On the rise and rise of the city day festival

Published in The Independent on June 29, 2016

You might be forgiven for thinking the UK had hit peak festival: every weekend from May to September offers a chance to lose yourself in a field. All summer long, train carriages are stuffed with damp tents, and newspapers stuffed pictures of girls in wellies.

So saturated is the market, that recent years have seen many weekend festivals cancelled or calling it a day, from Temples in Bristol to the Bloc weekenders to struggling newcomers such Forgotten Fields and Down to the Wood.

But there’s one type on the rise this summer: city-based day festivals. And sorry, Britain – while there are established city fests up and down the country, this new batch are decidedly a London-centric trend, almost an extension of the city’s nightlife for people who love festivals but can’t be bothered to leave their ends.

Joining established events such as Field Day, Lovebox and Wireless are a raft of newcomers, across every musical genre. Nile Rodgers just brought his Fold festival to west London, with Beck, John Newman and Labrinth. Junction 2, a dance music festival in Boston Manor Park last month, was such a success that “loyalty” pre-sale tickets have already been launched for next year’s event. Not that all new fests go off so smoothly: there were complaints over the organisation of Gala in south London after time spent queuing for the loos outweighed time spent dancing to the likes of Nightmares on Wax and Norman Jay.

Still to come this summer are all-new events such as Sunfall in Brockwell Park in July, featuring Jamie xx, Goldie and Ben Klock; Caught by the River Thames, bringing Super Furry Animals, Low and Beth Orton to Fulham Palace in August, and Hospitality in the Park, a multi-staged celebration of all things drum’n’bass in Finsbury Park in September.

Meanwhile, the East London Fringe Festival takes place across five weekends from 9 July, and includes tempting “mini-festivals” organised by the likes of Bestival-founder Rob Da Bank, club promoters The Hydra, and indie venue The Old Blue Last. All of which is great news for our capital.

I am a fan of pretty much every kind of festival, and genuinely love decamping to remote fields and wallowing in filth for a few days. But I’ve also been to ones where the weather, the waiting for shuttle buses, and the terrible toilets have made me question why I was putting myself through it.

By contrast, it’s easy to see the appeal of a day-time festival (which actually often go into the night, or have dedicated after-parties for those still standing). You can end the night cosy in your own bed instead of in a grotty sleeping bag in a tent that, you fear, may not be waterproof enough to survive the British summer weather/a stranger pissing on it. There’s no lugging a heavy rucksack halfway across the country, or trudging miles to find a spot to squeeze your tent into. And if you do overdo it … well, a hangover is better eased with a duvet and Netflix than another day hitting £5-a-can Red Stripe in the drizzle.

Then there’s the cash factor: tickets to weekend events, with their massive infrastructure overhead costs, are understandably pricey. City fests, less so. With many coming in at around £50, you could go to four for the same price as a big weekend away – with a mere tap of the Oyster card rather than an eye-watering train ticket too.

The reduced financial risk also makes them appealing to promoters. Day fests may be growing in popularity, but starting any kind of new festival is still a risk in the current climate, where there’s arguably more supply than demand.

Andy Peyton, owner of London clubs Phonox, XOYO and the Nest, is launching Sunfall this summer, a dance music event run with the folks behind Dimensions and Outlook festivals in Croatia. He’d looked at doing a weekender in a field, but felt a London park-based event “played to our strengths – we have many thousands of people a week come to our clubs. Also, it’s walk before you can run: if you do a camping thing, it’s very labour intensive”.

But he also gave considerable thought about how to offer something unique and hit on the idea of including entry to a range of after-parties in different clubs, thus offering both a festival and clubbing experience in one tidy package. Sunfall tickets holders can choose to carry on their nights in south London clubs such as Corsica Studios, the Bussey Building, Phonox and Fire.

“We don’t want to be just another city festival,” he said. “We thought this would make us stand out, and showed that we were for proper clubbers. We’ve got so much love for it: we see all the conversations on social media, which after-party shall we go to, people really debating it with their friends.”

Look again at the new crop of festivals, and they often have a new angle or canny selling point. With a stage right under a M4 motorway junction, there was a lot of Instagram love for Junction 2; with stage organiser and DJ Adam Beyer afterwards deemed it “something very special for London – it really exceeded all of our expectations”. The East London Fringe Festival spreads itself wide in musical tastes – and boasts tickets for all-dayers as low as £5, which is as good a gimmick as any.

Caught by the River are a website-cum-publishers-cum-music label with an interest in the nature – so it’s no wonder their festival isn’t just dudes with guitars (although they do feature). Dubbed ‘part gig, part literary gathering, part nature symposium,’ over two days its main stages host talks with the likes of Kate Tempest, Iain Sinclair and Will Self as well as bands.

“It’s always nice to sit in the pub and pontificate about your dream festival line-up – but this is us having a crack at it,” says co-founder Robin Turner. CBTR may have a focus on nature, but they’re all Londoners, so when they found a beautiful green space just off the main road in Fulham, it seemed the perfect home. It also, he sensibly points out, makes it easier to attract acts if they can pop down for the afternoon, rather than having to commit to a whole weekend in Cornwall.

Many of these festivals are new ventures from promoters, venues or organisations who already run events – and who see a gap for something bigger, but fresher, in the crowded summer season. CBTR have previously hosted stages at festivals such as Port Eliot and Festival No 6, which is all very well. But, as Turner, tells me, it’s nice to finally be “the main thing” rather than a quirky offering off to the side.

“Putting Chris Packham and Super Furry Animals on the same stage might sound a bit daft, but it makes perfect sense to us. Hopefully, it will make sense for other people too.”

Sunfall is at Brockwell Park, Herne Hill, on 9 July; Caught by the River Thames is at Fulham Palace on 6 and 7 August

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