Ah, the illustrious world of boutique festivals. For the longest time a mostly British phenomenon, these festivals are now everywhere. Collins Dictionary defines the word boutique as ‘a small specialised producer or business’. Sounds great, but how does that actually translate to festivals? What does the word ’boutique’ entail, and how are these events different from their non-boutique counterparts? Let’s take a look at what comprises a boutique festival.
More than Music
Even though live music will always take centre stage at music festivals, previously nonexistent or peripheral things such as gourmet dining, wellness activities, games and art are now becoming the mainstay of boutique festivals. It’s a way to appeal to niches and profile a festival beyond sometimes very pricy headliners.
Down the Rabbit Hole festival promises an Alice in Wonderland-themed weekend where “you are who you are when no one can see you”. Arts, crafts, meditation sessions and organic food accentuate this boutique festival’s well-being character. Food and wellness are also a big part of Lightning in a Bottle, the only music festival in the US (that we know of) that offers hands-on nutrition classes and demonstrations. Festivals like Flow in Slovenia and Festival Nr. 6 in Wales provide their audience with more than merely good music. Critically acclaimed Festival Nr. 6 boasts “exclusive film screenings with live soundtracks, stand up comedy, art trails through the woods, storytelling in clearings, pop up theatre and installations”. As if that wasn’t enough banquets and pirate workshops for kids and a plethora of other activities make up the festival’s bustling weekend. In France, avid Pétanque players can indulge at Festival Yeah!, known for its great food and easygoing atmosphere. The boutique festival’s 2015 edition featured a Saturday afternoon competition of the ancient Provençal sport.
Still, this doesn’t mean that boutique festivals can’t rely purely on good music. Take Dekmantel Selectors in Croatia, a festival with a capacity of 1,500 by the same record label that runs the ever popular Dekmantel Festival in Amsterdam. Selectors promises a weekend that showcases some of the world’s most sought-after DJ’s in an intimate environment.
Providing more things to do combined with smaller audiences usually equals relatively higher overhead and less revenue, meaning that the struggle to find affordable headliners can become very real. Not that boutique festivals would necessarily want to feature big, international, mainstream acts, but it does require a different approach. Instead, many boutique festivals focus on emerging talent and artists that cater to a certain niche. But even landing a relatively unknown artist can become a thorn in the side of organisers, with artists steadily increasing their fees, and the sheer amount of festivals out there. Blissfield, a 4000 capacity festival in the UK, hosted a pre-fame Mumford & Sons back in 2009. The band went on to rise to fame across the world, just like London Grammar, who headlined the same festival in 2013. Blissfield’s founder believes his festival’s survival depends heavily on booking the right talent just before they go mainstream.
Experience & Awareness
So is a boutique festival basically just a smaller festival with a program that extends beyond music, or a festival that books emerging talents in hopes of discovering a star? Not exactly. Most boutique festivals rely on community creation, guest immersion and delivering a real experience. Back in 2013, Festival No. 6’s Bradley Thompson said “there’s more of an element of belonging, of being part of something special with boutique festivals”.
As part of the experience, most boutique festivals also offer their guests equally boutique camping experiences. This year, Blissfields once again offers guests glamping options arranged by UK based Camel Camp, Dekmantel Selectors has arranged for various on-site and off-site accommodation options, with Podpads probably being the most colourful option and Down the Rabbit Hole is even hosting its very own Rabbit Resort.
Finally, boutique festivals are all about creating awareness, whether it’s planting trees and only using recyclable plates and cutlery like at Tea Party in South Africa or making sure your festival is as sustainable as possible, like Øyafestivalen in Norway. As previously mentioned, festivals like Lightning in a bottle and Down the Rabbit Hole offer health food courses and mediation sessions. Taking respect and cultural awareness one step further, Lightning in a Bottle has now banned Native American headdresses. Stating that “..sporting that headdress means being a walking representative of 500+ years of colonialism and racism, perpetuating stereotypes that native people have been fighting against for just as long.”
In a crowded market, boutique festivals cater to an audience that wants an experience that is more easygoing and relaxed at events where lineups are more often curated to particular tastes. Combining this with appealing ‘extracurricular’ activities such as theatre, film screenings, meditation sessions and discussion panels and bespoke accommodation options, boutique festivals seem to have found the golden ratio, serving the niche, not the masses.