LUKE BAINBRIDGE is a man of many hats. As an author, he has fashioned his niche as a sub-culture-musing aficionado.
As a hack, he lends his pen to the pages of The Guardian and The Observer, founding the Observer Music Monthly back in 2003. And as Head of Arts and Culture at Festival No.6, he specialises in giving whacked-out revellers the time of their lives. Little surprise, then, that when Sound City were looking for someone to help animate their post-apocalyptic dockside vision for this year’s festival, there was one name at the top of the list.
“It’s a big year for Sound City,” muses Bainbridge, who has headed-up the arts programme for this year’s festival. “Moving to the new site is a big and brave decision, and I think people are going to be blown away by the plans.”
An exciting endorsement then, especially coming from the man whose vision has led to Festival No.6’s both wide and unanimous critical and public acclaim over the past three years. Nestled within a tiny bay on the Welsh coast and tucked beneath the bosom of Snowdonia, Festival No.6 brings a galaxy of frivolity to Portmeirion’s idiosyncratic, faux-Mediterranean village each summer. If you’ve not been, go.
Bainbridge understands that the days of a hastily-erected stage in a field with a handful of burger vans and a single bar kicking out warm, overpriced gnat’s piss in wafer-thin pint pots passing as a festival are, thankfully, resigned to the past. The discerning modern hedonist demands more – oh, so much more – and this, according to Bainbridge, is indicative of the changing role of festivals in British life: “Twenty years ago festivals only appealed to a small percentage of the population, but they are now a key part of the cultural life of the country. The UK now boasts thousands of festivals of every description, taking place every weekend across the UK, attracting a diverse demographic. Twenty years ago your typical music festival-goer was probably in their teens or late-20s, quite probably a student, but now there’s no such thing as a stereotypical festival-goer – your parents, possibly even your grandparents are going to music festivals.”
So as festivals become ever-more ubiquitous – and the chance of bumping into your Aunt Gretel at Field Day becomes a distinct possibility – the importance of ensuring a festival has its own unique and individual vision, a succinct and crafted identity, is paramount. “Visual identity is part of it, but only a part of the whole identity of the festival,” says Bainbridge. “In a crowded marketplace you have to create an identity that helps festival-goers identify with your festival and want to go there. You can’t simply find a field and book a few bands anymore. If someone is only going to one or two festivals a year, that’s quite a big commitment to make, so in a way they are buying into the whole package.”
As we explore Bramley-Moore Dock, it’s evident that this thinking must be central to the decision to move Sound City here. As a canvas, it’s unlike any festival site we’ve visited. It may not have the Tuscan embellishments and terracotta romance of Portmeirion, but what it does have is an honest, bruising and brutal connection to Liverpool’s rugged past. The site provides the opportunity to craft a new vision for Sound City: a hard-faced, hedonistic Mecca, a dockside lotus-eater’s paradise, a decaying Dionysian dystopia. OK, I like a turn of phrase, but you get my drift.
It’s fine having a gift of a canvas to work with, but bringing the site to life is the challenge; it’s the installations, interventions and creative happenings on-site which make the difference. As Bainbridge explains, “They’ve become as – if not more – important than the headline acts at some festivals, particularly with the pot of bands that can headline festivals of a certain size becoming smaller and smaller, especially with exclusivity clauses. It’s another way of defining the identity of your festival and enhancing the experience for the festival-goer.”
But we can’t overlook the central cog of the festival experience: the bands. After all, that’s really what people pick their festivals based on, isn’t it? As we immerse ourselves in the festival experience this summer, many a seasoned reveller will afford themselves a customary daydream to curate their own dream festival line-up on the back of a beer mat, living the job of a festival promoter for five minutes. Booking all your favourite bands for your ultimate weekend must be the best job in the world, because that’s what festival organisers do, don’t they?
“Personal taste is very subjective,” Bainbridge admits. “Very few people will be into every band or artist that you love, so if you book a festival purely based on personal tastes you’re only catering for one person. There are certain artists that I’m not a huge fan of but I appreciate that they work particularly well at festivals. On the flipside, there are some artists that I love who might not be particularly suited to festivals. With Festival No.6 we always strive to have a mix of iconic acts and the best up-and-coming acts. Over the years, you build a trust with the audience so that even if they haven’t heard of all the up-and-coming acts they trust your taste.”
Such trust is a foundation stone of the Sound City experience. Over the years, the festival has made it its raison d’être to introduce us to artists who would go on to become musical heavyweights. The new Bramley-Moore Dock site offers Sound City the opportunity to take this one step further; to blossom into a kind of industrial dockside musical Nostradamus. And with a creative mind such as Luke Bainbridge helping to guide and shape the artistic vision, it is with great excitement that we plough forth into a brave new Sound City world of audio prophecies.