All Xero Gravity episodes
Hosted by Elizabeth Ü
Hamish decided to throw a New Year’s party with a few university mates back in 2003. At the time he had no idea that it would go on to become one of New Zealand’s biggest and most successful music festivals.
Rhythm and Vines is a three-day music festival, famously located at a vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. It’s also geographically the first place in the world to see the new year. What started out as a small party now attracts crowds in the tens of thousands and artists from across the globe. But it took an amazing amount of resilience, patience and courage to pull it off.
“When you’ve got to hustle to sell a dream, you’ve got to talk about where things are really going,” Hamish told Elizabeth. “The ship’s not always going to sail straight.”
Hamish has a humble and cheeky way of sharing his journey with us. Hear him talk passionately about the hustle that goes on behind the scenes, and the entrepreneurial pockets of wisdom he’s learned throughout it all. XG #78 – We’ll drink to that.
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Hosts: Elizabeth Ü [EU]
Guest: Hamish Pinkham [HP]
EU: New Year's is coming up very soon, and for those of us about to head into summer, it's also music-festival season. What better opportunity to talk to Hamish Pinkham, founder of the Rhythm and Vines Festival? He's passionate about music and summer, like all young Kiwis seem to be, from what I can tell, and Hamish set out to organise a bit of a music celebration for a bunch of his friends. Well, fast-forward 10 years, and it's become the biggest music festival in New Zealand.
When Alice passed on Hamish's details, I was fully expecting to be talking to some party-animal festival kid and was blown away when I discovered that he's actually a bad-ass entrepreneur who's also a very chill and thoughtful guy. Oh, and also, since recording this, the event has gone on to nearly sell out, so hurry up and get your tickets if you fall in love with the event after listening to this. Ladies and gentlemen, Hamish Pinkham.
I am fascinated to hear the story about how you somehow went from creating a party for yourself and your best friends to creating a party for tens of thousands of people. Tell me about how that all got started.
HP: Well, I think all good festivals and gatherings start with a simple idea and a reason to get together. Ours started with the idea about getting friends together for New Year's Eve, which is quite a signature holiday here in New Zealand. It's our summer. It's post-Christmas. It's a time when people are on holiday, and they want to get together in a beach location with your friends, and I was ki-
EU: Well, and you guys are also the first people to celebrate New Year's at all. The International Date Line is right there, so you're the first ones to experience that new year!
HP: Yeah, New Year's, I guess it could be compared to Fourth of July in the U.S., where it's the start of summer, and there's that festive feeling in the air. Friends want to get together, barbecue, have road trips, listen to music. New Year's Eve's been a big part of that Kiwi psyche.
I was finishing university, and a friend and I put our hand up to organise the New Year's Eve gathering of friends. We were leaving university and we had this kind of thought that we'd never see each other again, where everyone was heading off into the big, wide world, and it was the final goodbye, which is not really-
EU: Oh, the last hurrah!
HP: It's never eventuated, because New Zealand's quite a small place, and we end up crossing paths all the time. We thought, let's organise the end-of-summer, New Year's Eve party, and we began looking at some different summer locations around New Zealand, around the lakes and northern beaches, and even the cities. My friend had a vineyard in Gisborne on the east coast at the time, and we thought it'd be the perfect place to have our little party, amongst the vines with some new New Zealand music and the road trip and the camping and all that. Yeah, it was a great recipe from the start. We called it Rhythm and Vines, which I think sums up what we're trying to achieve, the music and the setting. Yeah, I guess the recipe's been popular for a reason. People have travelled over the hills towards the East Cape for these last 14 years, and it continues today, and it's got bigger and better, and we're really proud that we're still here today.
EU: Well, so what about the first year? Who were the bands? These are your favourite bands, or was it the folks who would answer the phone? How did you get someone to show up that first year for your little private party?
HP: Yeah, well, I was an aspiring musician at the time, and used to organise a few gigs around campus, so I had that passion for the industry and was following the trends of New Zealand music. The industry was starting to develop, and New Zealand music wasn't as kind-of cringey as it once was, and we had these cool drum-and-bass acts and reggae bands. There was a band called the Black Seeds that we were listening to out of Wellington, and they had the horns and the reggae-ska sound that really fitted that summer-music style, so we approached them and made them a stupid offer and locked them in for a start. We had other ska bands and other rock bands and house music and drum-and-bass, and it was a real mixture, that first year, of bands. All Kiwi acts, and different friends' bands performed as well, and we just had the one stage, and it was just a great summer gathering.
EU: That still sounds pretty big. How many people were there that first year?
HP: We had-
EU: That's a lot of bands to organise for just ... I was imagining five of your mates, but clearly, there's a lot more people there.
HP: Well, I think we got excited as the concept grew. We initially budgeted 2 to 400 people, and then we could see that maybe if we booked a few more bands and sold a few more beers, that we could run a sizable festival, so I think that initial year we sold about 1,000 tickets, and we gave away about 500 to different contractors and friends that had helped us, and then we had a few fence-jumpers as well. So there was around 1,800 people at the first Rhythm and Vines, and it made for quite a decent, sizable party, as you can imagine.
