Sheffield Tramlines 2021: Chocolate covered strawberries, beer runs and other funny stories as organisers reveal what it's like behind the scenes
The promotional poster says Sheffield Music City. The illustrations are by Pete McKee. They show city favourites Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders, Toddler T and Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers.
It is Sheffield loud and proud - the first incarnation of what has become one of the city’s greatest success stories.
This is the first Tramlines in 2009, a free festival across 20 venues with four stages. Acts included Reverend and the Makers, The La’s and Pixie Lott.
Backed by the city council, Sheffield Music City was used as a brand to promote the event and Alan Deadman, a promoter with years of experience and events including the JuJu Club, was approached.
He roped in his son Alex to put on a DJ event at the former DQ bar in Fitzwilliam Street called Dub Step, his record label at that time.
Alex also helped dad with his stage at the Peace Gardens, playing music from around the globe as he’d done at the JuJu club in Crookes WMC.
Now 38, Alex recalls: “The main stage was on Devonshire Green and there was a deal with Hallam FM. Pixie Lott came from that, so did Olly Murs.”
Tramlines featured plenty more mainstream pop acts which didn’t always seem to fit with the independent feel of the festival.
The pop act choices were not made by people like Sarah Nulty, who was on the fringe of Tramlines in 2009 but went on to become festival director.
“Sarah was not about that, she was more leftfield, experimental, but the pop element did help to make us inclusive,” says Alex.
Sarah was part of a team connected to the Harley pub on Glossop Road who supported the first event. By 2011 she was playing a director role and learning the ropes before officially taking the post.
She got support from Kate Hewitt, who was head of marketing and chief booker, to make a formidable team, says Alex.
“For Sarah, no job was too small, she had an eye on every level of detail, she had really good instincts about getting everyone’s views. She was able to have that detailed overview and even as we got bigger she kept on top of it, stuff like crowd safety and event procedure.
“Sarah didn’t back down and she would dig her heels in, but she didn’t judge people.”
Sadly, she died in 2018 aged just 36 but the Sarah Nulty Foundation continues her work by helping people experience music in a way which works for them.
Alex remembers her positive approach. “In the early days when we had folk and blues stages there were lots of different types of people from different cultures with different egos. She was always respectful, not in her own bubble, she didn’t dictate.
“When she was no longer with us, we realised how much she glued us together.”
Alex ran a youth festival for Tramlines in 2010 and by 2011 was doing PR. The festival was gathering pace and after getting 35,000 people at the first event, the second almost doubled that.
Venues now included Sheffield University’s Octagon Centre, Tudor Square, The Leadmill, O2 Academy Sheffield and Winter Gardens.
It made Tramlines Europe’s largest free festival, a brilliant achievement which came against the odds.
Alex says: “The recession was hitting, the cuts were hitting, most councils were cutting any spending on the arts, so it was remarkable we made it happen in such a tricky time.
“It makes it more of an achievement. We do need to credit the council for that because there were forward thinking people there willing to help and they have been vindicated.”
The third event won 'Best Metropolitan Festival' at the UK Festival Awards. But Tramlines was also losing money. The prospect of charging for tickets began to loom.
Alex remembers it well. “The transition from free was painful because people had experienced so much for free.
“We knew the funding from the council was never going to be permanent, but they always offered lots of support, people like the city centre manager Richard Eyre.
“It was always a given that would reduce and in the early days sponsorship from Nokia made a significant contribution, but we never recouped our costs. It was the small local shareholders of the Tramlines Event Company who took the hit.”
This wasn’t sustainable and everyone knew it. Alex says: “We lived through tough times. We weren’t bringing in enough money so we had to adapt the model every year.”
In 2013, the decision was made to charge £6 for a day ticket.
“We had no option. Every year, we processed feedback from customers on what they wanted and the answer was always bigger acts. The cost of putting on a festival always goes up so you need more money to cover it. The council wasn’t a long-term solution, sponsorship had changed and Nokia couldn’t help, so we had to charge.”
And they did. By 2018, a weekend ticket was £79 and this year it hit £118. Tramlines has come a long way from the free model.
“For the first one, the headliner was a few thousand. When it came to Noel Gallagher, it went up significantly!”
Charging brought challenges. “The biggest challenge from being free to being ticketed was to make sure the customers knew what they were getting.”
And this was why they considered switching to one venue - Hillsborough Park.
“When we moved to Hillsborough, it became much neater. You buy a wrist band to get in and everything is in the same venue.
“It was so sad Sarah Nulty was not there to see it because she masterminded the move, had put in all the work.
It was a long way from 2009 as Alex remembers. “That came together so quickly, it was thrown together in a few months, but it was a moment when different people in the city worked towards something together.
“The council, the commercial people, the sponsors, everybody found each other and came together. It was a bit ramshackle but went relatively smoothly and created huge goodwill. “Venues were saying without us they couldn’t continue and that was the point, we wanted to help.”
His highlights include 2013. “I remember an unknown Catfish and the Bottlemen bringing down the house at Soyo.” They returned to headline in 2016.
Then there was 2014 and Sister Sledge. “My partner Laura had to make chocolate covered strawberries because it was on their rider.
“They weren’t big divas but that’s what they wanted and it is not an easy thing to find so Laura stayed up the night before the gig melting chocolate on strawberries. Sister Sledge were very appreciative!”
There has to be a drinking story and that comes from We Are Scientists, who played in 2017. “They are really into beer and we had a Tramlines ale which they liked so I began searching out exciting local brews. I was going backwards and forwards to the Devonshire Cat, my dad joined us, it was a party - good fun.”
His choice for best performance comes from 2015 when the event switched away from the city centre to the Ponderosa, between Upperthorpe and Netherthorpe. “De La Soul replaced Wu Tang Clan with 48 hours notice!
“They were really, really good. I know they’re professional, but to suddenly know you’ve got a gig in two days - you’d never have known, they were so energetic and positive.”
Which brings us to the last 12 months when Tramlines was cancelled in 2020 and acts pulled from this year’s show.
Ian Brown and Richard Ashcroft didn’t like the festival being chosen as part of the Government's series of test events and said no.
So Supergrass, The Streets and Royal Blood are the headliners.
“It was inevitable it would change. It’s different and hopefully will be brilliant,” says Alex.
“There was so much other stuff going on that when we announced we would postpone in 2020 it was not a big story, nobody was surprised.
“Then it was a case of what can we put out and I’m glad it was a fundraiser including a pub quiz hosted by Jon McClure and videos of performances. It was a ray of light.”
He’ll be there this weekend, showcasing his many talents as a DJ, who runs events, is a tutor for people with learning disabilities and does PR. “During Tramlines it all comes to a head, all my skills get used.”
Alex is a father-of-four and lives in Crookesmoor. His dad Alan, now 74, is still involved in music doing a show on Sheffield Live so the Deadman family tradition lives on.
And what does the future hold for Tramlines?
“I’m so happy the festival seems really stable,” says Alex. “We’ve got a model that works, we can do charitable work that improves the city.
“The new owners share that vision, they value Sheffield and understand the festival can’t exist without the city. That means a lot to me so I can stay motivated.”