Music festivals: are our field days over?
Interest in The Big Chill has cooled, Glastonbury is too commercial... Summer music festivals need to get creative and reinvent themselves to survive
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2007. At Glastonbury it was the year Lily Allen won people's hearts. Björk, dressed as a sci-fi sprite, returned after a 13-year absence and The Who closed proceedings with a classic Sunday night set.
Latitude, Bestival and Port Eliot were all bathed in glorious sunshine and festival tickets were selling out just as fast as promoters could print them. It was the moment just before the credit crunch struck and for a while it looked as if we'd hit upon the formula for the perfect summer music festival. Fast-forward to the present day and that picture isn't looking quite so rosy. Last year, ticket sales (aside from Glastonbury's) slowed right down and many struggled to break even. Some of our classic, well-established festivals, such as the Oxford Folk Festival, the Bay Festival on the Isle of Man and Truck Festival, which had been going since 1998, collapsed. It is estimated that last year, in all, around 30 festivals went bankrupt.
Last July, Michael Eavis waded in, declaring that he thought even Glastonbury was on its last legs – citing rising tuition fees and cheaper alternatives. And at the end of last week, we heard that the Big Chill, the pioneering boutique festival of 18 years' standing, has been cancelled. Could our love affair with the great British music festival finally be coming to an end?
"The peak of things was most definitely 2007," says James Drury, managing director of the Festival Awards, the industry's equivalent of the Oscars. "There was plenty of money sloshing around and people were going to three or even four festivals a year. Now, they have had to become much more conservative in their spending."
But that's not the only reason. For a while, there has been an increasing feeling that festivals have shifted too far from their original hippie-spirited ethos. The point was to offer an alternative reality. Now, it's a slick industry. The television rights have been sold, and with that have come price rises, mass audiences and corporate domination – the antithesis of everything they stood for.
At Leeds and Reading the Vodafone logo smacks you in the face wherever you look, at Wireless it's Barclays and Pepsi Max, and if you go to Bestival, one of our most well-loved weekenders, you'll find high-street fashion chain AllSaints as well as Pizza Express. Is this what we fork out £200 a ticket for?
Scott Williams, of eFestivals, one of the most comprehensive festival guides on the web, thinks it reached saturation point in 2010. Then, he had 800 festivals listed on his site; in 2012, he is expecting 750 or fewer. "The popular festival bubble has burst," he says. "We have begun to see a withdrawal as everyone and their dog who had started a festival realised it wasn't quite so easy."
Williams blames the rise of what he calls the festival tourist. "That's someone who would never have dreamt of going to a festival 10 years ago," he says. "They saw that festivals were fashionable so they go out and buy all the right kit from the high street – Cath Kidston tent, Hunter wellies – and think of it in the same way as they do their annual package holiday." Still, he thinks news of The Big Chill's demise is significant. "The Big Chill has always been an exception," he says. "It managed to maintain its integrity even as it got bigger and bigger. For them to stop is very troubling."
There are lots of reasons for the demise of the Big Chill; most blame a recent attempted change in direction. Last year, Jessie J and Kanye West headlined; for a festival with an older, loyal following this seemed like a cynical attempt to scoop up a younger, teenage audience. All it did was alienate its core audience. "Before, it had all the atmosphere and none of the headliners," one person wrote on a festival forum. "Then they put on the headliners and it lost all of its atmosphere."
It's probably no coincidence that The Big Chill was also sold in late 2009 to UK promoter Festival Republic, which also runs Reading, Leeds, Latitude, Norway's Hove and Electric Picnic. In turn, Festival Republic is owned by Live Nation, the global company that now dominates our live-music scene, and no doubt has its eye very much on the bottom line.
It's interesting to see how the Festival Republic machine has changed in recent years. I witnessed it first hand in 2006 when I went to its inaugural Latitude with my 18-month-old son. I packed a few cans of beer and joined the 5,000 or so others for a glorious party on the banks of the river. Last year, I went back to discover that those numbers had swollen to 35,000, that programmes now cost a tenner and that every time you wanted to enter the main arena you were searched, lest you dare try to sneak in a drink of your own. The overriding vibe was more stag do than peace and love. But it's not all doom and gloom – if you look in the right places, the original festival spirit is still going strong. It's there at Vince Power's Hop Farm festival, which refuses the corporate dollar, as well as the Larmer Tree Festival, run by two dedicated promoters in Salisbury.
And recently, in among news of all the cancellations, it was announced that a bright new festival called Nova has been added to the calendar. Brought to us, incidentally, by the original co-creators of the Big Chill, Katrina Larkin and Victoria Burns, it is clearly something of a labour of love.
Larkin and Burns have nearly two decades of festival experience each and know exactly what they are doing. Nova promises to be highly interactive, funny and carefully thoughtout. They have teamed up with the Roundhouse, Battersea Arts Centre, Penguin Books and others to bring an inspiring mix of quality performers. It also boasts late-night ghost stories round a campfire and its very own pub, the Nova Arms, featuring a medley of twisted pub games.
You won't be hounded by security but instead treated with the respect you deserve, after paying £139 for the privilege. Nova has yet to announce the line-up of music, but already it has struck a chord – the early-bird tickets sold out in days.
"It's a small, intimate and independent festival built on consideration and care," they say. There is a sense here that we have come full circle, gone back to our roots. Perhaps it's not quite time to hang up those wellies yet.
GET INTO THE GROOVE
Hop Farm Festival, 29, 30 June and 1 July, Hop Farm, Paddock Wood, Kent
"No sponsorship, no branding, no VIPs"
Larmer Tree Festival, 11-15 July, Larmer Tree Gardens, near Salisbury, Wiltshire
"An intimate and extraordinary event of our own creation"
Nova Festival, 5-8 July, Pulborough, West Sussex
"Nova is about big ideas and little details"
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