EU: Yeah. This is all reminding me ... Alice, my co-producer, who's working her magic in the background here, but she was telling me the story about starting up this small dog-walk event, I think it was, and it was meant to be maybe 100 people, and then, all of a sudden, before she knows it, there's thousands of people around the world who are interested, and she was freaking out. She's like, "Oh, my God, what if somebody, like, gets attacked by a dog?" She was telling the story about how she contacted you, because you were the only person that she could think of that had this idea for something small and fun that suddenly was, as you were saying, 1,800 people. Were you freaked out at any point of this process, when it looked like it was going to be a lot bigger than you initially thought?
HP: Yeah, there was just a lot of naivety, and just kind of blind optimism. At that age, we just got a dream and a vision and energy, and yeah, you don't try and think of what could go wrong, but what could go right. I think it's kind of an attitude that we still cling to, even as we've grown to up to nearly 30,000 people. We've still been really confident on what we're trying to achieve, and surround ourselves with experts in their field, and you've got to have that kind of optimism, really, going into any venture, I think.
EU: Was it that first event, you already knew you were going to do more at that point, or was that something that came later?
HP: Initially, it was just a summer project, and I was heading back to university the following year, and so it wasn't a farewell for me. But, yeah, it was initially just a summer project, just to avoid labouring or working in a bar, and we had so much fun, and we could see a vision for the future, that we decided to organise the next year. We started booking bigger bands, and word started to spread about this little party. It felt like the next year, everyone came back with a friend or two in tow. We had Salmonella Dub, who was one of the top festival bands in New Zealand at the time. Yeah, we had about 5,000 that next year, and it really put the stretch on resources. We learnt a lot about glass-and-rubbish management, about stocking up the right amount of water, and-
EU: Uh-oh! Wait, wait, so explain the scene to me. Are you talking, like, mountains of glass bottles around the garbage cans, or what happened?
HP: Exactly. Well, one of the visions was to have the event a little bit more premium. We didn't really want tacky keg beer and cans. We wanted it to be nice glass Heineken bottles, and we wanted to have that air of almost like a wine-and-food festival, maybe a nice summer shirt on. We didn't want it too tacky, and as a result, yeah, we sold beer in glass bottles, which was not the smartest idea. Come sunrise, the vineyard was just littered with glass, and as you can imagine, the safety issues with that. We ran out of w-
EU: Oh, yeah. No, I'm definitely remembering Grateful Dead shows when I was in high school, and I stepped on a piece of broken glass, and I had a bloody gash on my foot. Were there people wandering around the vineyard with bleeding feet, or what?
HP: Well, it wasn't quite a war zone, but it was just that's responsible management. It was the year that it maybe went from a party to a festival, and when you've got 5,000 people, you need to cater for them in different ways, whether it's different styles of music or different food, and having running water available all night, which we ran out of. You've got a traffic management plans-
EU: Oh, no!
HP: Things like that, that really tested our resources. I think it was the first year we had funny money, and we got in trouble with the Commerce Commission around that, because we hadn't made it clear that it was non-refundable, so always learning as you go, and that second year was just a baptism by fire as we realised we were not just a little party anymore, and we had to think about festival management from a professional level.
EU: Well, and how were the attendees responding to this? Was there a riot when they ran out of drinking water, or were they pretty chill?
HP: No, it was chill. It was New Year's Eve, but, yeah, it was pretty scary as organisers to not have all those bases covered, and we soon had things fixed up, but things like rubbish and water are pretty important. But we had great summer weather. We had fantastic music. Again, everyone had a ball, and it just set us up for the next year, where we doubled our numbers again, and the momentum continued into our third year.
EU: Those were the glory years, obviously, the beginning. You had several years of pretty rapid growth. Describe how that happened.
HP: Yeah. We've had a couple of years of just high growth, and that certainly was ... We booked a band, Fat Freddy's Drop, who were about to release their debut album, and by the end of the year, they were the darlings of the music industry, and we had them booked for New Year's Eve, and that was fantastic. As a result, we sold out by October. There were lines around the block to get tickets. There was almost a hype and a buzz around the country about Rhythm and Vines being the place to be. That was exciting-
EU: How many stages did you have at this point?
HP: That encouraged us to extend the festival. When we sold out 10,000 tickets, we knew that the current venue wouldn't fit everyone, so we went over the hill, and we carved out a new main stage, which was another big baptism by fire, with only 60 days to go, trying to create this new area for everyone to be housed. We had the momentum of the ticket sales, and if we didn't have that kind of energy, we wouldn't probably be in a position to make the venue as big as it is.
We were able to spend some money on a security fence and some flushing toilets, and power grid the venue, and really kitted it out for the bigger numbers that we expect today, so that-
EU: Wow! Flushing toilets for 10,000 people in a brand new space? You just described that you were carving it out of the hill. Are you talking literally? You're hiring earth-movers to carve out a new amphitheatre?
