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MIF: who's it for?

Simon Binns asks whether the festival values audiences or headlines.

Published on July 1st 2011.

MIF: who's it for?

AT 8.15pm, around the doors of Campfield Market on the opening night of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), people are getting excited.

They are waving their tickets around for the first 'proper' night of Bjork’s Biophilia live show. Those tickets cost them £45.

Manchester is very much in the house. And Iceland, of course. But is anyone outside of Manchester really aware of the 18-day festival? And are people inside Manchester the target audience?

"I think the festival appeals to a certain sort of demographic. I’d argue the tickets are very expensive, even though some of the experiences will be amazing."

Alex Poots, chief executive of MIF, thinks so - although third time around he claims to have become more aware of avoiding the event becoming a ‘closed shop'.

“We’ve got 60 per cent more tickets to sell this time,” he said. “We grew it to allow more people to come, which was a bit of a risk, but the board quite rightly said to me that if we kept selling stuff out by opening night, the festival was going to get seen as a closed shop.

“So there’ll be a lot more people getting in this time and around a third of the festival is free – about 20 shows.”

The two fastest-selling shows, he says, were Snoop Dogg’s one-off gig at the Apollo and kids' show Music Boxes.

Bringing in the big names is important to the show, he said, and it all comes at a price. But the festival has managed to increase its co-commissioning revenues to £2.5m this year.

Some critics from within the arts sector claim MIF is hoovering up the hard-to-find funding due to its size, support from the council and the pressure to justify the private sector sponsorship with headlines in the world’s newspapers.

Bjork %281%29BjorkPoots says they fight for what they get and so should everyone else.

“We could see after the second festival that there were hard times ahead and the recession would have an impact,” he said. “That £2.5m comes from outside the region and most of it gets spent here.

“Our funding from the council is less than 20 per cent of our budget. So it’s not like we’re being bankrolled by the city.”

Poots also says around 70 per cent of the festival’s audience will be from Greater Manchester, 20 per cent from the rest of the UK and 10 per cent from overseas.

A recent piece in the New York Times will have done no harm but is it making people book seats on a plane?

Sarah Brookes, head of public affairs at Manchester Airport, one of the festival’s key sponsors, says it is hard to quantify, but sees MIF as a key part of Manchester’s tourism offer.

“Things like the recession and aviation passenger tax have a part to play, and it also depends on the routes into Manchester,” she said.

“It’s all part of the tourist mix – MIF gets well promoted in New York in particular. We’ve got our New York route back and American Airlines are a sponsor as well this time. For us, our involvement in MIF is used to promote Manchester as a place to visit.

The airport looks at where the festival’s branding gets seen – the bang for the buck. “We’ve seen a good mix of coverage. In the UK, the festival has good relationships with the BBC and the Guardian, although domestic air travel isn’t what it used to be. But I think people will get on a plane for some of the acts.”

Beth McCann, organiser of the city’s other summer arts-fest, the Not Part Of festival, thinks MIF is targeted fairly and squarely at a certain demographic and also relies on fans of the headline acts to shift tickets, not the pull of the festival itself.

“Alex Poots is very much about the arts, but if you stop people in the street, I’d argue that while they might know about some of the artists, they wouldn’t necessarily know it’s part of a festival, or what that festival was called,” she said.

“Hip hop fans will know Snoop is playing Manchester but not that he’s playing MIF.

“I think the festival appeals to a certain sort of demographic. The ticketing office is in the Hilton, for example. I’d argue the tickets are very expensive too, even though some of the experiences will be amazing.

“You look at Take That and you know people will pay big money for music acts but you’re talking about a very different demographic.

“I don’t think MIF is something you can turn up to for two weeks and see a load of shows, like you can with Edinburgh. Because of the cost, you might just pick out a couple of headline acts.

“They are big acts and immense productions and so you have to price them accordingly.”

Bjork is a case in point. Poots claims the festival has actually subsidised the price of tickets to her Biophilia show, but they still cost £45.

The fans are out in force on opening night though – and I'd personally be amazed if any of them read anything other than The Guardian.

Poots will hope that sort of fandom can steer the festival towards 2013 in choppy waters.

 “I don’t think the festival will ever be self-sufficient,” he said. “But we’ll fight for Manchester’s share of arts funding and we’ll try and make sure more people get to see it as it goes on.”

