Confidentials chats with Dean Freeman ahead of the final festival in this month.
10 June 2023 will see the last of a long line up of grassroots talent grace Wakefield’s stages. We chatted to founder, Dean Freeman, about his influences and memories of a beloved era.
You may know Wakefield for its collection of Barbara Hepworth’s abstract Modernist sculptures, or the annual celebration of rhubarb painting the cathedral quarter pink over one weekend in February, but for the past twelve years it’s been the cultural hub of one of the most cherished DIY music festivals in the country.
Long Division Festival began back in 2011 when guitarist Dean Freeman drew one thousand pounds from his NHS pension to kickstart a grassroot event celebrating the best of local talent. I wonder if the child growing up in Wakey, listening to politically charged alt rock in his bedroom could have imagined he’d be booking the likes of The Fall, The Cribs and Billy Bragg when he grew up.
“The idea was to find a means to champion what was happening in Wakefield, but no one ever travelled to Wakefield for live music, not in huge numbers anyway. So it was a way to trick them to visit and then change their view of things,” Dean confessed wryly. The tactic has clearly worked, with much of the audience now travelling from the shining lights of Leeds, and across West Yorkshire. Thanks to a solid partnership withcommunications agency, the Festival has received national notoriety with press coverage from The Guardian, NME, Q Magazine, and Under The Radar.
But under the radar Long Division certainly has been. There is a cooperative, community spirit that Dean has been conscious of retaining, despite the big name acts on the bill. “Over time, it became about trying to professionalise the DIY ethos, to take that core thing of running a zine for the fun of it and putting on gigs for kicks, and turn it into something that was sustainable and could have a greater impact for those bands and for the city. The battle was trying not to compromise too much,” he admitted.
After a difficult decision to bring the event to a close this year, 2023 may be the last time you can snaffle a flapjack baked by Dean’s mum at the Box Office, before catching cult Scottish indie outfit Arab Strap at the Theatre Royal, or funked up avant-garde Afrofuturist Skinny Pelembe at Unity Major Hall. The eclectic line-up is spilt across nine venues, which at the most are a mere twelve minute’s walk apart.
“A city centre festival wasn't an original idea, but as someone who only really did musical things in Wakefield, it was the obvious lack of anything in the city that celebrated the then-thriving scene. So the inspiration was kind of the void really,” Dean added. Since then, Long Division has toed the line between attracting mainstream attention, and managing not to grow beyond its means.
From a Festival purely ran in Dean’s spare time, Long Division now employs three further staff members, alongside an influential Board of Directors tapped into various cultural networks across the region. “We evolved to find ways to make that pure passion sustainable and rewarding and to be more about finding the next generation to take things on from us,” Dean remarked. “I think that genuine desire sets us apart. A lot of organisations now reckon they are in the game of grassroots development…but the people at the top never seem to stand aside. We tried to evolve to a point where we could disappear completely.”
A well-supported programme of youth music projects and education activities have been key component of Long Division’s ethos, ensuring a foundation for future talent in Wakefield. Over the last few years, the inspiring #YoungTeam have curated, booked and teched their own stage, attended songwriting workshops and musical masterclasses, collaborated with record labels, and secured paid roles within the industry. Thankfully this strand of Long Division will continue after the curtain closes on this year’s festival.
I asked Dean whether he had any stand out moments of memories from previous editions. “Asian Dub Foundation was a personal highlight as were the Live Album Recording shows, especially Post War Glamour Girls,” he recalled. “There are moments when a local band is playing to a full room in a venue they'd never usually play in that stick with me. I have this belief that the best music in the world right now is on some kid’s hard drive or on some YouTube channel that no one has seen. As soon as most music touches the industry, it's spoilt. I kind of hope the stand out moments of Long Division are the same; the best ones are great moments between friends, or between bands and fans that no one filmed or photographed. They just exist in some unknown place, but overall contributed to some greater good.”
To create a few final memories of your own at Long Division, be sure to grab afast, as June 10th is set to sell out already.
Follow Sarah Cotterill on Twitter at @scottnodot
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