On founding Strawberries & Creem festival...
My friend Will Young ran this club night called Creem that I helped promote. We were trying to bring something different to the ‘boring university city’ that was Cambridge, push the music boundaries a bit. After our first year, we decided to do a garden party to fit in with Cambridge May Week. Our spin was to call it a ‘music festival’, even though there were only 800 people. We had a big stage, burgers, hot dogs, bars, all that sort of thing. That was our first little baby. I was probably the drunkest person on the field!
The next year we doubled in size. We got really lucky booking Skepta just before he blew up – after we booked him, he went onstage with Kanye at the BRITs and dropped Shutdown. By the time he played at Strawberries & Creem his price was probably 10x what we paid. That put us on the map. He came back last year just to hang out.
For the first couple of festivals our only income was ticket sales – almost Fyre Festival-esque. I watched the documentary and saw so many similarities! The first festival we were ballsy: 'we're putting on a party at the end of the year, pay £20 and you'll have a good time.' Once we had money in the bank, then we did everything off the back of that. It could have gone really badly wrong. Fortunately we didn't really have any overheads – certainly not compared to Fyre!
I never set out to run festivals, I just liked throwing parties
There was a little bit of pushback the first couple of years – 'what are these guys doing? They run this silly club night, now they're trying to do a festival...' – but once people came and realised it was actually quite a lot of fun, they supported it. We still have that core Cambridge University market coming back every year. The council like it, the police like it – they're all for bringing something different to the city. It's nice to be in a place that's renowned for academia, and have a cool festival happen once a year.
I never set out to run festivals, I just liked throwing parties. In the first year, we were putting all the fences up ourselves; we had no idea about security, no idea about licensing, no idea about anything. [Head of Operations] Louise Young came onboard after the first year and brought a lot of organisation and structure.
I think third year we got the number of toilets wrong. The VIP toilets were cordoned off and seen as a bio-safety hazard because they were so overused! We always overstock now. There are certain things at festivals you have to have, and that's alright toilets and no queues at the bars.
On running the festival…
At the end of the day, we're a group of 25-year-olds putting on parties for 25-year-olds. That's our USP in a way: we're our own target market. We want to have a day where people just have fun. It's all about fun. We have a cool and credible line-up but we also bring nostalgia. We've booked acts over the years – Nelly, Shaggy – who people grew up listening to. You come there with no agenda except to party.
With some of the bigger, corporate festivals, it's basically a stage in a field. There's not much thought about the food, the site, the discoveries. I don't want to ever be like that. On the food-side, we focus on getting homegrown traders and visually appealing stuff, not just your standard burger van you'd see outside a football match.
We are still growing at quite a quick rate. First year we did 800 in our first year, 2000 in our second year, 5000 for the third year, 8,500 the year after, 10,000 last year and this year we're looking at 12-14,000. When it gets to a stage where we're happy with the number of people then we have to reinvent and see what else we can do. Next year, we're going to try and do two days but keep it to 15,000. In my experience, once it gets over 20,000 you become quite a lost mass: you lose your friend and you're never gonna find them again. That's one of my pet hates at festivals.
There's always one moment when you're like, 'we did this!'
Me, Fraser and Preye [fellow co-founders] do market research for most of summer and go to every festival under the sun. It's a perk of the job! We saw Stefflon Don at Boardmasters last year, and she blew us away with her performance, so she was a shoo-in to be a headliner for us. The real work starts in September, October. When booking the lineup, we all throw out names of who we want and agree on a few certain key names that have to be there. Then it's working out how other people can compliment the lineup. We aren't a one genre festival, we've got grime, rap, house, techno, UK base, American hip hop – there's loads of genres, and it's about having tick boxes for each of those. It takes a while!
Stages, ticket partners, drinks deals – there're so many different areas of the festival that brands want to sponsor. It's a case of deciding who you want to work with, who elevates your brand and doesn't tarnish it. We might want to work with Adidas, for example, but they won't pay any money; whereas a less established brand is willing to splash out for the association. Which do you pick? That's a big revenue stream for us, so it's a case of choosing carefully.
There's always one moment of the festival when you look around and appreciate everything you've done for the whole year. It's a weird concept to feel like you're working every day of the year for one day. It's kinda mental. But there's always one moment when you're like, 'we did this!' It's nice to see all your friends and family in one place appreciating something you've done.
