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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 09/03/2021

We hear from Jane Spiers, Chief Executive of Aberdeen Performing Arts on how Granite Noir, the ‘criminally’ good festival, was successfully delivered online, and how they created a sense of place on the digital stage.

The festival was supported by Scotland’s Events Recovery Fund, Aberdeen City Council and Creative Scotland.

Image: Stuart McBride and Ian Rankin

Can you tell us a bit about the history and aims of Granite Noir? 

This was our fifth Granite Noir and we have been steadily building up a great following year on year. Last year, was our biggest yet with 60 events and 12,000 attendees. 

Granite Noir is inspired by our fascination with crime writing on the page and on the screen.  We are interested in the window into the world that crime fiction opens up and the opportunity to listen in on fascinating conversations on every topic under the sun.

Granite Noir is deeply rooted in place. Aberdeen itself is a big character. The festival is inspired by our stories, our history and heritage as well as being international in outlook. It is a destination festival with the aim of bringing visitors to the region and showcasing Aberdeen and the North East. Over the last five years our audiences and authors have established lasting connections with our city, our venues and our communities and post pandemic we can’t wait to welcome them back. 

As a northern city we have a particularly close connection with Nordic Noir and we are also about celebrating Scotland’s crime writers who themselves have a global reach. Our programme is always a diverse mix of Scottish and international authors, headliner and debut authors, unique commissions and interactive family activities – children’s authors, writing workshops, films, escape games.

We were delighted with the programme this year with so many standout events - Jo Nesbo, David Baldacci, Attica Locke, Camilla Lackberg, Peter May, our bold new voices panel with Femi Kayode, Saima Mir and Susie Yang and our unique collaboration with Val McDermid and the Backlisted podcast.

Image: Femi Kayode, Saima Mir and Susie Yang

Keeping Aberdeen and the essence of Granite Noir at the heart of your online event was a key ambition, how did you achieve this?

Aberdeen and the North East of Scotland is the perfect stage for Granite Noir and we were keen to retain the sense of place that is so intertwined with Granite Noir. This year we made full use of our digital format to promote the region over the weekend using stunning images of locations and landmarks and inviting our audiences to join us next year in Aberdeen. We commissioned a photography exhibition, North by North East, featuring iconic Granite Noir authors in iconic Aberdeen places.  Local and national press ran Granite Noir features and interviews raising the profile of Aberdeen and the North East.

We made sure that our programme included the stories, history and heritage of Aberdeen and the North East.  Our festival ambassador Stuart MacBride whose books are squarely located in the North East opened the festival. We welcomed journalist, broadcaster, podcaster and Aberdonian Isla Traquair to the festival for the first time.

Our partners, Aberdeen Library Service, Aberdeen City and Shire Archives and the Belmont Filmhouse contributed to programming. We delved into the Aberdeen City and Shire archives to bring our Criminal Portraits webinar, Aberdeen Library Service hosted a creative writing workshop and the Locked Door in Aberdeen ran an online escape game, “Murder at the Granite City Museum”.

As a northern city, we celebrated our special relationship with Nordic Noir, also steeped in place, and which has been a strong feature of Granite Noir from the outset. We were thrilled to welcome authors from Norway, Sweden and Iceland.

And finally, Granite Noir remained family friendly bringing authors and audiences of all ages together to share a love of books, reading and writing.

Huge thanks to Aberdeen City Council, Creative Scotland and EventScotland for supporting the festival this year. We wouldn’t be here without you.

What have been the biggest challenges and opportunities of delivering an online festival?

There was never any doubt there would be a Granite Noir 2021. Going digital is an exciting new format, the chance to stage things a little differently and to make new connections. It lets our audiences know we are still here for them and it is much more than just keeping the seat warm. We have been genuinely taken aback at the response.

We were without the warmth of a live audience this year but there is a different kind of home-to-home intimacy as we peer into living rooms from the comfort of our own.  We were keen to re-create the buzz of a live audience, the opportunity to interact with authors that is so popular with our audiences, so we opted to live stream rather than prerecording most events. 

The biggest positive difference for us was the opportunity to broaden our audience base. Online our reach knows no bounds. Over the festival weekend we had 14,000 views from 52 countries for 12 events and this has continued to rise through on-demand views.  We reached people who had previously been unable to attend due to distance or personal circumstances.  Our chat line during our live streamed events over the weekend was red hot. It was thrilling to see questions coming in live from up and down the UK and from Romania, Mexico, Brazil, Bangladesh, Portugal and South Africa.

In addition to our usual marketing reach, we also targeted a much wider geographical area and interests using digital ads. Making a date with an author live online is easier than live on stage so in our line-up this year we had authors from 9 different countries on 3 continents.

The challenges we faced were operating on a small, retained team with most of our workforce furloughed,  new technology, scheduling events in different time zones, increased competition for the digital space and everything arranged and co-ordinated remotely.

Did you make any changes to your normal programming? 

It was important to us to retain the spirit of Granite Noir and that meant sticking to our programming aims in the digital space. Our programme was smaller in scale but just as big in aspiration. We met standards of quality, diversity and attracted authors of critical and international acclaim.  Most of our events were BSL interpreted.  We invited people to donate rather than charge for events and we were really touched by the response.

We had the unique opportunity to broadcast live events with authors located in different countries answering questions from around the world as well as headline authors like Jo Nesbo who appeared at Granite Noir for the first time and secured our biggest contingent ever from the States – David Baldacci, Attica Locke, Susie Yang and Candice Gaines.

Staging a digital festival felt like the right moment to enter the world of the podcast for the first time with the Backlisted Boys podcast collaboration and our true crime podcast event  “Stranger than Fiction”, with Isla Traquair and Candice Gaines and we programmed a webinar for the first time, hosted by Phil Astley, Aberdeen City and Shire archivist.

A feature of Granite Noir has been our cross-art form approach and this year we missed not being able to incorporate live music and theatre into the programme but we commissioned a digital photography exhibition and our partners the Belmont Filmhouse recommended films for the weekend.

And lastly, do you have any practical tips or advice you’d like to share with organisers looking to deliver digital events in the current climate?                    

Yes – lots! Everyone in the team pulled together to make it happen and it was a great learning curve and opportunity to build team spirit. Some tips and advice would be:

    • Work with a company who are experts in delivering the technical support and seamless delivery to maintain high production values. It is well worth the investment.
    • Give technical briefs and instructions to all involved
    • Make sure your authors/artists are supported in the digital space – hold virtual rehearsals in advance.
    • Consider having a virtual Green Room for meeting and greeting
    • Be vigilant to block any spammers on popular Facebook live streams
    • Provide clear instructions on how to view
    • Have moderators for Q&As
    • Shout about free events, make it easy to donate
    • Continue to encourage audiences to watch, after the festival has finished
    • Consider blending digital events and live performance for the future

All events from Granite Noir 2021 are still available to watch here.