The godfather of Sŵn talks expansion and plans for the future
St Mary’s Street is deserted; typical Cardiff weather has driven everyone away, and darkness is silently ebbing into a sky already showing signs of succumbing to winter.
Just three weeks earlier the city’s streets were humming, a muffled din streaming conspicuously from the windows of pubs and clubs. For four days, excited revelers ran around Cardiff with an intricate map of their own creation. Sŵn had descended, for its fifth, and arguably most successful, year.
John Rostron, the man behind it all, has only just recovered. “It took me about a week – I was exhausted,” he grins.
The first thing you notice about John is his enthusiasm; that, and his distinctly un-Welsh accent. The 39-year-old from moved from Derby to attend college in Cardiff over 20 years ago, and has called the city home ever since. Dabbling in journalism, John had always been involved in music and after putting on a few bands fell into concert promoting.
A house of cards
It speaks volumes that this is the first year John is sure Swn will happen again, “We’ve always thought the event has been good, and its got better, but we don’t know what we’ll be doing or what I’ll be doing.” This lack of certainty might surprise Sŵn veterans, considering the meteoric rise of the festival.
Sipping a green tea, John, who lives with his wife in Riverside, goes through the immense challenges which organising and executing an event the size of Sŵn can present. The process usually begins around January, when John and Huw meet to exchange notes on the bands they have in mind. Booking begins in April and May, and the build-up continues from then on he explains, “You build everything up like a house of cards, and there are a lot of cards in Sŵn – 180 bands, five or six people in each band, a thousand people, and you’re worrying about all of them. If one drummer quits or one singer gets sick, then it all falls down.”
Expansion was always in the forefront of John’s mind, and this year an extra day was added. John dismisses the extra work in his usual self-effacing manner, “Once your infrastructure is built, adding a day is easy.”
There is always room for improvement however, as John is quick to recognise. The use of paper wristbands this year was a mistake in his opinion, and the demand for some acts far outstripped the size of the venues used to house them. This is a constant worry, with music venues in Cardiff in a permanent state of peril.
Land of song
2011 saw John and Huw launch the inaugural Welsh Music Prize, an idea conceived just three months prior to its realisation and funded completely by Sŵn. Its success blew John away, “There was no money, no big hoo-ha, and it has made an impact. The bands have said that they’ve benefitted, selling more records and gaining interest in their work.” It has also given much deserved recognition to Welsh artists, John continues, “The interest has been international. If you go to someone and say, ‘Here’s 12 great records from Wales’, that’s a great way in to Welsh music.”
As a stakeholder in the Welsh Music Foundation, it is obvious that the work they do is close to John’s heart. In areas like the Valleys, the WMF provides bands with the tools they need to take the next crucial step. “The Welsh government might have to build a rehearsal room, but by supporting it a band can meet, rehearse and go on to get gigs. Maybe by getting those gigs they get an income, get off the dole and it becomes their profession,” he says passionately.
For the love of it
Most music promoters aren’t as selective as John, who admits that his taste dictates 99 per cent of the bands he puts on. Valuing music over money, he would rather watch a band he loves and lose money, than promote a band he dislikes. “If I was looking for that I would be doing it differently. I wouldn’t put on half the shows I do, because the shows I do don’t really make money. I’m better off putting on pop shows!”
Ensuring Sŵn continues to excel is John’s main priority, but he is quick to assert that the festival isn’t the be all and end all. Intriguingly, John says he would love to expand further, “Maybe in doing Sŵn, we’ll create another event which ticks some boxes of the other things we want to do.” Watch this space, South Wales; John Rostron isn’t finished just yet.