I’m having a party

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Wow, just three weeks to go ’til this little shindig. It’s only supposed to be a modest gathering, but my husband says I’m “complicating things”. That’d be my colour coded list and the live art, festoon lighting, weird props, champagne and canapés I have planned.

 

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So come on – you might as well get involved.

If you want to celebrate with me, please email roxy.robinson@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

See you there…

R x

 

 

An EU Music Community

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Day 2 of Eurosonic and I’m already a Europhile.

What makes Eurosonic charming is that it does exactly what it says on the tin. The remit of celebrating EU music is writ large by its festival programme, which I was lucky enough to sample last night. Ten Fe are a new act I discovered on Spotify on Monday, and last night, I was thrilled to see them play in a low-lit boudoir in Groningen central. Opinions were mixed, but I thought their music had the polish and satisfying mix of contemporary influences you’d expect from a truly established outfit. Think The War On Drugs or the Barr Brothers with a little more of Future Island’s infectious electronica; in other words gorgeous, and exactly my cup of tea.

Then, a wander across the town brought me to a rip-roaringly awesome, Zef-style set from Da Chick, Portugal—the perfect warm-up for London’s own Stormzy, who recently picked up several awards to rapt applause at Leeds’ own Mobo awards. Last night it was a thrill to see him perform to an equally rapt, but far more intimate crowd.

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At Eurosonic, underpinning the simple pleasure of discovering new music across the town is a broader, and much more fundamental emphasis on the sharing of knowledge and contacts across music businesses within the EU. This also creates a platform for EU artists to sell themselves to non-EU businesses too.

This angling is underpinned by an ideal matched by EU cultural policy: that the internationalisation of EU projects, businesses and culture has huge potential in creating jobs, unlocking markets and developing nations, not to mention adding intangible value to quality of life for its populations. This project is not without its challenges. As we are regularly informed by the British media, the broad sweep of EU policy and the application of its principles to member states may not address the nuanced challenges each one of them is facing. There will always be issues with casting homogenous directives across areas that are culturally and economically diverse.

Yet focusing on this really does muddy the waters insofar as we forget the great potential in working together.  If nothing else, the Eurosonic experience has created a feeling that Britain is (ergo, I am) a part of a community that is far bigger (and frankly, more exciting) than our little island. There are opportunities within this great swathe of humanity that are there for the taking, if one is willing to look and aspire beyond the local—this perception is a direct result of the interactions and discussions that have unfolded here.

Let me give you a concrete example. Yesterday I attended ‘a New EU Strategy for Music’ with Karel Bartak, the head of the Europe Commission’s programme for funding culture in the EU. This year, over 1 billion Euro’s worth of funds will be made available to support culture. This has included the creation of a scheme for applicants wishing to deliver projects that support the circulation of artworks within the EU (the Creative Europe Culture & Media programmes).

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The purpose of this money is to encourage partners (such as festivals) to join forces, and to programme collaboratively in order to support the development of artistic talent across borders. Among other reassuring statements, Karel referenced the foundational rationale for the fund in terms of an intrinsic value in culture. Implicit in his discussion was the idea that innovation and co-operative projects should be supported. The last funding programme that ran in the ‘Culture’ category funded 45 projects to the tune of 25 million.

The strange thing about this scheme is that it seems to work. Surprising perhaps, given that it is administered by politicians and bureaucrats. The reality is that the creative industries are so fraught economically that the promise of funding support really does encourage collaboration and a forward thinking approach to arts programming.

With all of these rather hopeful thoughts in mind, all that remains is to create a strategy around these new learnings. Most certainly I will be exploring the potential for accessing some of this funding – but what for, and to what end?

Suggestions on a postcard.

3, 2, 1: Mission to Eurosonic

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  1. Promote book
  2. Update knowledge
  3. Initiate fruitful EU partnerships
  4. Dodge sycophants
  5. Have fun! But not too much.

 

Isn’t it great when a plan comes together? In September last year I found the time and brain-space to look into attending a conference. One of the true perks of lecturing – on occasion, your institution will pay for you to go and expand your mind. Judging by the global galavants undertaken by some of my esteemed colleagues, this can take you to some truly far-flung and exotic places. Awesome! On learning this fortuitous fact, the question was, where to?

