The best festivals provide an outlet for a collective yearning. Woodstock, Sundance, Glastonbury, Essence and Burning Man’s impact has eclipsed even their founders’ wildest dreams
Access’ recent trip to California for FestForum’s blockbuster summit united the visionaries behind the afore-mentioned events.
These events, and a more recent event – the UK’s environmentally pioneering Shambala festival (established as such in 2005) – earned their place in our top six most influential festivals list for their impetus both within our industry, and far beyond.
The 60s counterculture movement defined ‘the teenager’ as an identity in its own right. And the resulting domino cascade found its world-changing crescendo in 1969 at Woodstock, where the youth’s complex relationship with the United States and the world found its focal point.
The event’s spirit was embodied in Hendrix’s epic performance of Star Spangled Banner – the electrified notes of which the rang out far beyond the confines of the dairy farm in Bethel, New York, where it took place.
Over its four days, 15–18 August, Woodstock demonstrated the impact that a single live event can achieve in a manner rarely matched throughout history. Around 500,000 people united to watch 32 acts evoke a yearning for love, peace and an end to warfare.
One of its founders, Michael Lang (co-creator, musical concert promoter, artistic manager, Woodstock) says he was the product of a generation that wanted to change the world. “Things were terrible in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr and president Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and we wanted to make a last ditch effort to go out into nature and see if we could make things work on our own. And we did, on steroids.”
“The 60s was a different time to be young, we were empowered, coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, into women’s rights and protesting a war (the Vietnam war) we felt should be stopped. When we created the model for Woodstock it was about uniting our counterculture and behaving in a better way than the world was.”
Woodstock was set to have an iteration in 2019 to mark its 50th anniversary, billed as Woodstock 50. Just prior to its cancellation, it was announced the event had been reduced from three days to one day. It was cancelled on 31 July, 2019, after a series of permit and production issues, venue relocations, and artist cancellations. Lang discussed the event’s MO: “A lot of the new talent emerging now is very exciting, and we wanted the event to nod to our original roots, skipping the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s, and just focusing on now and the 60s. We booked Santana, which for me was a thrill.”
Also producing New York’s AmsterJam, Lang remains an aficionado of festivals worldwide. “We’ve always, as a Woodstock brand, tried to make the world a better place, and will continue to do that through action and fundraising. I still attend festivals, and most recently attended Coachella. I must say I appreciated much about it: the site is amazing, and the organisers do well and are efficient, plus the sound is great everywhere.”
Film is now Lang’s chosen medium, as a producer/director. Thsi is fitting as it was a hit documentary film, Woodstock (1970), which helped immortalise the 1969 event. Just under a decade later, filmmakers would gain a further boost from event-minded individuals in the form of Access‘ next top festival the now legendary Sundance Film Festival.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
Sundance kicked off in true style in Salt Lake City in August 1978, known then as the Utah/US Film Festival. The festival aimed to attract more filmmakers to Utah and was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen (then head of Wildwood, Robert Redford’s company) and John Earle (serving on the Utah Film Commission at the time).
Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, Midnight Cowboy, and Mean Streets headlined the event, which featured the prestigious Frank Capra Award.
In 1979, Robert Redford became the festival’s inaugural chair. Four years later, in 1984, the event became known as Sundance, after Redford’s character the Sundance Kid from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Sundance Film Festival festival director John Cooper says the event rode the wave of independent film becoming viable in the market place, supporting companies like Miramax, Strand, October Films. “We’re a community that has formed something of a wave and the festival has supported that. We think that stories change the world, and theories divide us. You have to open up people’s hearts and minds.
“I believe films, and conscious documentaries make you reflect on life. They make you say, ‘I never thought of it that way’, so you’ll emerge as a changed person, and vote differently or perhaps be a better person.”
Cooper is passionately dedicated to the medium of film (“I’ve watched around 500 movies in the last two months,” he says) and, while he is keen for Sundance to remain true to its ethos, he does look around for inspiration. “What I take from others festivals is how to put people together creatively. The award winners at Sundance serve food to the other nominees, and we have a pancake breakfast that facilitates that.
“I’ve learned that to be successful you mustn’t fear saying ‘no’. This attitude helps make us pure in what we do. Everyone wants you to change all the time, but we focus on showing the best films, and providing visitors with the best time.”
The eyes of the world descend on a little spot called Pilton every June, but Glastonbury Festival has been keen to use its sway as a force for change from the outset, both locally and worldwide.
Robert Richards, commercial director, Glastonbury Festival works closely with founder Michael Eavis. He started as a staffer on an information point at the festival in the early 90s and, for someone who wasn’t particularly into music and had a phobia of crowds it was “quite a shock”. However, its testament to the festival’s power, that Richards has been continually moved by the event’s wide-reaching impact.
“I used to hide in a lodge on my downtime at the festival, and once I was sat next to an electrician who told me he’d spontaneously decided to sell his house and move to India. After that, I thought to myself: there’s something uniquely special happening here. This is a five-day event, and it’s an immersive experience that changes peoples’ lives. We’ve had cultural effects, but it’s the individual ones that stand out to me.”
Often, its Glastonbury’s content that inspires its action. “We banned plastic bottles this year. It was a campaign that got kicked off because Sir David Attenborough spoke at our event. We make money, but we give away around £3m every year, and these activities permeate the event.”
