A beginner’s guide to boutique festivals

Worth the expense: The third annual Little Gig festival will take place in January. (Aidan Tobias)

Worth the expense: The third annual Little Gig festival will take place in January. (Aidan Tobias)

The economics of music consumption has often astounded me, especially when I look at their effect on music production — as an artistic activity, as opposed to production that provides a supply of goods.

The production of commodity goods is often improved by a customer feedback cycle in which people vote with their wallets. Phones with bigger screens sell more than those without. That must be what people want and that’s what will be produced.

The global music festival landscape has gone through this same cycling and evolution, in which what works in terms of audience reaction is so well known that the variation in the line-ups of major festivals can be slim — especially in a music landscape where tastes and bankability are largely driven by a shallow-dipping, safe-bet-friendly terrestrial radio system.

As festival crowds grow year on year, so too does the upfront capital needed, making booking artists even more risky. A flop at scale can kill a large festival’s growth path — as was seen in some of the pre-2017 iterations of the once-glistening Synergy Music Festival in the Western Cape, which is now recovering by catering for a more niche community.

Although this general growth has certainly helped to build big festivals (which isn’t a comment on their quality) and serve the needs of the masses who attend them yearly, it has also opened up a gap for the more left-field music still winning over listeners and supporters looking for less formulaic musical forms.

Enter boutique (or niche) festivals, which have been growing in number and popularity in recent years.

These festivals flip the mechanics of big festivals on their heads by purposely keeping the scales low — thereby subverting the need for growth. The payoff for festivalgoers is twofold. In a smaller environment, unique spaces and experiences can be curated and, more importantly, when there’s no expectation of headline acts, the music can be anything at all. The variety in the niche festivals is testament to this: locations vary from farms to container yards and, although many events focus on electronic music, the list of performers remains grass-roots and doors are still open to drums ’n guitars acts.

With more and more of these boutique events starting up, we’ve put together a beginner’s pack of niche festivals to plan for in 2018.

Churn

Churn is a particularly good example of how sweet the boutique approach can be. A 24-hour+ nonstop party held 30 minutes from Johannesburg, the Facebook description of the first edition of Churn was disarmingly easy-going, urging participants to “be part of the adventure with friends & like-minded fans”. The Churn manifesto is simple — to be focused on promoting acts that are locally active and pushing the boundaries. Run by the team that books and manages the infamous Kitchener’s restaurant in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, their ear for the local underground is second to few.

Alchemy festival

Kool Out Entertainment has been the Jo’burg inner city’s secret weapon for a while now, throwing rooftop sundowner parties that have seen performances by a majority of the country’s rap elite as well as the city’s up-and-coming artists.

Its festival event, Alchemy, is just as dedicated to mixing top-class performances with Jo’burg’s best, hosting the event in three different venues over three nights, each with an international headliner. As a sample of the quality and diversity Kool Out offers, last year rapper Mick Jenkins was joined by production crew Low End Theory and crooner Tom Misch.

Endless Daze

It’s almost always incorrect when people make statements such as “there’s no more good ...” (where ... is a music genre). Rock, for example, hasn’t had a great time in the mainstream space of late, but one group out to prove its relevance is the promoter collective behind the cultish event Psych Night and its annual Endless Daze festival. Held at the Silverstroom Resort near Cape Town and run essentially run by an extended network of friends, this labour of love is a joy to behold.

Future Frequency

Held at the container yards in Cape Town, the sounds of the Future Frequency Festival strive to be as much of a contrast to the location as possible — avant-garde, always danceable, electronic music. Stand-out performers such as the up-and-coming Rose Bonica embody the Future Frequency Festival ethos, making music just as likely to have you dancing as it is to get you into a contemplatively chin-stroking mood.

Muse

Many smaller festivals come about as the labour of a single set of promoters with a vision, but Cape Town’s Muse festival was more of an ensemble piece — brought together by five entities in the Western Cape’s music landscape. Vinyl party Wax On, management agency Black Major, the Dope Goods Market, label Nomadic Music and promoters We House Sundays brought their varied energies and crowds to a single dance floor on Paarden Eiland for a dance-heavy weekend.

Littlegig 24H Festival

This Western Cape mainstay is gearing up for its third annual festival, taking place 17 - 18 February 2018. It will see a curated confluence of musicians, DJs, designer concept stores and art exhibitions spread over six stages. There will also be 10 bars, six chefs and three winemakers. It’s a fancy and expensive affair but worth it if you like fine things. 

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