Raving in the open air has been a British institution since the rave era, but many London festivals seem to get it completely wrong. In this month’s house and techno column, Scott Wilson asks: Is the UK dance music festival a lost cause?
It’s summer, which means one thing if you’re a house and techno fan living in the UK: you won’t be able to see your favourite DJs playing in clubs because they’re all playing at European festivals or parties in Ibiza.
This is an exaggeration, but only just. London’s Fabric operates at a reduced capacity over the peak summer months, while multi-event series such as The Warehouse Project and The Hydra concentrate their programming on the autumn and winter season to mitigate the exodus that happens during summer. Clubbers in the UK will inevitably visit warmer climates in summer, but that doesn’t mean to say that people don’t also want to dance closer to home. In the UK however, it’s getting harder and harder to do this during summer to anything approaching a satisfactory level. Combine rapid club closures in London and beyond with DJs being booked to play abroad, and you have a recipe for the UK’s capital becoming even more of a clubbing ghost town than it already is. But if you live in the UK and you don’t want to travel to Croatia or Ibiza during the summer, where does that leave you?
The answer is one of the growing number of one-day summer festivals catering for clubbers. This year the number on offer has multiplied exponentially: on June 11 there were two festivals in London alone catering for a clubbing crowd: Field Day and Found. One week prior to that there was Junction 2 and Rinse | Born & Bred, and last weekend (July 9), there was a new south London festival called Sunfall. Each had strong line-ups, but there were problems at some: Field Day was beset by torrential rain, Born & Bred was subject to several artists being removed from the bill and Found’s low volume levels were subject to criticism from L.I.E.S. boss Ron Morelli. His comments echoed a recent tweet from Ben UFO, who said that his only summer date in London would be at Shoreditch club XOYO because he didn’t want to play any “85db sound limit festivals” this year.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept of the one-day techno festival. After all, raving in the open air with a huge sound system has been a British institution since the rave era. But the experience we’re frequently given is an insult to those who have paid as much as £50 for a ticket (and that’s not counting £5 per can of beer). Sometimes, low volume levels that seem to be down to noise regulations are actually down to the equipment used. While criticisms were levelled at Found’s volume, Sunfall, which also took place in south London’s Brockwell Park, suffered no such issues (Sunfall even commented on the measures they’d taken to ensure good sound beforehand). With experiences being so wildly inconsistent from festival to festival even when they’re at the same site, should we be surprised that top tier DJs such as Ben UFO don’t want to play at them?
I’ve had more disappointing dance music festival experiences over the years than I care to remember, but I still believe that when they’re done well, big techno festivals can be as life-affirming as the smaller, more communal events. At Sónar Festival in Barcelona last month, I got to Ben UFO and Helena Hauff’s back-to-back set just as they dropped Pangaea’s unreleased ‘Skips Desk’, a track that Ben UFO has described as the “techno ‘Wearing My Rolex’”. It’s the kind of track that feels made not for tiny basement clubs but gigantic festival stages flanked by obscene speaker stacks. It sounds a bit like the Vengaboys and it has a breakdown that makes you feel giddy. The enclosed space of somewhere like Corsica Studios will always have a place in my heart, but for sheer WTF tracks like that, bigger is always better.
Part of the reason Sónar works so well is the sheer scale. The nighttime part of the festival takes place in a gigantic conference centre on the edge of Barcelona, and the main stage is in a space the size of an aircraft hangar. It feels like techno Disneyland. Bloc Festival attempted to create something along the lines of Sónar back in 2012, using brownfield site in south-east London, but it failed spectacularly due to the site not actually being finished and bad crowd management. Given the number of one-day festivals that London seems able to support, there’s clearly a market for a large two or three-day electronic music festival in the capital, but it seems likely that the Bloc fiasco of 2012 has put many people off. The recent referendum decision to leave the EU and the accompanying financial uncertainty makes it even less likely anyone would try to create a Sónar in our back garden.
So is there any hope for the UK dance music festival, especially now that Bloc’s seaside weekender has also ended for good? Early last month I visited Belfast for the second edition of the city’s fledgling AVA Festival, and it gave me hope that perhaps the UK can do big techno festivals as well as our counterparts on the continent. Taking place in the remote, industrial surrounds of the city’s dockland area (the warehouse in which the Titanic was built, to be exact), the one-day event saw acts including Bicep, Gerd Janson, Shanti Celeste and Rødhåd play in a space that was big but not impersonal, loud and filled with a crowd that actually knew how to have fun. From the moment local DJs Swoose & Cromby kicked off the Boiler Room stage at 3pm with Carl Craig’s classic remix of Delia & Gavin’s ‘Relevee’ onwards, every peak was greeted by nothing less than the sort of cheer you’d expect from a cup final-winning goal. In terms of atmosphere alone it was the most enjoyable UK dance music festival I’ve been to in a long time.
“The number one priority for Belfast people is having fun, so in turn the crowd is insanely responsive and the DJ can feel that the moment they start playing,” AVA Festival founder Sarah McBriar tells me. “The licensing laws means that clubs finish early in comparison to other major cities, between 1am and 3am at the latest, so the crowd don’t mess around: when they go in, they go in. And I suppose this translates across all events now. Warm up slots don’t really exist, because there isn’t the time for that.” It was a far cry from the London festivals I’ve been to recently, where the site doesn’t really reach capacity until a few hours before curfew.
The sound at AVA was also great, despite being held in a capital city. Unlike London festivals such as Field Day and Found that take place in inner-city parks however, AVA is located in a brownfield site on the outskirts of the city, with only a few apartments nearby. “We do face noise restrictions, but not like what we would face if it was in the city centre and fully residential,” McBriar says. The result is a festival that’s able to push volume levels that little bit louder, with the added bonus of being held in a space with a dedicated 1am entertainment license. It’s not the 7am finish of Sonar, but it’s enough to make you feel like you’ve danced enough without needing to find an afterparty.
Outside of Belfast, Glastonbury appears to be doing the best to represent UK festival raving with its dedicated dance area Block9. The amount of creativity and work that goes into creating its imposing NYC Downlow, Genosys and London Underground stages proves that the UK can create experiences that are arguably even more impressive than anything you’ll see at Sónar or some of the bigger Ibiza parties. Earlier this week, Block9 announced its desire to launch in London in the next few years on the Southbank or by the Royal Docks to create “the motherfucker of all experiences.” Whether this will be subject to the same noise restrictions and early curfews as London’s other festivals remains to be seen, but the promoters behind London’s established dance music festivals must be pretty worried. Block9 has proved it can deliver the experience, and those punters that have suffered underwhelming London festivals that can’t make it into Freerotation might just vote with their wallets.
Scott Wilson is on Twitter