HP: Yeah, well, we had an initial amphitheatre, which would probably house about 5,000 people, but given the numbers coming, we had to look elsewhere. So, we went over the hill, and there was a bigger, flatter paddock that we needed to flatten, and we put some hammocks up on the side that you could look down, and it was a bigger space that we've used as our main stage for the last 10 years. Yeah, there were a lot of earthworks going in. We put a security fence around the whole venue, and we put some flushing toilets in, which were still standing today. Not to cater for the whole crowd, but just provide a bit m-
EU: Oh, so this was a permanent infrastructure? I was imagining flushing toilets on trailers kind of thing. Wow! You were actually building permanent infrastructure!
HP: No, this was permanent plumbing, and it all stands today. We use it. The power grid probably is not. We bring generators in now, but the way the venue's set up now, there's two workable amphitheatres, and we can host up to 35,000 if we want to in the future. It's a great facility now that we invested in, in those early years, and as a result of that momentum towards the festival, so that was a pretty significant year, and especially with the band Fat Freddy's Drop and Shapeshifter and Kora, and some of these legendary Kiwi acts today. We created a real family of that dub-reggae sound, and I think that was a big part of our success, having all those bands together at the third festival. It really put R&V on the map as a leading festival.
EU: How were the bands responding to all of this? Were they just loving playing it there, or were they grumbling that you weren't paying them the usual fees, or how did that go down?
HP: Yeah, funny you say that, because yeah, there was a bit of tension between the promoters and the bands. I was quite young at the time, and looking back, I can kind of see why, and you get all these bands together and you pay them reasonably well, but I don't think they'd been paid that well before. But seeing the success we were having as promoters, of course, everyone wants a slice of that, and it was hard to judge whether it was the bands that were attracting the crowd, or the momentum that the festival had, and there were some tense times when we were releasing more tickets, and we were getting so much national attention, and the bands were wanting a piece of that as well.
I think it's just set us up for better negotiations and better deals going forward, just knowing what people want, knowing how the industry works, whether bands want flat fees or they want to clip the ticketers as the tickets sell. It's made us a lot wiser, going into the industry. But definitely that year, as the festival flourished, everyone wanted a piece, from the contractors to shareholders to the bar operators to the bands, and it's something we've learnt how to manage as we go.
EU: Did you ever have to sit down with your shareholders, for instance, like you're all around the table, and like, "Okay, guys, like, this isn't just a party. This is a full-blown business venture. We even have shareholders at this meeting!" How did those fights go down about who owns what or who gets what piece of that pie?
HP: Definitely there was some tensions, because the venue owners were also shareholders of the festival, and I wasn't necessarily a venue owner, so we had to draw some lines between what we're investing in the venue and what the promoters were responsible for. We started to get into governance then, and one of our accountants came on board as an adviser, and just providing that independence with where the business and the festival was going, because there are a lot of blurred lines between the venue and the families involved, my business partner's family, myself as the promoter, and not really having an interest in the venue, of course the bands and their issues with us overselling what was agreed on the contract. Yeah, it was a moving feast, really, and it was probably the most scariest ride there, those last 30 days, trying to get the venue ready, having one of New Zealand's leading bands, a lot of attention.
There were some celebrities coming. The All Blacks were coming. This festival was firmly on the map as the place to be, and everyone wanting a piece of that pie was something that I think's put us in good stead for the growth that we've had.
EU: Did you ever feel out of control? There's so many parties involved. Have you always been the majority shareholder? Do you have the last say, or are there people that can outvote your decision-making?
HP: I went to business with my friend, and it was his family property, but his father, who was the venue manager, was mentoring us, but then he also had a stake in making sure the venue was catered for and invested in. Yeah, it was definitely a quite fluid process, because I wasn't the main promoter. I had some skills and interests that I brought to the table, but there was a team of people. I think those years, I just almost closed my eyes and went with it. I was young. I knew I still had career opportunities in front of me, but this was a great ride to be on, and you almost just go to hope that things'll work out, and learn as you go. I think I'm still doing that to this very day.
EU: Yeah, that's that naivety and optimism in the beginning. One of the things that people always warn you about is going into any kind of business venture or partnership with your friends, or your family, for that matter. We've talked to so many people on this show that have done one or the other, but still, did anyone ever warn you, or did you ever have any misgivings about going in on this with not only your friend, but his family?
HP: Yeah. Well, I think my friend who I started it with, who had signed out, he'd left the business by that time. He had got cold feet on dealing with this family whose property it was, and just some of the red flags that popped up. I’ve kind-
EU: Like what? What popped up?
HP: Just areas around the venue and the bar operations. It was fluid. It was hard, because we had some backing from our friend's dad, who also was trying to invest in his venue, and there were probably some issues in those early years with how the business was created and who was funding what, and I know my friend got cold feet, and he left after two years, whereas I ploughed on and maybe took some things on the chin. If it wasn't for the investor investing in that venue, we wouldn't be able to have the size of festival today. If I hadn't worked for no money over those times, we wouldn't have the festival today. So, there's a lot of give and take at that time of the business, and you've really just got to look at the bigger vision and what you're heading towards. The ship's not always going to sail straight, and I think just having a little bit of courage and a little bit of patience to make sure those things work out is all part of that start-up kind of mentality.
