All is not lost – A celebration of alternative music festivals

On meeting a self-proclaimed music enthusiast at a concert last week, my effusing about this year’s Glastonbury festival was met with the response ‘all music festivals are crap’. Although admiring his bold conversational technique, I wanted badly to disagree with his sentiment. But sadly, it is not just my new acquaintance who sees the festival season as a time for despair; his attitude is shared by many fans of alternative music genres (by alternative, I’m talking about anything you definitely wouldn’t find in the top 40 on a Sunday evening).

I concede that with the exception of Glastonbury, the major music festivals seem to have jettisoned the free spirited, and new-music promoting ethos that they espoused at their inceptions, favouring instead unethical corporate sponsorship and line-ups wholly saturated by the most vomit-inducing bubble-gum pop, or worse, Pete Doherty centred re-unions.

Perhaps the bitterest of blows came to alternative festival goers earlier in the year when the bastion of electronic music platforms, Glade Festival, (a spin off festival of the Glade district in Glastonbury) announced its 2010 cancellation, citing irrational policing restrictions and unreasonable price-hikes as reasons for the decision. To the despondent, the cancellation of Glade, which was borne out of ‘a love of electronic music, free spiritedness and alternative culture’, represented the death of the real music festival.

But these people are wrong; I propose that the ‘alternative’ festival is an institution more fruitful than ever – one simply has to look in the right places. What’s more, the best of the year’s are still to come this summer. For those who crave the experimental, perhaps the most satisfying event is Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival. Held in the city’s artistic epicenter, The Custard Factory, Supersonic is entering its eighth year this October, and is showcasing a line up of unrivaled gravity in the left-field music scene.

Supersonic Festival utilises converted factory warehouses and art galleries, making it, I think, one of the more interesting settings for a festival in the UK. And it’s not just the venue that makes Supersonic the antithesis of V; the musical line up is decidedly fascinating. It boasts a bunch of names that the average Joe would never had heard of, and granted, some are a little obtuse for my liking, but acts like Peter Broderick and People Like Us are bound to make the event a goer. As a resident of the West Midlands myself, one of the most refreshing things about Supersonic is its facility for breathing life into an ever diminishing alternative music scene within the second city – this, a cause for celebration in itself.

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For music that doesn’t spawn from a western tradition, a remarkable event is The African Music Festival in London, which, also in its eighth year, is held at several venues across the city, the principal one being The Festival Hall. The most outstanding feature of this festival is its musical authenticity. The majority of (the few) festivals that don’t neglect non-western music entirely tend to feature just watered-down, westernized acts, that draw only slightly on eastern flavours, and who they present under the ubiquitous, lazy and frankly meaningless ‘world music’ banner. To this, The African Music Festival, whose roster features genuine African musicians playing genuinely African music, is a viable antidote.

So far so good. Perhaps with this selection of musical feasts my festival-hating friend might begin to come round. But for some people, despite the overwhelming musical credibility of the aforementioned events, there is a component missing – the traditional festival spirit: the camping, the parties, the living it rough – the carnival experience.

For many, however good the line up, a music festival isn’t a music festival without such a vibe, and for these people I offer Stop Making Sense festival. Stop Making Sense, for me the most exciting festival of the summer, is situated on the coast of Croatia, and promises spirit in abundance. The inaugural party held in the first week of September involves round-the-clock clubs and regular boat parties – all in a pretty idyllic place.

However, the most remarkable thing about SMS is its relative diversity of line up. To date, most alternative festivals focus solely (albeit brilliantly) on a specific niche; Glade, for example, would have a comprehensive roster of everyone who is anyone within electronica. But SMS delves into the niches of further spanning sub-genres. Its organisers boast an expansive soundtrack touching upon as far ranging fields as flamenco, balearic, techno and psychedelic. It has an impressive line-up, with Radioclit, Django Django and Richard Norris all making appearances, making Stop Making Sense a very worthwhile go-to for any Eastern Europe travelers or people looking for a good time (ironically, a go-to that makes a lot of sense).

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So, fans of alternative music genres needn’t despair when it comes to festival season each summer. There are evidently copious opportunities to see interesting music in interesting places, whilst still enjoying the festival atmosphere. Of course, if you’d rather go the other way, then do so, but don’t say I didn’t warn you when Pete Doherty doesn’t show up.