John Richardson is an organiser of Party at the Palace, a weekend-long family music festival which has been running annually in Linlithgow, West Lothian, since 2014.
The palace where Mary Queen of Scots was born has been the backdrop for stages hosting the likes of Simple Minds, The Proclaimers, Billy Ocean, Nile Rodgers, Deacon Blue, Travis, The Feeling, Scouting For Girls and many more.
And this August the music festival will be hosting headliners the Kaiser Chiefs and Amy Macdonald, alongside popular bands Razorlight, Ash, The Lightning Seeds and Bjorn Again.
But it has not been an easy journey for John and his co-organiser Peter Ferguson, who have stumbled from one crisis to another while learning the ropes of putting on a party for up to 18,000 people.
What was your background in music/event management before PATP?
I ran a small record label and recording studio, as well as DJing and teaching kids about the music industry. I had never organised anything like this before. Peter’s background was in putting on musical theatre events and other smaller scale events.
I had been to several festivals in 2013 while managing a singer, and over a beer I suggested to Peter that Linlithgow Palace would be a fabulous location for a music event in the year of Scotland’s Homecoming in 2014. That’s how this all started. Neither of us had put on such a large scale festival but we were excited and wanted to do something memorable for the town.
What have you learned since Party at the Palace started?
We’ve probably learned something each year. But the biggest lesson has been to go with the experts.
Our ethos when we started was to use as many local businesses as possible, but this backfired massively in year one, when we approached a local pub about running the bars and catering. We should have looked at how T in the Park did things, and got a festival catering company in for that sort of job.
The upshot was that, despite having a contract with the brewery which said they would run the bars and provide 50 bar staff, only 12 turned up on our opening day. This disaster damaged our brand and our profits, considering people had to queue up to 2 hours for a drink.
I spent our first day ringing around every pub I could find, offering double time for bar staff to come along and help. And the abuse we took from disgruntled festival-goers on social media made us feel like we’d failed at the first hurdle.
To put it into perspective, what we made that year in takings from the bar was just a tenth of what we brought in last year. We took the brewery to court, and they settled. But we only made back our court costs. That was a huge lesson. We now have more than 150 bar and catering staff on site for each day.
Although we like to support local businesses, we need to be sure they are up to the job.
Any other regrets?
In that first year, tickets weren’t selling well, so we did a last minute Groupon discount deal in order to get people to come along.
This understandably angered those who had paid full price, and I wish we hadn’t done it, as it also affected sales in the second year – because people held out until the last minute to purchase their tickets, thinking they’d get a cheaper deal.
We now stick with an early bird discount, where prices are lower the earlier you buy, and the tickets go up closer to the event. We want to reward loyal customers.
Did you feel like giving up?
Lots of times, but we lost so much money in the first year, and had investors to pay back. So we had to do a second year.
To put on the event in 2015, we had to go around all of our suppliers and bands, asking them to take a 20% pay cut. And they all did. But even 10 days before the festival, we thought we’d have to cancel.
McEwan's came on board as our sponsor - but we had to ask them for our 2016 funding up front. It was touch and go.
That year we only lost half as much, despite selling about half the tickets of the year previously. So we felt like things were heading in the right direction and the reaction to that event was overwhelmingly positive. We were hoping to break even in year three and get into profit by year four.
But our insolvency lawyer said we owed too many people that second year, and put Party at the Palace Scotland into liquidation. That was my lowest ebb, particularly because we felt we should have been allowed to trade out of the situation.
We set up Party at the Palace Ltd and got on with planning a third year. We went back to all our suppliers, asking them to work with us again so we could make it up to them. All but one did – and the company which declined only did so because it had other work that weekend. We paid in full that year.
Peter and I aren’t hardened businessmen who could just walk away from the people we owed. Our hope is that this event will become so profitable and successful that those who have stuck with us will reap the benefits – and look back at 2015 as being a blip.
You’ve taken a lot of flack on social media. How do you handle it?
It's very easy to hide behind a keyboard with a degree of anonymity, and people can be pretty vicious – because they’ve got no idea what goes on behind the scenes. I’ve learned to stop taking things too personally, but it was tough in the beginning.
Last year, when news leaked out that we were thinking of moving location to a farmer’s field a little further around the loch, the outrage was incredible – from people saying it was a ‘scam’, we had ripped them off, and we couldn’t claim it was Party at the Palace any more.
Once we confirmed the site, we posted a full explanation of why we were doing it and offered people refunds if they weren’t happy. The reality was we wanted to put on a second stage, and holding the event on a Historic Scotland site was too restrictive. Everyone agreed the field across the water was a better site - from the police, the fire service, and the council, to the health and safety inspector. We had sold around 3,000 tickets before we made that announcement – and only four people came forward for refunds in the end. Most calmed down once we explained.
You had to learn crisis management pretty fast. Did you get any advice?
We learned as we went along. Sometimes it was a case of taking it on the chin when it was deserved and just hoping it would subside. Our health and safety manager is a pretty old head, as is our site manager, and we do often lean on them for words of wisdom.
It’s not been easy for me, as I tend to take things personally. And living in the town where this was all happening, at my lowest ebb I felt like everyone was pointing the finger when I dropped the children off at school.
My partner Ellen has a more pragmatic approach, telling me this is a business and I need to stop personalising it. Things go wrong, and businesses go bankrupt but we're confident that those days are firmly behind us now.
I usually enjoy the build-up to the event, but when it’s happening there’s such a weight of responsibility. It’s not just that you want the festival to go off without a hitch, but you want everyone to get home safely afterwards. You don’t want any incidents connected to the event. We have a health and safety manager to cover all eventualities, but you’re still thinking “What if?”
Are you in profit yet?
We are in a small amount of profit now. Peter and I began paying ourselves a minimal weekly wage last November. My partner has supported me and the children for more than three years. It hasn’t been easy. We’re certainly not in it to make a fast buck.
In 2013 I was earning good money and driving a Porsche 911. By late 2015 the Porsche was gone and I bought a 2003 Freelander for £500 – that’s how much my lifestyle changed.
Effectively I lost my paid jobs in order to focus full-time on a role I didn’t get any money for.
What has been the best aspect of starting up an event like this?
Seeing all the big names coming to Linlithgow – and knowing the part we played in that. In 2013 if someone said that Simple Minds, Billy Ocean, The Proclaimers, Nile Rodgers etc would be in our little town we all would have been laughed at.
There’s a certain amount of pride in what we’ve achieved – although I’m still a little way off saying that it’s been worth all the hassle because the darker days have been beyond what I could ever have expected.
And of course when McEwan’s Party at The Palace was crowned Best Outdoor Festival 2016 by The Scottish Outdoor & Leisure Awards. It felt like someone was finally recognising our hard work.
What would be the ideal outcome of all this hard work?
Longer term, the plan is to sell the event to a major events company, although we would still want to stay on and help to run things.
At the minute, Peter and I do everything – from booking the bands to designing flyers and organising the portaloos. There’s nothing we’re not involved in. We even shop for the stuff that the bands put on their riders.
Making this a viable job for both of us would be the aim – with someone else taking a lot of the weight from our shoulders.
Is there anything you’d still like to achieve with PATP?
I think people will notice a lot of the changes and improvements we have made to the site this year, and we will always look to improve the event.
There are still artists and bands I have on my wishlist – like Paul Heaton from The Beautiful South, and James. I don’t think I’ve ever booked a band I didn’t like.
A lot of this festival has depended on the audience liking my musical tastes – but we haven’t gone wrong so far.
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