What makes a festival great?
When I see a festival gets announced, I know within seconds whether I want to go.
It's the same as hearing a track for the first time. I know within hearing four bars.
In 2017, I received a press release. The headline was "Craig Richards Teams up with Gottwood for Houghton Festival."
As soon as I read that subject title, I was in. I remember the leading press image was a drone shot of a sculpture within the grounds of Houghton Hall [the feature image above].
Then I saw a magical photo of a lake. Take my money, Craig. I'll see you in August.
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If you're still with me, today I am going to answer the question - what makes a festival great?
In true Socially Sound fashion, obviously, I am going to provide examples of my favourite festivals and why they work. It's what I do.
So let's start with, the people who run it.
Craig Richards is one of my favourite all-time artists. Having attended a lot of events at fabric over the years, I've very rarely attended an event where Craig has not been on the lineup. His sets playing before and alongside my all-time favourite artist, Ricardo Villalobos, are legendary to me. I wouldn't be doing this without those two.
And then there's Gottwood. Having attended a few Gottwood Festivals over the years, I knew straight away that the festival is going to be well run. It's going to feel intimate. The stage designs will be creative. The sound will be good. The lineup will feature a lot of unsung heroes who are better suited to smaller festivals than the headline DJs.
Essentially, for me in 2017, Houghton was everything I was looking for. It was everything the British festival market at the time lacked. I knew Houghton was going to be good before I even attended.
This brings me back to my point about the people who run it. If Jamie Jones and Paradise announced a new open-air event/festival tomorrow, you know instantly what it would look like. You know the artists that would play on it. You would have 100% trust in that event.
It's the same with Elrow. It's the same with No Art or Circoloco. It's why Fyre Festival turned out the way it did. The people who ran it did not have a clue how to run a festival. To be fair to them, they did a pretty good job of marketing, only to be destroyed by a cheese sandwich in a takeaway box. (More on the food later!)
So what else makes a festival great?
For me, the location is everything. I need to visualise myself at that festival.
As soon as LWE announced Junction 2 for the first time and I saw that bridge, I was immediately interested. I don't know about you, but I can imagine a rave as soon as I see a location.
I think as music fans, we want to see certain artists and genres in certain places. How many parties and after-parties have you attended and heard the sentence, can you imagine artist X playing in X location?
I don't want to see Richie Hawtin play on The Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. I want to see him play under a motorway bridge while the real world continues above my head. Or in a warehouse where someone transforms into a clubbing paradise that makes me feel like I'm in an alien's spaceship.
Certain stages, sounds and locations just work. Some locations are there for you as a promoter but some have to be built.
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A great festival has iconic stages.
If I asked you to describe The Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to a stranger, you could right? Even if you haven't been. You would describe the pointy structure of the stage. The flags on the dance floor.
What makes a festival great is all of the details about the stages within it. I remember every detail about Block 9 at Glastonbury but I don't remember everything about some of the other stages. That's what makes Block 9 special, even in a place like Glastonbury.
In a recent podcast, Josh Baker and Kurt Hurst talk about how they created Hide and Seek Festival. What stood out to me was Kurt talking about the design of The Contour Stage.
The name comes from a Contour Tree. The Hide and Seek logo has Contour lines around the text. That's why it's called The Contour Stage. Both of these details are inspired by the location of the festival.
The Contour Stage is carefully positioned within a space at the festival. If you stand at the right point, you can see Capesthorne Hall behind the stage. The structure of the stage also makes it feel intimate. If you dance closer to the front, you feel like the stage is the only stage at the festival, despite multiple stages taking place at the same time.
For me, if you combine the right location with the right people, magic can happen. A great festival is all about bringing someone's vision to life.
This loops perfectly into my next point. A festival is lots of mini-festivals happening at the same time. For a festival to be great, you need incredible sound in all of the right places.
Every year, people attend Sunwaves for Stage 4. For that reason, the stage probably needs to be bigger than it is. But every year, Stage 4 is the same size. There is a reason for that.
When I first went to Sunwaves, a friend asked me what makes this stage so special. My answer was the little details. The sound is incredible. The structure of the tent is designed to the centimetre.
It is the sound of the stages that stood out to me about Glastonbury.
