On a sweltering summer Saturday, Anna Davies sits on a bench in the shade at Black Deer festival, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. She is part of a group of friends who have come down from Cheshire with their young children. “Back in the day, we used to go to Reading and Glastonbury,” she says. “This is the kids’ first festival. She loves music” – she gestures to her five-year-old daughter, Molly, tucking into a portion of chips – “so this felt like the right kind of thing. It’s really nice and friendly.”
Black Deer is, indeed, nice and friendly. It’s a small festival, specialising in country and Americana – the Saturday-night headliners are Band of Horses – with a capacity of 15,000. The crowd doesn’t feel like the typical festival crowd. As well as the hardcore Americana devotees in their band T-shirts and sensible hats, there are family groups who look as if they have never been near a festival: dad in pastel polo shirt, mum in white linen (and wellies, just in case, despite the ground being bone dry).
While the genre fans have travelled to the event, there are plenty of local people, too. Gayleen Kyle, who has come from just a few miles away in Tonbridge, tells me she likes how intergenerational the event is, and how she doesn’t have to camp. “Fifty-six per cent of our customers are from Kent,” co-organiser Debs Shilling says. “The people who came last year – a lot of them were local residents who wanted to try out a festival – were just blown away by the music from artists they’d never heard of. That discovery of great musicians has drawn people back – we sold 1,000 tickets within a week of the end of last year’s Black Deer. If you look at other lineups – with George Ezra at five or six festivals – this is something a bit different.”
The smaller festivals that have sprung up across the UK, both specialist events like Black Deer and what are called “secondary festivals”, have become a crucial part of the musical ecosystem in recent years. Festivals in provincial towns, often supported by local councils, rarely attract the buzziest young artists. But the biggest secondary festivals – such as Victorious in Portsmouth, the Neighbourhood Weekender in Warrington, Hit the North in Newcastle, or any of the scores of events you see advertised as you drive around the country, often seeming to feature the Lightning Seeds and/or Razorlight – offer current bands the chance to reach new audiences, and to prolong their album campaigns.
They can also score big names: Gloucester’s 3,000-capacity Barn on the Farmsecured George Ezra and Lewis Capaldi for its 10th anniversary earlier this month. They also provide a summer of money-making for heritage acts, and a leg-up for local groups. Yet they rarely feature in newspaper festival guides or in the music magazines: it is as if they operate in a separate universe.
Take Victorious, headlined this year by Two Door Cinema Club, Rudimental and New Order – perfectly reasonable for a mid-level festival. Except Victorious isn’t a mid-level festival. Its capacity of 90,000 puts it behind only Glastonbury and Download among UK events. What’s more, it is cheap, with single-day prices ranging from £25 to £45, depending on when you buy. Early-bird buyers could get a ticket for the whole weekend for £80, and even now you can get a weekend ticket, with camping, for £145 to see dozens of acts you have actually heard of.
“We started with a low ticket price and never wanted to jump up,” the festival’s director, Andy Marsh, says. “We wouldn’t want to bring in the Coldplays of this world and then have to charge £300 a ticket. It’s a big family festival, too, so if you’re bringing the kids, you don’t want to be spending hundreds of pounds.”
And while you may look at the lineup of an event such as Victorious and think it was put together by repeatedly sticking a pin into the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, that’s not the case. Just because secondary festivals aren’t mounted for the people with clashfinder spreadsheets and an encyclopedic knowledge of Warp Records B-sides doesn’t mean they aren’t carefully configured. The aim is to put on a festival at which almost anyone can find four or five things they want to see on any given day, and that means spending money on lots of artists with a handful of singalong hits, rather than piling it on headliners.
“You’ve got to weigh up how many tickets an act will sell compared with someone half the price,” Marsh says of his booking strategy. “Victorious is about people who’ve maybe got a couple of kids now, but still want to go and enjoy a festival, whether it be for a day or an afternoon. That’s our core demographic. We don’t have dance tents, to keep the family atmosphere going.”
There are artists Marsh wouldn’t book, even though he could afford them, because they might alter Victorious’s brand as something for all the family. “You know they would sell tickets, but is it the right ticket? That could harm you for years to come,” he says.
Marsh maintains that the wider industry is now waking up to the opportunities secondary festivals provide, and how important they are to older artists, especially. That is backed up by James Sandom, who manages Kaiser Chiefs, Interpol, the Vaccines and Belle and Sebastian. He sees the events as crucial for growing the business of his artists. “These festivals offer an entry point for younger fans, or for people who don’t necessarily want a full weekend of craft beers, luxury camping and leftfield music,” he says. His bands play these festivals after a long album campaign when awareness has been built up, or before they release their next one, as somewhere they can road test new songs. “And they don’t drain the hard market” – the regular cities a band would visit on tour – “because they’re often not in those catchment areas.”
Sandom says a headline slot at a big secondary event such as Victorious or the Neighbourhood Weekender pays the same as being third on the bill at a frontline festival. But there are more of these events, and there is another benefit, too: everyone I speak to reports crowds that are much more enthusiastic than at more snobby festivals. “We’ve had artists play any number of these events,” Sandom says. “You see an average age of 18 in the crowd, and bands think: ‘When we put our first record out, these people were kids,’ but they’re there for a good time.”
Stephen Bass, who manages Metronomy, took the band up to play the Hit the North festival in Newcastle earlier this year. “The response was incredible. They were thrilled. The band hadn’t prepared an encore, and we felt guilty after because the fans were so up for it – but we hadn’t really expected that. Those sorts of festivals,” he adds, “when they work, they are really useful. You can become so London-focused that it’s good to have a circuit that takes you out of the predictable.”
Republica, the 90s band fronted by Saffron Sprackling whose hit Ready to Go remains a favourite of sports broadcasters, have gained a new lease of life from secondary festivals. They started the summer playing at the Wentworth music festival in Rotherham, alongside Sam and Mark from CBBC and Tony Hadley, late of Spandau Ballet, and they will end it at Victorious. “We’re fully booked with them,” Sprackling says. “They’ve got a great vibe, and they really have opened new streams of revenue, with so many small venues closing. They’re becoming more and more popular, and the atmosphere is really amazing – we tend to go early because we want to have a nice day out, even if we’re playing at the end.”
Back at Black Deer, a well-heeled group of middle-aged people are discussing the day. “Shall we stay for Band of Horses?” one asks. “I’ve never heard of them,” another replies. “But I haven’t heard of anything we’ve seen. It’s been lovely, though, hasn’t it?”