UK Festivals: Music, Culture & The Spoken Word

Jason Smith 20 June 2016

There was a time when a music festival was just that, a festival of music for music lovers to go to and listen to music. Any spoken word from the stage either came from a roadie’s aggressive ‘one-two, one-two’ when testing the microphones or from the lead singer exclaiming “You’re like totally the best audience ever!” Off the main stage, poetry played its part at festivals, but arguably as the poor prince to rock's majesty at pomp. However, with the rise in popularity of the boutique, or themed, festival such as Latitude, Wilderness, Festival No.6 and Green Man, we're now seeing  arts and culture  getting in on the act. It is now commonplace, to see speakers, from adventurers  to politicians , on the bill with authors and poets performing alongside their musical contemporaries.

This phenomenon is no more apparent than at the Latitude Festival  in Suffolk and Festival No.6  in Portmeirion, North Wales. Latitude describes itself as providing the ‘biggest offering of music, theatre, dance, film, cabaret and literature’. So alongside New Order, The Maccabees and The National, festival goers can enjoy discussion and talks lead by economist  Will Hutton  and comedy from  Russell HowardJosh Widdecombe  and  Al Murray . Over in Wales in August at No.6 Shaun Ryder takes to the stage not to sing, but talk about his life and songwriting, and poet Simon Armitage will be performing his poems at the Welsh festival for the first time.

A half and half & scratchings; Al Murray's Pub Landlord.

How did speaking, and other art forms, start appearing at events? Well, it is to the music festival we look for answers.  At the turn of the millennium, the boutique arts festival was nowhere to be seen; not on a national level at any rate. In 2000, there was Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and T in the Park; that was about your lot. Back then festivals were considered to be edgy, even dangerous, with Glastonbury often experiencing breaches in their fencing around the site. This lack of  security  would result in numbers inflating from the planned 100,000 ticket holders up to an extra 150,000 gatecrashers. Reports of violence, drug use and arrests would appear on the 6 O’clock news along with scenes of muddy devastation caused by a June downpour reinforcing, rightly or wrongly, this was not a family focused event.

However, TV coverage from the likes of Channel 4 and the BBC has gone a long way in demystifying some of the more perceived dangers of the festival. Relatively ‘normal’ people were seen to be having a good time listening to bands you could introduce to your parents, both musically and physically. Major sponsorship started to appear too, notably The Guardian at Glastonbury in the late 90s. So this, along with the TV coverage, helped to foster a positive image of festivals.

Have you seen my contact lens? The Glastonbury Festival

In the early noughties, there was a concerted effort from Glastonbury to make their festival ‘family friendly’. It involved making – as it appeared at the time – an unholy union between corporate event behemoths, The Mean Fiddler Group and the lowly farmer, and organiser of Glastonbury, Michael Eavis. With pressure from local authorities, Eavis had to tackle the fence breaching issue and be seen to improving health and safety. Eavis finally acquiesced to outside help from MFG and with it came the infamous Super-Fence standing at 12 feet tall and costing, in 2002, a cool £1M. It worked though and festival numbers that year stayed where they should be.

This increase in safety, it could be argued, went a long way in allaying any concerns of parents - who may have been festival goers themselves – to now consider taking children. Newer festivals took lessons from this and put this at the heart of their planning. There was also a feeling that these larger festivals, like Glastonbury, were getting too big – there was a movement to scale back on size and numbers and concentrate on tranquil location. This change meant fewer funds for ‘big name acts’ so the emphasis shifted to a wider cultural provision that included cabaret, good food and, of course, speaking and discussion.

"You are number six." The festival at Portmeirion

This new model allowed Festival No.6  and Green Man to flourish. They were also, from inception, able to coalesce around a theme, or concept, thus creating an atmosphere of shared values which is something the larger festivals had lost. Commercially, the smaller festivals were doing well too by primarily establishing and meeting the demand for a family orientated festival which between 2000 and 2011 showed no signs of slowing.

Advances in  technology , particularly the internet and  social media , allowed these smaller festivals to reach a larger audience. Blissfields founder, Paul Bliss, speaking to The Independent in 2013 said: “When we started I was a farmer, but the internet allowed me to promote, organise, talk to bands, get contacts”. This a view echoed by Bradley Thompson, the director of Festival No 6, who said social media played a huge role in getting their festival out to a wider audience: "People try to keep up in less of a material way and more of an experiential way these days. Within 10 seconds of doing something, you can tell 1,000 people all about it. We’ve benefited from that show-off factor".


There are other factors too which have led to the rise of the boutique festival – and subsequently speaking - although space and time does not allow to explore fully.  These include the shift in expenditure from product to experience (which Bradley Thompson touches on the last paragraph) and organisers, thankfully, laying on better facilities in the form of glamping options and better loos, plus, expectations move on and evolve with new generations bringing new ideas to the mix. All of these factors and more have led to substantial growth in the number of UK festivals.

This increase in festivals is evident in the number of events that exist today. Remember in the early noughties when there was just Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and T in the Park? Festival website, eFestivals , now details an incredible 840 events between the 1st April and the end of September. Of these, 130 would fall into the multi-arts category such as Green Man and Festival No.6. It shows supply has finally caught up with latent demand.

Nonetheless, Scott Williams, Editor at the eFestivals feels the UK music festival scene has reached saturation point. He says "The festival industry in the UK saw a massive growth from 2000 to 2011. Since then, [over] the last five years the figure has been fairly static at around 1,000 festivals a year...Although the overall numbers stay the same, there are roughly around 50 or so festivals that fold each year with around the same number replacing them."

They'll still want ice-cream!

Two major factors that can fold a festival are the British weather and lack of  finances . Putting on a festival is expensive with Gareth Cooper, Festival No.6 co-founder, saying for energy alone for a 10,000-capacity festival "Will cost you between £60,000 and £100,000”. Add on waste management, employment costs and artist fees (you need a quality line-up) and they all add up, eating into a margin that was never that big in the first place. Event finances can then hang in the balance while organisers diligently track tickets sales. If the great British weather decides to make an unwelcome appearance this can see off a festival for good; especially when tickets remain on sale up to the event itself. It's no surprise then Gareth Cooper describes festival management as "a reckless business". Full of Kafka-like organisational woes and Acts of God, who would set up a festival? People who have a passion for the art form for sure, but this can only take your event so far. One needs to possess or bring in a  business  or commercial understanding in the hopes of keeping your festival alive, but this is never a guarantee.

No man, I'm off to see Will Hutton

It's been a heady time for the UK festival scene, sure things have slowed down but it's been an incredible journey for the sector, a magical mystery tour even. Festivals have disappeared in a fiscal puff of smoke while others appear in the gloaming of a woodland setting. Music remains the beating heart of the festival, but it has allowed those other ministries of art to build their sanctuaries on its green and hallowed fields. As we have seen, festivals will come and go, but the tradition of providing a multi-art platform is here to stay, ensuring there is a place for theatre, dance, comedy and yes, spoken word.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia and thank you to Scott Williams at eFestivals for confirming festival numbers.

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