How a Single Mom Became the Most Powerful Woman in the Festival Scene
Fiona Stewart was a single mom at 18. Now she manages million pound budgets and runs one of the last independent music festivals in the UK. How did she get here?
Photo courtesy of Fiona Stewart
In a world where trust fund kids launch a boutique cheese festival every weekend and mega-corporations have taken over the music festival scene, how did one single mom rise to become one of the most powerful women in the business?
At 18, Fiona Stewart was a teen mom in a homeless shelter. Now she owns the four-day festival Green Man, which attracts 20,000 people annually to the rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons in Wales. It is one of the few independent British festivals left, and the only one to be owned outright by a woman.
In fact, if you've been to any number of the UK's top festivals, chances are Stewart has worked her magic behind the scenes—whether it's part of the operational team at Glastonbury or managing the now-defunct Big Chill. Stewart is the only woman to be given the UK Festival Award for Oustanding Contribution to Festivals—the equivalent of a Lifetime Oscar in the industry. As the festival season enters its final stretch, we ask her how to run a successful music blow-out.
BROADLY: Can you tell us how you got into the business of running a festival?
When I was a girl, this job was not invented. No one said to me at my careers advice centre, "You should run an entertainment business." I fell into it. I didn't have a lot of money, I had a kid when I was really young and lots of my mates ran bands. I would go along [to shows] and it was great because you had child care. People used to look after your kid, like the sound man, and you would be helping sorting things out, either at the door or helping at the venue.
How did you go from small clubs to big festivals?
Word of mouth. I was always happy to sweep the stage or make the coffee, or do the photocopying. I think if you are useful as a person, your job sort of comes to you.
So what drew you to these massive events?
I came from a family which had really quite serious mental health problems. We were always different. I had been a bit of an outsider and from a psychological point of view creating large events and creating a family atmosphere is obviously what I am trying to do. I get a real kick out of that.
How did you get involved in Green Man, then?
Back then there were three mates who started an event in Hay-on-Wye that would become Green Man. It was tiny. The first event was 300 people, second 400, then 800. They contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in developing it. It had become too much for them. So I did. I really wanted something of my own—I was ready.
How old were you at the time?
I was about 44 or 45. I moved Green Man to this new site on the Brecon Beacons [in Wales] and brought in lots of new stuff—cinema, our first dance tent—[and] it grew from 800 to 6,000. I don't know if that could happen again. I think a number of stars collided.
So how did you end up owning it?
I set up a company... [and] financed it. It went well. It grew rapidly. Then the recession happened and the underwriter for Lloyds [Bank] went bankrupt. I suddenly had to find, um, I think it was £400,000... So I went out and just borrowed everything.
At a shit moment, people come up trumps. I had worked with some of the contractors for many years and I went to them and said, "We are not going to be able to run because I just don't have the money." They all had a meeting at Glastonbury and decided to not charge me until after the event was over. It was the most the most touching thing. They all rang up and were giggling on the phone and I said, "What's going on?" I'm sticky and pale and they just told me and said, "It's fine, we'll wait." That's the reason Green Man exists.
You're the only woman to win the UK Festival Award for Outstanding Contribution to Festivals, which Caitlin Moran presented to you.
Cat's a fabulous friend and I wanted her, because I feel that you should be for women in this business. There are big issues going on which I would like to see addressed.
A lot of discussion about [the lack of] female headliners. We ran the Green Man Rising competition for nine years and in that time no more than say 17 to 25 percent of the applicants were women. That's a free international competition for anyone to get involved in. I think there's a deeper issue.
Most promoters wouldn't give a toss if it was a man or a woman. They care about selling tickets, so maybe [that's] not the angle to look at because the talent creation's already been made. Look at the entry level and at the top level of the people who run these organizations, and what messages [are coming] through the media.
What should women do if they fancy having a go at what you do?
It's a state of mind of deciding you want to take that risk. What I've decided to do is not work for someone, to work for myself, and take that risk. There's horrific risk in this. We're talking about millions of pounds and a market that's very difficult.
The things that you remember most in life, for me, is the immense fun I have had with people I really care about. I remember having an ice cream fight at Green Man where we literally chucked loads of ice cream over each other—it was one of the funniest moments. Having those kind of things happen in certain situations of production, where you keep all the other stuff out and you allow an incubation of fun—people have bought a ticket to come along, and you're there to protect them.