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Exquisitely proportioned: The rise and rise of boutique festivals

Jon Chapple 19 October 2015
Kendall Calling, PSNLive 2015

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in the number of smaller, niche-orientated festivals across the UK and mainland Europe. But how do these events go about offering truly unique experiences to festivalgoers facing an ever-greater panoply of options, and what is the outlook for the larger festivals driven more by headline acts? David Davies reports

One quick search of The Festival Calendar website confirms the extent to which the UK summer festival sector has blossomed over the last ten years. From Birmingham’s dance-oriented Electric Daisy, to the Bruton Reggae Fest, to the classical and jazz-driven Petworth Festival, there is quite literally an event to match every possible musical penchant.

The fact that many of the newer events belong to the sub-30,000 attendance category underlines the extent to which expansion of the sector is being driven by the smaller events. But although ‘boutique’ is a commonly-deployed buzzword, these events display a remarkable level of diversity, with some newer events zeroing in on one specific genre while others pursue a multi-disciplinary approach mixing music with literature, movie screenings and more.

What does tend to unite them, however, is the general emphasis on creating a more rounded and (whisper it) pleasant festival-going experience. Part of the strategy here has been to reconfigure events in a more family-friendly fashion as the most recent festival boom generation gets older and starts having children, but at a more basic level it has also translated to elements as seemingly straightforward as an improved quality and selection of food and – quite frankly – decent toilets and washing facilities.

Hedonism in its various forms is unlikely to disappear from the festival scene any decade soon, but at the risk of making a drastic generalisation it would be fair to say that at the newer generation of events one is more likely to find revellers perambulating with a jug of Pimm’s than reclining drugged-out in a ditch. More seriously, with new events popping up all the time, several pertinent questions rise into view, not least: precisely how does one go about delivering a popular new small festival at this stage of market maturity? And is greater diversity of attractions the most reliable route to success? PSNLive decided to find out by talking to two of the brightest additions to the festival firmament over the last 10 years.

Port Eliot Festival, Michael Bowles, PSNLive 2015Location, location, location
For many of the more recent additions, the answer appears to be ‘accentuate the unique’ – whether that be in the form of cuisine, activities or, most likely, the location of the festival itself. That certainly seems to have worked out well for the Port Eliot Festival (pictured), which takes place just over the Cornish ‘border’ at the end of each July and has been running for 12 years now.

“Port Eliot is very much informed by its location,” confirms associate director Colin Midson, pointing to the festival’s setting in the grounds of an historic priory that is home to the Earl and Countess of St Germans. “For example, we have activities in the walled garden and one of our stages is located in a bowling green. Down by the river we also have canoeing, so there are a lot of site-specific activities.”

Midson – who was a long-time attendee of the festival before joining the directorial team in October 2014 – believes that the “steady” growth of the event has been a crucial ingredient of its success. “In the second year there were only 1,000 attendees and now we are up to about 10,000, but I don’t think there is any real desire to take it much larger than that,” he says.

Interestingly, Midson reveals that festival director Cathy St Germans’ original vision for the event was to focus primarily on literature. The explosion in the number of literary events to complement the long-established likes of the Hay Festival can be explained in part by “readers connecting with authors on social media and having the desire to see them in person. But in my experience, literary festivals can be a bit ‘one-note’ – basically authors either giving a presentation or an interview about their latest book. So ultimately Kathy took the decisions to take it broader.”

The team has certainly achieved that as the 2015 line-up – which includes writers Sarah Waters, Iain Sinclair and Simon Armitage on the literary stages, and The Unthanks, The Lilac Time and Villagers on the music stages – amply demonstrates.

‘The complete experience’
Kendal Calling in the Lake District (main picture) is another event whose organic growth trajectory indicates what appears to be a common trait in this festival category. Only 900 people attended the first event, in 2006, but this year some 23,000 are expected. Unlike Port Eliot, music has always been the core component of Kendal Calling’s offer, but co-founder Ben Robinson believes that the gradual addition of other elements over time has stood it in good stead.

“We have always looked to book great musical acts, of course, but more than anything it is about offering the complete experience,” says Robinson. “My observation is that those festivals which are relying on the big headline names are more likely to struggle if they don’t manage to secure them. It’s quite a big commitment to spend three to four days in a field, so it has to be amazing to justify the time and expense.”

The 2015 event certainly has its fair share of major names – among them Elbow, Snoop Dogg and The Vaccines – but alongside an increasingly compelling array of dance and electronic acts, comedy and performance art. Brand-new for 2015, meanwhile, will be a woodlands area featuring sculpture and immersive arts, established with the support of the Arts Council.

