Our Favourite Music Festivals, And Why We Love Them

Our favourite music festivals have a lot in common. For one, the festivals we love don't make any claims of being the greenest, the loudest, the newest or the coolest––they just do what they do, and do it in a way that keeps people coming back. Their events speak for themselves.

Central to our favourite festivals' success is a genuine story, a tale of building something up from humble beginnings, and of finding ways to innovate and grow in an increasingly crowded market, while still maintaining the intimacy and vision that made people come in the first place.

Fundamentally, the great festivals do things their own way: they're held in interesting and unique surrounds, they involve punters in the event, they turn people onto great music. They nail the little things, creating an experience and a feeling that lasts long beyond the festival itself.

Which is all to say that creating a great festival goes far beyond slapping a few popular acts of the day on the bill, talking yourself up as something new and unique, and trying to manufacture an atmosphere; it requires healthy doses of inspiration, persistence and plain hard work.

Here, in no particular order, are four music festivals who we think have these qualities in spades, and which are always worth making the trek for.

Fuji Rock

How it started: One of the undisputed heavyweights of world music festivals, Fuji Rock began in 1997, in a ski resort near Mt Fuji. To say things didn't get off to a great start would be a bit of an understatement: on day one of the two-day festival, one of the country's fearsome typhoons hit; despite the weather clearing, the second day of the festival was cancelled.

Things got markedly better from there, and, after a brief stop off in Tokyo, the festival moved to its permanent home at Naeba Ski Resort, where it's been for the last 12 years, on an amazing site surrounded by mountains and rich green forest.

Why people come back: Now a three-day event, Fuji Rock is a massive affair, featuring over 200 local and international acts over seven stages, and attracting more than 100,000 punters. Despite its mammoth size, festival organisers put immense effort into making the festival clean, green and user-friendly, while also offering a bunch of things you won't find anywhere else––the world's longest gondola ride, obscenely beautiful walks between stages, an opening party with traditional folk dancing and fireworks.

The festival's line-ups combine the mainstream with the indie and several things in between––the 2001 line-up, for instance, featured Alanis Morissette, Eminem and Oasis alongside Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Brian Eno, Boredoms and Mogwai; this year's line-up includes Warpaint, The Kills, QOTSA, Wilco, Deerhoof and Tangerine Dream.

'Every year the festival becomes more of a star than the bands,' says Fuji Rock's official documentarian, Jon Helmer, 'and every year the people become more interested in experiencing the festival rather than just ticking band names off a list.'

All Tomorrow's Parties

How it started: Appropriately enough, the UK's All Tomorrow's Parties Festival started with a band––Belle & Sebastian, who created their own festival at a holiday camp in 1999.

Inspired, promoter Barry Hogan set out to create a new kind of festival––one where bands chose the line-up; where organisers, artists and fans shared the same accommodation; and where acts would perform in more intimate settings than was usually the case at festivals. From the beginning, Hogan says, ATP was 'about quality over quantity.'

ATP kicked off in 2000, with the inaugural, Mogwai-curated ATP. Held at a holiday camp in the southeast of England, the first ATP featured a dizzyingly good line-up that included Sonic Youth, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Aphex Twin, Shellac and Wire, among many others.

Subsequent events have been curated by the likes of Tortoise, Slint, The Dirty Three, Matt Groening, Jim Jarmusch, Pavement and My Bloody Valentine, and have been held in the US and Australia to great acclaim.

Why people come back: ATP has continued to innovate: in 2005, they introduced the massively popular Don't Look Back series, which sees bands play their most revered albums in full––Sonic Youth have played Daydream Nation, Slint Spiderland, The Stooges Fun House––and they organise regular, well-attended events all over the world.

ATP is also a frequent collaborator with other, like-minded festivals, like Pitchfork and Primavera, and now has its own boutique record label.

Punters love ATP for very simple reasons: their unswerving commitment to great music of all kinds, their total respect for music fans (organisers occasionally let punters vote for line-ups), and the continual improvements they make each year.

'Even though we've been doing it for 10 years, you learn from each step,' Hogan says. 'We've always tried to strive to make the next one better, so we've just continued to improve it.'

Exit Festival

How it started: Serbia's Exit Festival began in more tumultuous circumstances than most, starting out in 2000 as a student-initiated protest against the country's repressive regime. Held in various venues around Novi Sad, Serbia's second biggest city, the first Exit lasted 100 days.