EU: Well, it's funny that you mentioned having this bigger vision, because in my head, I still am imagining you just planning a party for a bunch of your friends in the beginning. Did you know that you wanted this to be a huge festival in the very beginning, or did that vision come to you over time?
HP: Yeah, I think that first year was just the once-off, but you saw nearly a couple of thousand people in that amphitheatre watching music, and I'd be lying if I didn't think, be great if Ben Harper, who was one of my heroes at the time, or the Black Eyed Peas, or some of the acts that we throw around, and we said, "Well why not? You know, this is a fantastic venue, and it's New Year's Eve in the first place to see the sun. How would we even go about achieving that goal?"
Setting that first year in motion really gave us the confidence and, I think, I went travelling after the second year, and I went to some festivals in Europe, and I thought R&V had the bones of something great, and there was no reason we couldn't compete with some of these larger festivals overseas. We had our own recipe. We had our own story, but we needed the skills and the confidence and the time to grow it. Yes, there were going to be speed bumps along the way with business partners and overspending here and grumpy bands, but if we held on and keep the ship sailing straight, we might get in a position where we could achieve our wildest dreams, which we have.
EU: Well, and you have! I'd love to hear a little bit more. Tell us more about the transition going from booking these local New Zealand bands, even if they're the greatest bands in New Zealand, then you went on to be booking global acts, like the the Kooks or M.I.A. How did you even manage to get those folks on the phone?
HP: Yeah, so we had a great few years there of when Kiwi music was at a high, and we went through the top Kiwi bands at the time, and I felt like we were maybe being held to ransom a bit by some of the Kiwi bands, because they knew that we needed them to keep the momentum, and we needed to look elsewhere to service the kind of lineup. I began knocking on a few doors in Australia with our festival-booking partners that we still work with today, and I realised we needed to create a booking route. I went to London and knocked on a few doors and made some stupid offers to get headline DJs down under, and we had-
EU: What does that even mean? You're not literally knocking on someone's door!
HP: Well, we put in offers on email, but like everyone knows, there's nothing better than a face-to-face, and when you're down under, you're just at the end of an email. It's hard, but we put an offer on a guy, Milo, who was a house DJ at the time who we used to listen to at university, and the agent wasn't getting back to me, so I was over in the U.K. and just went 'round to the office and knocked on the door and introduced myself and said, "Are we gonna make this, this deal work?" Sure enough, as a result, he fast-tracked it, and we had our first international DJ. We had stupidly overpaid for him, but we had someone that was outside of the norm, and someone we could hang our hat on to then leverage off to other agents and artists to convince them to play down under.
That was a big turning point. It opened the door for the Australian promoters started looking at us, saying, "Oh, we could work with Rhythm and Vines to, you know, share acts on our run."
EU: Were there ever any moments where you had to talk much bigger than you actually felt, or talk up the event to sound much more exciting than it actually was at that point, just so that you could make it true by having that gig there, that performer there?
HP: Well, exactly. With all due respect, the Kiwi bands weren't internationally known, and when you're trying to hustle to sell a dream to bring bigger acts, you've really got to talk about where the festival would be going, and at that stage, it was a one-day Kiwi party. We talked about potentially going to three days or two days, and leveraging off the acts that are in Australia. We talked about the first place to see the sun, and we offered beach accommodation and horse-riding and wine-tasting, and all the great Kiwi summer. We tried to think what else we could attract these artists with, not just money, but that Kiwi experience. I think that's still part of our recipe today, is coming down under from the northern climes at that time of year to this beach location, the vineyard, and getting a real Kiwi experience.
EU: They're like: "Oh! Free vacation for me, plus I get paid? Sounds pretty good! Horseback riding? I'm in!"
HP: That was all part of the sell, and it continues today as we try and achieve greater things with bigger names, but a big part of our success was we had a consultant working for us who had worked on Glastonbury and Exit Festival, and he had experience with the three-day model. There was a lot that came with that, expanding the festival to have on-site camping, and to have buses in and out of town for three days, and to have production crews working in and out, and visas for artists, and charter flights. There were so many new things to think about, and I think having that consultant that we found on the road, having him and his experience on call was a huge part of being able to build that three-day model that we have today.
EU: Well, one of the things that I wanted to ask you about is how you've managed to keep this event cool as your target audience has grown? Not only are the folks that were originally there 10 years older now, but you still want to bring in those younger, more energetic folks. How do you create a balance between keeping the people that are the long-term loyal fans there, and happy about what's going on, and keeping that original energy, and keeping it new and fresh, so that you're attracting new folks?
HP: Yeah, I think I've just got to date younger and younger girls, just to keep a finger on the pie!
EU: Oh, really? Your finger on the pie? We might have to edit that one out. Alice, what do you think? Is that going to fly?
HP: Finger on the pulse!