Ben Robinson, Kendall Calling, PSNLive 2015“It seemed like another logical step,” says Robinson. “I think the underlying point here is that you have to keep innovating and adding new attractions while always retaining the core creative spirit [that inspired the festival in the first place]. You have to make sure you avoid stagnation.”

To which end Robinson (pictured) and his team have now embarked upon the process of building a portfolio of events, having announced plans for a new festival, Forgotten Fields, to take place in Tunbridge Wells this August.

PA company prosperity
By some estimates there were as many as 1,300 festivals in the UK in 2014 (although one suspects that a significant number of those might stretch the definition of ‘festival’ as we understand it beyond breaking point). Whether or not this is ultimately sustainable, the dramatic enhancement of the summer schedule can, in the short-term, only be perceived as good news for audio providers.

“We have probably seen a 30-to-50 per cent increase in our festival business between the start of May and the end of August over the last few years, and a lot of those are what would be termed smaller festivals,” says Paul Timmins, general manager of Capital Sound. “2015 is again looking very busy, and I think in part that is down to our investment in three different varieties of the system that so many events are keen to use now – the Martin Audio MLA [Multi-cellular Loudspeaker Array].”

The good results that Capital has achieved with the MLA in minimising noise off the British Summer Time Hyde Park festival site has been well-documented and does not require reiteration here. But Timmins is sure that its successful deployment there has helped to spread the general renown of the system, which enables control of every single cell in the array for highly directive sound coverage.

“There is a desire to achieve higher levels within the festival site compared to the off-site situation,” he says. “There have been a lot of events where they were struggling to get much beyond 96dBA at the FOH [because of noise restrictions], which isn’t really at the enjoyment level and is quite likely to prompt people coming over to the desk and asking for it to be turned up. MLA allows you to add another 3–4dBA without creating noise issues off-site.”

Wild Life Festival, PSNLive 2015Live at Chelsea, and the brand new rock and dance festival Wild Life (pictured), which took place at Shoreham Airport in June, are among the many more boutique events to which Capital Sound is applying the MLA system this summer.

G. Reaper Festival?
These examples alone point to the current rude health of the smaller festivals sector – but if anything, it could be that we are set for even greater proliferation of sub-30,000-capacity events as the larger events increasingly confront some challenging generational obstacles.

Perhaps the greatest of these – and let’s make no bones about it – is death. Although many of the heritage acts have continued to play longer than anyone (not least themselves) expected, the now-bulging obituary pages of the rock music monthlies indicate that mortality is destined to intervene more frequently than ever during the next decade. Meanwhile, for those who do persist in treading the boards as long as humanly possible, their continual reappearance on the circuit every year in response to plummeting recorded music income runs a serious risk of inciting customer indifference.

“There is a limit to the number of major heritage acts, and for those festivals who are more geared towards them, success at getting them will be dependent on who has the deepest pockets I guess,” says Grant.

”Hinging a festival around headline acts seems to be missing the point of festivals, anyway, I would suggest. Something like Glastonbury does have lots of major names, but more than anything it is now a rite of passage for Middle England and doesn’t rely on the names to sell tickets.

“Similarly, WOMAD doesn’t rely on big names; rather it offers a unique musical experience in a very pleasant environment and that’s why it continues to grow. To my mind, festivals were, and are, about having a temporary shared time with reasonably like-minded people. If that becomes a chore for everyone involved, including those who work them, they will decline.”

Legendary promoter Harvey Goldsmith is among those to have highlighted the major acts issue and to predict in response the continued rise of mixed-arts events – and as long-term industry observers, Harvey does have the tendency of being right.

In this regard, among others, smaller events are one step ahead and already have the mentality of continued (gradual) evolution that seems fundamental to their survival. In short, small(er) might not just be beautiful – in the longer-run, it could be the only way to go.


Mini gems: Five sublime smaller European festivals

It’s not just the UK that has witnessed a surge in the number of more compact summer events… just take a look at these five top picks from mainland Europe recommended by friends of PSNLive, industry observers and other assorted experts:

  • La Roche Bluegrass Festival, Roche-sur-Foron, France (29 July–2 Aug)
    Family-friendly roots music.
  • Mysteryland, Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands (29–30 Aug)
    Electronica, interactive theatre and more.
  • Flow Festival, Helsinki, Finland (14–16 Aug)
    Power plant setting for living art, live music and excellent food.
  • Aste Nagusia, Bilbao, Spain (22–30 Aug)
    Basque-flavoured smorgasbord of music, dancing, sports et al.
  • Soundwave, Tisno, Croatia (6–10 Aug)
    Rock, dance and much more on the idyllic Croatian coast.


PSNLive 2015 is the 10th edition of our annual report for the European live sound industry. Read it online or download as a PDF using the links below.

issuu.com/newbayeurope/docs/psn_live_2015_digital

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