Toughest year yet, admits Celtic Connections director

Festival favourites The Mavericks
Festival favourites The Mavericks
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THE artistic director of Celtic Connections has admitted the run-up to the 20th music festival has been his most difficult yet – due to the loss of its headline sponsor, the part-closure of the Royal Concert Hall and a late scramble to find a venue for its late-night club.

Headline concerts have sold out ahead of the opening gala today, including a tribute to the late Michael Marra, appearances by The Mavericks, Paul Brady, Kate Rusby, the Be Good Tanyas and the annual Transatlantic Sessions shows.

The festival, which is worth almost £10 million to the economy, has undergone a major expansion this year into Kelvingrove art gallery and museum and will be enjoying unprecedented exposure on the BBC.

But behind the scenes, Donald Shaw has had to grapple with a £100,000 budget cut due to the withdrawal of ScottishPower sponsorship and finding new venues to replace the concert hall’s second biggest space, which is out of action due to looming building work on a major extension.

He said there had been a “real problem” finding a proper hub for the festival – where visiting bands could stay but also play last-minute slots – due to the cost of hiring out space in hotels and the lack of other suitable venues in the city, with empty warehouses even being considered. He added that, as well as a permanent late-night base for the festival – which had booked about 1,800 beds over the course of the event – it was still looking for a headline sponsor after more than six months.

Mr Shaw, who is at the helm for the seventh time this year, also hinted at planning to leave his post after next year’s festival.

He said he had not made a final decision because of the level of his year-round involvement with the event.

It emerged at the festival launch in October that the Strathclyde Suite and Exhibition Hall at the Royal Concert Hall were out of action this year. Tickets for the festival club were only put on sale before Christmas due to the struggle to find a suitable venue, with Australian theme bar Walkabout being pressed into action.

He said: “People can carve a career out of Connections for themselves. A lot of musicians see it as a real platform and some shows can take a couple of years to put together. We must now have a couple of hundred people working on the festival when it is up and running.

“Celtic Connections has a huge profile now. This is the first year that we’ve had a whole BBC hub in the concert hall and Radio 2 is actually here broadcasting for a whole week, which is incredible. I was just asked to appear on the Simon Mayo show and hosting their folk awards here has obviously made a big difference.

“The event is run on an ­incredibly tight budget, the turnover is about £1.3m and we have to bring in 65 or 75 per cent box office, which is pretty scary.

“I really like the fact that we have kept the ticket prices down every year and mainstream acts are cheaper in the festival that they would be throughout the year.”

He added: “We are courting sponsors who are coming to see the festival, and it is a fantastic opportunity, as the profile of the event is so huge, with national and TV radio on board now.”

Mr Shaw said: “This has definitely been the most challenging festival for me. Financially, we lost our major sponsor, ScottishPower, who had been with us for the last five years.

“We were down by around £100,000 when we found out last summer, which was obviously a blow, but by then we were committed to having the festival the same size, so we just had to a bit careful and cut back, but not as you would notice it.

“The work here (the concert hall) has been difficult, but the good thing is this the first year we’ve engaged with Kelvingrove, which was offered as a bit of a sweetener to us to help us, and I had never really thought of it before.”

One of the most popular elements of Celtic Connections has been its famous festival club, although it has had to be relocated several times in the last decade due to a variety of problems.

“The festival club has been a magical thing for us, but it is becoming a real problem for us. Glasgow has changed considerably in the last 10 or 15 years, in terms of the hotel trade particularly.

“It is strange, there are only two types of hotel in Glasgow now. You have the higher class, four or five star hotels, which clearly cannot work for us because the costs are too high to accommodate people, the drink prices are really high to run a club and they tend to have corporate functions which we cannot compete with financially.

“The other style of hotel, like Ibis and Novotel, just don’t have the facility for that kind if thing and it is just geared around rooms.

“There is nothing in between and there is just no place for us. The last two years has been really tough and we thought about trying to find a warehouse, dressing it up and create our own space, but it is really hard to do that in a city like Glasgow because it is all about money.”

• Celtic Connections runs until 3 February.