This September, for a whole weekend, the streets of Stroud will take on a different quality. Among the usual locals and Cotswolds-visitors will be a more niche type of tourist – one that’s interested in discovering the less-trodden tracks of Stroud, and who has a keen ear for cutting-edge contemporary classical and avant-garde music.
Across the 23rd and 24th September, the third edition of Hidden Notes festival – organised by the minds behind Stroud-based culture magazine Good On Paper – will fill venues across the town once more. It’s set to be an incredible few days of truly unique music line-ups, which include Mercury Music Prize and Emmy-nominated composer, and BBC Radio 3 broadcaster, Hannah Peel, as well as legendary Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada among many, many others.
We are quite literally scratching the surface here 👆. So without further ado, let’s get stuck into our recent chat with Alex Hobbis – one half of the founding pair of Hidden Notes. Read on to learn all about this pioneering festival, and the beautiful – often surprising – town that it calls home.
Ticket Tailor: Take us back to the beginning… How did Hidden Notes first come about; what was the inspiration behind it?
Alex: Prior to Hidden Notes we had worked with local festivals as part of our other project Good On Paper – a free local monthly arts and culture magazine. We worked on producing the festivals’ programmes, but also put on our own screenings including Anton Corbijn’s biographical film about Ian Curtis from Joy Division, followed by a Q&A with Craig Parkinson. We ran our own stages too, bringing the likes of Rival Consoles, Manu Delago, Mira Calix and Douglas Dare (to name just a few!) to Stroud.
After delving further into the contemporary classical/avant garde music scene, we felt that it seemed underrepresented and rarely programmed in the same way as other UK festivals with a multitude of artists programmed back to back. So we decided to do just that, but also in a less formalised format than a traditional classical setting.
We also wanted to enable the artists to come and perform new works and collaborations on a lineup with musicians they may have previously crossed paths with, in front of a smaller but super appreciative and highly engaged audience.
We started to gain a rapport with some amazing independent labels – such as Erased Tapes, Bedroom Community and FatCat Records modern classical imprint 130701. We made it our mission to follow these – keeping abreast of their current roster and forthcoming releases.
Ticket Tailor: Hidden Notes takes place across Stroud – tell us a bit about what makes this the perfect backdrop for your festival?
Alex: When Stroud is featured in the Guardian or the Telegraph, the articles always mention the Stroud Farmers Market, Woodruffs (Britain's first organic cafe), the Made In Stroud shop… gong bashing and chakra searching. And yeah all that stuff exists, but Stroud is much more than that!
It’s a really unique place – ugly in parts, beautiful in most. More Brighton in terms of its arts scene than the rest of the Cotswolds… A place dwelled by activists, artists, musicians, poets, film makers. A community of like-minded souls willing to work together to create new possibilities. As well as the music we want our audiences to come and experience a different kind of place than major suburban cities. The way you might book an airbnb to fully immerse yourself in the culture of a destination rather than a lifeless premier inn which could be anywhere. Stroud is the perfect place for Hidden Notes.
What else to say about Stroud… You’ll find Damien Hirst's gigantic secretive studio nestled in between a supermarket and hardware superstore and, in Chalford sits Pangolin – a world-renowned sculpture forge used by the likes of Hirst and Anthony Gormley. Stroud has its own brewery producing organic ales, three independent record shops (Sound Records, Klang Tone Records and Trading Post). And venues like the Stroud Valley Artspace, the Prince Albert and the Sub Rooms continually bring artists and musicians to the area.
As well as Hidden Notes, the festival calendar is pretty busy with the Stroud Film Festival, SITE Festival Open Studios, Jazz Stroud, Stroud Book Festival and many more taking place each year. Until recently it also housed the largest indoor skatepark in Europe. The nature that surrounds it is pretty breathtaking too, and one of the reasons we all moved here. But again it's even much more than that. It continues time and again to punch way above its weight and there's an amazing community here. It's pretty difficult to describe to be honest so you'll just have to come and experience it for yourself...!
Ticket Tailor: We will definitely be doing that! So, how did things develop from the early stages of Hidden Notes? Major milestones and challenges?
Alex: I guess initially the first hurdle was to try and convey our idea to the artists and booking agents. But it seems they all entertained the idea of swapping major concert halls in bigger cities to a church in the middle of nowhere… Also knowing that we produce our own listings magazine, they had trust that we would market it well and it wasn’t necessarily a jump in the dark. Our venue, St Laurence Church, is a beautiful space but a bit rough around the edges and very much a pop-up venue. So we have to bring in the whole sound system, staging, lighting and a bar.
