Organizer Q&A

Nick Castleman (Labyrinth Open Air)

Aug 6, 2021

15 min read

Welcome to Festivals Insider's Organizer Q&A series. Here, we have intimate conversations with some of the festival market's most exciting and influential innovators.

Labyrinth, founded in early 2017 by Nick Castleman, starting out as a series of Thursday evening dances at West London's Notting Hill Arts Club. Now, the events have grown to fill London's leading venues all over the city, and are run jointly bu Michael Dicks, and Nick.

The focus of Labyrinth is to showcase record labels, communities and artists that they believe are pushing the boundaries of dance music. We chat with founder, Nick Castleman...

What is your name and what is the name of your festival?

So, I'm Nick Castleman - I'm one of the founders of Labyrinth events, and our festival business is called Labyrinth Festivals. We've got two festivals this summer one is on the 10th of July, which is called Labyrinth Open Air, and that's with a range of mainly Melodic House and I'd say Deep House artists, particularly Âme back to back, Dixon.

Then we've got another show on the 7th of August, which is called Labyrinth presents DJ Koze. Co, which DJ Koze played a big part with us in creating the lineup and he's playing with Jose Gonzalez, Motor City Drum Ensemble, Elder Island and a couple of other amazing artists.

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When did the festival start and what inspired it?

Yes, great question. So this is actually the first year that we will be doing the festival at this venue, with the license that we had, we were meant to launch last year, last summer, but obviously really sad because of the Pandemic, we couldn't go ahead. So July 10, will be the first day that the festival has ever taken place. So that's really, really exciting!

What inspired us was a couple of things, so first things first, we are really big believers that we all live in an experience economy now, and people are willing to pay a little bit more money to go to what I would describe as an experiential event where they maybe have to travel a bit. It's in a beautiful setting, and it's a sort of, it's different. It's not that I've got anything against going to your nightclub on a Friday evening because we love nightclubs. It's a different sort of experience. And that's kind of like what we're looking to create here. We really believe in finding interesting venues, we found this venue, which is it's quite accessible from London, it's like an hour and a half in the car, 35 minutes on a train, and it's just unbelievably beautiful.

The second thing is that we, and you'll get this like, I'm sure it's the same in America, but that it's very competitive in London, in fact, ridiculously competitive. There's basically a couple of very big promoters that are backed by institutional equity and private equity that lock out all of the top talent. They do exclusivity deals where they say, right, we've got two festivals in London, we've got a club series, and you're basically going to play for us for the whole year, and we're going to be able to offer you more money than anywhere else. We were getting to the point of our business where we were at the point where we should be booking those artists are and really the only way we were going to make it happen was by going outside of the exclusivity clauses of London and getting outside of the M25 which is where our venue is. So that was another reason that inspired us.

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Tell us about the site and how it influences the festival?

Yeah, so the venue is called Tofte Manor, and it's really interesting. So it's a countryside home with a bunch of land around it that's actually now used as a spiritual retreat and events centre.

They host, they have like a, they actually have a big labyrinth on site, which was based on the labyrinth at Chartes Cathedral. People walk the labyrinth, the labyrinth is completely symmetrical and basically you walk the labyrinth and in the middle of the labyrinth, it's meant to create a lot of Peace and good energy. And they have like meditation rooms, crystal healing rooms, so there is s a very, very big focus on the venue, spirituality and, wellbeing. And alongside that they do events.

So they have, you know, private events, weddings, they've never done an event like this, and we were the first people, we managed to convince them to let us try and do this and won the license. It's completely in the open surroundings of the UK countryside, which is just natural beauty and it's green, luscious, everywhere, open skies, we hope obviously being in the UK you can't guarantee that.

And yeah, so how it would influence the events, a couple of things. So on the day of the event, that Labyrinth I told you about people will actually be able to walk it. So one by one people will be able to go and walk the labyrinth and enjoy that. The second thing is that we don't want to have massive stages that completely obstruct the natural beauty around us. We really want the event to kind of leverage and build upon the surroundings that you're in and leverage that beauty rather than go in and build all these big stages and kind of like detach from the beauty of the venue. So I really hope that guests will feel immersed within that space and really, really get to experience and enjoy on the day of the event.