EU: Alice is 27, by the way. I don't know if that's young enough for you, no I’m kidding.
HP: Nah, but I do think a big part of it is understanding who your target market is. I'm well outgrown that initial target market, but it is listening to the market, the consumers, following the trends. I love following the music industry and the trends, and we've seen the reggae music, that we initially booked, through indie rock, through drum and bass, EDM, trap, hip-hop. Now, I followed it all, and that's a big part of keeping your finger on the pulse. Listening to market, we use some great interns and staff that are passionate about the festival and the brand, and they give their 10 cents, and we listen. As well, I think it's not being too pig-headed or too arrogant with your views. It's about sharing the vision for the festival with your staff and your market, and asking them where it should go, and not being too dominant with what you think is right, because it's only one perception. I think we've done that really well, just not being too proud to be able to share the direction of the festival. That is hard, and we've had times when we haven't got it on point, and you learn your lesson the hard way with ticket sales being down and negative feedback on social media, but that's a game that continues today.
EU: Well, doesn't that take some of the fun out for you? Again, this used to be your party, and now you're beholden to all of these other perspectives, as you said. How does that feel for you as this has changed? Is it at all fun?
HP: No, I think it's the opportunity. What I do like is the freshness of keeping up with the trends. I like to see it as a form of creativity or even art, in some regard, that you've got to create this vision year-in, year-out, with new bands and new trends and a new look and feel, and new additions to the festival. That's what does keep me on my toes. If it was mundane and straightforward and cookie cutter, then I think that would bore me, but the fact that every year you've got to roll out a new vision and a new lineup, I think that keeps me engaged and inspired year-in, year-out.
EU: Well, and how do you stay sane in the midst of this whirlwind of what's got to be 5 bazillion different logistical details and folks to manage and contractors to keep under control, that sort of thing?
HP: Well, I think delegation's a big part of it, and having a good team around you that you trust. I've never pretended to know everything or be able to do everything or want to do everything, and I think that's been one of the skills to our success, is having a good team of people that are responsible for their areas, and trusting in them to be autonomous in delivering that, whether it be the marketing plan or the site management, or the ticketing. I sleep well knowing that I've got a good team that I believe in, and I know I do my job to the best of ability promoting the show and securing the artists and selling the dream, and I just hope, and I trust in my team to pull through in their areas. That's how I don't get too stressed.
Again, you're always going to come across issues and hurdles, and it's just having a cool, calm, clear head and being a leader in that style that I think has worked for us, and will continue to.
EU: Yeah, so it's really more about resilience, rather than making sure nothing goes wrong, because inevitably, something is going to go wrong!
HP: Exactly. Expecting things to go wrong, but having the necessary patience and time and skillset to deal with issues that come across your desk.
EU: Right, and it's fascinating. Again, you're not the first person that we've talked to who's really been driving home the importance of choosing a great team. What are some of the elements that you look for in the staff that you want to bring into your inner circle?
HP: I think that no-dickhead policy or the ego thing, and we've had a few issues over the year with people getting ahead of themselves with ... we work on a cool brand. We got a cool product. We're in this public eye. There's a lot of aura attached to what we do, and it's been hard at times to manage egos in those responsible for some key areas of the business, and over the years, we've had to weed out those well-poisoners, if you like, or those ego-centric team members that end up affecting others on the team. I know at the moment, we've got a great team that no one's bigger than the brand. No one's bigger than the festival. There's a lot of mutual respect for everyone's role up and down the business. I think that's why we are seeing some of the success that we've had, again, because we've got a team that ... yeah, no egos, and everyone's replaceable. No one's bigger than each other, so, yeah, I think that's a big part of building a team.
EU: Say a little bit more about what it takes to recognise that someone's ego is getting a bit out of control. We're talking about Alice and Elizabeth here, so we both are some outsized egos! I'm just kidding, but this is something that I think is ... you used the expression, "to poison the well." These are the people who are really toxic to a business culture, and so I think that's something that is relevant to quite a few of our listeners, regardless of what industry they're in, is how to identify that someone is maybe building themselves up too much, to where it's really counterproductive to the rest of the business.
HP: Yeah, a lot of it stems from communication. Some of this unrest can be grown out of silos, lack of team culture and communication. Some of it in our example is being built out of having two groups. We've got the Gisborne team that deliver their festival, and we've got the Auckland team, and often at times they're split throughout the year, and that provides a bit of dissent amongst the groups. Having communication, where you can talk to each other, is a big part of getting out of that culture. I think nipping it in the bud as soon as possible is a big part of it, sitting down with people, and just saying, "Hey, what was up with that comment?" Or, "You know, you, we hear you're disappointed with this." Or, "Are you not, you not being listened to about that?" I think that's one thing we've tried to do, but at the end of the day, if it continues, you've just got to weed it out, especially in a big organisation, big project like we're managing.
EU: I did want to ask you, it's no secret that you had a bit of a struggle. The early days were glory days, and things were just building and building, and better and better acts, and more and more people showing up. Then, there was a bit of a struggle. Tell us what happened there.