But again luckily for us we work closely with d&b Audiotechnik, who have a base in Stroud. Plus, our friend Craig Lewis who has his own lighting company, Moving Lights, and our very own Stroud Brewery down the road! But it’s a time consuming task – we still do Hidden Notes (and Good On Paper) in our spare time outside of our 9 to 5’s and fatherhood duties without any external funding. It’s a small team – I book the programme, the venues and work on the PR and marketing. Adam Hinks designs everything from the branding, posters, and website to our decor. We also have our friend Daniel Inzani who has joined Hidden Notes (the festival and our record label) as the stage manager for the main concerts in the church – he’s our tech guru!
Another early challenge was getting an actual audience for our very new and niche festival. I felt like I had the “If you build it, they will come” quote from Field Of Dreams constantly whispering in my ears as we were planning it all – but it’s not as simple as that in the non-1989 Hollywood Kevin Costner world.
We worked very hard on our branding and building an audience both locally and further afield. The first festival didn’t sell out but the feedback was extremely encouraging both from the people who came and the artists who played.
Of course, our main challenge since the first festival in 2019 was the pandemic. It did feel like it stopped our momentum and we had to make the difficult decision to reschedule the second outing of the festival not once but twice. But in the meantime we thought about other ways to engage with our audience, embarking on various other projects including hosting our own Hidden Notes programme on DeepBed Radio (listening back I sound like a Gloucestershire Alan Partridge…) and the Record Shop Sessions with our regular collaborators, the Stroud based independent record shop Sound Records.
We also launched our own label Hidden Notes Records, releasing the second album by contemporary chamber quartet Spindle Ensemble (which made it on the 10 best contemporary albums of 2021 in the Guardian!). We also released an EP by ondes Martenot player, composer and producer JoshSemans (a full length album will be out on vinyl in September), and Volume 1 and 2 of the award winning podcast, Excuse the Mess as limited edition books and album downloads.
We put on a screening of Sisters With Transistors, too, which was followed by a Q&A with the film’s director Lisa Rovner, chaired by Edith Bowman, as part of the Stroud Film Festival in 2022. From a non-sold out, financially draining festival in 2019, the re-scheduled Hidden Notes Volume 2 finally took place in 2022. It sold out and managed to pull an audience from across the UK but also from as far away as Poland, Spain, Germany, Japan and America. So I guess the “If you build it, they will come” quote is applicable to Hidden Notes in some ways. It just took a while.
Ticket Tailor: Your line-ups are incredible. What goes into curating them?
Alex: We keep in regular contact with a bunch of record labels and booking agents which we started working closely with back in 2019, and new ones along the way. It goes without saying we listen to A LOT of new music to make new discoveries…
It’s also worth saying that Hidden Notes is very carefully curated. Although most of the artists appearing at the festival may find themselves filed together under ‘modern classical/post classical/contemporary classical/avant garde soundtrack’ in a record shop, they are hugely varied from one another in terms of their style, instrumentation, inspiration and backgrounds. We ensure that we don’t have too many performers on the same instrument back to back – the variation in instrumentation is quite a big one for us! This year we have everything from a seven-piece electric drone choir and ondes Martenot to Scottish smallpipes and a brand new piano invention…
Ticket Tailor: Sounds brilliant. Tell us a bit about the logistics of putting on a multi-venue festival…
Alex: Luckily, there are some great venues in Stroud – and we’re close friends with most of them having worked with them continually over the years with Good On Paper. There’s a lot of running around in between venues for us during the weekend (probably because we’re a bit rubbish at delegating), but all the venues we work with are amazing. Apart from the main concerts in the church and the installation at the SVA Goods Shed most of our other events are fairly simple to set up and run.
Ticket Tailor: What people can expect from the upcoming Hidden Notes vo.3?
Alex: The main concerts in St Laurence Church include a headline set on the Saturday by Mercury Music Prize and Emmy-nominated composer, and BBC Radio 3 broadcaster Hannah Peel. She’ll be performing her acclaimed album Fir Wave. Closing the festival on the Sunday for an extremely rare UK performance will be none other than the legendary Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada. Other artists performing in the church include NYX, Manchester Collective, Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres, Akusmi, Brighde Chaimbeul, Fran & Flora, Sarah Nicolls and Josh Semans.
After these concerts people can head on over to Lates [At} HN – late night DJ sessions at SVA John Street. These will feature Tom Ravenscroft, Stone Club, Xanthe Fuller and Excuse the Mess. We also have book talks with authors Kate Molleson and Leah Broad, and a screening of Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes followed by a Q&A with the film's writer, director and lead role performer Caroline Catz.
This year’s Hidden Notes will also be celebrating the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto with a screening of Stephen Nomura Schible’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA. The Resident Artists for this year will be none other than the legendary all female Morris Dancing troupe Boss Morris. And we also have Particle Shrine; a generative, physics-driven installation where light and sound is controlled by live data from five cosmic ray detectors and a neutrino observatory in Japan…And we have a few more things up our sleeve to announce soon…
Ticket Tailor: Sounds beyond impressive! Now let’s talk ticketing… How does that all work for Hidden Notes?