Eurosonic Noordverslag is, on appearances at least, a European version of the much-hyped festival-come-conference SXSW. Sort of. It’s location in Groningen, two hours north of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is neither far-flung nor exotic —yet it manages to attract music-scene movers and shakers by the hundreds every year. In essence, Eurosonic is a convergence of panel talks, Q&A’s, industry meetings, festival awards and an abundance of live music performances from artists hailing from all over the EU. Unlike SXSW, it is focused entirely on the music industry.

 

Sexy legs at Eurosonic Noorderslag

 

Academic it is not, and this is one reason I was drawn to it. Events management might be taught in the classroom, but my students care about what’s going on in industry far more than they do theoretical debates. Technological developments, smart marketing techniques, monetising live music in a dynamic commercial terrain and accessing jobs in the live sector are all subjects that require far greater emphasis on events, music and artist management courses. Sadly, none of these subjects are ‘textbook’. This creates a real need for engaging with the people and places that are willing to share their knowledge.

So, is everything pretty clear at this point? Going to Eurosonic is all about my stoic dedication to staying relevant and nothing at all to do with the fact that the event looks enormously fun. Yup.

In truth, a weird synchronicity of events lead me in the direction of Groningen. Firstly, I can’t tell you how strong the urge was, after being confined to the library for several years writing my book, to break free. Not only to break free, but to tell anyone who’ll listen “I’M DONE!”.  Writing is so isolating. When I finished writing Book Number One, I promised myself a year or two of conferences, collaborative industry projects and working in teams to get my social mojo back – a must before sacrificing my sanity to Book Number Two.

Also, I’ve always been a terribly narcissistic sort of promoter. I’m only really happy when I’m selling something, which may or may not be myself (I realise there is a slutty inference to be made there, but not one that’s intended). My love of the sell is why writing a book felt so alien and so uncomfortable. I wanted to be “out there” publicly promoting something or other, as I had done with Raisetheroof, my beloved clubnight, for so many years.

Now that my book is done, and out, I can flog it – that’s the fun bit. Hence this brick-wad of flyers that is currently weighing down my suitcase.

 

The question is, will anyone care? And do I care, if they don’t? Double pass…   I haven’t even arrived yet. I’m still at Leeds Bradford airport, and I’m being way too keen for a Tuesday morning. And in a fleeting moment of sudden clarity, I grasp why my husband and in-laws call me ‘Lesley Knope’. You know. That bumbling, over-enthusiastic and annoyingly right-on blonde from Parks and Recreation?

Signing off.

 

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Inspirations

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New year, new blog…

Welcome to 2016 and my brand spanky-new blog. 

 

Now that I’ve earned a few academic stripes, I can be frank about some things. Being inspired by something is a feeling. It is an emotional connection between you and something else, whether it is a work of art, a music scene or a dynamic individual. There may be aspects of it that you can explain to another person. But inspiration is foremost a feeling, and it is deeply personal.

 

The other day I read a great line by George Orwell in Why I Write (1946). It’s a slim, captivating little book about – you guessed it – why he writes. He said, and I quote:

 

“writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon who one can neither resist nor understand”

 

I couldn’t agree more. “Sheer egoism”, as well as an aesthetic sensibility are among the “demons” he describes. But underlying every book, no matter how factual, also lurk emotions, biases and political causes we wish to justify. Now I’ve finally pushed my own book out, like a long-overdue foetus, I can reflect on a few of my ‘demons’ (or ‘inspirations’, to use a more positive term!)

 

 

5 Inspirations

 

1 = Creativity


By the time I’d finished teaching a 12 week course in Creative Event Design (CED), I had thoroughly overused the word “creativity” (not to do any discredit to the course, which was awesome, and my favourite at the
UK Centre for Events Management). As we kept reinforcing to our students, creativity is fundamental to pulling off entertaining, and perhaps more importantly, interesting events.

Creativity at music festivals in the UK has always inspired me. My favourite festivals push the very definition of the word, and teem with art, decor and other wacky stimuli. Understanding what makes some festivals a hotbed of creativity requires some digging down into what creativity actually is, and why it impacts an audience. On the CED course we emphasised the idea of creativity in terms of doing things differently.

