All about Thetford’s Forest Live 2019
- Credit: Archant
Every year, for four nights, some of the biggest names in music arrive in Thetford Forest to perform among the trees – and it is the job of Norfolk man David Barrow to persuade them
With more than 25 years' experience working with artists and putting on gigs around the globe, David Barrow has the ear of a lot of concert promoters, bands and singers - and as he reveals, those that he whispers in get more ambitious every year.
As principal contractor for the phenomenally successful Forest Live concerts, David, who lives near Happisburgh, says his job covers a broad brush of responsibilities, from booking the acts to running back stage and artist and production liaison along with his trusted team.
Having worked with the National Trust to help change the programme from classical only events to bringing in artists like Ian Brown and Paul Weller, he caught the eye of Forestry England.
"In 2000, I met Mike Taylor, a visionary who adored both music and outdoor spaces. He had done a couple of classical concerts in Thetford Forest but wanted something different and asked me to get on board. We started with the Levellers and Jools Holland, then looked at developing Forest Live at other sites around the country. Being able to offer more dates to artists put us on the map and gave us more booking power. The next year we had Pulp. It was a huge turning point.
"My job has a very wide remit - and I do love it. Did I think 20 years ago I would be working for a government body putting on concerts? No. But when I met Mike, I could sense he really got the power of music, and the beauty of the forest, and how the two things together could be something positive. You couldn't help but be drawn in. Sadly Mike died in 2015, but it was very telling that when Elbow played, Guy Garvey dedicated a song to him; his family were in the audience and it was a wonderful moment."
The concerts grew to four sites, then to seven, with audiences totalling around 135,000 people every year - Thetford was the first to have a capacity of 10,000 each night. David says that for many artists, the fact that their participation is directly helping with the sustainability of Britain's forests and their wildlife, as well as issues like climate change, is a big draw.
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"It does get harder. When we started, bands were still making money from record sales; now their main income stream is from playing live. Nonetheless, there are not many events where the proceeds are helping fund something so important; that is a huge incentive for many acts and thankfully, Forest Live is now an incredibly respected industry brand.
"I am lucky because when I am putting the idea to the band, I can tell them the really positive reasons why they should come and perform, in terms of the work Forestry England does, and there are so many. Paul Weller really gets why it is so special, he has from the first moment he played, which is why we love having him back."
He says it took him two years to persuade last year's stars Kasabian to play and eventually it was one photograph which did the job.
"I kept plugging away as I knew they would be absolutely incredible and would also draw in a completely different crowd, which is so important to the future of our forests. I sent them an aerial drone shot of Thetford Forest during a show - it was just this glowing red dot in the middle of thousands of trees - I think at that point they realised just how unique these shows really are."
One of the main drivers for the initiative remains to get more people visiting the forests which is why David aims to make the bills as diverse as possible.
"Forestry England is very much at the forefront of work on climate change and if our concerts and those that play at and attend them, get that message out there, then that is fantastic.
"In 2011 people voted with their feet when government wanted to sell off some of our forests and research has shown many of our customers see one of the primary reasons to attend, alongside wanting to see the artist, is to support their region's forests so it is essential to harness that."
Minimising the environmental impact of the shows on the forest is also key and, says David, it is something which becomes more significant every year.
"A lot of conservation studies have been done throughout, to ensure there is no negative impact on bats and deer and other areas of forest life. The trees are excellent at naturally absorbing noise and the concerts are confined to our visitor centre areas which are busy all the time anyway.
"As soon as a show finishes, volunteers literally come out of from the trees and litter pick immediately to avoid wildlife coming in and getting it once everything is quiet. It usually takes less than an hour which says a lot about our audience's respect for the environment they are in. We also don't allow acts to use any confetti or streamers, as this can travel quite a way and can be eaten by the deer. We are always looking at offsetting carbon, reducing diesel consumption and all our stage lighting is now LED."
David is already booking acts for next summer - he remains resolutely tight lipped on who, but what about his own wish list?
"I have to not focus on the bands I want to see as that isn't always what everyone else wants to see," he smiles. "But if I could I would love to bring Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, James Blake, War on Drugs, Faithless and The National to the forest. Biffy Clyro would be brilliant, as would Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, The Cure, Florence and the Machine, and in case Mr Sheeran reads this, I think a run of Ed Sheeran shows, him returning to curate each evening's line-up, would be fantastic."
June 20, Foals; June 21, Paul Weller; June 22, Jess Glynne; June 23, Stereophonics. forestryengland.uk/music