‘Big music festivals are dead’ as Highlands go niche

The Proclaimers on the main stage at Belladrum Festival. ''Picture: Paul Campbell.
The Proclaimers on the main stage at Belladrum Festival. ''Picture: Paul Campbell.
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WITH the Groove festival replacing RockNess, David Pollock hears how the appetite for niche music events in the north of Scotland is undimmed, despite the logistical challenges

Put your ear close enough to the ground and you’ll hear rumblings that now is not a good time to be going into the music festival business. Not if you want to run a major festival anyway, booking the biggest bands and artists from around the world in the hope of attracting audiences that run into the tens of thousands. Not so long ago this was a boom industry, but there has been talk that audiences have eroded substantially in recent years.

Whatever’s going on, nobody told the tightly-knit network of promoters who work across the north of Scotland putting on music weekenders that things have taken a turn south. This month is a prime case in point. Speak to one promoter and he’s still coming down from the buzz of Mumford & Sons’ first Scottish edition of their travelling Stopover festival in Aviemore, which kept 20,000 fans happy despite heavy rain and the ensuing mud.

Speak to another and he’s taking a few minutes out of a busy build-up week for the much-loved Belladrum Festival, whose numbers are holding steady at 14,000 and which is entering, in its 12th year, a new phase as a three-day festival, up from two. He’ll barely be finished the get-out operation from that when he’ll be into the build for next week’s Groove festival, a brand-new one-dayer which takes over from RockNess in a sublime spot just outside Inverness on the banks of Loch Ness.

If the 30,000 capacity RockNess – now on indefinite hiatus – might fairly be considered one of those large scale festivals which has made heavy weather of the current climate, the 5,000 capacity Groove is an effort to take the site back to its roots as a music venue. Modest in ambition and predominantly dance-focused, it’s line-up features a bunch of well-known international names from clubland including Groove Armada, 2manyDJs, Tensnake and B.Traits.

“It’s probably one of the most iconic festival sights in the UK, if not the world,” says Dougie Brown, one of four partners in the festival including Caroline Campbell, owner of Inverness’ Ironworks venue, where Brown is operations manager, Belladrum founder Joe Gibbs and Gibbs’ assistant Sam Barker. “I mean sights, not sites; the view is incredible. RockNess was a great event which was loved by many. Joe and Sam said back in January they were interested in doing this, and I think we were all thinking along the same lines. RockNess became a massive event, almost like a smaller T in the Park, but Scotland already has one of them. It’s not a large place. What we had in mind was doing a really simple, bespoke event for a specific niche in the market, which was a one-day dance festival – exactly what RockNess was in its first year.”

But surely the hope would be to grow the festival, even if that means their ambition extends to developing a new RockNess? “Our belief is that it should go in small steps,” says Brown. “I don’t think we’d want Groove to get to the size of RockNess, but you’ve got to let festivals grow organically. That’s why Belladrum’s been such a great success over the years, it grew at the right time, from one day to two days to three, adding extra stages on the way. It put in the groundwork and won that loyal following first. We’re really conscious of ensuring Groove keeps its local identity, we don’t want it to be the big machine that other festivals can sometimes become.”

From a formerly desolate Highland music scene, it was promoter Robert Hicks who can best be described as the originator of what we see now. Originally from Cornwall, when he took over as the manager of the Seaforth Hotel in Ullapool in 1999 he inherited “some really bad karaoke crooners” on Friday and Saturday nights. Before long he was booking covers bands, then groups with their own material, then a promoter named Steve Zapp asked him to put on a touring American band named Lowcraft.

“I went for it and it was a real stress, I’d never booked a full PA before,” says Hicks. “I had to run off to another pub for a G&T midway. On a 30-date tour of the UK, the band turned up and said ‘this is beautiful – what are we doing here?’ They’d been playing to practically nobody every night. In Ullapool, 150 people turned up. The whole village turned out. On the back of that they were at their agent telling him everyone should play here. On my last day in the pub Idlewild came to play. It was leaving the pub that night I realised nobody was promoting music in the north on a regular basis, so I thought let’s try putting more shows on elsewhere.”

He says over the next few years he must have used every spare village hall in the Highlands, welcoming bands including Biffy Clyro, Editors, Kaiser Chiefs and Paolo Nutini. Six years ago he welcomed Mumford & Sons for a tour of small venues and he also booked them to play Loopallu, his own boutique festival in Ullapool, still going strong. Earlier this month at the Stopover, Marcus Mumford namechecked Hicks from the stage and thanked him for his support in putting on the event, and Hicks said the band borrowed the out-of-the-way-aesthetic of Stopover from Loopallu. “I’ve been working with the guys since nobody knew who they were, they love it here,” says Hicks. “Every time they come they say we’ll be back, and every time they’ve honoured that.”

Between them Hicks and Brown put the Highlands’ success as a festival location down to the scenery, the character of the people and the fact that each festival has worked hard to achieve its own identity (Brown also namechecks smaller events like the Tiree Music Festival and Hebridean Celtic Festival), but it isn’t all plain sailing. “Our killer on absolutely everything is transport,” says Hicks. “There’s only so much we can source locally from the Highlands, but with the quantities we need for the bigger events, that’s the downside of being 120 miles up the other end of the A9. We thought the other day, the actual cost of hiring a part of equipment was only £400, but it cost us £1,200 to actually get it here. That happens again and again.”

Every event, from the smallest gig to the largest festival is a risk, he says, but he’ll keep on doing it. There’s a healthy appetite locally, across Scotland, and in some cases from across the world. “I ask myself every day why I do it,” laughs Hicks. “The answer is, it’s worth it 51 percent of the time. It’s a bit of a drug, it’s gambling ultimately, isn’t it? The odds are stacked against you and there’s a huge element of risk – there must be easier ways to make a living. You’re putting up all this money in the hope that people will buy into your idea. We’ve been very fortunate that with most of the things we’ve been involved in people have bought into the idea.”

“The thing is, I think the big festivals are dead,” he continues. “They’ve had their time and we’re seeing that now. The future is in events that are between 10,000 and 15,000 people, events that are about more than just the acts. People want so much more than just music, they want an experience, they want to be looked after, they want to be treated as people rather than just herded through. So on one hand I think the festival landscape is pretty chocka, but then for the right events there’s always room.”

• The Groove Festival is at Dores, near Inverness, on 22 August, www.groovefestival.co.uk. Loopallu is in Ullapool on 25 and 26 September, www.loopallu.co.uk