Alternative Music Festivals
Although the big music festivals still dominate, August and September are when the more intimate festival experiences come out to play. Here’s what it takes to put them together – and why they’re worth going to.
For the past few months, Rob Da Bank’s handwritten planning sheets have been getting messier and messier. Unlike other operators, the BBC Radio 1 DJ and the man behind Bestival, the much-loved event on the Isle of Wight that goes down every September, prefers to plan his entire festival using pen and paper.
“My team keep on trying to persuade me to use spreadsheets, Excel and all this computer stuff,” says the DJ otherwise known as Robert Gorham (b.1973). “I just can’t get to grips with looking at a computer screen and bringing that to life in the same way. Even writing that down with a pencil and paper doesn’t make it much easier. I’m quite a disorganised planner; I book too many acts for the festivals. I get so overexcited and end up having to change times and a stage making it a bit higgledy-piggledy, but it works out in the end.”
He’s right to get excited, Bestival is consistently one of the many highlights of the end of the summer. Although a couple of really big names like V and Reading are still on the books, August and September are when things start to get interesting. This is the time of year when smaller festivals, which are increasingly called boutique festivals, start to spring up. These are festivals that cater to only a few thousand people (compared to upwards of 178,000 for Glastonbury, according to the NME) and which often feature bands that are overlooked by the big boys. In other words, these festivals are an entirely different experience.
Bestival is, in fact, rapidly becoming one of the heavyweights; strange when you consider that it’s barely seven-years-old. But despite its rapidly increasing numbers (50,000 will walk through the gates this year) Gorham is adamant that it’s not your typical festival. “Robin Hill Park on the Isle of Wight is a naturally-suited, slightly eccentric festival sight – not just a big flat playing field or one hill. It’s all over the place. People also feel liberated on the Isle of Wight because they’ve escaped the mainland. The magic and creativity of the crowd as well; all the people who come, a lot of them have been to Bestival before and are part of the family. You get this family vibe, which is word-of-mouth. A lot of festivals where they sell tickets purely on who they book, if they don’t book a good act they won’t sell out. With Bestival, people come for the show more than the bands.”
One of the better small festivals currently in operation is Green Man, located in Wales’ Brecon Beacons region. It’s capped at 10,000 people – tiny compared to many other festivals, but it has become known for giving opportunities to bands that the mainstream circuit ignores. Although their 2009 throw-down had Jarvis Cocker and Animal Collective headlining, they also found plenty of room for low-key acts like Andrew Bird and She Keeps Bees.
And then there’s the Big Chill, which takes over Eastnor Castle at the start of August. Although Big Chill certainly doesn’t skimp on the music side of things (M.I.A, Massive Attack and Lily Allen are all present and correct) it’s at the forefront of a growing trend in UK festivals: the desire to go beyond the musical aspect and add visual elements and unusual facilities to a festival to broaden its audience. This year the Big Chill is drafting artist, Spencer Tunick, to create a massive installation involving the festival crowd: he wants to create an enormous group of nude people, covered in body paint and set against the backdrop of the castle. If nothing else, it will be something to do between M.I.A and trips to the burger van. In addition, more and more festivals are catering to families as their core audiences get older. Gorham now puts on Camp Bestival, a slimmed-down version of the main event that goes off beforehand. “12,000 parents and 12,000 kids!” he chuckles.
But how is this all put together? Ultimately, the more things you add to the mix, the more work it takes to put it all together. Most festival organisers are more computer-savvy than Gorham, although they, like him, rely on a solid team to help see the thing through the planning stages. This is especially important for smaller festivals, which have smaller budgets and a lot more to prove. It’s something that Simon Taffe (b.1980) knows a lot about.
Taffe is the director of End Of The Road, so named because it happens at the back end of September, right before the UK hunkers down for the autumn. End Of The Road is among the newest kids on the festival block: it’s been around for barely five years, and Taffe still runs it as a sideline with his main job, a painting and decorating business. The festival, which takes place in the Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, is distinctly more folk-orientated than most: this year, Yo La Tengo and Wilco headline. And Taffe makes no bones about the work he puts into it.
“We’re thinking about headliners [for the next festival] even before the festival we’re working on starts,” he says. “I don’t book bands that are not playing other festivals. I book bands that I know and that I like. It’s usually trying to get the headliners [which is the biggest challenge], because they’re getting offered festivals all over the world. A band under a grand is easy to confirm, but bands that cost 20 or 30 grand are a lot more difficult to negotiate.”
But once he’d started it, Taffe found that there was a clamour for this kind of festival: “Last year we sold a couple of thousand tickets before we’d even announced the line-up – people had faith that we were going to pick bands that they liked.” Taffe says that although he likes the big festivals, he thinks they rely on what he terms a recycling audience. Reading, whose primary demographic is the under-25s, consistently tops up its audience levels with school leavers who, as Taffe says, are now permitted to go to Reading by their parents. And while Taffe doesn’t think that End Of The Road is immune to this kind of audience, he does think that it has a certain something that keeps pulling back punters – whatever their age.
“We have a lot of the same customers who come back,” he says, “and they’re probably going to come there with their kids as well. But we have to pull in young people too, and get bands to attract those young people.” Clearly, it’s working: festivals like End Of The Road and Green Man have just been getting bigger and bigger. Taffe says that for many audiences as well as bands, this time of the year is a “last hurrah” before a long break, and therefore, he says, there’s something extra-special about it.
“It’s always been quite intimate, and there’s only about five or six thousand people who go. The main stage is in these really cool gardens, so the sound is really good. The sound can go all over the place on a big field, especially if it’s windy. It was a struggle in the first year because we didn’t sell as many tickets as we’d hoped, but we had enough people there to create an atmosphere and we got loads of good reviews afterwards.”
Of course, while the audiences are having an amazing time, spare a thought for the guys putting the festivals together. Often, they’ll have to go beyond their standard duties to make sure everything runs smoothly. Although his planning sheets are probably stashed away somewhere safe, Gorham has certainly had to take a hands-on approach before. “The first Bestival that we opened, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” he says. “We were totally green in terms of running a festival. At midnight on the Friday, things were starting to wind down a bit. I asked the producer who was in charge overnight, and he hadn’t thought about putting anyone in charge overnight, so all the production staff left. It was left to me and my wife to go round the site, shutting things down. It was horrible and scary and I didn’t get any sleep that night, but actually it was a baptism of fire and it taught me that you really need to be on the case 100% of the time. The buck stops with us, we crawled into a spider-infested tepee at six in the morning, had half-an-hour’s sleep and then had to get up and start getting everything ready for the next day.”