Live Music Exchange Blog

What makes a music festival? Context versus content, and the case of Festival Number 6 – Steven Brown


Our latest guest post is by previous LMX contributor Steven Brown – a doctoral candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University ­working on the cultural, commercial and legal aspects of music piracy. With festival season coming up, he reflects here on his experiences at Festival Number 6 –  winner of the best under 15,000 capacity festival at the UK Live Music Awards. 

What makes a music festival? Context versus content, and the case of Festival Number 6


Festival Number 6 (4-7 Sep 2014), I was promised, would be a festival like no other in a place like no other. I’m pleased to report that the ambitious promotional blurb was spot on. In this brief article, I consider what made the festival so special and this inevitably involves a comparison with similar events, both big and small. In doing so, I will unpack some of the core ingredients of the festival experience and highlight what made Festival Number 6 so unique. Ultimately, I conclude that the setting of Portmeirion – the Italianate village in North Wales, made famous by the 1960s television series The Prisoner – was the star of the show at the festival and that ‘music festivals’ need not centre on music at all to be a success.

Festival Number 6

When I saw that Beck was playing Festival Number 6 I started the ball rolling with my wife to see if she might want to go. She had never been to a music festival before nor had expressed any desire to change that. When I pitched the location to her, however (by watching clips from ‘The Prisoner’ online) and discussed the volume of activities on offer which had nothing to do with music, she started to bite. I explained how much fun I have always had in Wales, including the non-corporate Green Man Festival, and that Festival Number 6 would attract a certain type of festival-goer which should encourage a relaxed atmosphere overall. This assumption was also based on the fact that there was self-catering accommodation available on site for up to £1000 per night (the tickets themselves were on the healthy side of £200) and a limit of just one bottle of spirits (or one crate of beer) allowed, i.e. it was perhaps unlikely to attract a party-hard teenage crowd.

We bought our early bird tickets for what I consider a reasonable price and made the most of the discounted rail tickets to the festival. This discount reminded me that Green Man Festival also offers students discounts and begs the question: is Wales the only country offering such incentives? One of the turn-offs with festivals is how costly and time-consuming travelling can be. Music festivals are a costly pursuit for the festivalgoer, and as one participant queried in another recent qualitative study of mine (as of yet unpublished): why spend a small fortune for a few days in the rain in UK when for slightly more, you can spend a week in the sunshine in mainland Europe, complete with the comforts of a hotel room? It was therefore a delight that the Festival Number 6 organisers made it as easy as possible to get there and back. The travel was so straightforward, in fact, that we got there before the campsite even opened, giving us time to explore Portmeirion in isolation. It was a surreal experience and gave us the breathing space to do that first-day-on-holiday thing of getting your bearings. We even managed to score dinner in a beautiful restaurant and hop in a taxi to check out the local surroundings, hassle-free.


One day at a time, we had an amazing weekend. The festival was small enough that you had regular run-ins with familiar faces from the campsite, and I was fortunate to be able to chat with some celebrities including Charlie Higson, Phil Kay, and Bez (the latter now making me a legend of sorts amongst some circles). The festival site with the main stages and dance tents was very small and the usually awful walk-back-to-the-campsite to get a jumper was in fact nothing more than an “I’ll be back in five minutes” sort of affair. In addition, on the way to the tent and back, there was no hassle from security staff. The vibe was chilled-out, but the festival felt very well organised. The excellent programme, for which I was happy to pay £10, laid everything out in a systematic way including a running-order across the 15 stages at a glance which made clashes easy to spot. Speaking of which, the main stage and what could be called the second stage had been organised so that there was virtually no overlap and in principle it was possible to see just about everyone performing across both stages.

As I promised my wife, it was not just about music. With film, comedy, spoken word and all sorts of other performances that captured the carnival atmosphere of the location perfectly, we were spoiled for choice. I loved the Bear Grylls survival course (and even ate a worm), and my wife loved the fire procession where we marched from the village to the main stage (because they are happy to hand drunk people flaming swords at Festival Number 6). It was non-stop. And that sort of brings me around to my point about context and content.


The festival was a celebration of Wales, in every way possible. Not only was there an entire stage dedicated to emerging Welsh talent, but there were Welsh language lessons, a Welsh produce market, and the Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir who were, by all accounts, the stars of the show. Performing with The Pet Shop Boys on the final night (on the song ‘Go West’), there was a real sense of closure and occasion that rounded off the weekend.

