Free Movement: Gottwood and the Festival Experience

by Tom Graham

The growing festival circuit in the UK appears to be going from strength to strength, with a wealth of options at all sizes for those seeking the big and the bold in electronic music. From city-based festivals like Wigflex’s takeover of Nottingham, to the plethora of small weekend-long camping events like Field Maneuvres, We Out Here, and of course stalwarts like Glastonbury, it feels like every combination of tastes is catered for.

 

An explosion of new festival opportunities growing larger and maturing with each annual iteration is  set against a more challenging landscape in the club circuit, where harsher licensing laws and rising rents threaten club spaces that provide year-round support. According to a recent report by the International Music Summit (IMS), 21% of UK clubs closed in 2018, compared to a 1% decline per year between 2013 and 2017, a drop that IMS suggested may be driven by the attendance of fewer, bigger events, such as festivals and also larger club spaces like the 5000-capacity warehouse Printworks. That consumers may be flocking to expensive, ‘experiential’ activities over more regular nights represents an opportunity for festival-organisers to enter a potentially lucrative market, while also forcing them to be innovative and establish a distinctive identity amongst a sea of competitors. If spaces are transforming on both sides of the live music spectrum, how are these changes being felt amongst those attending and actually playing at the events?

 

With this in mind we headed to Gottwood festival to chat to the artists caught up in these changes. Now in its 10th year, Gottwood sits on the vanguard of small, ‘boutique’ festivals offering a slew of both established and up-and-coming names, but with enough editions behind it to carry a lot of weight. Its reputation as being able to straddle musical ingenuity with consistency in quality made it an ideal choice for us to dig deeper: how are festivals and clubs different, and what challenges does this open up for organisers and artists alike?

“For us the early rave scene was festival-like”, reminisces Simon Colebrooke, one third of the 90s hardcore outfit 2 Bad Mice – “you were going into aircraft hangars and fields when it was the illegal stuff." The opportunity to leave the rest of civilisation for a few days and inhabit a space dedicated to music creates a unique experience that models freedoms gone by. “It reminds you of all the hedonism and stuff we read about in New York in the late 80s when dance music was developing and there wasn’t any of that modern technology around then,” echoes Adam Curtain, who delivered a refreshing blend of hypnotic and euphoric groovers on Gottwood’s opening night. “I can come here and be daft and roll around in the grass and not really feel like I’m missing out.”

The physical isolation away from normal life makes the festival space immersive in a way that a club cannot be, and Gottwood is an extreme example of this. Set in Llanfaethlu, right on the tip of North Wales, the site is less of a vast, open field and more of a hidden, vibrant forest, its picturesque woodland and lake imbuing a sense of mysticism and wonder. “It’s not just a non-descript field with nothing around it,” says Harry Wills. “Regardless of the music it’s just a nice place to be anyway, and even if there’s no one there you can still bounce off the environment.” Harry’s 8.5-hour b2b2b with Alec Falconer and Rob Amboule went down at The Curve, the lake behind it becoming the ideal backdrop to their minimal-garage hybrids and wacky UKG cuts.

The stark distinction from the club space clearly changes the way the music is experienced. This point is articulated by the London-based label Seven Hills Records – “we need to delineate between the club and the festival because they’re completely different... You’re always gauging your musical choices in a different way because the only appropriate thing you can do is to treat [the club and the festival] separately. If you’re trying to homogenise it then you just get this mush of it not being that good in either space.” Unlike those in the club, festival crowds are far more transient as they drift from stage to stage, which not only challenges DJs to deliver a distinctive and enticing performance, but also challenges organisers to create a space that is varied and sparse but without being too overwhelming. Gottwood worked well to achieve this balance, each stage possessing an authentic character while striking the right distance to each other. The Walled Garden is found down a narrow path and beyond a doorway, leading to the wobbling 90s house and techno of The Ghost, or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it electro of DJ Stingray. Elsewhere, you might be crammed into The Barn, which is, well, a barn. It was here that Artwork ‘dusted off the dubstep’ by returning to the genre in which he established himself as an artist, giving Joy Orbison’s stone-cold classic ‘Hyph Mngo’ a well-deserved wheel-up in the process.

