Less mud, more art

Contemporary music festivals have ditched the tie-dye in favour of strong visual identities and collaborations with a host of great artists and designers

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These days there is a music festival for everyone. No more the preserve of the young and the carefree; all ages, tastes and endurance levels are catered for. If dance music is your thing there’s Lovebox; for those about to rock try Sonisphere or Download; and for a bit of everything else there’s Latitude or Bestival or Field Day.

That all these festivals emerged within the last ten years is interesting if only to show how, in the UK at least, the once dominant Leeds-Reading-Glastonbury axis has given way to a brace of smaller upstarts offering more esoteric bands and increasingly varied arts programmes. But look closer and something else is going on: while these festivals care passionately about the music, they also have a vested interest in how this is communicated to their audience.

At the forefront of this new wave of design literate festivals is All Tomorrow’s Parties, which launched in 1999 as the Bowlie Weekender, taking over a holiday camp at Camber Sands in East Sussex, and which now stages several events in the UK, the US and Australia. Barry Hogan, ATP’s founder, once described the festival as resembling a mix tape, the premise being that an invited artist or band curates their perfect line-up, a clever way of ensuring that established acts and relative newcomers can share the same bill over three days. More recently, festivals such as Supersonic in Birmingham and Constellations in Leeds have also managed to organise a great line-up alongside an exciting visual presence and, like ATP, work collaboratively with designers on a wide range of material far beyond the traditional festival T-shirt.

Significantly, many of the newer festivals that boast a strong visual identity don’t necessarily plug their location as part of the appeal. At Glastonbury, the green fields, the tents, even the mud are as much a part of the collectively held image of the festival as the big names that the Eavis family invite to play. (Less so the Glastonbury logo: a bland Matisse-lite group of dancing figures.) While Butlin’s Minehead, ATP’s main UK venue, offers waterslides and several on-site pubs, in the cold light of day its main performance arena can look more like a shopping centre.

But ATP’s visual identity is strong enough that this doesn’t matter – it makes Butlin’s its own. Coupling the Ben Drury-designed logotype to a bespoke look for each of its main festivals, plus its spin-off events The Nightmare Before Christmas and I’ll Be Your Mirror, ATP is able to communicate the feel of the curated bill, or its curator, via its communications.

James King is ATP’s in-house designer and has worked as part of the festival’s staff of eight since 2005. In that time, ATP’s roster of visual artists has grown considerably, most recently including Shepard Fairey and AMOS’s James Jarvis. “In terms of ATP’s festival identities, the sense of character and narrative is quite prevailing and has developed in the festival art throughout the years,” says King. “If you look at the posters we’ve commissioned from people like Michael Motorcycle, Tara McPhearson and Tim Biskup, you’ll see attempts to embody the festival identity with a character that people can start to relate to. Sometimes this can be tricky in terms of keeping an overall brand identity for the company that people can recognise, but [we] try and keep the individual profile of each festival, and bring it together in a neater fashion, so people can start to relate to ATP as a whole.”

For King, the artists he commissions to shape the look of ATP are as integral to the festival experience as the invited bands and musicians. Often, he says, ATP ensures that these artists have an exhibition or stage installation on site, even producing exclusive artwork for the fans. And he’s adamant that while each ATP is curated by a single artist or band, the visual aspect of the festival isn’t driven by their own identity, more by a wider aesthetic that ties in to the music.
“It’s very rare for us to overtly use a band’s own visual identity within festival art,” he says. “But it’s nice to play with the visual clues and ideas that their music evokes, and often we try to get the curators involved in the artistic direction of the festival, too. For Jeff Mangum’s ATP next March, for instance, we have collated a load of old circus and magic illustrations and graphics work that Jeff is into, and I hope to end up with a really rich array of imagery to utilise across the different mediums of the festival.”

Similarly, as the artistic director and designer of Leeds’ Constellations festival, Michael Connolly at Studio xiiixiii sees his job as shaping both the promotional side of the event and the look of the live experience itself. The first year of the festival, he created a series of ‘data led’ posters using Processing software, based on information gathered from the headline acts. This year, the approach is very different with the focus on a series of posters by 15 different designers and illustrators. The ‘C’ identity remains a constant, as does using the name as a thematic device, but the input from such a range of people has led to other projects, from the creation of a 64-page newspaper that acts as a programme, to elaborate stage sets.

“For our first event, designers Nous Vous created a campfire/night sky inspired set complete with tent and stars for the main stage,” he says. “For another stage I designed a sound responsive piece of software that was projected behind the bands, creating an audio-generated landscape as they played. It was fully controllable, which kept the visuals fresh over the entire day.” Building on this success, Connolly says that this year’s stage sets have become a proper part of the Constellations identity, echoing the astronomical theme: “Using 80 paper lanterns, projection mapping techniques and some heavy duty projectors, a ‘lo-fi planetarium’ was created above each stage.”

Lisa Meyer, co-director of Capsule, the events organisation that puts on the Supersonic festival, has a similar take. For example, working regularly with design agency Heavy Object, the brochure for each Birmingham-based event features artwork and essays that, Meyer says, give more context to the festival. At the same time Capsule tries to bring in “artists that have a relationship to the music, to show the almost invisible links between music and art”.

Meyer believes that as the festival’s visual identity acts as the first point of contact with a potential audience, it needs to convey what they can expect to experience, not just listen to. “Posters can otherwise be a bit of an eye test if just a list of random band names,” she says. “By considering your identity, taking the time to produce good quality material you convey the love that you’ll be paying to all elements of the festival; that’s what we’ve built our reputation on.”

For a festival that has put on some of the heaviest bands around and had many strange and wonderful musicians through its doors, Supersonic has cultivated a personality that eschews the ‘serious’ nature of much of the experimental music it stages. Meyer describes their approach as playful and often tongue-in-cheek. They even have a ‘tea room’ at the festival where, yes, doom fans can grab a slice of cake. “A festival is as much about seeing exciting performances as it is about making new friends and feeling like you belong to a wider community,” she says. Make that happen and you’re bound to have a festival experience that will outlive any T-shirt.