury Prize as well as just being nominated for a clutch of Brits – and the year before that the likes of Dutch Uncles, who are well placed to follow Alt-J's footsteps this year. So Tramlines has a great track record of finding alternative acts just before they go supernova. But it still has to be all things to all people… “Which is quite difficult!” Sarah interjects, with a laugh. “But from drumming workshops in the Peace Gardens up to Nana and Grandad watching folk acts in Weston Park, there is something for everyone.”
So what can Exposed readers do to help? “Well, there will be a backlash when we charge but I think it would be good for people to show their support for the festival. Every year we've tried to get money from people in a variety of ways. If people do actually think Tramlines is a good festival then paying for whatever bit we decide to charge for is the best way they can show their support…”
Exactly what form this will take is still in discussion. There's an awareness of crowdfunding – “We were looking at it recently. I know DocFest did something…” But Sarah seems more excited by the prospect of working with other organisations in the city on solutions. “I had a conversation with someone yesterday where we were talking about Arts Council funding and there's a lot of separate groups in Sheffield that put bids in for small amounts. A hundred organisations all after ten grand each. But actually if there's a hundred organisations put together they might all come out with 25 grand each because they're working collaboratively…”
That sounds hopeful, and there's a recognition that – while the source of great affection and amazing memories and experiences for audiences, as well as a proudly community-orientated event – Tramlines is competing for the same pot of money that libraries and all sorts of hugely important things are dependent on. There's a balance to be struck between highlighting the value in what you do while understanding there's jobs and other things at stake elsewhere. “The council have got a ridiculous amount of money to save. I think that all of the events are important in Sheffield – but are they as important as a children's home or an old persons' home? You have to step back and go, 'This is a great thing for Sheffield, but essentially it's a party on the weekend.' There's redundancy left, right and centre with the council. We don't ever get into battles with the council saying 'we must have this money' because it's a really really difficult climate.”
So any teases for 2013? We should be so lucky. Waiting for confirmation of the cut has clearly been holding back everyone from planning this year's festival, but Sarah's final comments – “We're hoping to come back as big as we were last year…”- are her brightest. Whether it's wristbands for events, crowdfunding or – our tip – a premium rate phone number projected onto the stage that enough people have to text in order to get the band back on for an encore, this year's festival looks likely to be different. It's also possibly an opportunity for audiences to becomes a bigger part of the show. So there'll be more of this…
But we might have to get more involved if we wanna keep creating something as amazing as what's gone before. Who's with us?
Words by Rob Barker