Festivals: High Notes, Low Blows

The Baxter Theatre stage set up and ready for the 2016 Barleycorn Music Festival. Photo by: Kelly Hendrickse 

The dim lighting and firm-cushioned seats of the Baxter Theatre set a relaxed and warm atmosphere mere minutes before the first act. Each seat embraces an eager, smiling individual as an anticipatory chatter consumes the cosy room. The low stage is donned with gleaming brass instruments, polished guitars, a shiny drum-kit and numerous microphones, ready for its first performer. This is a music festival.

But there are more than just the low-key music festivals. For instance, you could attend a summer evening festival-style concert at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens with a string of performances lined up. Perhaps you could attend a 3-day electro-production at Ultra. Or Maybe a day soaking in the live music featuring international headliners while basking in the vineyard atmosphere at Rocking the Daisies is more your scene.  Whether you prefer the electronic surge of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), the exclusive line-up of world-renowned acts, or the talented local up-and-comers, no music festival is without a set of upbeat positives and, of course, dreaded problems.

Dr Ian Bell, treasurer of the Barleycorn Music Club, introducing the first act at the 2016 Barleycorn Festival. Photo by: Keananne Rossouw

Those firm-cushioned theatre seats are one of the factors that place the Barleycorn festival, for example, as an odd one out amongst the number of outdoor music festivals. But this was not always the case. 2014 marked the final year that the Barleycorn fit the profile of the outdoorsy, full day of live music, and lounging on the fresh green glass of the Maynardville Open-air Theatre. Dr Ian Bell, treasurer of the Barleycorn Music Club, ascribes public awareness as a great challenge against the success of the club and its annual festival. “We’ve been meeting almost every Monday night since 1975 and still it remains one of Cape Town’s best kept secret[s],” says Bell. The Barleycorn’s diversity in genre allows audiences with an ear for differing tastes to connect at the same festival, unlike Ultra’s exclusive electro-crowd. “We stage every kind of music that you’ve ever heard of: classical music, reggae, everything,” says Bell.

Lourens and Este Rabe from the Bottomless Coffee Band at their home in Paarl. Photo by: Kelly Hendrickse

Keeping with this beat, I interviewed one of the Barleycorn festival’s 2016 acts, the Bottomless Coffee Band, comprised of multi-instrumental and married duo, Esté and Lourens Rabé. Genre plays a large role in the success or downfall of South African music festivals, since not every genre is given the platform of performing on a festival’s main stage. I bet you’ve never heard of an opera festival or a festival made up entirely of acoustic acts, have you? “A certain style of music just works better for the main event. Like you always have a Rock band, or something, like a Prime Circle that’s the main event of the show,” explains Lourens. “People know the songs; it’s like sing-along type of songs,” he adds.

Once landing a performance slot at a festival, musicians face a literal platform (stage) to garner up a following. But not without an income challenge. “[Festivals] are different than people perceive it,” says Esté. “Often the festivals have a very small budget for the artists,” she adds. After rehearsals and sound-checks, and the climactic performance in front of a mass of people, there is still no guarantee that each musician on the set-list would be pocketing some cash by the end of the night. “If you do [get paid] it’s really way below what you would’ve been paid at your own theatre show,” explains Esté.

The Bottomless Coffee Band performing at the 2016 Barleycorn Music Festival. Photo by: Keananne Rossouw

From a 21st-century audience perspective, where hype is generated exceedingly fast online, festivals offer a place of connecting with a community that shares your symphonic pleasures. But the ease of accessibility to music impacts the outcome of live audiences at festivals, since, as Bell notes, the audience can assess the acts on the line-up and decide prior to the event whether or not they are willing to spend their time and money on the festival. “[Music] was always a human interconnectedness, but that’s gone because of the digital age,” says Bell. Festivals bring back this interconnectedness and bring your music library to life. With the internet, you can easily just plug in your headphones, type in an artist’s name from a festival line-up into your web browser and listen to the entire set-list without even leaving your bedroom. “People will only go out now if it’s something particularly good or the hype is strong enough,” says Bell.

On another note, ticket prices contribute heavily on the turnout of an audience. Bell notes that an audience is less likely to attend a festival with lesser known acts, like the Barleycorn Festival, if the price increases. “[The audience] look[s] at that list and says ‘there’s only one or two names that I recognise on there, I’m not going to waste that time or that money on the off chance that these guys might be good even though the Barleycorn has a track history of putting on some pretty damn good concerts’,” explains Bell.

On the other hand, well-advertised can still only draw in smaller crowds than hoped for. Esté pointed out an occurrence where Gangs of Ballet, an MTV award-winning Durban-bred band, only had an audience of 40 people during their slot at a music festival. “It’s massively advertised and you’re getting paid but you have forty people because you have a two-in-the-afternoon slot,” she explains. “At Electric Vines [Music Festival] there were these massive acts but then not a lot of people,” notes Esté. “Then you get Rocking the Daisies and that’s got thousands of people,” compares Lourens. No matter the audience size, the time slots per musician is still limiting. “You as the musician can’t really express yourself as you maybe would have wanted to,” says Esté. But, a high note is that the audience still delight in a taste of the musician’s talent.

Video delves into a main difference between a large commercial festival and a theatre-venue festival, the Barleycorn Festival and it’s positives for musicians, and the rewards of performing for a crowd.

Whether you’re soaking up the symphonic talents of rising local artists during a more intimate evening at a theatre or you’re dancing happily in the fresh air to the pumping sound of the notable acts at the day-long experience, music festivals provide a stage for musicians to share their craft. They provide a choice for the audience – intimate or expanse production, promisingly new or distinguished icons. But, backstage and away from the spotlight, musicians aren’t always guaranteed pay or an audience. With the audience now able to review the musicians before the actual festival and the uncertainty of the prospective audience’s willingness to sprawl out spiking amounts of money, there is no guarantee that a music festival can reach raving success without problems.

As the controlled applause or the thunderous roar of cheers die out, and the hype of feeling the vibrations of sound wave through your body, the issues surrounding music festivals have room to take centre stage. It is impossible to say whether these struggles will find solutions. Will musicians unrelentingly be left without income guarantees? Will audiences be without a space to explore live music?


Photos below by: Keananne Rossouw (full captions available when you hover over each image)



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