Alex: Ticket holders head to the box office (which is open all day), get their tickets scanned and collect their Saturday, Sunday or Weekend wristband. This allows them entry to all the events at the festival. Some of the extra events such as the film screenings and book talks, which take place in the mornings, are limited capacity/first come first served (for the earlyish risers!). But we are announcing other events soon, so there will be quite a lot to choose from…
The exhibitions and installations are on all day during the weekend into the evening allowing entry for all ticket holders. The main concerts in the church cater for every single ticket holder at the same time.
Ticket Tailor: What made you decide to choose Ticket Tailor as your ticketing partner? Are there any features that have been particularly useful?
Alex: We used to use Picatic for Good On Paper events prior to Hidden Notes but they were eventually acquired by Eventbrite, so we decided to shop around for a different platform. Following a bit of research we came across Ticket Tailor. We’re a small independent festival and it’s important for us to work with ticketing companies who have similar values to our own. Ticket Tailor is a B Corp and 100% independent which in this day and age of big evil ticketing corporations is a big tick for us.
It’s a super easy platform to use (for someone not very tech savvy such as myself!), and was especially helpful during COVID when we had to postpone our festival not once but twice. Ticket Tailor made it easy to offer ticket holders the opportunity of a full refund, or to just roll on to the following year.
Keeping our ticket holders regularly informed was very important for us at that time and also now – informing them of lineup additions, schedule announcements, for example – and the Broadcast function is brilliant for this. When our festival had to be postponed twice we ran out of Broadcasts – but following a quick message in the Ticket Tailor chat box with a customer service agent they understood the situation and added more Broadcasts to the event.
Also, since last year’s festival sold out, the Waitlist feature has been incredibly useful. We have since recommended Ticket Tailor to other local promoters and festivals who have taken it up and are equally impressed with its functionality and super quick customer service. With Hidden Notes being a part time project, it’s imperative that the ticketing system we use is easy and quick to use.
There are a lot of other options and functions we haven’t even tried yet such as Memberships. Maybe if we find a little time somewhere we will have a little delve into that one…
Ticket Tailor: That’s amazing to hear! Do you find selling weekend tickets and day tickets is a good strategy for you?
Alex: Yes – our weekend tickets are definitely more popular, as we have a UK-wide and worldwide audience who are keen to experience the whole weekend of events. But we do realise that not everyone can afford a weekend ticket or can’t make both days so, as with most other festivals an option of day tickets is essential and is always offered.
Ticket Tailor: Have any of the logistics around ticketing proven particularly challenging?
Alex: Since COVID, venue hire, equipment hire, artists fees, insurance and pretty much the cost of everything has gone up. This has meant that we had to put our prices up slightly from 2019 and the twice rescheduled 2022, but not by too much as we want to be able to provide a festival that’s manageable for people from all backgrounds. We also recognise that it’s not just the ticket price but accommodation and travel that many of our audience have to consider. We try to make Hidden Notes as accessible as possible. One of the main ways we can do that is through the level we set our ticket prices at.
Ticket Tailor: How do you market Hidden Notes?
Alex: We’re lucky that we run our own arts magazine that we can use to reach a local audience – but it’s been very important for us from the very start to also focus on a much wider audience. We recognise that this little festival of ours is very niche! We of course use social media platforms and we have built up a big old list of press contacts from the national press, music websites and blogs and radio stations. Being able to easily connect with previous Hidden Notes festival attendees and waitlist sign ups via Ticket Tailor has also been massively useful.
Ticket Tailor: Do you have any words of advice to anyone thinking about starting their own multi-venue festival?
Alex: Involve your local community and venues in your ideas and ambitions from the offset. And start small! See if there’s an audience for your offering… and if there is? Grow the festival as the audience and the community you have created grows. Reach out to other multi-venue festivals in other places for advice.
Don’t leave your 9 to 5 job just yet (we haven’t managed to leave ours yet…But maybe one day…)
Ticket Tailor: Very solid advice! Finally, what does the future hold for Hidden Notes?
Alex: We’re continuing to release records via our in-house label Hidden Notes Records with the next release being the second album by Josh Semans on limited edition vinyl. Together with one of our local venues, the Sub Rooms, we are bringing the legendary John Cale to Stroud for a sold out show in August. As for the festival? We have some big, exciting plans in the works but we’re not quite ready to share them just yet…
Ticket Tailor: *Very* intriguing! We can’t wait to find out all about them. Thanks Alex, for taking the time to chat to us!
To book your tickets for Hidden Notes 2023, head here >
And to find out how Ticket Tailor can help you make a success out of your own festival with the brilliant features mentioned by Alex 👆(plus many more), just head here >