Finding the rhythm: RNV founder Hamish Pinkham on 15 years in the festival business

Hip-hop artists requesting non-existent five-star hotels in Gisborne, pie and petrol shortages, sound systems falling off cliffs in the gorge - there's never a dull moment in the music festival business. As Rhythm and Vines has just been sold to global entertainment behemoth Live Nation, we're republishing this piece from last year where co-founder and creative director Hamish Pinkham talks us through the wild ride of 15 years at the helm of New Zealand's award-winning New Years festival. 

Update: Rhythm and Vines has sold a controlling stake to the world's biggest live entertainment company, Live Nation, for an undisclosed sum. Co-founder Hamish Pinkham told RNZ: "It's been a long time coming," he said, "working on a partnership with a global player like Live Nation. It just means for us that we can keep the festival sustainable and keep operating at a world-class level, into the future". 

Pinkham told RNZ festival-goers "wouldn't notice many changes, but that the systems, production, technology, and ticketing would be "tidied up", the management team will stay the same and it would be looking to tap into the access to talent.  

Live Nation also has a controlling stake in Spark Arena and launched Auckland City Limits. 

Original story, August 16, 2017: If you were born in the ‘80s or ‘90s, chances are you'll have some hazy memories of one of New Zealand’s longest running music festivals, Rhythm and Vines.

It's viewed by many of the younger attendees as a rite of passage between those last lingering years of youth and the transition into the adult world.

For the older crowd in attendance, it’s three days of escapism and nostalgia spent ringing in the New Year with friends in an isolated corner of Aotearoa.

Each December, tens of thousands of Kiwis jump in a car with their mates and embark on the long, winding journey to the beautiful Waiohika Estate, the sprawling vineyard where Rhythm and Vines is held.

They then spend three days alternating between sunning themselves on Gisborne’s Wainui beach, cleaning the local shops out of pies and Powerades and dancing amongst the vines at the festival grounds itself, where it’s boasted that attendees will be one of the first in the world to see the sunrise in the New Year.

But behind the romanticism of the glittering Rhythm and Vines experience is a tried, tested and honed business model that’s been 15 years in the making, led by founder and creative director Hamish Pinkham.

And he’s the first to admit it’s been no easy ride to get it to where it is today.

Just three years ago, Rhythm and Vines very nearly suffered the same fate as other New Zealand music festivals like Big Day Out that have come and gone before it.

But as Pinkham says – and this year’s ticket sales back up – the festival’s glory days are far from over.

“We’re in a position now where we've nearly half-sold the [2017] festival before the bands are even booked,” he says.

“People are buying into the experience, which shows it’s not just about the artists anymore."

Gallery Image
Rhythm and Vines' first ever poster.

A party in the vines

The idea for Rhythm and Vines was first sparked in 2003, when University of Otago students Hamish Pinkham, Andrew Witters and Tom Gibson were scouting for a location to hold an epic end-of-year party for their friends.

Witters’ father Dean Witters was the owner of the Waiohika Estate, a 6.7 hectare vineyard in Gisborne.

The vineyard was undoubtedly beautiful, with lush landscapes and rolling valleys. But the biggest drawcard of the property was the natural amphitheatre that had been crafted to attract concerts to the region.

 The boys were convinced it was the ideal location, but they had to convince Dean Witters to host a party in his vineyard first.

“Andrew’s dad is not shy of turning down a good idea. We sold him on the premise we’d help sell some of his wine at the event,” Pinkham says.

“He’d built the ampitheatre for a reason, so when we told him the idea of Rhythm and Vines, he’s a very entrepreneurial person who saw our vision and helped mentor us and provide some start-up capital.”

The trio set a budget, hired some local acts and Rhythm and Vines was born.

The first Rhythm and Vines was held on 31 December 2003 and was a successful debut, with almost 2000 people in attendance, made up by a mixture of locals, friends and family.

Pinkham says what originally begun as a gathering of mates showed potential for something a lot bigger.

“I think after the first year seeing 1800 friends under the blue Gisborne sky, it gave us the confidence and inspiration to try grow. I knew if we wanted to get bigger artists we’d need more tickets and a bigger budget,” he said.

Luckily, we had a good couple of years: Great weather, Kiwi music was on a bit of the high, there was a gap in the market for such an event. As a result, it grew and grew and we realised we could establish one of New Zealand’s premiere music events.

Finding the rhythm

The boys continued to work their day jobs while Rhythm and Vines scaled up in size.

By 2006, the festival had expanded to include an independently run beachside campground, four stages and an increased capacity for 15,000 people. It was also the first year that had international artists on the bill.

In 2008, the idea was put forward to turn a one-day event into a three-day event, with the timing making it easier to draw in international acts that were on the Australian touring circuit.

The festival had shaken off its humble beginnings and become something far more extravagant, with capacity at 25,000 people, six stages and over 120 acts featured on the line up, including well known international acts such as Franz Ferdinard and The Kooks.

With so many people pouring into the usually quiet seaside town of Gisborne, the city was not prepared. That year, it famously ran out of both petrol and pies.

But with the leap in scale came some tough lessons in business growth. Pinkham says the transition was a big backwards step for the company, as it’s estimated that the festival lost $500,000 due to budget blowouts.

“We spent a lot on artists, and little costs like jets and visas and hotels crept up. It took us a few years to get the model right,” Pinkham says.

“We capped our budgets - that year, 2008, we had an amazing line up. It was a bit too extravagant for the size we were at, and I think New Zealand was still catching on to the three-day model, so it took us a while to educate the market about what we were doing.”

The company tightened the money spent on event management and drove revenues through ticket sales, which tipped the scales back towards being more sustainable. 

