The World's Top Five City Music Festivals

To create Laneway and keep it evolving, we've travelled far and wide over the years, checking out all manner of festivals for inspiration and ideas. Being an inner-city festival, we're always interested in checking out the world's best city-based fests, wherever they may be. In this post we're going to take a look at our top five.

Though very different, the festivals we've chosen have a lot in common: each of them has an interesting history and reason for being, a commitment to unique and ground-breaking music, a desire to put the punter first, initiatives to promote community (through boutique labels, local food vendors etc), and an event that doesn't rely on a few big headliners to sell tickets.

As a result, each of these five festivals boasts loyal, diverse audiences that keep coming back every year.

5. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago.

Set right in the heart of our favorite American city, the three-day Pitchfork Music Festival brings together 15,000 people in July every year for a dream line up of indie music. The lineup when we went was great – adventurous and diverse and surprising – but what really struck us was the detail that went into the festival.

Like all good festivals, the Pitchfork event is about much more than seeing bands play. Each year features an incredible record fair run by the Chicago Independent Radio Project, wherein revered indie labels like Matador, Domino, Drag City, Sub Pop and Thrill Jockey peddle awesome collectibles you'll probably never find anywhere else. The festival also has a brilliant laneway of screen print art, featuring a kind of hall of fame of present and past indie icons, including some pretty amazing work by the likes of San Fran artist Tuffy.

The festival also features a fine array of foods, including, of course, Chicago's famous heart-attack-baiting deep-dish pizza. Despite being held in a residential area, the festival isn't subject to any sound limits that we know of, which means bands like Les Savy Fav can do what they do with total abandon. The vibe at the festival is very relaxed, with the like-minded fans very much there for the music, which is consistently among the best around.

4. Pop Montreal International Music Festival, Montreal.

Small, intimate and easy to navigate, Pop Montreal is like an indie kid's dream version of SXSW. Pop began when two music lovers had a chance meeting on the train, and decided to put on a an artist-driven festival that integrated the city's Franco and Anglo scenes. Pop, though a music festival in name, features much more than just bands: it's packed program also features five days of cutting-edge films, comics, and art installations from local and international artists, as well as warehouse parties, kids activities, a symposium, and a cultural fair.

TV Ghost at Pop Montreal 2008

'We always try and keep it fresh,' says Pop's Executive Producer Hilary Leftick. 'We're really into ideas and open to suggestion and often our biggest hits are ideas that came to us by word of the local community.' For Leftick, the biggest challenge of the festival is trying to make sense of it when it's all over: trying to sort through all the 'funny stories and crazy times,' trying to figure out why the mics from one venue have mysteriously appeared at another venue, and 'who authorized charging a gorilla stripper on the Pop credit card and why?' 

The festival is split between 50 venues, mostly in the city's Mile End district. The festival's organisers work closely with the city's forward-thinking council to put together a festival that never repeats itself.

A few years ago Laneway was invited out to Pop amid discussions about starting up a Laneway in Montreal. Naturally we loved this idea, as it gave us a legitimate excuse to head to Montreal every year and soak up the city's French quarters and insanely great live music scene, which in recent years has gifted us with the likes of Wolf parade and Arcade Fire.

3. Field Day Festival, London. Run by our good friend Tom Baker, the Field Day Festival is held over one day each year at Victoria Park in London's east. After a few teething problems in the festival's early years, Field Day has now grown into a truly unique boutique event, known as much for its consistently great line up of excellent new music (its lineups have featured everyone from Fennesz to Mumford & Sons to Silver Apples) as for its quirky touches (each festival features a village fete, known as Village Mentality, complete with a massive tug of war and awesome boutique markets).

Originally taking place over five stages, this year saw Field Day expand to six, with a typically diverse lineup that featured, among others, Four Tet, The Fall, The xx, and Melbourne's own The Temper Trap. The Field Day's peerless programming makes us terribly excited to have Tom programming a Laneway stage in 2011 under the Eat Your Own Ears moniker. Stay tuned.

2. Lollapalooza, Chicago.

Lollapalooza makes you love Chicago even more, if such a thing were possible. Set in the heart of summer in Grant Park (the city's largest), with the massive Lake Michigan as a backdrop, this three-day happening is by far the most well run 'big' festival we've experienced (the festival sells an incredible 75,000 tickets a day). The site is massive, but retains a well-worn feeling of intimacy and community – and, happily, because it's in a big city, at the end of a long day of music you can head back to your pad or hotel, grab some food, have a shower, sleep in a bed, ready for the next day's festivities.

Lolla was founded in 1991 by Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell as a touring festival, and soon became known for its wild performances and outré attractions (early fests included Shaolin monks and an 'alternative freak show'.) After a six-year hiatus, Lolla returned in 2003, and in 2005 was transformed into its current form as a single Chicago event.

Arcade Fire at Lolla 2010

Each year Lolla's line up features the best in independent music, with the likes of The Strokes, Cut Copy, The National, Devo, Gaga and our heroes Arcade Fire all putting on ridiculously good performances the last time we were there. But, like with all great festivals, it's the details that make Lolla great.

This year the festival employed Graham Elliot Bowles, Chicago's hottest young chef and a musician, as its first ever 'culinary director'. Bowles's selections included everything from experimental nosh items like lobster corndogs and truffle-salted popcorn to more traditional favourites like fish and chips, making the festival food an experience in itself.

Lolla also does its bit for the environment: it's a proudly carbon-free event, and recycling is encouraged and embraced. Lisa Hickey, marketing director of Lolla's marketing agency C3, says it's always Lolla's aim to 'leave the park in better condition than before we begin the event build. We work hard to ensure Lollapalooza has a low impact on the environment and on Grant Park.' 

1. Notting Hill Carnival, London.

London's Notting Hill Carnival takes place on a scale that's hard to even comprehend. The festival – which is really just one massive Caribbean-inspired street party – closes down the entire suburb of Notting Hill for two days at the end of August, as over one million revellers and countless floats, dancers and performers shake their way across twenty miles of the normally exclusive, upmarket streets.

Notting Hill Carnival offers an experience unlike anything else – a colourful, ecstatic blur of bodies, huge sound systems, vivid floats, and Caribbean food stalls, with people of all ages getting in on the action. Memorable sights abound, from the wild costumes to the sprawling calypso bands to the locals selling jerk chicken and cans of Red Stripe from housing estate lawns.

The festival began way back in 1964 as a chance for London's considerable Afro-Caribbean community to celebrate their heritage and culture. It's now the biggest street party in Europe, and the second biggest in the world. After some problems with rioting and crime in earlier years, the Carnival is now a much-loved fixture on the London calendar, a time to get loose in the three weeks of the year where the weather's good enough to allow it. 

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