'It's nice to go bonkers in a field': The Green Man music festival's founder is teaching the world to rock

Fiona Stewart has been able to secure major headline acts without being able to offer the huge fees which they can command at other events

"When I first became involved in festivals they were counter-cultural events and sometimes even illegal," recalls Fiona Stewart, founder of the Green Man event in Wales and one of the few women to own and manage a festival outright. Now the Government is tapping her expertise to "sell" the British festival experience to Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Set amid the Brecon Beacons National Park, Green Man attracts 20,000 fans each August to a family-friendly event which champions the best alternative music in an atmosphere free from the corporate sponsorship that blights a crowded festival marketplace.

A pioneer of the "boutique festival", Ms Stewart, a former punk rocker who became skilled in persuading sceptical rural communities that a rock festival is just what the local economy needs, will receive the Outstanding Contribution honour at the UK Festival Awards in London tomorrow night.

Ms Stewart, 53, produced Wales's contemporary music programme for the Cultural Olympiad London 2012 Festival and has persuaded artists including Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and Robert Plant to play at Green Man, without being able to offer headliners the huge fees which they can command at other festivals.

Hired as a consultant to the British Council and the Foreign Office, she has visited China, where she helped stage an Elton John concert in Shanghai, as well as India, Brazil and Serbia to assess the potential for staging UK-style music festivals in emerging markets.

UK music helps deliver what Foreign Office diplomats call "soft power". "People are aware of how our festival scene has exploded over the past decade. Britain is very good at using music to connect with countries which don't like us very much – such as Serbia," Ms Stewart says. She adds: "When a big artist is going to somewhere like China they want to know they are not going to get involved in something that will cause an international incident. They want to know that production standards are high and the staging won't be dangerous. China is developing fast. When I first went, you couldn't get fencing. The Red Guards acted as the fence."

Green Man, which evolved from a 300-capacity event and is now planning for its 12th year, could itself become an export. "I would definitely consider taking the event to China, India or Brazil," Ms Stewart says.

A former manager of the Big Chill Festival, she began applying her negotiating skills to gain permission for festivals on UK parks and country estates, even winning licences to run two events during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Green Man is now so entrenched as a tourism attraction that tickets are being sold as a seven-day Settler's Pass, combining the festival with a horse-riding and trekking holiday.

However, the festivals market has contracted, with too many events chasing a limited pool of headliners. Green Man boasts 10 entertainment arenas, but Ms Stewart will continue to restrict capacity to a manageable size and resist corporate sponsorship. "It's challenging, but it's important for us not to go down that route. It's nice to have a festival... where people can just go bonkers in a field."

With Emily Eavis taking over the Glastonbury reins from her father, Michael, Fiona Stewart is not the sole female festival director. Has she ever encountered sexism? "Of course, but mainly in the early days. I had to book circus tents which I didn't know the first thing about. It's a tough business and you have to deliver."

She would like to see more female headline acts to follow Green Man favourites Patti Smith and harpist Joanna Newsom. "But we'll book anyone as long as they are good. Green Man is a discerning audience and... it's one of the few proper showcases for up and coming acts."

Stewart wants to use the platform of her award to call for one change to benefit festival-goers. "It's almost become too easy to... get a festival licence," she says. "There should be regulations to ensure a festival organiser has the money to pay for the event in case it goes under."

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