Strawberries & Creem in pictures
On studying at Cambridge…
I was voted 6th biggest BNOC at Cambridge University. It's something I think I put on my CV! As a former model, I became the face of the Cambridge University Charity Fashion Show. Someone pulled a favour and had Jeremy Paxman make a cameo in the promo video. "Chris Jammer? Who's Chris Jammer? Who the hell do this people think they are?"
I studied land economy at Cambridge. It's kind of niche; it’s economics, law, real estate, finance. It used to be what the rich landowners sent their kids to study so they could work out what to do with their estate. There's a big stereotype behind it, but actually it's really applicable to going to the City and working in real estate finance or wealth management, something like that. Working in the City was my intention.
Being at Cambridge, I was surrounded by people with a different sort of drive. I never wanted to be conventional in anything I did, hence why I became a club promoter. You're not actually allowed to have a job at Cambridge, nowhere local is allowed to employ you in case it distracts from your studies. I didn't have the funds to afford to live. I needed to do something, and if it was making a pound for every ticket I sold, great – I like to party anyway. That's how I meet Preye and Will, and we went on to do the festival from that.
I'm glad I went to state school; I grew up with a much more diverse range of friends
My parents met at Cambridge – my dad was an engineer, my mum was a teacher at Homerton. As soon as I was born, I was very much pushed in that direction; while my sister was like, 'nah, I'm not doing this whole uni debacle, I'm going to go off and be a teacher.' I went to state school in Mill Hill: going to an institution like Cambridge is a proper culture shock.
I'm glad I went to state school; I grew up with a much more diverse range of friends and I saw the world from a different perspective than a lot of my privately educated colleagues at Cambridge. It's a factor in why I got a bit apathetic to the whole university process and wanted to do my own thing – because I didn't feel like I completely fitted in. I suppose you can partly trace Strawberries & Creem back to that..
Modelling started when I was 17. Someone messaged me on Facebook and asked if I wanted to do a shoot for ID magazine with FKA Twigs. At this time I had no idea what ID magazine was or who FKA Twigs was either, but that shoot kinda put me on the map. I got picked up by an agency and started working off the back of that. I think it took me two, three years to realise how big that shoot actually was for me. At the time I was a rabbit in the headlights. Was a good shoot though – I had my hair bleached white, and was covered in temporary tattoos.
I took a year off before I went to uni to model, but then I grew too tall and I grew too big to do a lot of high-end fashion stuff. You need to be like 6ft 4 max, and skinny enough to fit into sample clothes. I'm 6'6... Because I've got a bit of a profile, brands are still willing to shoot with me – you're just not gonna see me doing a catwalk at London Fashion Week. I wouldn't fit into the designer clothes!
After I left uni, modelling helped me get by while I was building Strawberries & Creem. It's still difficult, but we've got to a stage where we can employ two more people so there are jobs coming from Strawberries & Creem, which is a really nice thing to see. I was so broke sometimes I had to walk home from Central London because I couldn't afford public transport. We've got six people on the payroll now, which is pretty amazing.
One of the reasons I went on Shipwrecked was I could to talk freely about Strawberries & Creem on the show. If my profile gets raised, the festival’s profile is raised also. There's a lot of massive characters and controversial people – I think they needed someone to be a mediator. I'm not an argumentative guy: to take me angry takes an awful lot. I think I was the calming presence on the show – which isn't great for airtime but it's great for me being able to be me, and not have to play up to anything.
Some of the cast are getting abuse on Twitter because of some of the stuff that's coming out. Obviously it's a reality TV show and they've edited two months worth of footage into 15 hours, effectively – so people's personalities are being warped and moulded into what works. It was a bit of a risky – some of the festival lot were like, 'if you come across an idiot on this than you're going to have to walk, because otherwise you'll take the festival down with you.'
On the future...
We've started a festival the day after called The Cambridge Club. Been going for two years. Completely different demographic – it's family friendly. We've had Craig Charles Funk and Soul, Gabrielle, Trevor Nelson – we've got Sister Sledge headlining this year. It's an older demographic. We do a massive cleanup operation. Because the crowd is so much more chilled, we can relax that day and let it run itself. That's kind of our celebration today. It's going really well – we've sold more tickets for Cambridge Club this year than for Strawberries & Creem.
Strawberries & Creem is in a really lucky position in that we're starting to become a brand. The Baftas approached us to put on the after-party for their film gala dinner. I want Strawberries & Creem to become a brand that supersedes the music festival. The festival can be the cherry on top, but I want to do cool events in London, really cool brand collaborations, maybe have a record label, a clothing line. Strawberries & Creem the brand – if I can get that to be a thing in its own right then I'll be happy.