But at the festivals where creativity is the most apparent, essential to its impact is also broad participation: whether it is through running a theme camp at Burning Man, donning a pirate-come-lizard getup at Secret Garden Party or decorating a venue at BoomTown Fair. I am the most inspired by festivals when the place looks, feels and smells like the creative product of the many, not the few. The success of these particular events suggests that I am not alone. This environment allows us to lose ourselves in a sea of creative contributions made by our fellow human beings. We see what we are all capable of when we nurture and expand the crazy compartments of our minds.

This environment transforms some festivals into, quite literally, gallery spaces. I have just completed a project that did just this, co-managed with my husband (a strange but lovely experience that challenged us in all sorts of ways!). ‘Lost Eden’ was our first baby.  The project consisted of first winning, and then spending an Arts Council award on transforming a four acre tract of woodland into an arts trail at Kendal Calling. The crowd’s favourite piece by far was ‘Nature Delivers’ by Dan Rawlings, an intricately carved transit van. There are many beautiful shots by Tom Martin and friends on the official gallery, but here is one I took myself:

 

 

 

 

DanRawlings art installation
© Roxy Robinson

 

 

2 = Change

 

The handful of industry reports that deal with UK festivals (Mintel 2008 & 2010; Virtual Festivals annual reports, UK Festival Awards Reports and the Association of Independent Festivals Six Year Report) all agree on one thing: the UK festival market expanded an unprecedented rate in the 2000s. It is true that this growth levelled out in the 2010s. Yet we are still left with, compared to other countries, a remarkable density of festivals across the British provinces.

This growth in itself is, in my view at least, a mysterious enough phenomenon to be worthy of writing about. Even more interesting is the idea that the level of competition during this time has encouraged promoters to bring increasingly unique and complex content to the table. However, looking at these changes actually tells us more about audiences than they do about promoters. What the mass gatherings consist of, within this newly expanded social terrain, communicates not only the preferences of the ticketbuyer but how people actually feel about the world; their dreams, desires and the foibles of existence.

The most prominent symbol for change in the festivals industry is, for me, a personal one. My first music festival was Homelands at Matterley Bowl, 1999, which I snuck into aged fifteen. Ten years later I found myself on the same field, but I was at BoomTown Fair,  in an environment that couldn’t have been more different. In fact, to label both events ‘music festivals’ seems ludicrous. Unlike Homelands, which had a pretty basic dance-festival setup consisting of big tops and an outdoor stage hosted by Radio One, BoomTown was and is like another world: a caricature of society, built and dismantled in the space of a few weeks.

Not all festivals have moved in this direction, of course. There is still a market for traditional formats, where the focus is oriented towards a list of artists and the main stage. But I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this is a healthy market. The fastest growing festivals in the UK, in recent times, are those that have developed their non-musical programs at the same time as maintaining a ticket-selling line-up. This can be viewed as ‘adding values’, like any other kind commercial product. But it’s intriguing nevertheless, not least because the continual push to add value has changed the very format of the music festival event. For most, ticket sales remain dependent on the line-up. But loyalty depends on the quality of the experience, which is about subtle but crucial things: exposure to new art forms, exposure to aesthetic event design, and opportunities to participate in new and creative ways.

 

3 = Idealism

 

I remember the exact moment it occurred to me that festivals could be viewed, if one had sufficient powers of imagination, as idealised versions of society. Picture Glasto 2005, roundabout 3am on the Saturday night. A man was strumming a guitar near the stone circle and a modest, and pretty inebriated, crowd had formed around him. After his last song came a fervent speech. Glastonbury should be declared an independent state, he argued. And what we all needed to do was refuse to go home until it was. Before I could ask the sensible questions, such as what would happen when the food ran out and what would we do when the contractors took all of the portaloos away, I was briefly enamoured.

