Harnessing community-facing enterprise in a pandemic? Host a music festival!

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In South Wales, a digital music festival at the height of the pandemic created new networks and proved an invaluable training ground for its student organisers.

Immersed! is a unique music festival that is curated by Creative Industries students at the University of South Wales, working in liaison with the local community in aid of Teenage Cancer Trust and the #saveourvenues campaign. The immersive project has been running for three years and involves intensive collaboration with multiple stakeholders, including cross-subject disciplines, music fans, commercial venues, charities, professional bodies, booking agents, artists, communities, policymakers and technicians. 

In 2021, the project was faced with a wicked problem aligned with that facing the music industry: how to adapt a successful festival brand to engage a range of stakeholders and audiences with a digital concept during a pandemic? Instilling a sense of ‘liveness’ and community using technology was the crux of the challenge, along with ensuring students accessed an authentic learning experience. In an industry in which experience is essential, embarking on this mission magnified the wellbeing needs of students, staff and, critically, the community. We were acutely aware of digital disadvantage and other inclusion challenges – always present, and exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Instilling a sense of ‘liveness’ and community using technology was the crux of the challenge

The framework used to explore solutions was a design thinking methodology drawing together resources to problem solve using a three-pronged approach: 

  1. Inspiration: We conducted field research, exploring market trends and taking influences from events across the globe to consider practices that could fit with our audience. 
  2. Ideation: We consulted, brainstormed and synthesised options with a diverse range of individuals and groups to stimulate divergent thinking. We found common themes kept rising to the top as other ideas were discarded: for example, the importance of a representative and diverse programme, or the goal of prioritising quality content for broadcast by seeking to film inside music venues over less professional environments. 
  3. Implementation: We began to turn our ideas into an action plan, with prototyping used to test and ultimately validate the project. We conducted extensive exploration around how and where best to host the festival. Following a testing period we settled on three platforms – Facebook, Twitch and YouTube – to facilitate both quality and accessibility for our key stakeholders.

Working with the local industry, 50 students were tasked with every aspect of music programming, performance, promotion and production of a real-life festival in a task that nurtured vocational skills and network building. A wide range of personal qualities, behaviours and transferable skills that encompass all six of the attributes we seek to develop throughout student journeys at the University of South Wales – namely, commercial awareness, communication, digital literacy, project management, leadership, innovation and enterprise – were embedded in the project. At a time when government messaging suggested the most viable option for creative industry professionals was retraining, passions for staging the festival ran high and the students seized the opportunity to draw the festival together. The website homepage addressed the question of the viability of the arts head on, embodying the ethos of the festival. 

Immersed! Festival act Adwaith
Photo credit: Adwaith

Logistics were the biggest issue. With social distancing in place and venues closed, the team worked hard to find practical and safe solutions to facilitate filming performances for broadcast. Music venues grasped the opportunity to open their doors to support the project and raise awareness of their plight, which in turn precipitated rigorous risk assessing and site management. The promotions team worked tirelessly to inject personality and meaning into the festival’s storytelling – not only its programmed content, but the heroes behind the scenes making it happen. There were interviews, music clips, press articles, blogs and features about the music venues, artists, politics and charity campaigns involved, which swelled engagement. 

Before the pandemic, Immersed! Festival 2020 took place at Tramshed Cardiff. It featured 27 bands, including Grammy award headliner Richard Ashcroft, and raised thousands for the charity Teenage Cancer Trust through ticket sales. Unrestricted by venue capacities, dates and times, Immersed! 2021 saw a creative community embark on a fast-track journey to expand the festival digitally. The end result was a three-day event with 48 artists streamed across multiple platforms to an audience of 10,000, offering a diverse programme that represented and celebrated the wealth of talent in South Wales, while representing a triumph over adversity during the most challenging of times. The fundraising scope of the activity was extended as attendees donated to Immersed! causes using the Just Giving platform throughout the weekend’s broadcast.

Key to the success of the festival were industry partnerships and collaborations that equipped early-career event managers with the skills, knowledge and networks required to maximise their potential. We allocated stages to music labels to showcase their talent and worked with local businesses to generate content and merchandise to fundraise for the #saveourvenues campaign, which aims to prevent the permanent closure of venues due to Covid-19. A design competition generated a commemorative festival t-shirt, raising awareness and proceeds in support of the campaign. Tackling challenges, finding solutions to real-world problems and partnering with industry were at the forefront of the mission. With the live sector in a state of disruption, it was crucial to think creatively and consider sustainability, diversity and enterprise. 

Live performance
Photo credit: Immersed! Festival

Immersed! has provided a tangible blueprint for event startups and digital diversification within and outside education. Outcomes included bookings for artists and invitations for the Immersed! brand to host stages within larger festival projects across the UK, as well as employment offers for the student organisers with Brecon Jazz Festival, National Youth Arts Wales, Screen Alliance Wales and Libertino Records. We have built a valuable network around Immersed!, providing ongoing connections and resources for like-minded stakeholders to feed into next year’s festival and offshoot opportunities. Going forward, we intend to build on our success by incorporating further cross-discipline collaboration and multimedia creativity and tackling more wicked problems. Immersed! 2022 will continue to engage a range of stakeholders and address important issues, with a climate change and music conference incorporated in the festival. We are committed to upskilling and developing online elements to enhance any physical festival in the future, while exploring monetisation models for digital creative experiences. It’s an exciting playing field as we consider how to build back better.

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