Crowds at this year’s Readipop festival. Image: Charlie Woodward
The Reading festival of 1998 was a different time to the one which this summer saw Big Issue cover stars Arctic Monkeys return to UK stage.
Not only were CDs still the format of choice, but New Order, the Beastie Boys, the Prodigy, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had all entertained crowds, who on the Sunday night flocked out having just watched a headline set from Garbage.
Outside, armed with some of his 10,000 newly-made CDs was Gavin Lombos, trying to catch the eye of revellers and thrust a disc into their arm to let them know about the music being made in Reading.
Fast forward to the current day, and Readipop might be best known as a 5,000 capacity three-day festival in the city, playing host to Badly Drawn Boy and Grandmaster Flash. That’s not all it does.
After the CDs, Lombos – a guitarist and beatmaker who was in a band called Chocolate Starship at the time – and friends turned to community projects, getting funding and building. Readipop’s work now supports vulnerable young people and adults in Reading, raising their skills and confidence through music.
Young people might get referred through a pupil referral unit, youth offending service, or a mental health service. Given the chance, people often written off elsewhere quickly reveal a passion.
“All you know about them to start with is the kind of negative stories, the trouble they’ve got into, the problems they’ve had,” Lombos says. “But quite often they’ll rock up and they’ve got this book of lyrics they’ve been secretly writing for the last two years that nobody knows about.”
Readipop’s team of musicians will work with these young people, getting them ready to perform, building up their strengths and giving them an insight into the tricks of the trade. It takes time, but it’s transformative, says Lombos: “For some, it’s months of them not showing up, or coming occasionally before we find that spark or that moment where they engage with us.
“What we find is that young people who don’t show up to school or don’t engage with other things, they do show up. They don’t want to leave.”
The quality of what is produced, Lombos adds, matches what can be found elsewhere. And the results of the work are plain to see – from 2018 to 2022, Readipop helped over 3,500 young people.
“That’s the most meaningful stuff for us,” Lombos says.
Amid some uncertainty during the pandemic, money from Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of the Big Issue, helped Readipop secure a permanent base.
It moved into its new premises in 2021 – providing a long-term base with running costs a quarter of the previous building.
“We’re able to do more, we’re able to do it better. In terms of the festival and other activities, we’ve got scope to be more bold because financially we’re more secure,” Lombos says.
It’s at the festival that young people working with Readipop get the opportunity to share a bill with household names.
In 2016, Lombos and co launched their own festival: Readipop. This year was its fifth – it went well but not without hiccups. Headliners the Sugarhill Gang pulled out three days before the festival, but in a “fortuitous chain of events” Grandmaster Flash stepped in – the festival’s original choice for a headliner.
On the second stage, young people involved with Readiop’s Access All Areas scheme took over.
“It was the first time we were really able to present the work of the young people we work with alongside these world renowned artists,” Lombos says.
“They had trepidation about performing but when it came to it they all performed and had an amazing time.
“Those are the amazing moments that are going to make a difference to those young people’s confidence and how they feel about their lives. Hopefully those are the little turning points for people. That’s why we do it through music.”
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.