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The Signs of Festival – Emma Webster


Tomorrow sees the start of the EFG London Jazz Festival (LJF), the biggest music festival in the UK’s biggest city.  I will be attending a variety of LJF events as part of a new project, The Impact of Festivals, led by Professor George McKay of the University of East Anglia (UEA).  In anticipation of what I hope will be an exciting ten days, today’s blog post considers the signs of festival – how we know a festival is on its way before it begins.

The signs of festival are numerous and may be literal or metaphorical or even multi-sensory – a signpost, a sound, a smell; from the sight of big tops peeping over the tips of trees, to the smell of food (or, let’s face it, human waste) ambushing our noses, to the sound of an amplified kick drum or the excited babble of thousands of people gathering in one place.  Of course, a festival may be spread over a number of venues (as is the case with the LJF) indicating, as always, how the definition of festival is a difficult thing to pin down – indeed, Chris Stone lists no less than seventeen types of festival[1] – and the signs of festival are usually both generically and (sub)culturally defined.  A local community festival may be advertised via flyers left in local shops and cafes and by (illegal) posterboards on lampposts; an opera festival more likely to be heralded by (legal) banners and advertising hoardings around its home city and adverts in broadsheets and culturally specific magazines. My favourite festival advert so far is the one below, for Fernie Festival in Canada in 2007. The spectacular mountain backdrop setting, the hand-painted sign on the back of a trailer, the wonderfully vague line-up details (“16 or 19 LIVE BANDS (possibly 22)”) – the seeming looseness of it all is very appealing,[2] although again, generically (and geographically) specific. Fernie Fest is (probably deliberately) borrowing from the countercultural heritage of Woodstock and there are no sponsorship logos and no attempt to disguise the somewhat prosaic trailer on which it stands.


As well as the appearance of advertising, another sign that a festival is on its way (or already in operation) may be an increase in advertising for festival-related events and sometimes a loosening of rules around such advertising.  For example, during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe it feels like the whole city becomes an advertising hoarding, whether it be posters stuck to ancient walls or to temporary plywood boards, people flyering directly to potential patrons, or stages on the Royal Mile loudly showcasing a sample of music or theatre (or musical theatre) on offer, to chalked invitations on the streets themselves.  As one Edinburgh promoter told me, he gets warnings from the police for fly-posting throughout the year but then gets ‘battered’ during the Fringe by all the other people fly-posting,[3] to which the Council appears to turn a blind eye. For Edinburgh’s annual summer of festivals, it is as if the usual rules of engagement are temporarily suspended for festival time and requires a tacit agreement from the authorities (or a tacit admission that the sheer scale of the festival makes it impossible) to allow such a phenomenon to take place.

As well as overt advertising before and during the event, other signs of festival are the purely functional signs which appear in order to guide attendees to and around the site – even these more prosaic signs can still inspire excitement, however.  Driving to this year’s Kendal Calling, the signs that we were getting close came first from the villages through which we drove, as (again) hand-painted signs warned of buying the ‘last beer before the festival’. After that, large yellow temporary directional signs showed drivers where to access the site – the shocking yellowness of the signs warning of something out of the ordinary happening in contrast to the more dowdy permanent blue, green, and brown signs of Britain’s roads and byways.

Staying on the theme of transport, another sign of festival can be an increase in traffic, both motor and foot; indeed, one good indication that you are close to a temporary festival is the clogging up of narrow B-roads, often not well suited for thousands of cars.

Another sign of festival may be the sight of other festival-goers – again, generically and (sub)culturally dependent. The sight of backpackers wearing tie-dye clothing heading in the same direction as yourself is a good giveaway that you are close to what is likely to be what Chris Anderton[4] describes as a festival ‘rooted in a post-hippie countercultural heritage’; a Shambala, perhaps, or a Glastonbury.  Depending on the local topography and the nature of the festival, you may even see a festival from afar. Unlike indoor festivals in venues, for outdoor festivals, the lid is taken off and the festival is exposed – a festival in a natural bowl or amphitheatre therefore allows the festival from afar to both excite and entice.

Other signs of festival are via third parties, particularly the media.  This year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, for instance, is working in partnership with BBC Music and Jazz FM on a special jazz ‘pop up’ station – BBC Music Jazz – which will be broadcasting throughout the Festival from today at 2pm; a mutually beneficial partnership which ensures good coverage for the Festival whilst also enabling the BBC to increase its jazz coverage and hence potentially its audience. Previews can also be found in newspapers and magazines, and social media is alive with anticipation of the Festival.

This year, the London Jazz Festival runs in tandem with The Streets project, a satellite festival to the LJF which focuses on the high streets of seven boroughs outwith the main Festival area, including Tooting and Waltham Forest. Some events will be indoor but there will also be more overt and inclusive outdoor performances in order to encourage participation and awareness.  I hope that this will be akin to my first experience of Sheffield’s urban music festival, Tramlines, in which the city centre’s Division Street was literally thronged with people and venues’ open doors allowed music to be heard up and down the street.  I can’t remember now whether there were banners drawing the various venues and events together, but there was a palpable sense of a festival, certainly around Division Street and Devonshire Green, to the west of the city centre. What will be of particular interest to me as I experience the London Jazz Festival is how the signs of festival will be apparent in a city with so much else going on and which already attracts visitors in their millions.  Added to this is the fact that the Festival is not site-specific, like Glastonbury, but takes place over a range of venues across London, from Ziggy’s World Jazz Club at the Dugdale Centre in Enfield in the north to the Hideaway in Streatham in the south.

What will also be interesting for me at the mostly venue-based London Jazz Festival is whether, aside from The Streets events, the sense of people coming together for a festival is as apparent as at, say, a Glastonbury or a Reading or a Tramlines, or whether the LJF is swallowed by London’s sheer size.  It may even be that comparisons with such festivals are meaningless. I will be talking to audience members about how they feel about the Festival: whether the gig they have attended feels like part of a wider event, or whether it feels like ‘just another gig’.  Do they feel a sense of community with their fellow audience members?  What is the impact of the Festival on their relationship to jazz and on their lives more generally? I will also be asking about the signs of festival from their point of view and keeping an eye out for how the Festival announces itself to the world.

I’m intending to blog every day from the festival and I hope that you will check back or subscribe at the project website to see what I uncover while I’m there. Here’s to an exciting ten days of jazz music!

This blog post was also posted on The Impact of Festivals website.

[1] Stone, Chris (2008) The British pop music festival phenomenon. International Perspectives of Festivals and Events: Paradigms of Analysis. Oxford, Elsevier, p. 220.

[2] I should also add that there was a hurricane the night before the festival which blew down the majority of the temporary infrastructure – the hardy Canadians managed to rebuild it all in time for the festival, however.

[3] Mackie, M. (2008) Personal interview, Edinburgh with Emma Webster, 1 July.

[4] Anderton, Chris (2011). Music festival sponsorship: between commerce and carnival. Arts Marketing: An International Journal, 1 (2), p. 154.

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