Secret Garden Party: Why a pioneering festival wants to change the format

Secret Garden Party started in 2004 long before people knew what a boutique festival was – let alone glamping – but now its founder Freddie Fellowes thinks its time for a shake-up 

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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time Secret Garden Party was a festival with a bohemian difference. Challenging the traditional set-up of bands in a field since it launched in 2004, SGP proudly bills itself as a “professional party” for its wild hedonism, creativity, and immersive audiences in fancy dress. But as other boutique festivals have come along, its struggle to remain distinctive means that this year’s event will be its last.

It’s not the only significant independent festival to be closing – this summer we will also say goodbye to Cornbury. “In many ways it feels like a pivotal year,” says Paul Reed, of the Association of Independent Festivals.

In AIF’s 2015 audience survey, 54 per cent of those asked the most important factor when deciding which festival to attend replied that it was the “the general atmosphere and overall vibe, character and quality of the event” rather than the music; a tiny 7.7 per cent said headline acts. Take BoomTown Fair, which launched in 2009 as an imersive event rather than a straightforward music festival, which sells out its 60,000 capacity.

“Traditional music festivals can still flourish, but it’s about finding the right price point and / or niche for your audience,” says Reed. “Events such as Victorious and End of the Road do this very well despite being very different types of festival.”

One successful newbie is the distinctive Bluedot which launched last year on the site of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Chesire as a mix of science activities and music. “It was exciting quite simply because of the site and because it hadn’t been done before.”   

The festival was launched by Freddie Fellowes in 2004 as an alternative to the established mainstream music festivals

At the heart of SGP, held in a 220-acre landscaped Cambridgeshire garden, is its smaller venues, where creative activities over the years include a Sweaty Lingerie Party, pig-racing, sunflower mazes, parades, paint fights, mermaid school, stimulating debates and the Pool of Naked Liberation. Music has always remained secondary at the Garden Party. What is foremost is creativity, audience participation, and sense of freedom, all inspired by the rave culture, Burning Man festival in Nevada, and arts collectives such as CoolTan in Brixton, south London, where founder and “head gardener” Freddie Fellowes grew up.

“Our initial aim was to combine the spirit and ethos of that rave culture with a less monotheistic approach to the music programming so looking at a wider range of music and creativity to include,” he explains. “I honestly believe that wonderful things come from collecting like minded souls together and creating your own space and celebrating that together.”

A great draw for small artists playing a festival is the prospect of being watched by thousands of music-lovers and attracting hordes of new fans as people stumble into tents and catch acts they’ve never seen before. SGP was a platform for upcoming bands before anyone knew them.

The pioneering SGP started long before anybody knew what a boutique festival was – let alone glamping

Kate Tempest busked at SGP, long before she was nominated for the 2014 Mercury Prize. Another act that see it as one of the events that launched their career is electro-folk band Crystal Fighters who played in 2010.

Back to perform SGP’s final bash this July, singer Sebastian Pringle says, “Secret Garden Party was the first festival we ever played as a band and as such it is definitely one of the most dear to our hearts. The fact that someone took a chance on us and gave us the opportunity to experience playing at a proper festival was a pivotal moment for us.” This year also sees the return of Metronomy, who played in 2008, the year of their critically-acclaimed second album Nights Out.

Since its inception, SGP has encouraged participation, providing a platform for countless creatives to set up performance projects, and fostering fine art installations with grants and funding (each year they look for new theme-inspired pieces, resulting in the site being adorned with imaginative installations each year).

Singer Kate Tempest busked at SGP, long before she was nominated for Mercury Prize (Jean-Francois Monier/AFP)

“The basis I started off with is what helps create the vibe and the collective enjoyment is feeling that you’re not a spectator, but that you’ve got a bit of ownership of the experience you’re part of,” Fellowes explains. “It’s very much about giving people props to break down the normal social awkwardness that the English are normally susceptible to. It was the idea of participation being very key to the enjoyment of these gatherings.”