The festival setting, in Portmeirion with its Italianate architecture and colours, was also not just a nice addition but firmly embedded in the programme with recreations of scenes from ‘The Prisoner’ forming just one example. In this way, there was a real unified identity that was utterly unique. With many UK festivals, you could effectively be anywhere, surrounded by morph suits, flags, inflatables and brand embargos (just some of the things NME argues ought to be banned from British festivals). With Festival Number 6, the organisers really wore their heart on their sleeve in lots of different ways. And it was very charming.

Why go to a music festival?

In the past, I have always chosen which festival to go to on the basis of the line-up. I went to Connect Festival to see Beastie Boys and Jesus and Mary Chain in 2007, for example. I even dragged myself to T in the Park to see Rage Against the Machine in 2008. Though I suspect this initial motivation is widespread, research suggests that a significant volume of festivalgoers express little interest in the music itself (Bowen and Daniels, 2005; Henderson and Wood, 2009). Though it might sound strange, some big music festivals in the UK routinely sell out before a single act has been announced, indicating that festival goers purchase tickets based on more than simply who is playing. More recent research helps account for why this is the case, as follows.

Informed by both a focus group discussion and follow-up questionnaire, Packer and Ballantyne (2011) find that live music festivals are all about ‘the experience’, which is of course very subjective and will vary considerably. In a recent study of mine in collaboration with Dr. Don Knox (currently under review in a music psychology journal), we discovered four core reasons which underpinned choosing when to go a live music event: the most important was experience, followed by engagement, novelty, and practicalities. Without going into too much detail on what I mean with these labels, the results do suggest that live music events are not all about the live music itself. Certainly, on one day of Festival Number 6, I only watched one single musical act.

Choosing one festival over another

In recent years, a small number of major festivals have been cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Consider the cancellation of Sonisphere in 2012. A relatively new festival (the first was in 2009), Sonisphere brands itself as a metal festival. But so too does Download, and Download has been around for quite some time and builds on the legacy of the metal festival Monsters of Rock by staging the event in the same location in Donington. In other words, it has an identity which is interdependent on the success of previous festivals. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Sonisphere was cancelled as festival-goers opted to attend Download instead (where I anticipate many fans would have rather went to both), but the festival scene in the UK has reached a saturation point and so even large festivals can struggle to find an audience.

That’s why I’m amazed that Festival Number 6 has been such a success, with the first event just three years ago. My suspicion is that the context of the event, secured with the stunning location, has gone a long way in securing its success. The acts on a particular line-up (the ‘content’) will inevitably vary year on year. But, with a reliably strong identity (‘the context’) by more broadly incorporating music into a festival of arts and culture, you can overcome the fluctuating roster of musicians on a given year. It was widely considered that the line-up at Festival Number 6 was not as strong as previous years – how or why the little-known London Grammar headlined remains a mystery to me, performing just a 40 minute set – but the festival was a success nonetheless. This is also backed up by the Festival Congress’ decision to award Festival Number 6 ‘Most Unique Festival Site’ at the inaugural Festival Congress Awards in October 2014.


I’m fully planning on attending Festival Number 6 again, assuming that the line-up will be as good (but ideally better), and making that blind commitment that festival-goers who swear by Glastonbury do, year on year. Except that it’s not blind – we were there, and loved the context so much that the content is now virtually an afterthought. This is what festivals can offer in the face of rivals with stronger line-ups: a unique context that transcends a particular headliner or DJ. I’m sure there are dozens up and down the country, and I hope to experience them for myself in the long-term.

I might even catch some bands while I’m at it.


Bowen, H.E. and Daniels, M.J. (2005). ‘Does the music matter? Motivations for attending a          music festival’. Event Management, 9 (3), 155–164.

Brown, S.C. and Knox, D. (under review). ‘Why go to a live concert? The motivations behind live music attendance’. Psychology of Music.

Henderson, S. and Wood, E. (2009). ‘Dance To The Music: Fans and Socialites in the festival audience’. Live Music Exchange. Retrieved from

Packer, J. and Ballantyne, J. (2011). ‘The impact of music festival attendance on young  people’s psychological and social well-being’. Psychology of Music, 39, 164–181.


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