Urban festivals: The sound of the city

Elisa Bray on how urban festivals are taking on their traditional rural rivals
  • @Elisabray

For every three-day camping festival in a field that is struggling to shift tickets, or will not be taking place this year - Sonisphere, Hop Farm and the Big Chill included - there is a city festival somewhere that is booming.

The practicalities of a city festival are appealing: no need to drive miles into the countryside with the kitchen sink in the boot, a choice of places to eat, and home comforts at the end of the night for those who don't want to tough it out camping. Then there's the issue of better value day tickets. It's no surprise that the number of festivals in the city have risen from a couple 10 years ago to more than 50 this year, with over one million people attending 2013's city festivals, according to the UK Festival Conference & Awards.

Festivals that use South by South West Festival as their model, such as The Great Escape and Camden Crawl, where band showcases take over various venues in the city, watched by industry and music fans, are continuing to grow in capacity and number. The Great Escape, which takes place in Brighton every May and this year showcased rising acts such as The Strypes and Merchandise, has enjoyed a burgeoning attendance from 4,500 in 2006 to 16,000 last year. Ones that have sprung up more recently include Dot to Dot, a touring festival that takes its bands – this year including Dry the River, Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Tom Odell and Lucy Rose - from Manchester to Bristol to Nottingham to play around the cities' venues.

There are now many types of city festival. The biggest explosion has been seen in the number of city festivals that are adopting the characteristics of green field festivals, but staging them in inner city parks. London spaces such as Hyde Park, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Victoria Park and Shoreditch Park - will play host to several festivals this summer, including Radio 1 Big Weekend, Wireless, Lovebox, Hard Rock Calling, Field Day and 1-2-3-4.

One new event that has recognised the public's need for better facilities is the Barclaycard presents British Summer Time in Hyde Park, set to take place over 10 days, with music including headliners Bon Jovi at the weekends, and free entertainment during the week. Owned by AEG, who transformed the O2 Arena, the organisers promise to do the same for the outdoors in Hyde Park. In addition to four music stages, there will be "film set quality buildings" with themed zones, and an outdoor cinema. Forget burger vans and Portaloos; there will be onsite bars, restaurants and markets. Even the toilets will be real. "We've invested time and money on infrastructure that you wouldn't normally see at a live event like this", says festival director Jim King. "We're building nearly everything from scratch, be it the main stage, fully-timbered barns, customer service pods, movie set style building facades. We have based British Summer Time on everything we do at The O2, as we don't see any reason why we cant provide the same exceptional level of service in a temporary venue like Hyde Park as we do in one of our indoor venues."

One huge success over the past few years is Field Day, the one-day festival held in Victoria Park in east London. Its success – capacity has tripled from 10,000 in 2007 to 30,000 this year – is thanks to a line-up of the best hip rising acts from indie bands (Savages, Splashh), to cutting edge producers (Julio Bashmore, Todd Edwards) and electronica and dance acts (Mount Kimbie), alongside a discerning selection of established names like Animal Collective and Bat for Lashes. But it's also the practicalities of its location and easy transport links that makes it so appealing.

"It's just a day out really, it's an easy thing to do, you don't have to pack your bag, drive to the middle of nowhere and hope the weather's OK and your tent's not going to float away", says Tom Baker, the Eat Your Own Ears promoter behind the event. "It's very accessible, and you can just turn up, have a great day and get a cab, walk or cycle home afterwards."

The big draw is also the cheaper ticket price. With some camping festivals now costing around £200, festivals in the city provide the best value for money. For £50, at Field Day fans can enjoy a full day's entertainment, picking from the 90 acts on stage, some of which are bands that you would have to pay upwards of £20 to see alone.

Music fans are looking for more affordable options such as Field Day, which was what Parklife Weekender's founders had in mind when they launched in Platt Fields Park in the heart of Manchester in 2010. "Parklife is all about focusing on good value", says founder Sam Kandel. "At this time, that's really what people are looking for. With those big weekend festivals, some are fantastic - the likes of Bestival are a huge inspiration to us - but I also think that especially with the bad weather last summer, people like the option of something which is a third of the price, you don't need to take a day off work, you can go home and sleep in your own bed and come back the next day. Those are all factors in people's decision making."

Like Field Day, Parklife, whose line-up this year includes The Horrors, Savages, Jurassic 5 and AlunaGeorge and is aimed at 18 to 30-year-olds, has tripled its capacity from 15,000 in its inaugural year to 45,000, and this year has moved to a new location in the larger Heaton Park. Tickets cost £69.50 for two days of music.

There is an undeniable appeal to the traditional English countryside festival that takes you out of the hectic city into a world of music. But just as the city's buildings keep rising, so will its festivals.