James O’Hara, co-founder Tramlines, owner Ambulo, Public, Picture House Social, Great Gatsby
When we came up with the idea ten years ago, we never intended Tramlines to be this big but it quickly spiralled into something else.
I was running The Bowery (RIP!) and Threads club night and co-founder Dave Healey was at the Harley and we just wanted to run a small live venue-based festival – something like Camden Crawl or Dot to Dot Festival, with four or five bands on.
I wanted Sheffield to have its own festival because music is our city’s biggest cultural export. I looked around at places like Manchester and thought why haven’t we got one? In terms of talent and artists Sheffield really should.
Initially it was an idea to give the bars a shot in the arm in the summer to get them through until the students came back. But the people we were talking to were getting really excited about it.
To build its profile I forced my friends to get involved! So Pete McKee creating the first poster, as well as Jon McClure (Reverend and the Makers), Matt Helders from Arctic Monkeys and Toddla T to help curate the festival.
Matt was back off tour and we met with the Council who were wanting to do a similar thing, planning a festival with a music element to it and the council gave us the green light which was brilliant and we have to thank Richard Eyre (Head of City Centre Management, CCTV, Markets and Events) in particular for that. He really has Sheffield’s interests at heart and was paramount in pushing for Tramlines. Considering he was being pitched to by two 25-year-old morons that was quite a brave thing to do!
Another person on the core team Timm Cleasby. I knew him from being the Monkeys’ tour manager and knew he’d be the perfect person to manage it. But again, going to him as a 25-year-old and asking him … he agreed! And I’m so thankful as he has been a real driving force combined with Sarah Nulty who was instrumental in the launch. Making Sarah festival director in 2013 was massive – being able to say to her, this is your job, you don’t have to work in a bar and try and do Tramlines on the side. Last year’s festival was obviously a very emotional one but a celebration as much as anything else, too. (Sarah sadly passed away aged 36 after a short illness last year).
At the end of the very first festival I sat down and just burst into tears – possibly through exhaustion! – but also through pride and love for Sheffield and how passionately people had taken ownership of Tramlines.
Of course, there are downsides to that ownership, too, because people have strong views on any new directions or developments and that can be tough. It was amazing that it was free to begin with but for the first seven years we didn’t make a penny, and there’s only so long you can expect 30 people to work for free – and artists to play for free. The music industry had changed a lot in that time, with record sales dropping and live music becoming more important – it’s bands’ bread and butter. The reality of that is we have to charge.
Devonshire Green had a capacity of 7,000. This year we’re looking at 35,000. When the main stage moved to Hillsborough that was the first time we could really look at it as a business and say this makes sense. Until then it had been held together by will power and people working for free, now it is sustainable.
I think Tramlines’ impact has been really positive. People visit the city from across the UK to attend, bars get to September and say ‘yes, I can pay my VAT bill!’ and there are bars that are open now because of Tramlines.
It’s become something that people are proud of and, while it has grown, I think compared to other festivals across the country, we still offer excellent value for money plus we still have that fringe element which spreads it out from just the city centre. Because of all the events happening it’s almost like a music version of Edinburgh festival. It’s an absolute beast!