City festivals – too much of an average thing?

Katy Ratican | Tuesday, 26 May 2009

City festivals – too much of an average thing?

It feels that barely a week goes by without another MySpace page popping up naively declaring 'the best/biggest/coolest…weekend festival is here' and Manchester is no different.

As much as you might love your music, there is an element of same-old same-old with these city festivals. A number of Manchester's festivals are showcasing eerily similar line-ups and often charging for each event…the big question is; are they worth it?

In the bank holiday-bonanza month that is May, Manchester held an astonishing five arts and music festivals. Great, you may think, how lucky those Mancunians are. Dig a bit deeper though and you find all is not well in the land of music event organising.

Miz DeShannon, organiser of MAPS (Music Arts Poetry and Stuff), one of the raft of events to take place this May in Manchester, was keen to set it apart from the others.

He said: "MAPS 2009 was an event about celebration and community involvement; too many promoters rely on certain bands to sell tickets; they know fans will follow these bands and that's why so many listings look the same these days, which is a shame.

"MAPS is not about that, we worked very closely with the Musicians' Union – they are as against 'pay to play' as we are and that's not what it should be about at all."

You can understand DeShannon being a little defensive; MAPS 2008 saw a rift occur in the organisers camp and as a result 'Hungry Pigeon – The Northern Quarter Festival' was born. On the surface these events are identical, aiming to bring the biggest arts and music festival to Manchester. Hungry Pigeon sneaks it with a marginally better line-up though, with acts including Nine Black Alps, Kid British and Karima Francis.

However, DeShannon is open about the situation: "We [MAPS] were subject to a few sabotage attempts; unfortunately organisers of other events contacted managers and agents to tar the MAPS name. We had to do a lot of behind the scenes work to iron that out and change public perceptions."

Sabotage or not, the true question is whether these events are worthwhile or are they just a nuisance flooding the market. From experience, it's a bit of both. Many of the day events are poorly attended, often with just the artists themselves turning up to perform in front of other artists. These city festival events are proving somewhat of a niche market; if the locals are not interested in what's going on, they're not going to turn up. Simple.

On the surface, Hungry Pigeon appealed to a wider audience than many of the others, with under-18s events and an art treasure trail that gave families something to do. And with an outdoor stage in the heart and soul of the city, Piccadilly Gardens, up to 4,000 people were able to enjoy nine hours of free entertainment from the likes of The Travelling Band, Ten Bears and Whisky Cats.

In the current economic climate (don't you just love that phrase?) free music gigs are right up everyone's street and perhaps this is the key; if events can secure funding to provide freebies, then people will be more willing to give it a go. Charging a fiver entry to a daytime gig in your local public house is just not going to cut it.

Sound From The Other City, based in Salford, succeeded in giving both unknown bands and artists and more established performers such as Liz Green and Cats In Paris a stage to perform. With positive column inches in the local press, SFTOC looks set to return in 2010 with the cocky swagger often associated with Manchester.

Hungry Pigeon organisers were too shy to talk to DMG and Mark Baker, lead singer of The Unstoppable Team, one of the bands playing at Hungry Pigeon, wasn't surprised: "One of the major problems with these city festivals is the lack of good promoters. It seems they only set up events to make money off the back of bands. They don't care about music or trying to promote new bands; they try and get big names in and then use unsigned bands to sell tickets for them."

He continued: "The idea of these city music festivals is cool, and I know there is a lot of organisation that must go into them. It's just a shame they are only set up to take advantage of eager kids and line the pockets of greedy promoters who don't even put in enough cash to cover the basics. I only hope that eventually something decent pops up and are backed by some people who actually care."

Whilst this is one man's opinion, it's easy to believe there are many more dejected bands roaming the streets of Britain. With a number of these festivals relying on a fresh supply of wide-eyed youngsters every year to sell tickets to their friends and family, when all they want to do is play their tunes, it's difficult to support these initiatives.

Upon asking DeShannon if she thought it likely MAPS would team up with Hungry Pigeon in the future, the message was clear.

"In theory it's our desire to work together and involve everybody who wants to get involved. However, where there are question marks over ethics, I think it's unlikely that we'll form another alliance with Hungry Pigeon – mainly for the sake of the festival's name."

It's certainly encouraging to see that plenty of organisers are putting a lot of effort into trying to fill the gap left by the departure of Manchester's popular DPercussion festival. With the market seemingly infested with similar events though, it's unlikely that they'll all succeed. Better promotion, more variety in line-ups and perhaps not stuffing them all into one month next time might not be such a bad idea.