Despite this, Glastonbury is careful not to overly push its message. “It’s ultimately an event for people who want to enjoy the music. You can’t hit people over the head too much with messaging that you alienate them. We have the likes of Wateraid, Greenpeace and Oxfam all around, but not too high in the mix. It’s about knowing you can just enjoy yourself and not be sold stuff, or marketed to. We have no branding, and no corporate logos. It’s a haven from what’s going on around people.”
Meanwhile, the festival’s changing demographics and extensive television coverage has widened the reach. “Back in the 90s the age demographic was quite tight, but now we have not only the 18-25 year olds, but also many 60-85 year olds. We have 2.4m people registered for our event, and 22m people watching on television and that feeds the interest. Festivals have become what people want as adults, which is different than, say, Woodstock. Festivals have reached the wider culture.”
Held in late Summer annually in the western United States at Black Rock City, a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, approximately 100 miles (160 km) north-northeast of Reno, Burning Man is an event and a year-round cultural movement generated by a global community of participants.
First held in 1986, the event culminates in a symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy (“The Man”), which – despite echoing The Wicker Man – the organisers claim to have been unaware of this film at the event’s inception.
Michael Mikel a.k.a. ‘Danger Ranger’, founding board member, Burning Man Project outlined the festival’s mission: “We are not for profit and we want to do social good and make people see the world from a different viewpoint. We are the largest leave no trace event in the world. And the federal government has adopted our standards for clean up.
“It’s an event that does transform people. Attendees often change their lives, their jobs, they become artists, and it’s spreading. There’s Burning Man regional events in nearly every state now, and these types of events are occurring in more than 34 countries around the world.”
Providing a respite from commercialism is another MO of Burning Man. Mikel says: “We live in a consumer culture and that divides us. Burning Man sees people walk down the streets of Black Rock City and you look people in the eye. There’s nothing for sale except ice and coffee – for survival. It’s non commercial and that brings people together.
Despite this, Burning Man is no walk in the park. Its searing temperatures and insistence on self-reliance make for a challenging undertaking. “People have called Burning Man a ‘self-imposed natural disaster’ – but we try to spread our positivity. We’re the first non-profit solar company in the US and we’ve installed hundreds of solar systems for hospitals and schools across Nevada and launched Burners Without Borders which travelled around the world to disaster sites to help people with housing,” he adds.
In April 2011, Larry Harvey announced that the LLC was beginning a three-year process to transfer ownership and control of the event over to a new non-profit organisation called the ‘Burning Man Project’. The move towards becoming a non-profit organisation was the result of infighting between members of the board.
Mikel then, offers well-earned advice for wannabe festival founders: “Find people you trust and give them the responsibility to take responsibility. And don’t try and get too big too fast. There was a time when we were doubling in population every year.
“When dealing with all the bureaucracy, I often think: ‘why am I doing this?’, then at the event I stumble across some beautiful creative thing, and I remember why. As challenging as the world is today I think we can generally make a difference.”
Now the largest event celebrating African-American culture and music in the United States, The Essence Festival, known as “the party with a purpose”, started in 1995 as a one-time event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence, a magazine aimed primarily towards African-American women.
Locally referred to as the Essence Fest, it has been held in New Orleans, Louisiana since 1994 except for 2006, when it was held in Houston, Texas due to Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans. Its attendance is around 480,000 people.
Access sat down with Essence’s executive director, live events & experiential Candace Montgomery at FestForums to discuss the event’s cultural impact.
“From the beginning we featured conversations about what’s going in in our community, tackling how we would talk aaddress the direction of our community, and it’s really grown significantly,” she says.
“We’re always bringing our content pillars to life. We are building extensions of what’s happening online and in print, so it’s all 360. We’re going deeper into things, pulling in new verticals and having great conversations with new people. We extended it from the convention centre and the Superdome, to ten additional venues, there’s programming going on all over the place.”
Montgomery says internal discussions are always ongoing around content: “We do a lot of research, the editors have their ears very close to the community and our development process is year round. Last year we had a Global Black Economic Forum that brought in leaders from the world, examining how we would bring prosperity to the black community. We were asking, ‘what’s the plan?’.”
“Staging and production are so important, and so is getting the look and feel right. Our creative director and chief content director give stages their own identity. Wellness House, for example also goes out on the road. Everything in the festival works together but can also stand alone.”
Shambala takes place across four days on the August Bank Holiday Weekend at a stunning secret location in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside.
Cco-founder Chris Johnson says: “Shambala has reduced its carbon footprint by over 90%, eliminated single-use plastic, taken meat and fish off the menu, banned disposable cups for hot drinks, and provides mostly compost toilets. Awards include the European Green Operations Award and 5 star certification from Julie’s Bicycle’s Creative Industry Green.”
Johnson nods to some of the suppliers who made this possible:
Greenbox Ltd are leaders in recycling at events. They broker relationships with diverse waste processing families and provide the infrastructure and staff with experience to successfully separate waste onsite.
Compoost provide us with a fleet of compost toilets that are well designed and functional. We always have positive audience feedback. The waste is composted and used on the land, with no chemicals involved in the process.
Recup supply Shambala reusable cups and a washing service. Resumable cups has been a huge success, providing a better audience experience, reducing environmental impacts.
Electric Wheels: Shambala has recently moved to electric buggies onsite. They have proven reliable
Impression One have helped Shambala reduce fuel consumption by over 50% over 10 years, despite growth in capacity.