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From A Seed To A Forest

I'm a musician and a sound engineer. I co-founded Tandem Festival with Nina. We were just in the pub, chatting, thinking about what we should do next. That would have been in 2013. The year before, I'd been cycling around Europe, recording musicians along the way, collecting their stories and their music. I thought it would be cool to bring all those musicians together, and essentially have a festival. I just mentioned this idea to Nina in passing. And she said, ‘I've always wanted to organise a festival.’ A few beers in, we just decided that was a great idea, and shook hands on it. And then it just got bigger and bigger.


At the time, I was getting quite involved in various CAG groups, volunteering on the side. What I found in the CAG stuff is a way of approaching projects and doing things which I hadn't really seen in the arts. A lot of it is in the process, getting people involved, and everyone gets to have a say and to shape whatever project they're working on, in a very sort of flat structure. The stuff I'd come across in the arts and music before, those big projects were organised not on a band level or on troop level, it was a more top-down approach.


So to me, coming into these CAG groups, seeing everyone getting to talk about what they want to do and it all being nice and informal, I wanted to bring that dimension to the arts and to music, whilst also having a strong environmental angle. We wanted it to feel like a proper festival, but one that had been created differently. So what we did is we set up open meetings. We put adverts out wherever we could for free. Just saying, there's a meeting here, come along, come shape a festival.


The first edition, in 2014, was between 300 and 500 people. Exactly what you'd expect, where everyone's just working around the clock for days. We all worked ourselves to the ground. I was getting really exhausted, worried about money, I had some unprocessed grief. But then somehow, in spite of that, I think just people felt it had to happen again. It was great.


After the first festival we became a CAG. People were talking about the environment, but also, you know, social and environmental issues are very much linked, and it felt exciting. We were trying to organise a festival that was a celebration of an ethos, but also putting into practice and celebrating a process, and making that sort of world accessible. We always thought, if we just put on a great festival, people are gonna want to come, and then they discover all of the other stuff, too.


One my favourite stories from the first festival, was with the security team we hired. Not who I was necessarily expecting to have engaged in these sorts of issues. We decided it should be a vegetarian festival. All the musicians and anyone who worked at the festival, we provided food for them. We were working with Cultivate, and Oxford Food Hub, and it was all food that would have otherwise gone to waste. The security team apparently were very worried about the fact that there wasn’t going to be any meat or dairy products. But then their manager sent us a really nice email afterwards, saying, ‘That was a really great festival, and all our staff were so worried about not eating any meat or dairy products for three days, but you proved that it was totally doable and that vegetarian food could be really good.’ It felt like a big win because they weren’t the crowd that would normally be engaged with those issues.


So we went on, we kept on doing the open meetings, and the second edition was also great. You know, some things went better, some things went worse, didn't quite sell as many tickets as we wanted to. But we felt very invigorated, that we should be doing it again. And then we were starting to talk about how what we wanted to do with Tandem was actually a bigger picture.


We've got a couple of weeks before the festival, where we're building the structures and we've got volunteers coming in and out. So we were just like, ‘How can we bring more people in?’ During my cycling trip through Europe, I’d come across this thing called Ethno Music Camps. They’re these occasions where folk musicians from all around the world gather somewhere for ten days, they bring their instruments, and they teach songs to each other. It’s been going for thirty years, there’s a big committee, and then there's loads of camps that sort of self-organise. And we just emailed them, saying, we're thinking of doing this in England, what do you think? And then they were so enthusiastic, they convinced us to do it that year. So that meant that alongside volunteers coming and building the festival, there was the music camp, musicians teaching songs and mixing with all the volunteers. And at the end of ten days, they had arranged a bunch of songs that then got performed at the festival. So it's like a bit of a folk orchestra.


The next one was a very important year because we lost the site, but we still organised a one-day festival with Restore. I think, not having the full festival to organise, the core group saw it as a chance to take stock and figure out where we're at, what we've done, see what the next steps are. So we basically put a big report together, of what we'd done over the past three years. And then we realised what we needed to do now was get a proper board together, something a bit more formal than just a bunch of excited young people running around trying to make stuff happen. So we formed Tandem Oxford Community Interest Company.


We got a new site, and suddenly we could build the festival not just two weeks before the whole thing, but several months before. So pretty much every weekend for two or three months before the festival, we'd all go up to the site and start building – compost toilets, signs, stages, bars, all that sort of stuff. And so now, alongside the festival we had the music camp, and also what we called Skills Camp. Basically, teaching people how to use drills, how to make stuff out of reclaimed wood. Ideally, people from a varied background. But that's something we’d like to work on more, to really reach out and find ways we can enable a more diverse group of people to come along.


Things got hard for us again that year, 2017, because one of our good friends who had been part of Tandem from the very beginning, she passed away in an accident. But the festival went ahead and there was a nice place in memory of her. That year was really great, even though that part was difficult. We sold more tickets than we’d ever sold. So we've got 600, 700 people, now, and again our crew is nearly 200 people, so you know, that’s quite a lot. It felt really good.


The idea, once we had a surplus, was basically we just needed to hire a festival manager and a marketing person. It was great to have them, but then it obviously created all sorts of new problems, because suddenly you're employing some people who are not part of the community yet, and you have a whole bunch of volunteers who are suddenly being told what to do by people who've not been involved in the festival before.


Then the pandemic sort of brought us together in a strange way, and reinforced that community. During the pandemic, with the support that the arts got, it was actually a bit easier for us to access some funding. And then a lot of our core volunteers were just like, ‘We need to make some form of festival happen.’ This is where we realised how much of a strong community we'd created and how invested our volunteers were. And they pretty much organised a festival. That felt like a victory.


As a society we're starting to wake up to these things, and people are accepting more different types of models. Like, how do you go from a seed that creates one plant, to multiple saplings coming up, and then becoming a forest? How does everyone have the same importance, and how does that work? And how do you make that work within a legal framework, where people actually have to take on some shared responsibility? What if things don't work out, how does that whole structure change? And for now, we don't have an answer. But we’ve done a lot of work.

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