HP: The first struggle we came across was going to three days. We had a vision to go and grow this kind of world-class festival that we have today, but we didn't realise how much it was going to cost. The artist budget blew out. We had to find three days of music, and we forgot about artists' visas that cost money, and we forgot that we needed to charter acts in and out, and tour parties and accommodation costs just blew out of control. That was one of the first issues. Security costs went through the roof. We needed more fencing for more days. We needed more security guards working different shifts. We just didn't have a clue how much this three-day festival would cost, and as a result, we lost considerable amount of money, nearly half a million dollars. For a young business and young guys with limited capital-
EU: What was the entire budget at that point? That sounds like a significant chunk of change.
HP: Well, I think we budgeted the festival on selling 18 to 20,000, and we sold 16,000. In this game, if you don't hit your numbers, there's considerable loss, and then if your budgets blow out, then, again, you're really in a pickle. That was the first stress, and we were like, "How are we going to pay these creditors, these bands, and staff, and contractors that we need to bounce back?" But we had seen a success in the three-day model, in that everyone walked out of there with a hell of a time, and we thought we can still build on this; we just need to man-up and try and carry this debt for the next few years.
That was the first stress, and we borrowed some money at pretty high interest rates, and secured it against our shareholding. As a young law grad at the time who had other career options and parents breathing down your neck, and things like that, in your early-to-mid-20s, it was a pretty big thing to stomach, but that resilience set us up, and that confidence in what we were doing set us up for the coming years. The next year, we were able to sell more tickets and build on that brand, build on that three-day model. Two years later, when we had our seven-year anniversary, we sold out 25,000 tickets, and we were able to give our first dividend to the shareholders, and had some money in the bank to look at expanding into new projects. That was really, really satisfying.
EU: Wow! That was a huge save, and you're saying it so nonchalantly, like, "Oh, yeah. And then we just sold like a bazillion more tickets that next year." That must have been a tonne of work and a lot of sacrifice on your part, so tell us a little bit about that aspect of it.
HP: Yeah, well, that was a time for me personally, a lot of my friends were moving to the U.K., which is what you tend to do in your mid-to-late-20s, and I had this debt and this business and this vision that I believed in, and I really had to knuckle down and help lead my team to get out of the woods, so that was a great time for me professionally, going through that adversity and coming out on top. I think we won a tourism award, and we had a lot of recognition, and it was just so rewarding to bounce back from… Really, just that resilience to hold onto the vision of the three-day model and prove everyone wrong, because that was the initial part of the three-day concept. It was just unknown to New Zealanders, and they were saying, "Why, why would we want to do three days of Rhythm and Vines? We, you know, one day, isn't one day enough?"
But we'd seen festivals overseas working to that model, and it was something we wanted to try and achieve. Finally, people caught on, and we sold 25,000 tickets, and we had some of the leading bands, Tinie Tempah and Pharrell Williams and Chase & Status and Carl Cox, and that really set up the brand internationally to continue where it is today.
EU: Yeah, so how far are people coming for this event?
HP: We have a lot of Germans come, a lot of Australians, and a lot of Americans are starting to come down under. We estimate around 7% of our ticket sales are offshore, and that's growing. I think festival tourism's become a big industry. I know I travelled to festivals overseas, and as the world gets smaller, and air tickets are cheaper, people are coming down under at that time of year. We're firmly on that tourist trail for New Year's Eve, and the fact that we're the first place to see the sun-
EU: Yeah, I have friends that are definitely coming down to New Zealand, and have done so in the past for New Year's Eve.
HP: Yeah, so it's great. I mean-
EU: I'll have to suggest that they come to your festival. They probably already are. They just don't know it yet!
HP: Yeah, thanks. It's New Year's Eve, first place in the world. It should be on everyone's bucket list. That's what keeps us inspired to... That's a unique Kiwi experience, and it's something that everyone should do once in their lifetime, we think.
EU: Yep. I want to go back to these personal sacrifices. All of your friends have moved off, and they're living overseas for a chunk of time. Did you ever feel like you were missing out? Sure, you had mentioned that your parents are breathing down your neck, and okay, I'm just going to quit it all, and I want to go back and be a lawyer, like I trained to do, but what else was going through your head in those dark moments? Like, oh man, I could have been doing something else?
HP: Yeah. Well, I was working with my best friend and my girlfriend. She was working for me. I don't know. It was such a fun time. It was almost being at the coalface, and every little thing you did, you just felt flow-on effect, whether it's just putting the ticket put on sale, or that social-media comment. It just felt like you were right there at the coalface, and I guess I've left that a bit as your festival and business grows, but those years, it was really rewarding, just with your good mates mucking in to just achieve what you want.
But, yeah, I felt like I was missing out on those European holidays, and my friends travelling around Europe and living in London, and almost that group mentality, which I was actually really keen to avoid, but it wasn't always easy, sitting in the Auckland rain on the bones of your ass, grinding it out when you see your law grads flying around the world, so yeah. Yeah, it was tough, but kind of knew what we were trying to achieve, and we've ended up achieving it. I think that stickability is one thing that I'm really proud of. That resilience and that commitment is why we're here today, because you've really got to go through those tough times and just hold on, and it's all for the better at the end of the day.
