‘You Are Literally Dancing In Our Garden:’ European Boutique Festivals Thrive

Boutique Agency:
Emma Gardiner
– Boutique Agency:
Space butterflies at Herefordshire, England’s Nozstock Festival, one of a growing number of boutique festivals spreading their wings in the European live market.
If you went to Shambala, which takes place in Northamptonshire, England, last year, you could have entered a giant replica of a womb. You read that right.

At Kendal Calling in the U.K.’s Lake District, the majority of its 12,000 visitors celebrate a giant fancy-dress party each year. This year’s theme, July 26-29, is simply “the future.”

When the event launched in 2006, it had a capacity of around 900. Its organizers maintained slow and organic growth over the years, and the festival has now sold out for the 13th consecutive year.

Other festivals in Europe that are in their beginning stages include Uva Festival in Spain, which takes place in front of a 15th-century monastery with a capacity of 500, and the 700-capacity Farrago Festival in Germany, which is set into an old Bavarian castle.

In Romania, the 10,000-capacity Awake Festival premiered in 2017, headlined by Tom Odell. Every morning at the festival, promoters Guido Janssens and Laura Coroianu of Emagic met with festivalgoers to share ideas and give feedback. The festival site is located right next to a castle, and features a forest library with 500 volumes, which festivalgoers can borrow and read in the shade of 350-year-old oak trees. 

For several years now, the buzzword in live entertainment industry has been “experience.” People expect their three-day outing to be a proper break from reality. Or, to put it in the words of Live Nation President of Europe-Concerts John Reid: “Festivals aren’t just a field full of fans, and a headliner or two. There’s something extra that makes a festival a unique success story over a number of years. That’s important to preserve; that’s the secret-sauce bit of it.”  

Indeed, as the European festival market expanded with new events and territories as well as the growing involvement of global promoters, agencies and superstar artists, boutique festivals offer a respite with distinct venues, lineups and amenities specific to themselves. 
One event that has successfully preserved its unique appeal is Nozstock: The Hidden Valley, which takes place in Herefordshire, England. The 20th anniversary party, July 20-22, will be headlined by Chase & Status, Goldfrapp, and Grandmaster Flash – an innovative and eclectic billing to be sure, but not exactly mega-festival headliner fare. 

Kendal Calling 2017
Jody Hartley
– Kendal Calling 2017
Aerial shot of the English festival, which took place July 27-30.
The father-daughter team of Pete and Ella Nosworthy run the festival and their entire family helps out. What started as a barbecue in the Nosworthys’ garden has developed into a 5,000-capacity event that won a U.K. festival award for Mind Blowing Spectacle last year for its closing fireworks show, proving that boutique doesn’t mean meek.
Pete Nosworthy remembers Nozstock’s first edition well.
“We had a band playing, a few burgers, we called it Nozstock as a joke (play on Woodstock),” he says. “We never set out to have a festival, we certainly never thought we would be doing what we are 20 years later. It just grew organically year on year. Adding a bar, having some more bands, eventually adding a few stalls, another stage, a cinema. It grew a little each year until we realized we were holding a festival completely by accident!”
His daughter Ella is the festival’s creative director. She told Pollstar about some of the advantages a boutique event may have over the festival giants.
“We can sell ourselves on our size and intimate atmosphere, for one. We can promote the rural, homemade element of the festival, which could be lost on a bigger site. We can also promote the fact that it is a small family farm – you are literally dancing in our garden – which adds such a unique element to the experience, dancing in the old barns and cowsheds. It is a beautiful setting but the fact that it’s a working farm means that more often than not the chickens are wandering around, which actually our visitors love.”
She admitted that there was “a lot of competition and that makes it really hard. You need to be doing something really different to stand out and attract your crowd. Every time you put on an event there is a massive element of risk, but if you are good at what you are doing with a clear and successful marketing strategy and a product that appeals to the public I think you can survive.”
Her father added that owning the site helps. “We can do long-term builds and reduce hire costs. Our crew are amazing and go over and above to get the job done, but keeping the budget under control as a small festival is very hard,” he said.
Father and daughter confirm that exclusivity clauses by other festivals is one of the main problems they encounter. “It reduces the talent that’s actually available to us,” said Ella Nosworthy.
“Nozstock works because it’s family-run, it’s a reflection of every member of the family and frankly we put everything we have into this to make it special and the type of festival we would want to be at and to run. If it changed too much I don’t think any of us would feel comfortable with it,” her father added, when asked whether he ever received an offer from one of the major players.
When Live Nation President/CEO Michael Rapino spoke at this year’s Pollstar Live! conference, he was asked by American concert promoter Dan Steinberg whether all the independents were just “fucked,” given Live Nation’s enormous cashflow.
“That’s like saying there’s only Apple and if you [don’t] have an iPhone you’re fucked,” Rapino responded. “Generally, Android and iPhone own the market, and other companies have to innovate, or provide better products and scale to be competitive.”
“Challenge accepted,” many creative, skilled and diligent promoters out there will say. 
Chris Tofu, the mastermind behind Glastonbury’s Shangri La area, launched his own boutique festival in 2016: Grinagog, which takes place in Torquay, in the southwest of England.
He told Pollstar at the time, “Live Nation buying loads of festivals, signing bands exclusively to their own venues and festivals, all this sort of stuff, actually is an opportunity. It’s not as terrifying as it looks for young festival organizers. Our world isn’t driven by the main-stage lineup. Our punters know they’re going to get diversity.”
According to Tofu, the top end of the market isn’t so much saturated as it is driven by the mainstage lineup, thereby “making a lot of agents a lot of money,” but at the same time becoming dependent on a limited selection of acts.
Philippe Cornu, the founder of Switzerland’s iconic Gurtenfestival, believes that “boutique festivals will become even more important in the future, because the whole experience of having a good, quality time with friends or family is one of the most important things in life. In the fast-paced digital world we want to slow down again and enjoy the little things.”
Update: Due to miscommunication, this article originally stated that Romania’s Awake Festival has a capacity of 5,000, when in reality it is 10,000. This mistake has been corrected after the article was published.