I didn’t exactly support this candid proposal, but the fact that it was there to begin with was interesting. Could festivals represent, if not directly provide, an alternative way of life? In fact, the notion that music festivals are more than hedonism and can offer a gateway into a simpler, and arguably more liberated, mode of existence is not new. It has been discussed by Michael Clarke in his Politics of Pop Festivals, 1982, and later by Kevin Hetherington in New Age Travellers: Vanloads of Uproarious Humanity’ in 2000.  In particular reference to the travelling communities in 60s and 70s Britain festivals, Hetherington argued, were a breeding ground not only for drugs and music but for environmentalism, politics and new age spirituality. Arguably, though festivals have entered the mainstream, these facets persist today as part of the DNA of British festival culture.

The idealistic facet of a festival, if it is there at all, is usually a subtle one. But occasionally it is so conspicuous the event seems to blow out the parameters of what a festival actually is, becoming something else entirely – a form of celebratory protest or even a social experiment.

Burning Man is an illuminating example of this, though there are plenty of good reasons for arguing that the idealism of Burning Man covers up what is a very shrewd and very successful commercial operation (and for what it’s worth, I personally don’t believe this undermines its authenticity). But what makes this particular event aspirational, or even utopian, is its organisation around participatory principles and the rejection of commerce on site. Whether you consider this a USP or an ethic, this focus dramatically alters the experience and offers a glimpse of how a society might function without money.

All festivals centre on giving pleasure; only some maintain an air of idealism. Yet the successful integration of party, protest and aspiration at leading events like Glastonbury and Burning Man has left an influential legacy across the global festival scene.


4 = Escape

 

Two things helped me escape the monotony of daily life in adolescence: great books and music festivals. The way in which they offered a way out had something in common; both had the ability to transport me to another place. Festivals were removed from familiarity in a literal sense, but this was more than geographical-festivals seemed to be hedonistic sorts of islands that had social codes and conventions unlike those found in the ‘default world’ (to borrow a phrase used by patrons of Burning Man to describe, well, the rest of the world that isn’t Burning Man).

For me, the best festival experience is when you feel you have escaped one mode of reality and replaced it, however briefly, with something else entirely. It isn’t easy to pinpoint exactly what creates this impression because it consists of a combination of things. We can speak of life as a series of peak experiences with a lot of routine happening in between. A festival is a peak experience but, with most as three day affairs, the way this is sustained (with more music and art than you could ever hear or see) makes for a different level of intensity.

The escapism of the environment lends itself to a form of communication in short supply in the business of professional life; truly stimulated, less purposeful, unhurried – and frequently, conducted frequently with utter strangers. This change has a lasting effect on me: it seems an unlikely statement, but immediately post-festival I’m physically exhausted but somehow more grounded, and there are always new friends and stronger acquaintances as a result of three days in the fields. Festivals might provide a temporary escape from the world, but the minutiae of ways they change your life stay with you.

5 = Community

 

Community, as my (supremely awesome) PhD supervisor once said, is a slippery idea. We often hear people say things like the ‘Black community’ and the ‘LGBT community’. But are they really communities? Or is the word a homogenising blanket we lazily throw over groups of human beings that might share one characteristic, but who are as conflicting, complicated and diverse as we know ourselves to be. Actually, I do think there is such a thing as black community and LGBT community. I also believe the word can give off an erroneous impression of oneness that could never really exist for across something as vast as race or sexuality.

But if we can acknowledge the heterogeneous nature of the community, is it possible that there is such a thing as a festival community? Perhaps there is. Almost certainly there is the experience of community when you are sharing a field with thousands of others, a million miles away from home and work.

My older sister was fantastic in the fact that she was continuously introducing me to cool stuff. I recall her starry-eyed references to the ‘festival spirit’, after coming back from Glastonbury. To say that she attended Glastonbury religiously is almost literally true: the experience held that much significance to her. I recall her failure to get a ticket one year, at which she cried real tears, declaring that Glastonbury was what made the rest of the year bearable. Her experience of community at Glastonbury may have been fleeting, but it was one that she awarded the highest level of personal relevance.

 

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These are not the kind of confessions to be made in a PhD thesis – or an academic dissertation of any kind.

When you are writing up, there is this spectre called ‘objectivity’ that you are supposed to maintain at all times. Grounded in positivist science, applying this concept to studying cultural phenomena is riddled with contradictions and has always, if I’m honest, felt pretty awkward. The question is, how to separate your own emotions from the topic?

