In 2009, Avril Stanley did something no one else in an Ireland turned sideways by a recession would dare touch. She launched a new music and arts festival, namedBody & Soul, inspired by the come-together ethos she experienced at the world-famous Burning Man. Over five years later, and she’s now responsible for what many industry insiders consider Ireland’s best festival, which sells out every single year and last summer found a UK outlet as SOLAS at theLatitude Festival. And Avril did all this while balancing motherhood and working in an industry not exactly known for its cosy stability.
Last November she won Creative Businesswoman of the Year at the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards. We catch up with Avril Stanley, Body & Soul CEO, festival director and creative director – basically the woman with the coolest CV in Ireland.
Body&Soul has such a stellar reputation and sells out every year. How do you protect the festival from becoming diluted and indistinguishable from other weekend musical festivals?
We’ve always stayed true to the original concept and while we have a strong vision for what Body&Soul is and will be, we also listen to our audience. We keep an objective eye and try to deliver a world-class pioneering experience for our audience every year.
For Body&Soul it has always been about giving people an overall, hand-crafted experience and taking them out of the routine and hum-drum of their daily lives. We live what we do and aspire to put all of our combined knowledge and insights from the creative world into our festival. We insist on a freshness in creativity and innovation year on year (we hope!).
We are not chasing the unattainable in paying more money for bigger acts, or looking to expand beyond our means. We are in a different space of creating an inspiring experience and we are working to make the festival sustainable for many years to come.
You put the first standalone Body&Soul on in 2009. In your acceptance speech at the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards, you talked about how people and banks reacted to your proposal to stage a festival at the same time the economy was falling like dominos. Can you tell our readers a little more about that time?
It was a very difficult time. I felt that in Ireland we needed, as a country, to return to our core traditions of story-telling, music and art to help us overcome adversity. I was encouraged not to go ahead with a festival at that time by all of my peers – but chose to follow my gut instead. It felt right.
We believed the turnaround in the economy would be quicker and finance would be available to hire staff to undertake the day to day running of the business. This did not happen as the recession went on for much longer and finances were not forthcoming. It meant I had to finance the festival by selling my house. That is how much I believed in the idea and the need for a festival offering what Body&Soul could offer – an escape, a unifying experience of like-minded people, taking them away from their troubles for a short space in time and hopefully effecting some positive change thereafter. We weathered the storm delivering a sell-out festival and incremental growth from 1,800 to 10,000 (2015) with a few well-appointed commercial sponsorships in place. It has been a remarkable journey, working with incredibly talented, creative and committed collaborators who all buy into the overall vision and work together to create the best festival experience they possibly can for our audience.
I had to finance the festival by selling my house. That is how much I believed in the idea.
Your background is psychotherapy and now you’re a CEO. Does the former help the latter?
My background as a therapist has influenced every facet of my life – and underpins the vision behind Body&Soul. Creating a festival can be very intense. Iit’s essentially a temporary village popping up in a field, populated by thousands of people with very personal and particular needs. My training and experience as a therapist has helped me understand people’s needs, manage stress and stay grounded during intense periods. It has given me the resources to work in a high pressured industry, and more confidence to navigate the highs and lows that come with business, and life itself.
Holding the bigger picture, whilst tending to the detail is an important threshold to explore – be it as a therapist, a parent or a CEO. It continues to be an area that fascinates me, and one I aspire to develop further.
What is the most necessary quality to survive in the industry?
Guts! No work sector is easy, but as a small independent operation we are playing on an international stage with some serious international heavyweights so you need to have guts to stick it out when times are tough and be true to yourself, your vision and believe in yourself. As Shakespeare so poignantly put it, ‘To thine own self be true”.
It’s also important not to take oneself too seriously – we may walk, fall, stumble or fly in our various pursuits.
It’s also important not to take oneself too seriously – we may walk, fall, stumble or fly in our various pursuits. It’s the journey that is important, not the destination. Humility goes further than pride.
Music is such a male-dominated industry. Have you ever experienced any sexism?
It’s definitely a male dominated business and I think there’s an element of having to fight harder to prove yourself with your track record as a woman. I can’t say I’ve ever felt sexism in a very overt way, but I have often felt, when meeting new business connections, that they are almost looking for the man in charge before they realise it’s me. I think as my confidence grew in managing the business and understanding the industry, this became less of a concern though.
A lot of people in recent months have pointed out how festival line-ups tend to be heavy on the men. Does B&S make an effort to listen out for female voices to include and book?
Yes, our core values include inclusivity and equality. But the acts are selected on merit, and availability versus gender. There is such a great depth of female artists in Ireland and internationally to draw from but we are not always successful in booking the ones we pitch for. It’s a very competitive market.
Is a work/life balance possible in 2015?
Not sure work/life balance is the right approach as it squeezes our lives into the dominant work culture. I’d like it to be a part of our lifestyle overall, that adds value in lots of different ways… Personal development, creative expression, a sense of identity, developing meaningful relationships – that essentially puts well-being at the centre of our lives, with work as an important contributory part of that. I don’t think we are there yet but these discussions help to get us there.
You must consume art all the time. Who in Ireland should we be listening to/watching/reading?
The wealth and standard of Irish music is truly incredible. It’s exciting to watch acts we work with grow to the International stages. A small example are acts such as Embrz, Girl Band, Bitch Falcon, Rusangano Family, Jennifer Evans, Over Head the Albatross, Soak.
I’m currently reading City of Bohane by Kevin Barry and I have always loved Colm Toibin. The film adaptation of his book Brooklyn is wonderful. We have such talent on this little island of ours. It’s amazing to see it bubbling to the surface again.
You start planning the festival this time of year – what kind of work are you doing this month?
Researching music acts, developing a new artists’ bursary for 2016, reviewing budgets, meetings with our Head of Décor to devise the festival look for 2016, meeting with sponsors and potential sponsors with new opportunities, redesigning our website. It doesn’t stop, but it’s great fun.
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