With the line-up announcement for the sixth Country 2 Country Festival being announced this Friday we caught up with Milly Olykan, the festival’s director, to talk all things Country!
Did you imagine that the C2C Festival would ever become as big as it currently is when you started it back in 2013?
I’d like to say yes …. but when we first started C2C we were very much going into an unknown zone – and didn’t have an idea of how well it would go in its first year let alone 5 years on. We didn’t know how many country fans there were ‘out there’ or actually how to reach them – so it was very much … guess work!
Going back to that 2013 line up – Was it hard to convince some of the acts that anyone would actually show up or was there a desire from the start?
We were hugely helped by the CMA, and the agents and managers who supported us with securing Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw – which from the get-go showed off we were a festival representing contemporary country music in the UK. Over the years we’ve gained a terrific reputation in Nashville so acts know C2C is a must play as part of finding or developing their audience here… but there are still significant country stars in the US who need to be convinced…
How has being festival director impacted your own musical tastes?
I have ‘crossed over’! As someone who has worked their whole career in the music business, country wasn’t a genre I listened to at all. Of course I appreciated the classics – but I’d never listened to contemporary country. And I went from being an appreciator – standing on the sidelines and recognizing the talent and great songs – to completely getting it and crossing over for real and now listening to new albums of artists the day they come out etc!
Everyone’s ‘wish list’ of main stage artists could fill a ten day festival, let alone three! What is your criteria for choosing who plays?
There are three of us who collaborate on the arena line up – my promoting partner Chris York and my colleague Ali Harnell who runs AEG Presents in Nashville and me. We all come at it from different angles.
They include – who is going to sell tickets, are we representing the current hot acts in the US, do we have diversity, how do they musically fit together, are we providing magic moments for fans etc. We go in with a wish list, but of course, some artists aren’t available, or we can’t afford them, some don’t want to do it this year, etc so it is a process that changes and we adapt as we book.
How heavily involved are the CMA in choosing who plays?
The CMA are not involved with booking or choosing acts, they are a partner of the event and their role varies – from the start the CEO of the board at the time came and met with promoters in the UK to look for opportunities of how to get something off the ground here. For C2C they are always a source of information and connections via their network and knowledge – the CMA board is over 80 people – all of who are the key players in country music. They are hugely committed to growing and identifying new markets for their industry. Their CMA Songwriters Series has also served as a major educator of the song-writing process which is really what sets country music apart. As well as being one of the annual highlights of the event in my opinion.
Who have been your three favourite acts or artists to have appeared so far?
I’d prefer to look at favourite moments… Maren Morris on the Satellite stage in 2016, Marty Stuart stopping everyone in their tracks 2017, Little Big Towns flawless performance 2016, Darius Rucker setting the place alight both times, Brothers Osbourne strutting their stuff this year. I could go on and on and involve each and every CMA Songwriters Series, the aftershows and smaller Festival Stages…
There has been a move at the last couple of C2C’s to include older, more traditional artists on the bill alongside the newer, younger ones. Marty Stuart won hearts & minds last year but it must be difficult pitching to all tastes?
Not so much a move… we always try and achieve a diverse bill and by that I mean – a gender balance, bands and solo artist, heritage acts and new acts. Sometimes as I mentioned earlier we can’t do it because of availability etc. With Marty Stuart I’d seen him perform at Stagecoach so I knew even if people weren’t familiar with him his performance would win them over. I think C2C fans are very open minded and one of the things I really appreciate about them – they seem very up for discovering new artists. (or artists they didn’t know about who might not actually be new).
Your ambition in expanding the festival each year has been amazing. Song-writer’s night, Radio 2 Indigo Stage, Bluebird etc. It must be an organisational nightmare, co-ordinating so many artists?
I really love programming new things and having a bit of fun with it – like C2C Sessions and Speed dating and our honky tonk at night – I have a great small team who love the event as much as the fans do and are very good at what they do. Because the fans are so great – we want to give them as much as we can over the weekend – so you are right it’s quite an organisational challenge – and takes A LOT of planning and working into the night.
The Radio 2 Indigo stage almost became its own mini festival last year – I enjoyed that as much as the main stage with acts like Drake White, Logan Brill & Chase Bryant on. Are there possibilities to extend things like that into the evening for people without arena tickets?
It was great – and the Indigo is such a great venue for it. There is definitely potential for a ‘second stage’ kind of ticket in the future. With Brooklyn Bowl closing last year I used Indigo in a more focused way of showcasing mainly Nashville talent giving them a good stage and level of production that some of the smaller stages can’t achieve. There may be a few changes to the lay out in 2018 too.
Could a UK act ever appear on the main stage or would that be moving away from the idea of ‘Country to Country’?
We’re proud to have been part of The Shires and Ward Thomas story and I have my eye on other UK acts who are developing. I personally would never say never about a UK act appearing… they meet some of the criteria I listed earlier – but fans can get to see them as they tour the UK regularly – and we’re wanting to use the arena to present acts that you might not get to see at all or much.
Some festivals have deposit schemes or monthly payment options to cover the ticket costs. As the price of the festival increases would you ever consider something like that?
I think that’s a great idea and I will raise it with the ticketing teams to advise on for the future.
Is the Festival, currently running at four nights if you include Song-writers, now at its peak capacity or is there a will to expand it further. ‘Country Music Week’ in October seems to be a sign of further ambitions!
I want it to continue to expand… if we look beyond London – we’re expanding by moving into the Hydro in Glasgow this year –so growing from a 3000 cap venue there to an arena. And in the week following C2C we tour some of the acts which almost becomes a week of shows… so yes lots of opportunity. I’m really proud of Country Music Week – it’s the first one this October and is intended to introduce new acts or give acts their second appearance the best possible platform and it’s definitely going to do that.
Good luck for 2018 – can’t wait to hear the line up!
Thanks James – always a pleasure to talk about C2C, especially with those who love it.