After grappling with this throughout my PhD research I ended up not answering the question but questioning its own validity. Of course, a thesis shouldn’t be based on feelings or personal intuition (that’s a blog, ha). The aim of research is not catharsis, nor is it entertainment. But should we be aiming to separate ourselves from our topics of study so resolutely, when it is obvious how important personal connection, passion and meaningfulness are to communicating an idea effectively? As a lecturer a little way into the profession (I’m in my fifth year) I have learned the hard way that, without humanising your material with stories, emotion and personal relevance, it falls on deaf ears. To inspire others, you must be inspired. And good writing, in my view, requires an inspired protagonist.

 

So now I can deliver my confession: I chose to research what I love.

 

 

Beginnings

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The cardinal Do’s and Don’ts of blog writing dictate that I must be a) relatable, b) inspirational and c) positive. I’ve been living in Yorkshire for ten years, which makes ‘being positive’ a bit problematic. Not because Yorkshire is a shitty place or anything, but because complaining is a ritual tradition here. If you want to fit in you must complain, with appropriate levels of gusto and regularity, about approved topics ranging from your boss to the weather.

That said, it is difficult to feel anything but overwhelming positivity about this: My first blog post. This post and its home on this website are set up to promote my first (ok, second, but much more weighty and important), book. Now that I have a blog, do I really get to bang on about me, my experiences in life and everything I happen to find interesting?! Awesome.

That said, it is difficult to feel anything but overwhelming positivity about this: My first blog post. This post and its home on this website are set up to promote my first (ok, second, but much more weighty and important), book. Now that I have a blog, do I really get to bang on about me, my experiences in life and everything I happen to find interesting?! Awesome.

Music festivals book

My nearly fluorescent book jacket, showing the main stage crowd at Secret Garden Party

© Photo Credit Seb Barros

Roxy Robinson Beacons Festival

My first steps onto the site at Beacons Festival, where I worked from 2012-2014.

So I primarily want to encourage you to journey down the rabbit hole by reading my book, Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation, which is just about to be released by Ashgate Publishers. But it is my hope to also attract the attentions of likeminded individuals—that is, events nerds who are, underneath it all, slightly embarrassed at the fact that they aren’t rocket scientist nerds or lawyer nerds or cancer research nerds, and therefore live in constant need of life-affirming reassurance. People that are passionate about events research but have that niggling voice in their head that says, “being a scientist of festivals, or a researcher in events, well that’s just silly isn’t it?” Well, my friends, this website also exists in order to shout THIS ISN’T SILLY, and to convince myself of this in the process.

Roxy Robinson Author

In all seriousness, my book is the product of seven long years of research into what I call ‘festival culture’. This included a PhD at the School of Music, University of Leeds somewhere along the way. I did fieldwork at events, interviewed extensively, transcribed endlessly and wrote….. a lot. Almost every morning for nearly four years. I would love to martyr myself at this point by saying something clichéd about “blood, sweat and tears” in describing this process. But that would be a lie. It is certainly true that in most cases, writing is hard and boring. Yet it was an honor and a privilege to study a scene so vibrant and so full of colour, crowds, music and art—that also happened to be of personal interest to me.

PHD Music

Bigging up myself street-style with my home-girl Tenley Martin, who is studying for her PhD in Flamenco.

I spent seven wonderful years in self-directed research; immersing myself in a subject I had the personal freedom to choose. I did not have a mortgage or any children to worry about. I had the ability to completely lose myself in my PhD, and to complete it swiftly in the process (apparently 3 years and 8 months is swift). To all those juggling PhDs with babies, full time teaching jobs and other pressures, I salute you—for I had it easy in comparison.

I will never forget the very first instruction my (wonderful) PhD supervisor gave me in our first mentoring session: “spend the first year of your research reading widely and expanding your mind”. How many people get told by their boss to spend a whole year expanding their minds!? It goes against the Yorkshirian culture of Moaning, but the truth is, I’ve been incredibly lucky.

So, why research festivals? I can answer this with the contemporary trend that is the TOP FIVE LIST. But for that, you’ll have to wait for Blog Number Two: Inspirations. Until then…. X

Roxy PHD events management