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What kind of musical artists play at your festival?

Yeah, so a little bit more detail. Yeah, so let's talk about both dates. So the 10th of July one so that's quite you know, a lot of the Innervisions roster are playing that, we've obviously got Âme and Dixon playing back to back and that's their first back to back in the UK since 2019. And they're only back to back in the UK this summer, it's really exciting.

Then also from artists associated with Innervisions, we've got Trikk, Jimmy Jules, Jennifer Cardini, Sofia Kourtesis, who I know has just released on Ninja Tune but a slightly similar sound. We also like wanted to mix up the lineup with more diverse sounds. So you've got TSHA playing, who in my opinion, is probably the most exciting artist in the UK right now, she's signed to Ninja Tune - I think she's got an album coming out soon and I bank her to become an artist of the scale of Bonobo one day.

Carista's closing our Labyrinth, which I should say actually it's now the Tom Dixon stage. And that's going to be really cool. Carista plays everything from Garage to House to Techno to Disco, so it'll be quite wide-ranging.

And yeah, there's a lot of, I'd say it's a combination of up and coming artists and obviously, you've got the big headliners Âme and Dixon, but the great thing actually about when you book those guys, is that you can be really creative with the rest of the lineup, and you should be, because your tickets should be sold. So what you do for the rest of the lineup should be really interesting in terms of the music you can get for it.

The August 7th event, so that's very different. The July event is more sort of I'd say like generally like electronic house dance music. Well, the seventh is a big mix of DJ and live stuff. We did that because the area around us like you know, this is a really remote countryside village. I don't think many people around there know who Dixon is, but they definitely might know who like Jose Gonzalez or Elder Island is which is more live, like more relaxed, chilled music. So we wanted to have a day where we program live music and dance music but also one that Koze was heavily involved in.

So the reason Jose Gonzalez is playing, and I don't mean to bang on about this for too long, but I find it really interesting. So Jose Gonzalez and Koze are very, very different artists, you've got Koze, who's like an electronic artist. I know he dabbles in hip hop, and he takes inspiration from that. But then Jose Gonzalez is essentially a solo guitarist-singer. They collaborated on a track on Koze' album in 2019, called 'Music On My Teeth', which was on Knock Knock - really, really cool track. And when we were thinking about the event, we came up with the idea actually, if we want live in this show, we should get a live artist who's collaborated with Koze before. So to have Jose Gonzales playing at a show, it's just like a dream come true.

We've got Elder Island playing live, they actually have their new album come out today, they make sort of like very warm, I'd say sort of electropop. Um, a guy called Fred Again, whose solo career is just blowing up. He previously has produced more number one hits for leading artists than you can imagine, it's actually ridiculous - just released his latest album, and he's going to be playing a live show which I can't wait for. Motor City Drum Ensemble obviously bringing the disco, you can never go wrong. And then DJ Koze closing out.

So yeah, I'm looking forward to both. Very, very different but I'm interested to see what comes from both events.

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Do you remember the first act you ever booked?

Yeah. So the first act was on a Thursday evening, a tiny tiny club in West London called Notting Hill Arts Club. We booked Cry Ward and Farah and I think myself and it was actually you know what, I was so nervous because this was like a new thing. It was the first time I promoted an event myself. And I thought I was like, and back then people weren't buying tickets in advance. So like, all of the guests were on the door. And it was actually great. It was really really really really busy. The proceeding events weren't actually as busy as that one. But yeah, it was good fun. Nothing like the artists now but you've got to start somewhere.

What's been the most memorable set for you in your career, maybe that you've played or that somebody else has played?

Alright, well, we'll talk about somebody else, I'll answer somebody else first, okay. That's really, I mean, we've been really lucky. I mean, particularly I love artists playing long sets. I really feel that DJs often get booked on shows and they've got an hour and a half or two hours, and like, if you're really into music, it's hard to, I guess, like, it's really, really hard to show that just for a two-hour set, the range of music that you're into.

We had Keinemusik play, we did their 10 by 10 anniversary in London in 2019. They played for seven hours back to back to back to back in an amazing like studio space in West London, that was probably the best energy I've ever felt at one of our events for sure.