EU: Yeah, well, we had a recent guest, Sarah Riegelhuth, and she was talking about how fear of missing out is a lot stronger when you don't have a really clear vision or a goal about what you want to accomplish, so I'm sure that all your buddies, when they came back from their travels abroad, they're still like, "Wait, what do I want to do with my life? Or what impact do I want to have on the world?" And you're like, "Hey, I just started the first three-day festival in New Zealand! What's up?"
HP: Exactly. Yeah, and now I get to travel as well, so every dog has it's day. I like to think sometimes that nothing's forever, and once you bounce back you can go and do what you need to do. Yeah, I think, tough for my family as well, and just seeing me go through that tough time, I think it was difficult. It was nice for them to be rewarded with my success through those tough times.
EU: Where do you see this going? If your wildest dreams could come true with this festival, or is it multiple festivals? Where do you see success really hitting home for you?
HP: I've always wanted to build an international entertainment brand with Rhythm and Vines, and I think we've got a great recipe. I think the music and the vineyard, a premium setting with a uniquely Kiwi twist, I think, is something that could work in other regions. I've looked at the markets in California and Australia and South Africa and places like that. A dream for me would be to have the support and the backing to help take the brand overseas and create a series of festivals under the Rhythm and Vines brand with an edgy lineup with a maybe uniquely Kiwi feel, but sell it to an international audience. We're working through that at the moment. We've got potential for an investor to come on board in our space. If that comes to fruition, which it's looking good, that we might have the resources to achieve that or at least strive towards that. Yeah, number one's keeping the brand and the product sustainable, but once that's achieved, it'd be great to leverage off that and try and take the brand into new markets.
EU: How would you describe this characteristic Kiwi feel?
HP: I think it's around the food and the wine. That's one way to look at it. I think it's about the level of entertainment and the cutting-edge technology. We like to think we're industry leaders in some respect. We're the first ones in this part of the world to use RFID technology, not just on our ticketing, but on our cash payments. It's all data-driven. We've got systems in place then-
EU: What does that mean? RFID? These are what?
HP: Everything's on your wrist. As I said, in that second year we had funny money, and we soon moved to cashless bar technology, where you could load up your money that you spend at the amenities on your wrist. Your ticketing's loaded there. You can get in and out of different camp zones and VIP areas with just the swipe of your wrist. You can load up more money. You can buy food, drink. You can buy t-shirt, merchandise. It's really a 360-degree payment and data, now, management system for your festival experience. Upload photos-
EU: That's pretty amazing. I once, accidentally, tried to go to a music festival in San Francisco once. It's called Outside Lands. I'm sure you've heard of it. I had a broken leg, and nobody knew how to get me to the accessible-viewing area, and so at some point, I somehow ended up in the middle of the VIP area without my ticket, because in the whole mayhem, somebody had given my ticket to somebody else. So I didn't have the right wristband, so I couldn't get around, and I'm walking around with a broken leg. Eventually, I think I saw Neil Young, and I was like, "I'm out of here!" I somehow managed to get out, finally, but I couldn't get back in the next day, and it was a total bummer.
Alice is also saying once she lost her wrist bracelet with a hundred bucks on it! It's like technology: it's, on the one hand, totally amazing, and we don't have to carry around cash, but on the other hand, something's always bound to go wrong.
EU: This is like true-confession time. I actually really don't like music festivals, because I love music. I love music, and I want to see the bands that I want to see in a really small venue with really excellent sound, without the sunburned, drunk, dehydrated people yelling next to me. So, I'm curious if, when you book people for your band, is it an exclusive arrangement, where they can't then do smaller shows in smaller venues nearby? Or are you also doing night shows and that sort of thing?
HP: No. Certainly, for the international artists, we try and maintain exclusivity, because it's a small market down here, and it's a big part of our brand. Kiwi bands, we appreciate that they're touring over that time of year, so we're encouraging them to play as many gigs as possible. We want to help build and foster the industry. They're probably not as big of a draw card, so it doesn't matter, but yeah, certainly international acts, we try and maintain their exclusivity.
EU: Yep. Alice is saying: "What is wrong with you? You suck! How do you not like music festivals?" Everybody else that I know loves them and goes to, like, 20 of them a year, so I am the weirdo. I totally get it, but I don't know. I'm sort of a music snob, and so I don't like it when drunk people are next to me, talking over the ... I'm like, "This is why I came! Like, shut up!" I do go to a few music festivals, but the smaller ones. I've actually been to some really great ones in vineyards recently. My favourite recently, it was called the Huichica Music Festival. Super small, low key. The day that I went, it was just one stage and a tiny, little band, really intimate and beautiful. I've never gone to Bottle Rock. That's the closest thing I can think of that's the huge festival in wine country.
