Saturday, 18 August 2018

Have we hit peak Festival? Well, that depends.

If your idea of a Festival is getting hilariously off your face in a stinky mud bath, with hopes of random copping off, your time has probably been and gone. But relax, they don't do that at Moseley anyway...

Do NOT pray for rain. Photo by Alicia Zinn from Pexels
It's been 49 years since Hendrix at Woodstock over there and Dylan at the Isle of White over here: 60s hippy enthusiasm sparking legends and juicy profits. Profits? Woodstock lost an absolute packet because of the rain (there's an ongoing theme here) but they seriously cashed in with the movie and the albums. 

I have it on first-hand authority, by the way, that Woodstock was actually a ghastly ill-conceived and massively overcrowded shit-storm; to which I can add that the Isle of Wight shindig was rather fine, apart from the trek back to the ferry. But since then, things have rather evolved. The big boys moved in.

Never mind the quality, count the punters

Think about it. Festivals are the perfect capitalist model. Punters pay hundreds of pounds to be trapped in a compound miles away from civilisation, carrying in their tents, subjected to extortionate prices for iffy food, even water, with no respite from the weather. How profitably sweet is that? A feast of consumerism, pimped by gushing media coverage of, above all, Glastonbury, where the rich and the beautiful parade festival fashion. While the Eavis family are thorough and conscientious in their selection of acts, all but the headliners are ignored.

The market has become vastly over-crowded. Any remaining alternative spirit evaporated long ago as the big boys got stuck in. The end of most festivals sees a wasteland of abandoned tents - with luck, recycled and handed to homeless charities - along with spent single-use barbecues, empty cans and bottles, and a lot worse.

So it’s not surprising that some events have headed off in different directions, from family-friendly affairs, of Wilderness-style posh jollies designed for the likes of David Cameron. 

Then there are mahoosive Urban-skewed events like Wireless, headbangher heaven with Download, and multi-thread events and smaller distinctly specialised affairs, or consciously green festivals such as the venerable Shambala.

Warning signs

Ominously, several festivals fold each year; others suffer significantly from eccentric weather. Camp Bestival threw in the towel this year after a weekend of torrential rain, while my Facebook feed was enlivened by posts from several Lunar festival-goers who kicked off on Friday in fine glamping style with cheery group shots, fancy food and chilled Sauvigon Blanc in the sunshine... before the rain swept in and messed things up good and proper, and woeful tales of damp misery flooded my news feed.

So whither MoFo?

                                  Steve Gibbons is at MoFo this year...
We're two weeks out from one of the granddaddies of Brum Festivals, Moseley Folk, and I'm sitting in the Mission Print planning office with John Fell, who stage-manages at Moseley Folk, Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul, and Lunar.

So, have we reached Peak Festival? You look at the acts that are headlining everywhere across the country and Europe, and the same names keep cropping up. I was talking with Brian Travers of UB40 recently: they're tied up all summer, every weekend, doing festivals here and across Europe.
John Fell: Yeah, it has peaked, to be honest with you. I mean, Festival 6 is not coming back. I think Bestival numbers are quite down, our numbers could be a bit better at this point – although MoJazz went really well. There's a few festivals that keep on doing really well: Kendall Calling sells out in 24 hours. They've just done a great job.

So do you think it's getting a bit tired for the big Festivals?
John: There's a few things. I think the trend is definitely at peak. There is definitely a movement for quality over quantity. In your twenties, you can go to five festivals in a row, spend all summer out. But when you get to your thirties, you get more interested in a nice place to stay. That's why glamping does so well at the festivals that are thriving. They don't want to drink low-quality lager, they want craft beer and good food. I might be generalising a little bit, but that seems to be the market trend.

The folks on the hill 

It’s always struck me that the demographic make-up at MoFo is defined by how close you are to the stage - as you head up the hill, away from the stage, the crowd gets visibly older, with people settled down for the day in their camping chairs...
John: It does, yeah! They definitely get older as you go up the top. But it works really well – that crowd will be there for years to come. We're lucky with that. I take it as a positive that we can't grow or push the numbers up at the Moseley events. It is what it is. But you can see a lot festivals going wrong from trying to grow past their first efforts.

OK. We’re three weeks since Lunar, and to put it mildly, the weather did not exactly help. Hideously hot on the Friday, and drenched on the Saturday and Sunday. Yet this was your most adventurous festival yet. Was it worthwhile?
John: The weather hit us. Friday, I thought it was too hot. I was walking around in the heat; all five stages opened at once. And that's my territory on the day, it all comes back to me. Little questions, big decisions; really manic. But a lovely day still... and then Saturday, all day, and Sunday about six, the heavens opened! But it was great anyway. It was a step on from two years ago. We'll have to look at the books when things calm down – right now we're in full-on Moseley Folk planning. We'll know in October. We've paid everyone; we've parked it; our accountant's doing his thing.

Can you say now if there's going to be a Lunar next year?
John: I hope so! It was a cut above two years ago. We had so many more venues, clubs and ideas. It just felt like a festival that had come to fruition. But then you stand in the middle of it all, in your mac, after six weeks of sun...

The local angle 

Now, I admit to having systematically and consistently broken your chops, for the best part of ten years, about your support for local acts. This year, it looks like you’ve done the local scene proud.
John: Yeah! Fact is, we are a business, and we need to get those big line-up names on board to compete with other events. But we've always prided ourselves on supporting local bands and acts. It's how I got involved with festivals. Carl (Philips) at the festival put us (Goodnight Lenin) on the second stage, then the main stage... it's how quite a few bands got involved. But this year, in probably ten years, it's the most local talent we've got, which is great. There's more on our second stage as well as the acts that Brett and Andy put on on the Kitchen Garden Cafe stage, which is our third stage."

Note: For a provisional list of local acts - there may be more - scroll to the bottom of this post

 Reasons to be cheerful 

So, a mixed picture. I see no reason why MoFo and MoJazz should not carry on for the foreseeable future... but scaling up, as the team has repeatedly done, seems to bring challenges, at a time when our economy is, frankly, iffy.

But I’m excited about the local presence. For example, the return of Katherine Priddy - here's a track from her new EP, this time with a band....

Photo credits for Katherine and Steve Gibbons, above: Richard Shakespeare

The Kitchen Garden Cafe stage will also host a solo Steve Gibbons set - that’s going to be special - and R John Webb, he of the Ranters, has a solo set too, which is absolutely not to be missed.

I do rather love Moseley Folk. Over and above the music, which always has some nice surprises, it's a lovely social gathering. So, lots of positives. And (full disclosure) - you may well find me chatting with an act or two in the Tennis hut, as I did last year. Fingers crossed for good weather...


MoFo: from Aug 31 to Sep 2. See website for tickets and full line-up details.

Local Highlights

The Brave Sons Of Elijah Perry
David Campbell
Two sets from
Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham

Katherine Priddy 
The Katys (Katie Stevens and Katy Rose Bennett) 
The Lost Notes 
Red Shoes 
Steelin The Blues (Steve Ajao and Stuart Johnson) 
Steve Gibbons 
Swampmeat Family Band 
Esther Turner 
R John Webb

See more MusicBiz - promoters and venues posts on Radio To Go


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