‘A gambler’s wet dream and an accountant’s worst nightmare!’: the huge allure of the micro-festival

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The Guardian

“We started out with five of us putting £100 in a pot and hoping for the best,” says Henry Morris of the micro electronic music festival Field Maneuvers.

Along with Leon Cole and Ele Beattie, they’ve thrown their annual “no frills rave” in a secret countryside location since 2013 when 350 people showed up to get sweaty in a field. “It started as a party for us and our friends and it still is, it’s just gotten a bit bigger,” says Beattie. This year’s event, featuring Kode9 and Overmono, will host 1,500 people but there’s no intention to expand further.

There’s a growing desire to keep things small. Experimental music and arts festival Supernormal hosts 1,500 people in Braziers Park, Oxfordshire; just 600 people attended Sea Change in Totnes earlier this year, and indie outfit Sea Power are curating their own festival, Krankenhaus, for 750 people in a castle in the Lake District, featuring the likes of Low and Richard Dawson, over the August bank holiday weekend. “People love that it’s so intimate,” says the band’s guitarist Martin Noble. “It feels really magical for people seeing great bands on a tiny stage.”

Sea Power performing at Krankenhaus 2019. Photograph: PR handout

In an era of countless music festivals, with many trying to be all things to all people, micro-festivals are an opportunity to create something unique instead of adding to the bloat. “At some festivals you feel like you’re being herded like cattle to be drained of as much money as you possibly can be and then herded out again,” says Jimmy Martin of Supernormal. “We wanted to be the antithesis of that.”

The corporate nature of some festivals can also be sidestepped. “You spend your life being told to buy things,” says Morris. “If a rave is about anything, it’s about escaping that world for a bit.” You won’t find any expensive VIP add-ons either. “There’s no hot tubs or four-course sit-down meals,” says Cole. “We do have a pub, peanuts and a fruit machine though.”

Micro-festivals also increase bonding potential. “At a bigger festival you might share a moment with somebody on the dancefloor but who knows if you’ll ever find them again,” says Beattie. “At Field Maneuvers, by Sunday, when you try to introduce people, they are already new best mates. We’ve seen some beautiful relationships blossom. There are definitely a few babies that are a result of the festival.” Similar micro-festivals have also been dreamed up there by attendees, such as Twisted, Floorless and Above Below.

Organising something that results in creative collaboration is baked into the core ethos of Supernormal. “It’s creating a forum for people to express themselves and have ideas spark,” says Martin. The synth-pop-punk outfit Charismatic Megafauna being a key example: they met there, formed, then returned to perform a year later. Martin describes it as an “enormous catalyst for artists”.

These events also hope to break the boundaries between audience and artist. At Krankenhaus, backstage areas are ditched in favour of communal spaces, where you can munch on a burrito with Gruff Rhys or “bump into Stephen Morris from New Order walking around watching bird displays,” says Noble. Bird of prey displays are one of the many other elements on offer, alongside guided walks, talks and steam railway trips. “It’s like a holiday,” says Noble. “We want to showcase the rich landscape as well as the bands.”

A scene from Field Maneuvers festival 2020. Photograph: PR handout

As well as a desire to foster a sense of community, it’s also the unique settings of these festivals – bands playing in a barn inside castle grounds for Krankenhaus, while Braziers Park is in a Grade II country house and estate – that determines the cosy capacity. “We’re not prepared to do it anywhere else but this has worked to our benefit because we’ve avoided a lot of the other pitfalls that hit festivals, a lot of which are linked to over-expanding and the pressures that come with that,” says Martin.

Crucially, profit doesn’t appear to be a key motivation. Krankenhaus offers an extra free ticket for people who require carers and reduced ticket prices for those who are unemployed or on a low wage. “We don’t see it as a money-making venture,” says Noble. “It’s like our annual party. If we break even this year then we’ll be more than happy.”

Similarly, Field Maneuvers operates within tiny margins. “It’s a gambler’s wet dream and an accountant’s worst nightmare,” says Morris. “But every year we’ve got a bit bigger and tried to pay people as fairly as possible, with any money going directly back into making it the best party possible.”

Supernormal sold out within minutes this year – an irony not lost on Martin that in attempting to make a super-intimate and inclusive festival you risk inadvertently becoming exclusive.

However, it represents a real appetite for something more intimate, genuinely counter-cultural and idiosyncratic. “People build an emotional connection to it,” he says. “There’s a big community here and hopefully people come away from the festival not feeling fleeced of every penny but being moved by the transformative power of art.”

August 12, 2022 at 04:53PM Daniel Dylan Wray

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