Stow Festival director Nick Bason tells James Cracknell how the event has become such a success, and what’s next for live music in the borough
Five years ago a group of residents decided to organise an event that could promote and showcase local musical talent.
The last dedicated live music venue in Walthamstow, The Standard in Blackhorse Lane, was about to close. Promoters had seemingly given up on the area, perhaps unaware that a cultural renaissance was on the cusp of taking off.
Nick Bason and Emma Betts, however, recognised there was talent and saw in it the potential to rejuvenate the borough’s flagging live music scene. They had little experience in the music industry between them; Nick, a public relations professional in the third sector and a former Liberal Democrat councillor, once worked in HMV, while Emma, then a Waltham Forest Council officer working on the authority’s cultural strategy, plays the violin. Crucially, both shared a passion and belief that live music could thrive in the borough.
“In 2011 there wasn’t really a local music scene to speak of,” says Nick. “But there was a lot of talented performers; we wanted to organise an event that showcased the musical talent here but also attracted acts from elsewhere, and to show that Walthamstow does have a cultural identity.
“I am just a music fan, going to lots of gigs and festivals. On the managing committee we do have some musicians and DJs, so there is that experience, but we are really just learning as we go along. We fit it in around our jobs but it is supposed to be something fun, so we try to enjoy it as much as possible.”
The first Stow Festival was such a huge success that it was nominated for, and won, the TalkTalk Digital Heroes Award. The event has gone from strength to strength ever since, expanding the range of venues and increasing the number of acts to provide an eclectic and expansive four-day experience that is now a fixture of the Waltham Forest calendar.
This year’s Stow Festival, held 15th-18th September, saw 105 acts play across 19 venues, watched by 9,000 people. The line-up included reggae, folk, electronica, jazz and a string quartet, among others. Venues included churches, libraries, museums, cafes, pubs, and breweries.
What’s most remarkable about the whole thing is that it’s entirely run by a managing committee working in their own free time, as part of a not-for-profit enterprise.
Nick is clearly proud of the group’s achievements. “The managing committee are all volunteers, and during the event itself there were around 50 volunteers; people on doors, people doing sound. It’s an extended family.
“This year was probably our biggest and best year. The line-up was varied with our first proper hip-hop act, and we also added an opera act. We had new genres but we made sure the big events such as Electronic17 were there as well – it was a great weekend.
“Over the years the festival has evolved and the area has changed. We try to put on events which are challenging by using unusual venues, or putting on acts that don’t have exposure elsewhere.
“We wanted to show it was possible to put on big events here; now there is a more dynamic music scene. We know we have helped acts develop relationships with venues, and we have hosted the debuts of acts such as Walthamstow Acoustic Massive.”
As Stow Festival has grown and expanded, other music festivals have been launched by organisations seemingly inspired by its success. In 2014 Barbican Arts Trust teamed up with the council to launch Walthamstow Garden Party, a two-day free music and arts festival in Lloyd Park which has attracted big-name headliners such as Ghostpoet and Asian Dub Foundation.
“It is a great thing that organisations such as Barbican Arts Trust are now involved locally with Walthamstow Garden Party,” says Nick, “but what we are doing is on the grassroots level, we’re tied to the community.
“There is risk that when these big outside organisations come in the grassroots are left behind. We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Meanwhile, the former EMD cinema in Hoe Street, which hosted The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in its 1960s heyday, has been reopened for the first time in over a decade. Though it may not yet be a dedicated music venue, owners Antic are developing plans to turn it into a hub for live performances with the help of Soho Theatre.
Nick says Mirth, Marvel and Maud, as the EMD has been renamed in its new guise as a trendy bar, was his favourite venue for this year’s Stow Festival.
“I am very glad it is open, we always talked about wanting to host a gig there. And while they are offering live music at the moment there is clearly more potential for it to become a significant multi-arts centre.
“It is an iconic eye-catching building and there is clearly potential. It would be great, for an area that doesn’t already have a dedicated music venue, to have somewhere that can showcase not just local acts but headline acts. It could be a hub for the local music scene. I take a keen interest in what they’re going to do with it.”
The renaissance for local music is not confined to Walthamstow, either. Down the road in Leytonstone a venue called Luna Lounge has been steadily building a reputation, and last year even picked up an award from Time Out magazine.
I ask Nick if there might be any plans to extend Stow Festival to other parts of the borough. “In Leyton and Leytonstone there are a lot of new venues, such as the Leyton Technical and the Star, and it would be great to extend the festival to these places. There is scope for it.”
In the meantime, Nick Bason and Emma Betts have teamed up again to launch a social enterprise called Beatroots, with an aim to “deliver high-quality musical programmes in partnership with the community”.
Whatever happens next, Waltham Forest is now firmly back on London’s live music map.
To see highlights from Stow Festival: