Watford Jazz Junction: Interview with Festival Founder Chris Newstead

Pulling together a successful jazz festival involves dealing with lots of moving parts and, in this interview, we caught up with the founder of Watford Jazz Junction music festival in the UK.

Founded in 2020, the annual event celebrates jazz music in the UK and is growing to become a significant event in the jazz calendar, attracting both local and international performers.

It provides a platform for established and emerging jazz musicians to showcase their music, with a focus on promoting diversity and inclusivity within the genre. The 2023 edition (18-21 May) celebrates the influence of the Caribbean on UK jazz.

Chris talks about the key to a balanced programme, the importance of branding for events and musicians, how experience in communication can help maximise awareness, and what musicians can do to help promote their gigs

One key takeaway from our side is the idea of focusing on your audience: who are they, what do they want to hear and what do they respond to? An important question at every stage of your career.

The idea of keeping up to date with marketing strategies and testing a range of them is applicable whether you’re promoting gigs or releasing new music.

Here’s the full interview…

What, in your opinion, is the key to a balanced programme for a festival?

The key to finding any balance is putting your audience first: understanding who comes to your events and what they want to hear and what they respond to.

For Watford that means presenting a mix of the unfamiliar and the familiar, whilst providing as much guidance around the musicians, the venues and events as possible, and then listening to feedback.

We balance grass roots music and seasoned professionals across the billings. More than half of our shows are completely free to attend and all of our shows are heavily subsidised. But I will never undervalue the music we promote, despite being driven to help more people discover it who ordinarily would never listen to jazz let alone pay for it.

The design of the website and promotional materials looks great. How much importance do you think it is for events – or musicians – should put on that side of things?

Thanks! Getting your brand right is super important.

Amongst my first conversations for getting the festival started were with our designer Bret Syfert and around understanding our values of inclusion, mental well-being and quality.

The brand had to match our ambitions. But a brand is more than visuals – it’s about a whole experience covering how you interact with people, how you appear, where you appear and ensuring consistency.

At the end of the day our brand is cradling the greater creative outpouring of dozens of musicians and creatives. So, we need to match their goals with our vision, amplify their work, and accommodate the needs of our different venues and hugely diverse audiences.

You worked for the Wellcome Trust as a head of communications for many years. What key role there have you been able to use to maximise awareness of the festival?

My experience of Wellcome taught me much around engagement and integrity.

Even with a £38,000,000,000 investment portfolio (and yes, those 9 zeros are important to see, as I learned that a ‘billion’ can be such an easily dismissible term) it didn’t mean we were automatically listened to or had the right to sit at any table just because of wealth.

Communications were the key to hearing honestly from researchers, investors, and policy makers. Through that, you can build effective relationships and partnerships. Without it you will operate in a bubble that really ends up serving nobody very well.

And, like anyone with experience of working in a large professional organisation, you get very used to planning, reporting and accountability. And everyone who works with me at the Watford Jazz Junction will know just how much I love Excel and detailed planning!

The hardest thing for me is then leaving the spreadsheets behind and allowing grey spaces for the unknown and the magic of a festival to take over.

What things can musicians do to help promoters like you sell tickets and raise awareness of the festival?

Commit to the gig, not just a date.

By that I mean:

  • providing colour photographs at high resolution that reflect you and your music (and smiling is a very good thing!)
  • thinking about how you’ll help us find the audience (knowing who’s enjoyed your shows before)
  • making short videos that endorse your specific show
  • mentioning the show/festival/venue elsewhere; providing back-stories that can be used in newsletters or social posts
  • generally being active whenever you can find the time.

Can you talk us through the timeline of bookings, in terms of when you get started through to announcements and final billing?

Some bookings you want to make the moment you hear a band, others come through recommendations. All of them gestate over time.

All of our main acts are considered in the round by our programming committee (which is me, Ruth Fisher, Orphy Robinson and Chris Philips). We also have a further advisory committee that includes ensuring scrutiny and budgeting.

We book up our key acts from the moment the festival finishes to about 3 months later. That’s because we need external grant funding to operate, and we can’t make an authoritative application without knowing who we’re putting on. 

It is extremely unlikely that we would wait to be approached by an artist, rather we will seek out the artists we’d like to put on.

Our timeline for May 2024 means we’ll be mostly finalised by August 2023. Seeking funding concludes by November. And then we’ll announce the first acts in January 2024 alongside initial early bird sales.

This year’s edition is celebrating the influence of the Caribbean on UK jazz. How useful has it been to have a theme to hook the programme and communication around?

It’s incredibly useful and adds cohesion. I do like a bit of the random, but having a theme provides a wrap around narrative and guidance for making decisions about who we’d like to work with.

I’ve long understood the impact of the Caribbean on UK jazz but I’ve read so much more about it this year, and am indebted to Orphy for his knowledge and experiences. 

I’m also delighted that we’re being joined by Leon Foster Thomas, a Trinidadian who’s currently writing his PhD on jazz in the Caribbean at Royal Holloway in London.

We haven’t agreed on our theme for 2024 as yet but there are many ideas in the mix.

What have been the best 3 channels for bringing ticket buyers to the event?

This year, in order, it’s been:

  1. email newsletters
  2. paid social media adverts
  3. organic search.

I don’t know if that will be the same next year since I try to respond as quickly as possible to whatever is working at a particular moment.

Like everyone, we also put out social posts. For us I rank Twitter above Facebook above Instagram. Insta should be number one but you can’t embed a direct weblink in posts so that drops its importance for direct ticket sales.

We have printed and hand delivered 15,000 printed leaflets. Few people know the letterboxes of Watford better than me! And we’re also across radio, word of mouth, posters, in the newsletters of different organisations in the area and so on.

What do you wish you’d known when you first started organising the festival that you know now?

Just how much of my brain it would take over! There have been few days since January 2020 when I haven’t woken up thinking about the Watford Jazz Junction.

But more than that I wish I’d known how many amazing people would come forward to work with us and volunteer.

I’ve spent many hours worrying about how we’d discover something, find funding, or deliver a project, and always the solution has come through other people being generous with their thoughts, ideas, and time.

More About Chris Newstead

Chris Newstead is a music industry professional based in London, UK. He currently serves as creative producer of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and directs the Watford Jazz Junction music festival.

Chris is a freelance producer and founded the Watford Jazz Junction music festival in 2020. A lifelong jazz fan & musician, he’s passionate about jazz in all its guises, and helping young people find opportunities to perform and share in the joy of live music.

He is a former trustee of The Music of Life Foundation and worked for the Wellcome Trust as a head of communications for many years.

Connect with him via Linkedin

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