Peaks and valleys

By 2010, Rhythm and Vines was riding on a high once more. The festival was back to selling out and there was enough pies and petrol on hand to supply the masses.

It also nabbed an award for the Best Festival/Event at the New Zealand Tourism Awards, while a study on the economic impacts of the event on the region found there was a $12 million cash injection over the New Year period directly attributed to Rhythm and Vines.

Pinkham says this also led to the locals taking the opportunity to be entrepreneurial, offering cell phone charging stations, showers, taxis to and from the event, surf tours, wine tours and Gisborne merchandise.

But 2014 proved to be the most challenging year yet, with just over half of the 30,000 tickets available for the event that year sold.

While the 18,000 in attendance at Rhythm and Vines rung in the New Year, a riot broke out at the beachside campground for the festival.

More than 60 people were arrested after 83 people were injured by flying debris, vehicles were overturned and tents were burned. The media swarmed over the incident and the attendees' behaviour, overshadowing any other coverage of what was an otherwise smoothly executed event.

Thanks to an injection of private equity funding to pay creditors, the festival managed to avoid collapse. Thirty percent was cut from the running costs and staff were slashed from eight to just two full-time staff: Hamish Pinkham and Rhythm Group chief executive Kieran Spillane.

Pinkham says the festival came closer to folding than he would’ve liked.

“It was really touch and go, we were in serious debt with creditors and we had to crawl out of a hole we created with overspending and expanding too fast,” he says.

“We believed in when we were heading, so it was about keeping the ship sailing straight and remembering why we were doing it.”

A new era

In 2015, Pinkham was determined to get back to the roots of what the festival was all about.

I think the concept had become a bit tired with the binge-drinking culture and the music. It had turned into a rave for 18-year-olds, and that was never the intention.

Organisers restructured the ticket model, getting rid of the offsite, five-day camping model and slashing the cost of a three-day ticket plus camping from $429 to around $230.

Pinkham said this brought Rhythm and Vines in line with the trend overseas of “boutique festivals” like Coachella or Lollapalooza, as huge festivals with big headliners were folding due to being harder to maintain.

Branding was overhauled, staff cuts were made and the entire structuring of the festival was reconfigured to give the festival a “refresh” and make it more aspirational.

“We didn’t want the riff-raff of the young binge drinking culture, so we got rid of BYO, we bought in more European style beer gardens which sell alcohol under our license to control and administer it a lot easier,” Pinkham says.

The music acts were brought back to be more on trend with Rhythm and Vine’s target audience, with hiphop and bass a key focus. As well as this, a comedy component called ‘Giggle and Vines’ was added.

The capacity for attendees was finely tuned to sit around 15,000, with 14,500 people showing up for 2015’s New Years celebrations at the festival.

Then in 2016, the festival found its groove. Rhythm and Vines’ ticket sales broke records, with the three-day festival pass selling out completely for the first time in December prior to the festival.

During the New Year’s celebrations, headliner Chance the Rapper, who won Best Rap Album and Best New Artist at the 2017 Grammy Awards, gushed about his love for New Zealand during his set, saying he wanted a “house with a pool, a German Shepherd, and a local boo”.

“I had an unforgettably good first time in New Zealand. I've decided I'll be moving here in the next 15 years, and bringing some black people,” he later tweeted.

Pinkham says delivering on talent that the punters want to see is all part of the strategy.

He says it’s also part of the reason why Rhythm and Vines now has breaking even down to a more attainable level, which has nearly been met with pre-sales alone in 2017 ticket sales, despite no artists being announced for this year’s festivities yet.

“People trust us to deliver a cutting-edge programme. It goes back to the recipe – it’s a great summer escape, a world-class event experience, and it’s on the bucket list to be the first in the world to experience the New Year at Rhythm and Vines,” Pinkham says.

With 2017 lined up to be the 15-year anniversary, the festival shows no signs of slowing down.

Pinkham says the event will be a celebration of past lineups with old friends returning, with one foot firmly in the future in terms of music trends.

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Though Pinkham trained as a lawyer, he says after his experience running Rhythm and Vines, he could never see himself in an office job again.

And although the challenges he faces in his job are anything but typical – such as explaining to rap artists that there’s no such thing as five-star accommodation in a town like Gisborne, or scrambling to find a plan B when a festival's sound system falls into a gorge – he thrives off it.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs, it’s not easy – you need balls of steel because the risk and reward is sometimes out of whack,” he says.  

“There’s a lot of work, a lot of personalities and egos, but it’s dynamic and creative and entrepreneurial and something I really believe in.”

He says running a music festival business reminds him of farming, as it’s seasonal: You start by sewing seeds through investing in artists, marketing and preparing the venue for the event, which you hope will yield a good crop at a later date.

“Once you’ve broken even it can be quite lucrative, but you need to get the recipe right year in and year out, pick the trends and lead the curve. That’s something we’ve been able to do with great success,” he says.

For those who have a crazy idea up their sleeve akin to hosting New Zealand's biggest New Year's event in a vineyard, Pinkham says give it a crack. 

There’s plenty of opportunities out there: dream big and have a good, passionate team behind you. The market here is ripe for opportunities, and if you get a good concept, people will back it and support you.

Despite the 15 years that have passed between the first festival in 2003, which had 2000 attendees, and the upcoming 2017 event, which is predicted to have 17,000 attendees, Pinkham says the vision from Rhythm and Vine's humble backyard beginnings remains the same.

“The bones of our vision still ring true – it’s a chance to get mates together and go on a pilgrimage to Gisborne for the New Year,” he says.

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