Bearded Kitten’s Colosillyum which brings creative entertainers to the site, venue Little Gay Brother, gourmet burger restaurant Meat Liquor, Firas (Waze & Odyssey) who curates the Pagoda dance stage, Michelangelo Bendandi from Frieze Art Fairs who provides installation artists’ work, and Ben DeVere’s Sunday Papers Live that began at SGP – are all creative enterprises that SGP facilitated.

DeVere, the programming extraordinaire behind Secret Forum which produces talks, workshops and literary content, says: “Secret Garden Party was the galactic centre of most of my twenties - pulling all the fun, talented, interesting people into its orbit at some point or other. As a typically unskilled, meandering and generally clueless graduate it managed to turn the careers advice cliche 'do what you love' into an actual reality. I started DJing, booking talks and debates, and producing stages for SGP. After a while it became a full time job. And now it's a career.” Now DeVere has his own event brand, Sunday Papers Live, programming festivals and events for a living – which was helped off the ground by SGP.

Crystal Fighters who played SGP in 2010, claim that it is one of the events that launched their career (Jackson Grant)

Similarly, it provided a platform for Bendandi: “Freddie and I share a vision that festivals have the potential to drastically increase the number of opportunities for artists to realise big, ambitious ideas – the kind of ideas for which there too few spaces and very little funding available in the city. Taking advantage of the resources that design and build the show, we have had the privilege of bringing to life new work by more than 30 contemporary artists, and SGP evolved into an enduring commissioning platform for large-scale outdoor work.”

If this creative, non-music side seems the norm on today’s festival circuit, it’s SGP that has helped set the template. And it’s this homogeneity that Fellowes cites as his reason for calling it a day after this year’s bash.

“Once an idea starts to get replicated, it mutates and dilates that medium,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful journey, but we feel that we don’t have much room to innovate in this medium anymore. I’ve been very outspoken about finding it rather uncomfortable that an idealistic venture such as the temporary autonomous zones in a festival format could be commodified and made accessible to a wider audience, but that’s the way of the world. The avant-garde can’t really exist within a club.”

And as promoters take over the running of still more festivals – Live Nation now own or control more than 90 worldwide, while Global acquired several independent festivals last year – they run the risk of becoming ever more homogenous.

“Individuality, participation and creativity are at the heart of these events, what’s made them special and what’s driven them to be created,” says Fellowes. “I’m sure that it’s very impressive for them [promoters] and will strengthen their access to artists, but it will be interesting to see how sustainable it really is at this level – does that sap the energy and sense of freedom that the events are representing? It is very hard for events to carve out their own niche at the moment.”

Individuality, participation and creativity is at the heart of SGP, but its format has been copied so much that its founder is calling it a day 

Reed predicts three key trends in the future of festivals: more in urban locations (less financial risk and more interesting spaces to be used as venues), further takeover by major promoters and more original, experience-based events that challenge the traditional model. “There are still stones to be unturned,” says Reed. “As long as people have ideas and great sites, festivals in the UK will continue to evolve with the independents experimenting and leading from the front.“ 

SGP has continued to pioneer in even more radical ways – drugs-testing on site to help reduce drug-related deaths. Last year, at a tent onsite run by the Loop, for the first time people were able to test drugs before taking them at a festival. This year up to 10 festivals including Leeds are expected to follow SGP’s lead.

Even in its final year, they are pioneering doctor assisted hangover recovery at the Garden Party site. This year, you can go into a fully qualified medical tent and buy yourself what’s known as a banana bag – the ultimate hangover cure in IV form – and have your feet rubbed while you ingest it. “After the magical cure for all your ills, you can go off and enjoy your next day,” says Fellowes. “That truly fits under our caption of ‘this is a professional party’.”

This summer will be the massive send-off that the Garden Party deserves and whilst that is going to be a huge sadness for many, Fellowes isn't one to lie down and give up. He will be starting a new innovative event – so watch this space.

Secret Garden Party is from 20 to 23 July (