Fiona Stewart – The woman behind the Green Man

Photo: Owen Richards

Photo: Owen Richards

Founded in 2003 Green Man has won accolades for its intimate vibe and ethical style. For 4 days a year it is home to 20,000 festival goers from all ages and walks of life. This year tickets sold out 3 months before the event and the offerings included music, comedy, film, arts, rides and science, as well as the beautiful surroundings of the Brecon Beacons.

The head and heart of Green Man is its owner Fiona Stewart. As the only female winner of Outstanding Contribution to Festivals from the UK Festival Awards she keeps the business very much in the family with her son Ben helping to curate the line-up. We had the privilege of spending some time with her and learning more about where she came from, how she sees the festival landscape in 2015 and if she can deal with being a trailblazer.

“I was the festival manager of The Big Chill for and in 6 years it had gone from an 800 person event to a 35,000 person event. It was great and I’d had a ball but I felt I was at a point where  I had the confidence to branch out on my own.  I wanted to go into a festival where I could bring in the ideals that I wanted and have that freedom and you can only really do that if you own something.

Festivals have changed incredibly since I came in, it used to be like the Vikings were coming; I remember putting on a festival where they actually removed everything from the local church because they felt like we were going to steal it. When the licensing laws changed it became a lot easier to put on a festival and there was an immense increase of events. It was seen as some sort of cash cow but when you’re a small business, which most festivals are, if you’re not breaking even in the first year then you haven’t got a concept and that’s the reality and that’s a pretty hard thing for people to understand. Now there is a better understanding that it is a riskier thing.

There are new people getting into the market and great new festivals emerging; the kind of people doing that really know what they’re doing. From a style viewpoint the UK festival scene is immense; it’s so multicultural. There has emerged a whole cultural experience in Britain over the last 15 years which wasn’t there before and now you can go to any kind of event, anywhere, doing anything you want.

 You need to keep it authentic.  When you see festivals being run by chain stores, something other people enjoy, and I would never monitor other people’s enjoyment, that is too far away from the idea of purist entertainment which a festival is for me. This organisation is very traditionalist in that way where freedom of performance and authenticity is a massive thing.

We have a lot of women playing Green Man, but I think the more interesting question is why aren’t there more women out there? A promoter wants to sell tickets and they will book whoever artist they feel is going to fulfil that. Ultimately it is about who you can afford and who is touring. There is also massive competition between festivals and exclusivity rights; a whole stream of things you have to get through.

I think the touring situation in the UK has completely changed; there aren’t the smaller venues where there are opportunities and oxygen to develop performers. I wonder if that is part of the reason we aren’t seeing so many women out there because they don’t have the opportunity to have those small touring performances.

When I first started [in the industry] people couldn’t believe it; women weren’t doing that kind of thing.  I came from a time when I was going to the very traditionalist contractors who were all men, I used to have to go out of the meeting room and pretend I was speaking to my male boss.

I don’t feel like a (trailblazer) but I am the only woman to get the (UKFA Outstanding Contribution) award and there was a lot of chat about that at that time. I’m the only woman in the UK, which I don’t think is a good thing, who has controlling shares in my own organisation and that is very different from being a figurehead but I think that will change in time. It is a lot of responsibility and a lot of risk to take on a festival; you literally can lose your home.

I’m one of those people, and I think a lot of women are like this, where you feel like someone is going to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘sorry we’ve got the wrong person’ so I’m never taking anything for granted, I’m not going to be sticking tights and a cape on any time soon. The opportunities came up and I took them. I would be a bit of a pudding to say I call myself a trailblazer.

I do see myself as a feminist. I used to be a bit embarrassed about mentioning it because I was a woman in a man’s industry, all my managers all the people I spoke to were men. I don’t want other women to feel that way so now I’m an executive director at the CPA (Concert Promoters Association) amongst other things and I think part of the motivation for doing that was because it is a lonely feeling being the only woman in the room.

It took me a long time to understand what I was capable of. I probably should have started on my own a lot earlier but the reality is it’s a different mind-set working for yourself and it takes a certain amount of time for you to get to that point, you need to go through a bit of a journey to find that out.”

Interview by Katy Vans

This interview first appeared on BBC Love Festivals

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