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34 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Simon TurnerJuly 1st 2011.

Ticket price isn't an issue. People from all "demographics" will pay to see things that interest them; for example, tens of thousands of people are paying £30 to see Lee Evans at the MEN Arena in November which some might see as scandalous given that it's one very unfunny man on a stage. Perhaps ManCon are so used to getting freebies that they've lost touch with the real world.

In terms of awareness, is not just the Guardian, I've heard it being talked about on 6Music, XFM, and Radio 4, and the Manchester Evening News have been running loads of positive features and stories, and the banners have been up for months. It's hard to measure, but for what it's worth my view is that awareness is much higher than 2009.

AnonymousJuly 1st 2011.

I'm going to 4 shows - Victoria Wood's new play (£16 ticket in the Gods), Dr Dee (£16 ticket in the stalls) and Die Valkyrie/Halle Orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall (two nights, £25 per night in the Gods). That's £82 for 4 shows. People easily spend that on one pop concert. So you don't have to buy the expensive tickets. And I think the profile of the MIF is increasing each year. But as yet, it is still a very new festival.

Having said that, I think the fact that the gimmick of the festival is that all the shows are new works means that people have to cough up for things that nobody has ever seen. Which is OK at £16 but £45? I'm not sure - £45 seems a lot of money. There are a lot of unsold tickets left at £38 / £45 for Dr Dee, for example.

Nevertheless, the Monkey musical that Damon Albarn did a couple of years ago is still one of the best things I've ever seen. And last year's collaboration between Elbow and the Halle could have sold out for a month, it was that popular. So the festival does seem to be consistently good at creating events that attract attention. I reckon the MIF is a definite plus for the city.

Smyth Harper, Manchester City CouncilJuly 1st 2011.

MIF really is getting better and better and better. This year's programme is just superb and we're proud to support it. It provides tangible economic benefits to the city, it thrusts the city onto the world stage creating less definable (but no less real) economic benefits, and it's good for the social fabric of the city to have a thriving arts scene. We support a wide range of arts events across the city and rightly so.

After MIF 2009 we produced a report on its impact. Have a read:


Smyth Harper
Head of News
Manchester City Council

AnonymousJuly 1st 2011.

Numbers, numbers, everywhere.

the Whalley RangerJuly 1st 2011.

Manchester needs festivals like MIF. We need to move on from the likes of Canal Street Marches and Castlefield's Booze & Drugsfest.

That's precisely what's happening: central action on the city's central square - and it's all free!

Where did ManCon get their ticket price info from? I am going to Snoop, RL Jones, Walkuere and Haslam for a mere £48.50 all in.

Rod ConnollyJuly 1st 2011.

£40 for Gorillaz in 2007
£25 for It felt like a Kiss at the 2009 festival
£35 for Bjork's Biophilia this year

The best £100 I have ever spent.

Manchester. needs. this. festival.

Simon BinnsJuly 1st 2011.

My ticket for Bjork had £45 on it.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
the Whalley RangerJuly 1st 2011.

should have gone Monday's for £30, mate

Rod ConnollyJuly 1st 2011.

The general price was £45 but they did concessions at £35. What did you think of the show? The choir were outstanding.

AnonymousJuly 1st 2011.

I thought it was interesting, challenging and just plain brilliant in equal measure.

There'll be a review soon. But worth seeing, if not just for the Icelandic choir she uses for backing vocals. You're right - they were fantastic.

Simon BinnsJuly 1st 2011.

Sorry, that was me above btw...

Robert MartinJuly 1st 2011.

MIF is for me and the friends I have visiting this week from Glasgow and London next week. Last time around someone I knew said MIF is 'elitist and expensive' but he watches X Factor and had just spent £180 on a ticket for Madonna. I don't think Bjork, Elbow, Snoop Dog, Victoria Wood etc are elitist, and if MIF aspires to bring challenging new work and art to the city, then that's good for me. It's great that fringe events like Not Part Of... exist, but there isn't a single thing in it I want to see, not one, and they make snide remarks alluding to MIF in their communications which is pathetic. It's great that we have something that appeals to visitors that's not just about sport, shopping or getting pissed on a hen party, so thank god there's something that makes the city live up to its aspiration to be a major cultural European city.

