New festival series: Boutique is Beautiful

Volume one

Photographer:Sara Bowrey

Alex Fahey - 01 May 2012

A tent hasn’t yet been pitched, a chord strummed nor a cider been poured and 2012 already appears to be showing signs of a summer of struggle. Sonisphere has bitten the dust, Oxygen has taken a breather and the Big Chill has taken a year out to recuperate.
Has the great festival bubble burst?
To an outsider it feels like an almost overwhelming risk to debut an event in the midst of an economic downturn. Festivals are failing, unemployment is on the rise taking with it disposable income, and even Glastonbury guru Michael Eavis admits it, "nearly went bankrupt", despite its size and reputation.
But history celebrates risk-takers. You would be hard pushed to find a testimony from a festival organiser that speaks highly of their financial successes; there are no Thatcherite philosophies when a festival is first imagined. It’s about the music, the atmosphere and the hedonism; it’s never about the bottom-line.
In this series Alex Fahey talks to those daring enough, determined enough or perhaps mad enough to bring about new change in the festival market. It takes a look at organisers who wish to prevent the summertime from becoming stale, who are willing to put their money where their mouths are and offer alternatives to the events that have now become industry standards.
Amongst all the ‘Festival Fails’ headlines there’s new blood nudging its way in to the market, so does 2012 bring with it a New World Order? Have the organisers found a niche or are they being foolhardy launching an event in the midst of a recession? This series takes a look at the newest recruits, finds that Curriculum Vitae is not the only recurring theme and asks what makes their festival stand out.
Nova and WOWfest: Boutique is Beautiful.
It’s been said that ‘big is beautiful’ and who are we to disagree? When opinion morphs into cliché it’s hard to persuade people otherwise. So instead of electioneering for a statement re-think we’d like to offer a new one; there’s quality in quaintness.
2012 sees two start-ups, Nova Festival and WOWfest, which are hoping to turn this writer’s alliteration in to definition.
The first of the two, Nova, takes place this July and with its capacity alone you can feel the quaintness, "we've kept Nova intimate at 5,000 [people],” explains co-founder and organiser Katrina Larkin.
Big Chill founder Larkin has returned to the festival circuit in 2012, so experience is not in short supply and nor evidently is her enthusiasm. “We [have] spent years bouncing ideas around, taken a year off which was lovely but [we] missed bringing people together to celebrate life in the beautiful countryside. We [have] raised finances, found an amazing home, engaged with inspiring collaboratives and we’re full of energy to launch Nova.
On paper that energy appears to have been well channelled: four days of surprises are planned over Sussex’s beautiful South Downs, soundtracked by Soul Jazz and Good Times soundsystems as well as live performances from the likes of tUnE-yArDs. Creativity is at the centre of Nova: it hopes to step aside from staged performances; instead it’s focused on developing a world of theatre, art and English eccentricity that will support the music and widen the experience.
The organisers have worked with a sharp eye to create partnerships that will enhance the weekend. Experts in theatre such as Battersea Arts Club are invited and the palate hasn’t been neglected either. London’s Disappearing Dining Club is bringing food and Kubla Kahn Coffee Shop both sound like mouth-watering prospects.
Boutique has become the buzz word in the festival market over the past decade. The media eagerly attach the label to any event that is independently run, locates itself in the rolling green of nowhere and offers a small capacity to its attendees. Organisers focus on what festival-goers want beyond the bands and package the weekend as a glimpse into bohemia when compared to the four walls of the office. To achieve this the focus becomes the festival-goer themselves and their interaction with their surroundings.  Success is found when the line is hard to distinguish between punter and performer.
The touchstones for Boutique are almost always Big Chill and Bestival. Such has been their success in terms of growth, with little compromise on their original boutique identities that they offer a blueprint in to how to, if expansion is your goal, captain your vision.  A case in point is Bestival.  It still remains a toddler in terms of age but its success has been immense. Rob Da Bank’s debut soiree housed a mere 7,000 people but seven years later it’s hustling with the big festivals, ticketing for 55,000 punters while still maintaining its unique essence.
That’s not to say either Nova or WOWfest are looking to emulate the success of the Bestival. Geri Ward, co-organiser of WOWfest, remains coy about looking beyond its August debut: “year two is easier – WOWfest already has investors and huge named bands interested in involvement with success and therefore year two – but only if we can get through year one!”
The organisers can’t quite start looking towards 2013 yet but a glance at the announcements so far show that there’s many reasons to be confident when looking long-term. WOWfest’s conception makes it the third festival on the Isle of Wight, sandwiched between the Island’s namesake festival in June and the aforementioned Bestival in September.
The August event promotes itself as a Global Party, with mainstream names such as UB40, Paul Oakenfold and Heaven 17 finding places on the line-up. The festival does boast an eclectic mix, but beneath that layer there is an even deeper richness of music to be found.

 “The WOWfest line-up is very much a line-up for people who know, like and appreciate quality music,” enthuses Geri Ward and the names like Madeleine Peyroux, Dennis Rollins and Black Gandhi makes sure that her testament holds true.  If you’re looking to replicate the long sunny days sat in front of Glastonbury’s West Holts stage then you’ll struggle to find a better alternative this summer.
Without infringing on the positives of these two upcoming festivals, one wonders with caution, as Britain enters a double-dip recession, what part finance will have on the events.
Nova’s Katrina Larkin acknowledges the risks but insists they have planned responsibly: “Starting any new business is scary. It's a complete leap of faith and the responsibility is huge. We've kept Nova intimate [and] financially we can manage it long term.”
Similar vigilance has been administered at WOWfest, “[it] has been in the planning since 2009, so it isn’t exactly a spur of the moment decision,” says Geri Ward, “[it] has been based on some sound commercial thinking. There is no guarantee that this is the best route to success but is definitely a more sensible approach in this economic climate.”
Geri Ward also notes that, “some people would have advised Bestival never to start out the way they did but see what happened to that fabulous bohemian, quirky festival and how it has grown into what it is today!”
So with finances accounted for it’s down to business.  Often it’s an almost team-like mentality that helps the smaller capacity events through the infant years, something both WOWfest and Nova would benefit more than larger budgets.
As much as the attendees rely on the organisers to create a world where they can express themselves, the organisers hope by attendees reciprocate the effort and in doing so fill the gaps left by the lack of financial muscle.  As Larkin explains, “People who purchase tickets in year one, will be acknowledged long term because they are making Nova a reality.”
The hope is the attendees will immerse themselves in the event: be it through fancy dress, role play or campfire sing-a-longs, the festival will succeed if they go with the flow and their experience (and pockets) will be richer for it.
Go on: Boutique is Beautiful.

Nova Festival 2012 takes place from Bignor Park, Pulborough, Sussex from 5-8 July. Click here for more Nova Festival information.

WOWfest 2012 takes place at St Martins Down, Shanklin, Isle of Wight from 17-19 August. Click here for more WOWfest information.


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