Want my job? With Deb Shilling, Co-founder of Black Deer Festival

We talk to the Co-founder of Black Deer Festival about her job, her career, and the important advice she would give to anyone wanting to follow in her footsteps. 

Want my job? With Deb Shilling, Co-founder of Black Deer Festival

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Deb Shilling [pictured left], Co-founder of Black Deer Festival and Creative Director of entertee events. 

What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?

My business partner and I are responsible for the running of Black Deer Festival. [Gill Tee] overseas the site and build and I run all the comms - so that’s everything the public see - website, social platforms, newsletters, promotions, marketing and advertising. 

I tend to wake at around 6.30am and start the day by checking all the socials, ticket sales and emails. We have guests coming from all over the world so there’s often a lot to catch up on that’s come in overnight. I usually chat with Gill three or four times a day and the first call is often at around 8am. We have been known to have the first chat at five-ish - if emails start coming in from her then I know she’s up. It sounds ridiculous, but we honestly love what we do and spend so much time chatting and planning all the content of the festival.

We also have investors, so an important aspect of our work is ensuring that we are providing and reporting all relevant information to them, often budgeting, and ensuring we have adequate funds in place when required. 

My days are mostly spent meeting/chatting with partners, collaborators, our artist booker to discuss acts and working with my team to make sure we are on track and putting great content out there. I live in Dorset, by the sea, so I spend a lot of time travelling mostly to London and Kent where our offices are.  

What’s great about your job?

Building the vision is what’s great, everything we wanted Black Deer to be we’ve pretty much managed to achieve. That’s not just down to Gill and I - far from it - we have a great team of equally enthusiastic people around us who share our vision. It’s not like a real job. 

What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?

It’s not for the faint hearted, our first year was probably the most stressful year of my life, very little sleep, working 7 days a week, pounding the streets looking for investment, no time with my family owing to being away so much. Would I do it all again? Probably! 

What are the highlights of your career to date?

I have to say that pretty much all the jobs I’ve ever had have been enjoyable, if they weren’t I left them straight away, always living in trust that something better was around the corner. Eight years at Capital Radio was fantastic - that’s where Gill and I met! We worked with some fantastic people and had so much fun. 

Gill and I set Entertee up when we left Capital and put all our experience into our own business. I’ve worked for myself for 20 years now and have no regrets. Producing lots of great artists and creating lots of wonderful events has given me a great sense of achievement.

What was your career path into this job?  Have you also worked outside the arts?

Before I started at Capital, I trained and qualified as a nurse at St Thomas Hospital in London. I grew up pretty quickly experiencing life and death in the young and old. That training was one of the best things I ever did - it taught me so much about people. From nursing, I got a job selling pharmaceuticals and then went to Capital to sell advertising and sponsorship. There’s been other random ventures including artist agent, online gallery and running retreats. If it interests me I’ll have a go - what’s the worst that can happen has always been my mantra!

Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?

Getting Black Deer across the line this year was the biggest challenge I have ever faced.  There are so many factors that have to fall into place to deliver a success, many of which you have no control over.  It’s a high-risk business - at one point, with most artists booked in we had virtually lost our site due to a planning issue. The knock-on effects were enormous, lawyers were involved, a new venue had to be found, our site planner on hand to develop new drawings and liaise with licensing teams from a local authority we didn’t know.  We persevered, kept going and thankfully planning was granted at our original site. There are plenty more examples, but for me, having a business partner you can trust is key. A problem shared and strength in numbers etc.

Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?

Of course, festivals are now part of modern culture, people have so much choice available to them and the knock-on effect for the industry is having cash to fund your festival before your ticket sales really kick in - the risk is high unless you’re one of the big boys. So many independent festivals just can’t get off the ground because of this. Getting the funding in place and having a solid business plan is crucial. 

You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?

Stop messing around and get on with your work - qualifications are really important! I do have a mild sense of regret that I didn’t work harder at school and college. 

Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

Work hard on communication, I know I sound like an old person but having the ability to hold a conversation, look people in the eye and speak with confidence goes a long, long way.  You may be a whizz technically but to do what I do requires the ability to communicate - I’m not suggesting I’m brilliant at it but it’s a skill you should work hard to develop.  Enthusiasm and passion is infectious. People buy people.

Header Image Credit: Deb Shilling (left) & Gill Tee (right)


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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