Since then, the festival has overcome significant adversity––including the brief imprisonment of one its founders––to become one of the most renowned events in Europe, helped along by a setting that's the envy of pretty much every other festival: an 18th century fortress looking over the Danube.

Why people come back: 'The Balkans have screwed up a lot of things,' Exit founder Bojan Boskovic says. 'But we want to shake off the negative image of our past. There are lots of things we are good at, and one of them is having fun.'

Exit's founders describe the four-day event as less a festival than a 'temporary nation,' with up to 150,000 people descending on Novi Sad from all over Europe. Despite the huge numbers, a sense of real conviviality pervades Novi Sad, and the organisers take great pains to make sure the event never feels crowded or overwhelming. Outside the stages, organisers offer everything from extreme sports to avant-garde cinema, and punters camp all over the town, and up high into the hills.

Exit's drawcard is its supremely joyful atmosphere, which is every bit as intoxicating as the cheap beer on offer.

The festival's line-ups, while not overwhelmed with big names, have featured, over the years, Primal Scream, Faith No More, LCD Soundsystem, Massive Attack, Slayer, The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Sex Pistols and Beastie Boys, along with a bunch of great local acts. 

Meredith Music Festival

How it started: Meredith Music Festival had the humblest of beginnings: a few bands on a flatbed truck in a paddock in a tiny town an hour's drive from Melbourne. The paddock was owned by the family of a young man who loved music, and who wanted a chance to share said music with his friends. That was in 1991.

Why people come back: Meredith's success centres on its sense of community: many punters who make up the Meredith crowd have been going since the very early days, and it's this loyalty that creates an effortless camaraderie each year, and makes the festivals almost self-policing.

Organisers have added new touches over the years––a bar, some yurts, a ferris wheel––but have been conscious to keep the festival essentially small-scale, unconventional, and defiantly non-commercial.

Like most great events, Meredith has overcome significant adversity: its co-founder, Chris Nolan, on whose family's land the festival takes place, was struck down in 1996 with a mystery illness while working in Vietnam, and returned home with significant brain injury. Nolan now opens each festival, and serves as its inspiration.

Organisers have been careful not to mess with what makes Meredith what it is: one stage, a couple of days, quite a few drinks, some great music, an effortlessly happy atmosphere and a bunch of oddly awesome traditions, including the Meredith Gift, a nude running race that takes place on the December festival's final day.

Meredith's eclectic line-ups have included The Dirty Three, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Drones, Band of Horses, Neil Finn, Animal Collective, and Architecture In Helsinki, among many, many others.

Calvi On The Rocks

How it started: Calvi On The Rocks was founded in 2003 as a boutique alternative to the many large festivals on the European summer calendar. Held in the picturesque surrounds of the seaside Corsican town of Calvi, Calvi was, from the outset, a small scale affair, limiting its numbers even as it grew to ensure it maintained its intimate feel.

Calvi is now held over five days, in venues all over the town. It offers an eclectic range of events in a bunch of unique settings, and allows punters to pick and choose what they see, and how long they stay.

Why people come back: 'It is very simple,' LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy says of Calvi . 'This is heaven'.

For Murphy, as for the other two thousand people who make the trek to Calvi each year, heaven is five days of music and summer sun, a place where festival gumboots are swapped for shorts and bikinis, where dancefloors are out in the ocean, where moonlight concerts happen underneath the citadel, and a relaxed, anything-goes atmosphere allows everyone involved to happily suspend reality for a few days.

Calvi is what organisers call a 'human scale' festival, and it shows: despite the influx of people into the small town each July, organisers do a huge amount of work to ensure everything is simple, well run and within reach, allowing people to get on with the serious business of enjoying themsleves.

Though the festival is largely populated by beautiful, sophisticated French types, the organisers' low key, respectful approach and focus on quality over quantity ensures Calvi remains refreshingly unpretentious and uncommercial. Like all good festivals, Calvi has a loyal band of folk who return each year, and who, knowing they're onto something good, respect the place and each other.

The festival's electronica-heavy line-ups have featured the likes of Neneh Cherry, LCD Soundsystem, Phoenix, !!! (chk chk chk), Hot Chip, Feist, and Klaxons.

Photo: Flickr CC // tallkev

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