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Wilderness festival and Sunday Papers Live’s Ben DeVere: “Building a diverse lineup is easy, building a diverse audience is what's difficult”

Festival programmer Ben DeVere certainly enjoys a challenge. He’s part of a collective who have just opened a new London venue in Dalston in a period where his creative peers are predicting financial difficulties for the area, given that Hackney Borough are imposing new tough licensing regulations. And in this interview, he debunks the idea that line-ups aren’t diverse enough, revealing that his concern isn’t line-ups, but pursuing the diversification of audiences country-wide.

“The boutique festival scene is a very white-middle-class demographic, but every year we're discovering ways to nudge it in a more representative direction,” he tells Run-Riot. Once they’re through the doors “there's no limit to people's curiosity,” he says.

As a festival programmer, Ben has overseen the programming, and been instrumental in the build of Secret Garden Party (RIP), Citadel and Wilderness. Back in London, Ben’s current project is as Arts Programmer for EartH in Dalston, an ambitious 2,000 capacity cultural hub where Efes snooker hall once stood.

His real-life London newspaper event, Sunday Papers Live, has attracted the attention of globally famous journalists who have mulled over current affairs du-jour to amassed audiences, celebrating a new and relaxed style of ‘live’ entertainment. The event returns to London on November 18th and a soon-to-launch daily version, Papers Live, will soon launch at EartH.

“The city takes a breath on Sundays”, he says. Ben’s event welcomes hundreds in, boasting comfy sofas, food and drink and just an ultimate chill day, the type you’d enjoy at home, only with good company.

[Sunday Papers Live]

Adam Bloodworth: You have a lot on your plate! Which of your projects is keeping you awake at night at the moment, and why?

Ben DeVere: I'm helping to programme a big new independent arts centre called Evolutionary Arts Hackney (EartH). It's an old art deco cinema we found boarded up in Dalston. We opened in September. Every time I walk into the theatre space upstairs, it takes my breath away. It's stunning. And amazing that it was hiding in plain sight this entire time. We've had Neil Gaiman and Brian Eno speak, and the Beastie Boys coming soon.

Adam: What do you think appeals to audiences about your London event, Sunday Papers Live?

Ben: It's an event for people that don't want to leave the house. You can lounge about on a sofa in your slippers and have a nap, and there's no pressure to 'get involved' or dance or do anything. So the informality and the comfort, plus the sheer variety of stuff I put on stage over the day. It's a ten-hour show.

Adam: Is there any serious point to the event, or is it just plain relaxation?

Ben: It wouldn't be the Sunday papers without a mix of silly and serious. Someone once called it intellectual cabaret. You can happily skip from a debate on the refugee crisis to a comedian provided the quality is good enough. You jump from section to section happily enough when you read the paper. It's the same thing. 

[Jon Snow at Sunday Papers Live]

Adam: What do you make of the Saturday paper catching up with the Sunday paper? (Some people think Saturday's paper is now more jam-packed than Sunday's, for instance).

Ben: What makes the Sunday papers special isn't the papers: what's special is the day they are printed on. The city takes a breath on Sundays. Everyone's given permission to take time and contemplate things. I don't believe you really read the paper the same way on any other day.

Adam: What type of event is London crying out for that it doesn't have yet?

Ben: If I knew that I'd sleep better. I am going to launch Papers Live soon at EartH, the weekday version of Sunday Papers Live. It’ll be less of a 'show' and more current. Issues of the day will be picked apart by experts and the journalists. It’ll be more spontaneous and reactive than the big all-dayer events. I've made sure we've got one pencilled for March 29th [Brexit’s due date].

Adam: What event does London have too many of?

Ben: Events tailored to particular cliques. In one sense it's great to see so many niche demographics catered for, but at the same time, being able to target your audience so precisely on social media means that there are less intergenerational spaces and events. I remember going to a nightclub in Barcelona about 15 years ago and seeing three generations of the same family on the dance floor. And it wasn't a wedding. That's something we've managed to achieve at Wilderness.

[Ben DeVere at Wilderness Festival]

Adam: It feels as if the festival circuit is changing a lot right now, with Secret Garden Party off the circuit and Bestival facing difficulties. Do you think that's fair to say?

Ben: Can you think of an industry that isn't changing? Festivals are a reflection of the culture almost by definition so they will always change. It's the ones that don't change that get left behind.

Adam: How do you ensure enough minority voices appear throughout the arts and cultural scheduling at Wilderness?

Ben: Building a diverse lineup is easy. Building a diverse audience is what's difficult. We don't get to choose who buys a ticket, and the boutique festival scene is a very white-middle-class demographic, but every year we're discovering ways to nudge it in a more representative direction.

Adam: How can we encourage more audiences to get into theatre and the wider arts at 'music' festivals, or shouldn't we need to bother?

Ben: That's what festivals are best at - introducing people to new things. And I'm always amazed at how open people are to this. There's no limit to people's curiosity once you have them on site and in the right mindset. The mistake is to hide the more challenging or niche content in a corner of the site. If you're doing weird, go big.

[Neil Gaiman event at EartH]

Adam: What is there still left for you to achieve in the events sphere in terms of art and culture programming?

Ben: I still haven't booked Radiohead.

Adam: What are the biggest challenges you face when curating UK festivals?

Ben: Radiohead are out of my price range.


Sunday Papers Live
18 November 2018
Cecil Sharp House
2 Regent's Park Road
Camden Town
London NW1 7AY
Info and tickets: sundaypaperslive.com