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Live at Leeds: The Festival Putting Leeds on the Map

· Joseph Sheerin · Music

Los Campesinos! gig at Live at Leeds 2012

We spoke to Futuresound’s Ben Lewis about how Live at Leeds has become one of the biggest events on the UK festival calendar.

Over the past decade, there has been huge increase in demand for festivals that don’t involve camping, terrible toilets and getting soaked in the middle of a field – and one of the events that has played a huge role in that is Live at Leeds.

Since the first event in 2007, which was held as part of the celebrations for Leeds 800th birthday, Live at Leeds has continued to bring together some of the most talented artists in rock and pop music. Growing big enough to host 10,000 people around Leeds’ music venues every year, it promises over 100 bands, while their music industry event, The Unconference, welcomes some of the most important people in music to the city.

Ben Lewis, promoter for Futuresound and one of the bookers for Live at Leeds, puts it down to being able to bill an eclectic bunch of artists in venues that range from Oporto and Brudenell Social Club to Holy Trinity Church and Leeds Town Hall – which means there’s always plenty of choice.

“Live at Leeds started during the whole indie boom in 2006 and 2007, and it was kind of developed through that indie period,” he explains. “But now, in the last couple of years we’ve had Rudimental and Ella Eyre, and we aren’t shy of doing the pop stuff. We’ve got the best new indie bands, but we’ve got the biggest artists as well, which I think is really, that is the longevity of the festival.”

Chew Lips play Live at Leeds 2012

Over the years, Live at Leeds’ eclectic line up has seen its reputation grow exponentially with a hybrid of established stars and the best up and coming talent. If you want to see the superstars before they hit the big time, Live at Leeds is the festival to go to.

George Ezra, Alt-J, The 1975, Bombay Bicycle Club, Metronomy, Jake Bugg, Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran and Royal Blood have all taken to the stage in Leeds before gaining the critical and commercial success their music has deserved – and it’s showing off Leeds in the best musical light possible.

Lewis believes that the festival’s ability to spot the talent early is helping to improve the city’s reputation and keep ticket sales up. “I did a show with George Ezra at the Met the other night which was sold out and everyone singing along, and the first show I did with him was a really tiny Live at Leeds show. And it comes back around, like Ed Sheeran sold out the Arena for us and we had him at Live at Leeds a few years ago.”

There is also a huge focus on promoting local talent – after all it’s a festival for the people of Leeds. The likes of Eagulls, Wild Beasts, Pulled Apart by Horses and The Pigeon Detectives have all taken part in the festival over the years, often stealing the show too.

Swiss Lips play Live at Leeds 2012

Ben sees it as one of the most important aspects of the festival, “It’s also a nice thing to see where local bands sit on the line up, because I mean the local aspect is really important for us because Leeds has got loads and loads of bands. We have fifty or so local bands on the line up – that’s a really important aspect to it.”

Lewis is in a unique position having attended the festival as a punter, as an artists and is now behind the line up itself – something which he’s evidently proud to be a part of. “For me it’s getting that balance between being professional and putting on the bands that you need to book, because you know they’re going to do well and that kind of thing. But also booking things that you want to book because you like them.”

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as just booking the bands. Live at Leeds is one of a number of metropolitan festivals in the UK with the likes of The Great Escape in Brighton, Dot to Dot in Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol and Sound City in Liverpool all happening around the same time, or even the same weekend.

It means there’s plenty of competition as to who can get the best line up – but it’s something Lewis sees as a healthy thing, that ensures there is a certain audience and quality on the line up. “It’s all about the timing of it as well that’s really important, everything goes in that period of May because there’s a lot of these festivals on around that time. You’ve got Sound City, The Great Escape, and so, you know, bands are going around the country to all of them.”

Lola Colt performing at Live at Leeds

“Sometimes it can feel a bit isolated, you know, rather than having a festival on the weekend when you can get people from Manchester, Newcastle, York, Sheffield. But I mean, we’re very much, it’s Live at Leeds, we love Leeds and it’s Leeds based. We’re happy that Leeds is the central focus of the festival, and that we’ve got enough here for people here that they’ll want to come to.”

Despite that, Live at Leeds has grown an international influence, with people hopping over the channel just for the festival – and that in itself is a fine reference.

Ben tells us, “you get like people coming from Europe to come to Leeds which is something that’s really interesting – they have similar things out in Europe, just not as many. The people out there love new music and seemingly you get people who come over to Leeds because they’re interested in that kind of thing.”

This reputation is also helped by the fact that Live at Leeds is an award-winning festival – they picked up Best Metropolitan Festival at the 2014 UK Festival Awards, having been nominated twice previously in 2011 and 2012.

Menace Beach play Live at Leeds

Such accolades make certain Live at Leeds’ continual presence in the city’s music scene and it seems Ben and Futuresound have big plans. Back in December they announced they would be replicating their home festival with an edition in Glasgow (titled Live at Glasgow of course) on Sunday 3rd May, the day after Live at Leeds 2015.

This is just one of the things Lewis and co. will be looking at to push Live at Leeds further. “We are growing the festival more and more, and traditionally Live at Leeds has been just the day on Saturday, and then we’ve had events around it. But you know if you want to grow it, we’ve always done a Millennium Square on a Sunday, like The Vaccines, and we had Example the other year. So you want more days, more Millennium Square shows and more venues – First Direct Arena’s come in.”

Whether we’ll see Live at Leeds taking over the city’s biggest venue for a show in 2015 remains to be seen, but the fact is the festival is now at a point where it can viably look at making that move and showing just how far they can take it.

One thing is for certain – Leeds is a better city for the festival, and the festival is quickly becoming synonymous with the city as a result. 2015 promises to be another step forwards, and if the plans for Live at Leeds are as exciting as Ben suggests, then we’re going to have plenty to look forward to over the next decade.