Paul DohertyJuly 1st 2011.

Living in the city centre, I'm extremely aware of all the events going on as part of MIF (and Not Part Of) - increasingly so each year (well, two years). I don't saee how anyone could not be.
I've got tickets to about 10 shows (so far) - including a couple I only bought today, after the festival started. Several of these are for artists I'd never heard of before - I was encouraged purely because they were under the MIF banner, given the quality of past events.
I may be a 'student' but I'd rather spend £30 to see Marina Abramovic than £45 to go and see Black Eyed Peas in some enormodome (or even the Artic Monkeys - again - or similar). 'Demographics' don't mean that much really.
Oh and I NEVER read The Guardian!!!
Paul Doherty

Prince PhilipJuly 1st 2011.

The problem some people seem to be having with the festival is that it is clever, unagitated, quality-not-quantity-type middle class event.

I am so bored with these Newton Heath hoodies at all the other events in town - they are nowhere to be seen here...

James SpencerJuly 1st 2011.

There's nothing this time for me.... I enjoyed Zaha Hadid' portable concert hall and the concerts last time. But then I go to lots in Manchester the North, London and sometimes Brussels and Paris. I do my own 'festival' year round.

What is odd is its rootlessness. The events could be anywhere and the local institutions are not much involved ...a few as as locations maybe. It feels something of a boondoggle, an indulgence.

4 Responses: Reply To This...
Tom HilesJuly 1st 2011.

Perhaps, except Dr Dee (Albarn's English Opera) was Warden of Manchester Cathedral, and there are tours of the Ancoats Peeps as part of the festival - www.placenorthwest.co.uk/…/ps-this-weekend.html…

tblzebraJuly 2nd 2011.

Also The Day We Sang is about a local event...

tblzebraJuly 2nd 2011.

And another: True Faith -
A Celebration of Manchester-made talent.

JoanJuly 2nd 2011.

Alina Ibragimova, the violinist who played at the Zaha Hadid concert coccoon last time, is playing at Chet's. You might enjoy that, James. And there's a chance to look round the historic building.

CBJuly 2nd 2011.

You can do better than this Simon. You aren't really answering any of the questions from your headline or the opening gambit. If the analysis from Beth Mcann wasn't such a confused load of tripe then I'd have thought this piece was actually a press release from Not Part Of

BethJuly 2nd 2011.

CB is right this is not a press release for Not Part Of. If it was it would have mentioned 'over 150 events', 'accessibility to artists', 'complementary festival to MIF', etc.
Simon asked me what I thought and I answered it appealed to a certain demographic. That however is not a bad thing. Glastonbury and Reading are both music festivals for example but are marketed to different key audiences. Any producing company needs to know who it's trying to attract in order to be successful.
Tickets prices aren't particularly an issue for me as I stated, people nowadays pay that whether it's for an opera or Take That. We at Not Part Of and MIF both work to offer Manchester balanced and creative choices.
I'd say the perfect festival experience would be to get to as many events in both while you can, so you can see artists you recognise and discover new ones at either festival.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
Robert MartinJuly 4th 2011.

Beth, this quote is from the Not Part Of wesbite: "See what happens when a festival stops treating artists as a revenue stream and gives them total freedom of self expression." I doubt Marina Abramovic has had her art compromised for income. Or the Quay Brothers. This from Gareth McCann: "We're far too busy working on our festival to check what they're doing." So an arts festival director has no passing interest in some amazing work happening in the city, no matter what you think of the funding? Doesn't come across as particularly balanced, does it?

Gareth McCannJuly 4th 2011.

