Intimacy and friendliness are the themes at the bespoke, boutique festivals
Thursday 13 May 2010
Watching Blur close Glastonbury last year with an emotionally charged performance, it was clear that it remains the king of festivals. But for those who've become lost in its frightening vastness, wandered dispiritedly through the dust-blown wastelands of Reading, Leeds and V, or are simply getting older and fancy a sit-down, the past five years has seen a huge rise in bespoke, boutique festivals. Green Man, Latitude, Wychwood, End of the Road, Cornbury and Truck are among the increasingly established names where musical pleasure on a more human scale is all but assured.
"I was 19 in 1998," says Robin Bennett, co-creator of Truck, a pioneer of this approach. "I'd just been to one of the big corporate festivals, and also just seen the Woodstock movie, and realised there was a huge gap between the original ideas behind music festivals and the reality of what was on offer. The explosion we have now hadn't happened yet. You just had a few huge festivals where you'd be sold over-priced bottles of water. That was the motivation. For the first Truck, tickets were £3, and we were shocked when 600 people came, and said it was transcendental. It gradually grew to the level it's at now [headliners have included Mercury Rev and Teenage Fanclub], and feels similar."
"I wanted to create a festival that was much more intimate, that was friendlier, that was easier," says Festival Republic's Melvin Benn of Latitude, the Suffolk festival he's promoted for the past five years alongside the very different Reading, Leeds and Glastonbury. "I wanted somewhere where people would feel exceptionally comfortable. That counts for more as you get older."
This a cornerstone too for Hugh Phillimore, promoter of Cornbury, affectionately nicknamed "Poshstock" for its middle-class families who often spread entire living rooms of furniture across their rugs. "I'd hate to be a big festival," he says. "We have 10 times the tent-space that Glastonbury has. We've had no violence and one arrest in six years. And that makes it what it is."
The many small festivals that have failed recently have usually offered low-rent, incompetent versions of Reading. True boutique festivals succeed by tailoring carefully to a specific audience. "It's a typical Cornbury bill this year," says Phillimore, "with your Jackson Brownes and David Grays. I don't try to musically educate my audience. We know Cornbury's limitations. There are some hardcore music fans, but it's also a festival for people who don't really go to festivals. You don't want to scare them with anything too groovy." Simon Taffe, co-promoter of the excellent Dorset festival End of the Road, calibrates his crowd and bills (ranging from Wilco to Northumbrian folk act the Unthanks this year) together. "I wanted a certain type of punter," he says. "But I didn't want too much of a certain type of punter. I'm strongly into alternative country, but if I just picked that I'd get a lot of older people. Getting the balance right, you don't get picnic blankets everywhere." From Womad's World music to The Big Chill's ambient grooves, the result has something for everyone.
Boutique festivals also allow a sometimes startling range of extra-musical activity, from Cornbury's black-face morris-dancers to the dizzying array of arts companies that descend on Latitude, where the RSC, Liverpool Everyman, and Royal Opera House are among attractions vying with the music. "I set out to rewrite the festival rule-book," says Benn. "And now other boutique festivals are embracing poetry and literary tents. I've laid out the festival so the first thing you come across is the arts arenas and the music is on the periphery. That's deliberate. The arts are at the heart of this. You can absolutely come to Latitude and not see any music at all."
Not everyone is so convinced by this brave new world, where Glastonbury morphs into Glyndebourne. "We went briefly down the line everyone did a few years ago," says Womad director Chris Smith, "where suddenly you've all got to do a bit of comedy and burlesque. We had the National Ballet, and it failed. There was a conscious decision to go back from tangential arts stuff to the foundation of the global musicians here, and what they do – like Taste the World, where musicians cook for the audience."
Without going to Latitude's extreme, every good boutique festival pays attention to ambience, End of the Road's magical, fairy-light draped gardens with a piano and library being perhaps the best example. Standon Calling also prides itself on making its audience part of events, which this year has an underwater disco and murder mystery-themed fancy dress, alongside headliners such as Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club. Most of these festivals are strongly rooted in their communities, making you feel you're in a special corner of Britain, not an anonymous field.
Perhaps surprisingly, the big festivals lumber on largely ignoring these innovations. Benn says there's nothing he's learnt from Latitude that he could apply to Reading. But it's at these smaller festivals where the future may lie. "The need for Truck is no longer there," says Bennett, "but we've started different festivals that reflect new needs. Festivals should all run on solar power and leave no waste, but it'll be a while before the bigger festivals can catch up."
'Most artists have never played in the area before'
Without going to Latitude's extreme, every good boutique festival pays attention to ambience, End of the Road's magical, fairy-light draped gardens being perhaps the best example. Most are also strongly rooted in their communities, making you feel you're in a special corner of Britain, not an anonymous field. "We noticed lot of people were going two or three hours down the country to go to festivals," says Kendal Calling's Ben Robinson. "We'd been to Leeds and Reading and realised they felt like prison camps, and we've got the Lake District on our doorstep – if we do it here, it'll be nicer. There's little else in Cumbria. The majority of artists we bring have never played in the area before. The year we had Dizzee Rascal, half the people didn't believe he'd come. We plug ourselves into the Lake District, with local community groups. Half the performers are local."
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