Death of The Festival?

In the aftermath of the fallout from Threshold 2012, we consider what this means for the grass roots festival…

Last year, Glastonbury founder and driving force Michael Eavis declared the festival not long for this world; a strange statement from a guy whose mega-fest sells out within minutes of ticket release, year in, year out. Perhaps not so strange when you consider Latitude, Reading/Leeds, and even boutique festivals such as ATP, all found sell-outs difficult to come by in 2011.

Citing the crowded market place, and the growing popularity of European variations like Spain’s Benicassim drawing UK festival goers to sunnier climes, while boasting more than competitive line ups, the grandee may have a point. Where exactly, then, does this leave emerging festivals such as last weekend’s Threshold?

Specifically marketed as a ‘grass roots’ festival, the mind boggles when turning to thoughts of business plans and the like for such a venture. We hinted in our coverage of the weekend that in defining yourself in those terms, you could be making a rod for your own back. Relying on lashings of goodwill and in-kind support from industry professionals, those in the know will tell you to develop thicker skin. Said goodwill only goes so far, and there inevitably comes a time when people quite rightly want to get paid for their time and expertise. But what is the tipping point for this?

Those keeping their eyes and ears peeled across various social media yesterday will have borne witness to a back and forth between one of the bands (a relatively big draw, as it happens) and festival director Chris Carney, over acts appearing for free. Poor communication and one band, or the start of something bigger? The consensus on the pages of those involved seems generally to favour the point of view of Carney, that “festivals are not earners, they are profile exercises which can lead to earners, but for the most part they are a celebration of the brilliant shit that’s going on, and for festival goers, a chance to step into a different world for a weekend.”

“Threshold’s foundations are laid on somewhat utopian ‘build it and they will come’ ideals”

It’s unclear where the truth lies, but Threshold dealt well with the problem in this case, responding immediately and publicly to the criticism coming their way. And to paraphrase one question asked of the band, “…if you were concerned [about non payment] should you have raised that in advance?” Of course there was a response to this, but not wanting to get bogged down in the ‘he said, she said’ of the thing, we’ll move on.

So where does this leave the ‘grass roots’ variant of the festival? Speaking to Carney, who admitted to an element of ‘festival comedown’ yesterday, the mood was one of considered bullishness. Probably feeling a little battle-weary, but receiving succour from a not inconsiderable number of well-wishers, Carney said “[it was] time to re-assess the future of the event…it will happen again…but it will be a different beast.”

In what guise that beast will reappear remains to be seen, but one hopes it does. Threshold’s foundations are laid on somewhat utopian ‘build it and they will come’ ideals; that said, the experience of the festival was akin to many, more commercial concerns we’ve attended. In a word: mixed. Standard of act wasn’t out of this world (see our review of Saturday), but going into the weekend, we’d said if we emerged having seen one act or band that was memorable it would have been a success. As it happens, more than one fell into that category. Add to this, programming like the industry panels of Sunday (pictured) and, at least from a visitor’s point of view, good organisation, and we can forgive the odd sound problem and glitch in scheduling.

In less measureable terms, an event such as Threshold that utilises various venues and spaces in an otherwise underused part of the city breathes life and energy, not only into that geographical space, but into the wider arts community of Liverpool. Their current model isn’t indefinitely sustainable; should they wish to hang on to the talent currently at their disposal while attracting a greater standard of act, there will need to be a rethink somewhere. But the value of what they are doing shouldn’t be underestimated – we would be a poorer place for having no Threshold Festival.

Posted on 14/02/2012 by thedoublenegative