The first quote isn't in reference to MIF. It's a comparison with other 'fringe' festivals across the UK that charge artist extortionate amounts to be involved. Not Part Of differentiates itself from those by not charging artists a bean. Those are the festivals that we are attempting to compete with. Not MIF. Which everyone knows is based on an entirely different model anyway.
I will say, in the interest of balance, that we have to come to realise that a lot of the text on our site does need updating, as it was written when we were known as 'Not Part Of Manchester International Festival', which gives you an indication of where our heads were at in 2007. However, since then our name has shortened and our horizons have broadened so we concentrate much more on what we're doing that is unique than what MIF does that is unique.
The second quote is from an interview about Not Part Of. We do our best, in interviews about Not Part Of, to only talk about Not Part Of as that seems fairer to the thousands of artists involved. So when an interviewer asks about MIF we'll brush past it as above (unless as in Simon's case above the piece is about MIF). Of course, we have a passing interest in MIF but apart from knowing the headline acts and some anecdotal facts we really have been concentrating all our efforts on Not Part Of. And it's going really well so far.
It's good that people feel so strongly about culture in Manchester. We do too. That's why we set up the festival, why we continue to evolve it into a training and facilitation process for artists, and why we take the time to get involved in conversations like this. MIF and Not Part Of together can grow into a balanced festival experience that Manchester can be proud of. Because, like you, we believe that balance is important.
Hope to see you at some Not Part Of events.

Billy PartridgeJuly 3rd 2011.

I am proud to work for Manchester International Festival and also proud to say that all my opinions expressed here are my own.

This city is so amazing and I've lived here for 12 years, bringing with me an interest in the arts and culture which I've had since I was at school. I've been to the Edinburgh Festivals and visited arts venues around the country and had many amazing experiences through work created by artists. With 8 years of theatre work behind me I have seen a LOT of shows. But nothing can compare to the MIF buzz and excitement that comes with the knowledge that you're part of something really special, something that means so much to you, something that connects you to the people around you and the artists creating this work.

I cried tonight because I felt a connection to something beautiful, last night I felt something absolutely wonderful, the night before, magical and before that, simply inspirational. All of these emotions that buoy up the city and make people feel alive for the 3 weeks that the Festival is on, and for all the many people that work on the Festival, the many many weeks beforehand make it all worthwhile. I look around at our audiences and see so many smiling faces.

Bringing quality arts programming to the city and international visitors to the region is certainly one of the aims of the Festival but making it accessible to all surely must be one of the most important ones. Whether it's introducing children to how music works or telling stories on a train platform, making that connection with people is key to the Festival's existence.

But why should we have everything for free? With the rise of music piracy and the influx of the American complaint culture, us Brits (and Mancs) are becoming more savvy about what we can get away with and are entitled to, but if you want something good, you ought to pay for it, surely. Many arena gigs now top £100 and if I can get to see a world class musician for less than £20 (or free!) I'm a happy bunny.

But in base terms it's about having fun. If you enjoy something and it makes you happy then that's the most important thing. Whether it's being in a live Doctor Who episode, catching the latest theatre outing for Damon Albarn or an intimate gig from your favourite artist, if you leave with a smile on your face then the Festival is doing it's job properly. It's for me, that's for sure, and there'll be something in there that's for you too.

1 Response: Reply To This...
PaulJuly 5th 2011.

And the beer? I couldn't drink the fizz that you offered up in Festival Square so had to go elsewhere.

PaulJuly 4th 2011.

Manchester International Fesitval? I was in the Festival Square at the weekend and the only beer on offer was Coors and Worthingtons. How very international. I understand it's not an international food festival, but come on.

Prince PhilipJuly 4th 2011.

I agree, the beer is a disgrace! A slap on Heathcote's wrists?

Paul DohertyJuly 5th 2011.

Paul - maybe you should check out the Beer Festival at Port Street Beer House instead/as well?

second city middle classJuly 14th 2011.

Answer: for the likes who watch the Culture Show. Got a problem with that?

Christine KilbyJuly 24th 2011.

Another successful MIF. Victoria Wood's play was in a class of its own but in a lousy venue. The Opera House is scruffy and unwelcoming, not a patch on RX. Johnny Vegas' new play was also a treat but after the show the pavillion area was a disappointment. When the sun shone there was little to do apart from buy a Guardian, a MIF banner bag, lousy wine or mediocre food. MIF needs to make more use of the wonderful outdoor spaces around the events. Still love it though!

AnonymousAugust 8th 2011.

The author of the article misses the point that there were free events and tickets on offer at a range of prices. In my view, the programming itself was creative and wide ranging from Snoop Dog, Die Walkure and 11 Rooms to Mor Karbasi, Marina Abramovich and Alina Ibragimova. MIF is outstanding, innovative and extremely accessible. Alex Poots and his team can be extremely proud of the end result.

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