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Trikk's extended set just before the pandemic was pretty special as well. Yeah, but yeah, those were the two that really stay true in my mind.

The funnest set I've ever played. So I got really lucky once, I was opening a club called Motion in Bristol, and it was me and then it was meant to be Jennifer Cardini, then Gerd Janson and then Âme. Really sadly, Jennifer Cardini, and Gerd Janson got stuck in traffic so I ended up getting to play in the main room for like five hours before Âme came on. And it was just yeah, it was the, it was the funnest, the funnest and most memorable set. And again, because I like playing long sets, I actually really got to try different music and build up different tempos and vibes that you don't get to do when you're playing for two hours. So that's cool.

When you think about your festival, who is your target audience?

Yeah, so, look as long as you're above 18, we do not have a target audience. Music is a completely encompassing culture, it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what your age is, as long as you're over 18, we want you there. And you know like, I genuinely mean that, obviously, a lot of people are coming from London because of where the event is, and the artists but there's not a particular person that we sell to, we want everybody who likes and is into their music to think that they could come and enjoy it.

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You know, that's really the answer that I love to hear, especially in dance music, because this was created to be an all-inclusive thing, and we want everybody to feel welcome, right?

Yeah, massively so and it shouldn't matter what your class is, your race, your gender, like music is all about having fun and enjoying each other's company.

What do you think is unique about your festival? I know you mentioned Labyrinth, which is a hugely unique festival. But what else sets it apart?

So I would say, and not to just play on, I do think the venue and what people are going to experience in terms of their surroundings on the day is really, really unique. Like you just, I've been to a lot of festivals in the UK, and I don't want to speak too soon, these things need to happen first, and everything needs to go to plan with COVID. But yeah, I haven't been to a festival outdoors and experienced like natural beauty like that. So I do think the venue sets us apart.

I'd like to think as well, we care a lot. I know a lot of promoters would say the same thing. But attention to detail. Like we really care. Like we lose sleep over the small things, like the loos, the traffic, the fencing, the drinks, the food, the sound, the decor, the lighting, the artists experience, the whole thing. It's not just about the stage and the sound and lights, there's a whole experience that's much wider than that. And I, if I could have anything I want people to leave and think they really care about every little bit of that, like every touchpoint was a smooth experience and enjoyable one.

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What are some of the challenges you faced to date in organizing your festival? I'm sure COVID is a big one. But what else?

So yeah, COVID obviously, you know, been a real challenge, and still will be a challenge because, you know, I know, everything's looking good in the UK, but it's not guaranteed, it's not a 100% thing yet. Yeah, until the government makes it clear. And also, there'll be a lot more precautions in terms of testing and what you've got to have on the event in terms of PP, and hand sanitizer, but that's stuff that we were delighted and looking forward to doing.

The venue like logistically it is in a very rural part of the UK, and getting people to and from the venue is not that straightforward. That's something that we put a lot of time and attention into. Um, sound is always a challenge - you've got to make sure, particularly like we're close to a couple of villages and we don't want to be a nuisance to them. But at the same time, we want to deliver a really good quality sound to our audience, right and that's something we have to have like, we've got acousticians around the whole venue and they'll be taking DB measurements, and making sure that it's not too loud, too close to the village.

Then, you know, like, logistically these events, I mean, it sounds ridiculous, but when you've got 30 artists coming to and from a venue, even that in itself, like working out the logistics of who's getting a taxi, at what time who's leaving, at what time how you got to get them back on their plane, making sure they're all happy and like, all of it is a bit of a challenge. But I think the logistics in terms of where the site is, is probably the thing that is the most tricky, but you're always gonna get that when you decide to do an event in a really unique location. There's a reason why people haven't tried it before.

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And just to close out, is there anything else that you'd like to mention? Or tell us about?

Um, I would just say get a ticket. You're gonna love it, sorry to flog it. But no, I really think that, you know, given these, all can go ahead, and we really pray to God that everything's going to be fine. And as of right now, it's looking good, get a ticket, you'll come and experience, I think, genuinely something that you haven't done ever before UK dance music, and I can't wait to dance with you all this summer. It's going to be magical. It's going to be better than we've ever experienced before.

Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak to us today. I really appreciate it.