Everything is so close together but the sound was incredible on every stage. Sunwaves sound systems are the best I have ever heard at a small-ish festival. The sound at The Other Stage during Glastonbury was different gravy. The Chemical Brothers' live performance is the best live performance I have ever experienced at a festival. The sound played a huge part in that. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
Let's talk about the overall experience.
Let's just think about where festivals like Houghton, Glastonbury and Sunwaves take place. The overall experience comes with things that the festival knows about the location. When you buy a ticket, you don't think about what will happen naturally at that festival.
The sunset before that Chemical Brothers set was magical. The sunrise at Sunwaves when the sun creeps through the curved edges of Stage Four or Stage One is a special experience.
The business behind Sunwaves is called Sunrise, of course, their flagship festival needs to be a location where there is a sunrise. It's in their DNA. If Stage 4 was flipped the other way around on the beach, it would not be Stage 4.
One of the special things about The Other Stage at Glastonbury for artists, is they get to play and look out to the sunset. That influences how they play and what music they play at a certain time. You get that experience with them on the dance floor. Flip the stage around and that doesn't happen.
All of these elements contribute to the overall experience of a great festival.
Branding - Online
The overall experience of a great festival starts online. Does the website explain how to get to the festival? Is it clear you need to buy a car parking ticket?
For me, first impressions are everything. As soon as you think of branding for a festival, you probably think of the lineup flyer, right?
I've written over one thousand words so far and I have not even mentioned the flyer. A great flyer does not make a great festival. But a poorly designed flyer can be the reason a customer might not even Google your festival or click on the website to find out more.
That's the difference. First impressions count.
Branding - At the festival
If the overall experience of the festival is not good online, you can guarantee the experience at the festival will not be good either. Good branding at a festival is clear signage.
You know that moment when you park your car and carry all of your belongings to the festival entrance? That part is stressful!
Imagine you walk the wrong way only to walk all the way around the outside of the festival just to get to the VIP camping entrance. Fuck that.
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If you're still with me, hi! Let me ask you a question.
Does a great festival need a great lineup? Or does a great festival need great programming?
Okay, that's two questions but let's investigate.
Here's an underrated thing about a great festival. They don't stop!
A day event can finish at 10:30 PM and only just feel like it's getting started before you have to leave. That is what I would call a fun day out.
A great festival runs for 24 hours across multiple days. You need a special location and licence for this to happen. Luckily, Glastonbury, Houghton and Sunwaves have this.
The thing that stood out about Houghton in its first year was its programming. Now I can imagine Craig Richards must be a nightmare to work with but if there is one thing Craig can do, it's programme a great festival lineup.
A great festival booker knows you better than you know yourself. They know if you like this artist, you will like this artist. Great programming is about knowing your audience. They create a map for you without you even realising it.
That's why for me great programming is more important than a great lineup. I don't want to see Richie Hawtin play at 10 AM.
It's 14 hours into an event that has run from 9 PM the night before.
That is what I loved about Time Warp. That is what made me book my plane ticket and why I convinced my friend who was drunk at the time it was a great idea he booked his flight too.
I have been told by a lot of people over the years, you have not seen Richie Hawtin play until you have seen him close Time Warp. They were right. It was worth every second.
I'm going to say it. The food at a festival is important. Like really important, especially when it runs over three days. The best pizza I've ever had in my life was 48 hours into Houghton. One of the filthiest breakfast sandwiches I've ever had was at a festival. The food at Sunwaves was elite.
For a festival to be great, you need great food.
Now look, the music is what makes a great festival. It should have been the first thing I talked about.
But here's my point: if all of the above is in place, you can guarantee the music will be great. And really, that's the cherry on top of the experience for everyone involved.
Even if you experience a poor set, a great festival will offer you something different to listen to immediately. Great festivals offer you a choice, not one headliner or stage that you rely on for a good time.
All of the great DJ sets I have seen at festivals have been in special environments. All of the above also creates a special environment for artists to play in. If you don't have that, the music might be great but the overall experience won't be great.
A great festival needs great music. But for music to feel great at a festival, you need everything else in place for it to shine.
If you made it to the deep end, I appreciate you. I'll be recording this for Spotify really soon.
See you on Friday.
Andrew at Socially Sound
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