The pleasant revolt: Katrina Larkin

United Kingdom United Kingdom | by Daniel Fahey | 19 November 2009

It wasn't a coup like the Storming of Bastille, not even something of the scale of the Industrial Revolution. The duo just turned their backs on the festival convention, taking the emphasis away from the bands and giving it instead to a love of the outdoors and a passion for alternative entertainment.

But the effect it had on the festival world was extraordinary and now, in 2009, we see the extent of their rebellion. The Big Chill created a template that the likes of Latitude, Bestival and Beautiful Days have reproduced and reinvented in their own way, with each favouring a mixture of arts and culture alongside the big musical names.

The media, including ourselves, have come to know these events as boutique festivals, but it's not something Katrina Larkin particularly agrees with. "I've always disliked the word boutique," she says, "I've always hated the fact we were being pigeon-holed into a category because I felt that festivals forever have to evolve and reinvent themselves to be cutting edge and to keep going, but I guess that is what they are now."

The evolution of the Big Chill is something that Larkin has experienced firsthand. The event has turned into a fully-fledged brand, which includes three bars - two in London and one in Bristol - as well as a record label. But life didn't begin so glamorously.

"Our first festival was run for 700 people in the Black Mountains. It wasn't even licensed. The bar was in the back of a van and we de-thistled the fields ourselves, me and a group of mates," she admits with an air of nostalgia, "it was really DIY and very different to the festival culture that goes on now."

Festivals are more ingrained in the British summer these days with over 400 events pitching at the start of the year. There are events that cater for all styles of music and all types of people. Families now attend festivals regularly and organisers are providing more for children to do as one generation of festival-goers introduce them to the next.

"[Festivals] used to be something teenagers and people in their early 20s went to - they'd run off," Larkin says, but a shift in the way The Big Chill was run compared to other events around, convinced more than a bunch of hedonistic hippies about the rise of boutique festivals. "I remember going to the bank manager once to apply for an overdraft in our first year to roll us out, and I was trying to explain to him the concept of festivals, he just couldn't get his head around it. Now the bank manager comes to the festival every year with his family because he understands the whole concept."

Struggles aside it was the ethics of The Big Chill that made sure a legion of loyal followers continue to pitch up each year and eventually get the event to a level of admiration it deserved. "One of the biggest things that we did was that I was always into the art side," Larkin says with a sense of pride, "it was the whole Art Trail, bringing artists to the countryside.

"You'll see me in the sculpture park or a gig or something like that or going to art gallery for inspiration. It's like trying to go off the beaten track all the time [...] but to stay evolving you have to go find new inspirations and to find new inspirations you have to step outside the world of festivals."

As with all revolutions, we can only look towards the future, so we thought we best leave the last word to our deserved Lifetime Achievement winner, Katrina Larkin: "I do believe that creativity in the festival just passed [2009] was one of the best and we just had the biggest response ever. A lot love went into building that festival and a lot of going out and finding things as a team - pride is at stake. Pride is a great thing, every year you're trying to outdo the previous year in a way with what you can do and how you can carry on with that loyalty from the audience." Roll on 2010 then.

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GrahamBrown wrote on Friday 20 November :

It was interesting to hear yesterday at the conference that Katrina is sleeping better since selling the licencse for Big Chill Festival to Festival Republic. The suppliers she left with invoices unpaid from this year's festival by putting part of the company into liquidation aren't sleeping quite so well. And great to hear how against the worst weather conditions her team battled aghainst all odds to get the 20008 festival open - shame she couldn't show her event suppliers the same loyalty they showed her and whose effirts she is riding on the back of. This kind of bad business pratcice should see organsiers not allowed to trade rather than being rewarded with lifetime achievement awards. This award is morally abhorant.

wrote on Friday 20 November :

To be fair, the award was decided prior to the announcement that Festival Republic were acquiring the event and certainly before we knew about any liquidation. It was based purely on The Big Chill's unparalleled creative impact on the festival landscape over the past few years. It is extremely unfortunate that these unsavoury developments have since come to pass and we have nothing but the deepest sympathy for all of the suppliers involved. Absolutely - these are the small guys who prop up the industry, and the ones who really need the money. As a small company ourselves we have been in this position only too many times so we fully empathise with what they are going through and desperately hope that Melvin and co. do the right thing and find a way to pay them sooner rather than later, as Katrina herself has assured us they will.

GrahamBrown wrote on Friday 20 November :

To Be Fair, this is not the first time she has stiffed suppliers (look up Big Chill Higham on Google - I know suppliers that have never been paid since 1996). The UK Festival Awards are a great celebration of all that is great in this industry and should not be giving accolades to people that have great ideas but no business accumen and repeatedly wrecked suppliers business's. I hope you're proved correct about her assurances.

wrote on Friday 20 November :

Thanks Graham, so do I.

petelawrence wrote on Tuesday 24 November :

I'm the "other co-founder" by the way, who actually came up with the idea for The Big Chill in 1994 and worked alongside Katrina for 14 years in establishing the festival and bars and label. I guess her 15 years counted for more in terms of awards, but then I've always been pretty cynical about awards anyway...

On reflection, perhaps just as well that I didn't receive an invite!

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