Free movement between stages and sets is an essential component that distinguishes the festival and the club. That said, it’s also important that the organisation of sets seems deliberate, and that they flow from one another logically; while club spaces more obviously bind performances together in a way that makes sense, the scale of festivals brings with it the risk that this glue will be lost. One particularly striking aspect about Gottwood was its attempts to counter this – the curatorial presence was very apparent, with each stage’s lineup for that day clearly divided into sections hosted by a label or club-night. One Records’ takeover of Ricky’s Disco on the Saturday night exemplified this cohesion, moving with pace and purpose from Seven Hills Records’ dancefloor heaters, through to the breakbeat and bass shellers of Luca Lozano and then S_AS, and then finally culminating in Tristan Da Cunha’s freaky techno and garage. While it was possible to freely drift between stages with no regimented plan, there was almost an extra pleasure to be obtained from experiencing the entire showcase as one extended performance, and enjoying the overarching narrative intended for those few hours.

Presenting artists in a logical order does not necessarily mean they are bound to conform to a particular style or energy level, however. One distinguishing feature of festivals that several DJs noted was the freedom given to them to push themselves with their selections and move in new directions. “When you’re a warmup DJ [at a club] you’re not trying to steal the limelight, you’re trying to build the atmosphere and mood for the artist, which makes these warmup sets hard, whereas at a festival you can really play your own sound”, points out Stav, fresh from his thrilling b2b with Em Williams at the Walled Garden. “Rather than thinking ‘these are the people I’m warming up for, I need to play this so…’, you’ve got a 2-hour window where it’s like ‘right I’m really going to showcase what I want to play'.” It definitely felt as if DJs were being more proactive and less reactive in their music choices; Birmingham-based Jack D’s raucous cuts brought robotic electro to life on the Friday night, when any other DJ playing this peak-time slot at another festival might feel inclined to play bangers they’re known for.

In having the confidence to test the waters, the DJ’s engagement with the crowd is reciprocated. In drawing a potentially more ‘headsy’ audience, smaller festivals can give DJs the reassurance that their efforts to try new things will be rewarded, as expressed by Ceri after her deliciously deep house and breakbeat set: “Playing a smaller festival like Gottwood, you can really do what you want and people get a bit more out of it which is nice. Because the crowd know their music and are more open to different sounds, you can really go on a journey together. You can take more risks with the crowd here, because you know they'll go on that journey with you.” This mutual trust between artist and audience is essential for any festival to establish itself, and is integral to Gottwood’s continued success through the years. What makes smaller festivals appealing is the fact that you choose to go because of the vibe they cultivate, without necessarily being tied down by any expectations about which acts will make or break the festival. “It’s something about the music here,” says Simon from 2 Bad Mice. “It’s not something you’re gonna go to because it’s a fashionable festival to go to. It’s a festival you’re going to travel 6-hours in the car for or sit on the train with a load of ravers, all because of their music policy.” Unlike clubs where the safety of your own home is often not too far away, festivals like Gottwood require the commitment to physically remove yourself from society for a few days – “people go there purely for the music and they don’t mind travelling fucking miles to get there, and that’s testament to what the festival is like.”

This element of trust clearly plays an important role in creating a welcoming environment; the scale of festivals compared to clubs presents the challenge of ensuring that artists and punters alike feel acknowledged. This task of making a space feel welcoming is one that Dolan Bergin, founder of the London-based promoter The Hydra, recognised himself as facing with his own nights at Printworks. If festivals and large-scale events really are the places people are turning to as clubs close, then the challenge of making a potentially industrial space feel warm is essential if one is to make these bigger-scale events inviting. “Clubbers make their choice by buying a ticket and in doing so they are putting their trust and hard-earned money in you. But if you’ve shown them that you’re looking after them and looking after all the details then I think they give back in energy and experience.”

In spite of the challenges, Gottwood sees its close-knit community as its defining quality. Dolan told me how he was greeted by the owner of the festival and his family, before him and other DJs went into the family's house, located on site. Indeed, Move D (who has played more sets at the festival than anyone) embraces this family atmosphere literally, bringing his partner and young son along with him. Such an open, honest and friendly environment can only be good for the wider scene: “Festivals are important for not only the people playing, but they bring a collective of spirited music lovers together like nowhere else can," reflects Stav. "It can encourage people to go away and seek out music they've heard and DJs they've seen and listened to, and then inspire people to set up their own club nights, buy records and equipment and potentially become DJs themselves. Festivals are definitely the feeder for things like this." In light of the threats faced by clubs, and in a world that is increasingly globalised and disparate, its reassuring to know that places still exist that cultivate the intimacy and community on which rave spaces were first founded.

Words by Tom Graham

Contributions from Nathan Caldecott, Flo Ward, Christian Jones and Alex Greenwood

Photos by Nathan Caldecott