I don't know. I look forward to checking yours out. Alice says I can go with her, and we'll have a good time. She won't talk in my ear-
HP: Yeah. I think we're a bit more boutique, and we have big ambitions of grandeur, but we've realised that we're probably around that 20,000. We're not a Coachella. We're not a Burning Man. We're kind of more like a Sasquatch or a Lightning in a Bottle. You might be familiar. More boutique, more-
HP: That's our point of difference, where it is a bit more personal and a better crowd, and that's what we're striving towards now.
EU: Yeah. No, and I think it's a real testament to your vision that you're able to keep that kind of low-key, more-chill vibe while having tens of thousands of people. That is no small task, so congratulations for pulling that off.
HP: Yeah, thank you.
EU: Earlier, when you were describing the difference between you and some of your mates that were travelling around at the same time that you were building this massive festival, when you look at people around you, your peers or folks that you meet at a dinner party, and they're complaining about their office jobs, what do you want to tell them?
HP: I just said it's tough. I just think it's tough. It's not easy being out there and following your dream. You're going to have to sacrifice that stability and that safety to get out of that rat race, but I'm glad I did it young, because I was probably a little bit more naïve, little bit more malleable and flexible to some of the challenges, whether it's sleeping on couches or not having enough money to travel... Maybe when I'm younger, I don't have to have the flashest clothes and things. It's better to get that out of the way, and I'm a little bit more set up now in terms of a platform to grow off, but any of those people in the rat race, and they're hating their boss, and those career opportunities aren't coming, and they think about, "Ah, I'd love to be starting my own business." They've probably got to realise that they have to do it tough.
I always talk about having a year in your pyjamas if you're going to start something, because you're not going to be able to afford office space. You're not going to be able to afford new clothes. You're not going to be able to afford to eat out, even things like that to get around in. If you can lock yourself in your flat and spend that time in your bedroom for a year, that's pretty much what you have to do to get anything off the ground, in my opinion.
EU: And then, what's the light at the end of that tunnel? What makes it worth it?
HP: Well, an opportunity to build off, and even the blessing to even have a platform and to have some revenue, and to have some structure, and even a product that people want, and a market that people can buy your wares. That's a blessing in itself. Once you've got that, you're only just started, and you've got to sail your ship through those muddy waters that are coming your way, but even to have the opportunity to even have a product and have a market is a blessing, and to get that achieved is hard work.
Being at the coalface in those early years, and every little email you get from your market, or every little post that you do, or every post that you put up, and it's so rewarding. Every ticket that comes in is just so rewarding, and you feel so grateful. That's what you miss in a corporate environment, say, that your hard work's not always recognised, and it's not even appreciated. You work hard and you don't feel that satisfaction. I think that's what being an entrepreneur in your own business provides.
EU: Oh! Well, that is such an inspiring story. Again, I can't wait to participate in this festival, Rhythm and Vines, that you've made such a landmark event for people not only in New Zealand, but around the world. Thanks so much for joining us today!
HP: Thank you very much.
EU: We're going to finish up with our question countdown, which is five quick questions and five quick answers. Are you ready?
HP: Hit me.
EU: All right. What business book or idea has made the biggest impact on your life, and why?
HP: I think Richard Branson's Losing My Virginity when I read that at university, because it provided me with the opportunity to follow your dreams and build a lifestyle around your business was possible, and have fun while doing it.
EU: Yep. That fun is a key factor! Okay, and the next: What's the one thing you can't live without?
HP: I cannot live without my guitar. It's my passion, and it's a chance to de-stress, be creative, and it's something that I love doing whenever I can find the time.
EU: Do you ever perform at your own festival?
HP: Yeah. I still book myself every year. Someone's got to check the PA. Naa, it’s a great chance on the final day, get a few friends together and have a strum, and do it year-in, year-out, so it's great.
EU: What's the most useful app on your phone right now?
HP: I love Facebook Messenger, because I've got quite a wide network from around the world, and a lot of people that help and work on the festival, be it artists' managers or staff or friends, and I use that all day, every day to-
EU: All right. Noted. So I won't send you an email. I'll hit you up on Facebook Messenger instead!
EU: Fair enough. Okay. In one sentence, what is the greatest lesson you've learned throughout your business journey?
HP: Never, ever, ever give up is one of my mantras, because you've just got to keep on, be resilient, be dedicated, and go through it all.
EU: Mm, lovely! Finally, what skill do you want to enhance this year?
HP: I really want to build my financial skills further, especially around business. I want to get better in that area of my career.
EU: Sounds good. Well, if I didn't already love my job, I would totally offer my spreadsheet-geekery skills, because I love small-business modelling. Well, and big-business modelling, for that matter, but yeah. I would put the whole world in a spreadsheet if you let me, so it's a good thing Alice and I are having a ball over here, so we're not going to come take over the business management. Well, thanks again! This has been super fun! Alice will come rescue you from the padded room, and yeah, I've always been curious about the backend business workings of these huge parties for all of us, this is our day off, but this is when you're on.
HP: Thanks for showing an interest, and it's been great talking to you!
EU: That was Hamish Pinkham, founder and director of Rhythm and Vines. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity!