Roskilde Shows Us A Better Future for Festivals

Across the UK this summer, music and arts festivals have drawn large crowds, but are failing to deliver progress in sustainability, sexism and accessibility. In Denmark, Roskilde Festival is innovating what we’ve come to expect from music festivals through community-building and cooperation.

PHOTOGRAPHY Alexander Fazio, Jacob Stage & Flemming Bo Jensen

When it comes to live events, it’s all about the “user experience”. Or, at least that’s what festival advertisements will have you believe, using increasingly bizarre activities or marketing strategies to attract audiences to their once-in-a-lifetime event. But when it comes to music and arts festivals, I fear we’ve lost track of what experience we’re actually trying to create. Whether hosted in a city or in the middle of the countryside, there are a few key components we’ve come to expect – music, camping and booze – with the format largely unchanged since the 60s. But whose to say that what festival goers have wanted for the past 50 years – any opportunity to vaguely recreate Woodstock – is what young people are looking for from their live music experiences today?

This summer has been the testing ground as international festivals returned post-COVID, providing fun for concert-starved millions, profits for savvy promoters and performers, and the potential to wreak havoc on environmental sustainability efforts. According to the Greener Festival report, the average festival produces 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, with each festival-goer generating 5kg per day. As young people’s anxiety over our climate crisis continues to rise, so too does our need to address the status quo and reconsider how we will host live events in the future.

In the UK, we’ve become criminally complacent with the format of our festivals – a dumping ground of drunken debautchery, interspersed with the occasional graffiti wall or small business stall and, if you’re lucky, you might just catch some music. Fears of big crowd crushes, inappropriate behaviour in secluded sleeping quarters and overflowing first aid tents have become uncomfortably normalised, while COVID’s cancellations over the last two years of line-ups have left ticket holders with high expectations for an unforgettable weekend.

If music festivals err on the side of reckless fun, then arts festivals’ reputations remain firmly at the other end of this spectrum – or as Tiktok would say, it’s all art, no vibes. Either low-budget, low-attendance community town hall events or pretentious Frieze-style affairs are on offer across the UK this summer, but are severely lacking in youthful spirit, with young people’s attendances continuing to drop. The gap between our music festivals and arts festivals is widening, and somewhere in between lies an unengaged Gen-Z audience.

After my annual tour of London’s summer events offerings, I was beginning to think that perhaps this middle ground just didn’t exist – that ultimately, it would be near-impossible to try to please everyone, and there’s just too many types of festival experiences for one universally-enjoyed event. 

That was until my trip to Roskilde Festival. Boasting more than 130,000 attendees across an impressive 9 full day schedules, the Danish festival has become a stalwart of European summer festivities for its impressively eclectic line-ups and widespread appeal. The term ‘mindblowing’ feels painfully overused, and yet my mind could not quite comprehend the atmosphere I was experiencing – there’s so much to do that I quickly realised how many people could attend and have their own, totally unique Roskilde experience – and even more so when considering that this was the festival’s 50th run.

After a phenomenal four-day trip, these are our takeaways that we want to see more of at future festivals:

The Green Design Market.

The festival gives back

One key marker of Roskilde Festival’s difference is that it runs as a non-profit organisation. Since 1971, when founders Mogens Sandfær and Jesper Switzer Møller turned their high school dream for a new youth festival into a reality, the Roskilde Festival Charity Society has generated over €55 million to various causes including Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, Support the Victims in Iraq, Save the Children and The World Wildlife Fund, to name a few.

As 100% non-profit, Roskilde supports social and cultural charities and organisations, particularly those benefitting children and young people. Money raised from the 2018 and 2019 festivals was used to “create new communities, create a greener world and inspire more mutual respect,” with recipients including LGBTQ+ activists AURA-fællesskaber, community-based concert venue Plan B, transformative literature platform Ordskaelv, the Danish Family Planning Association and the Environmental Justice Foundation.

It’s focused on community

Roskilde understands that when it comes to such an expansive event site and programme, it’s important to find your crowd. That’s why the camping is split amongst different sites depending on what you’re into – there’s a ‘Settle & Share’ camp for those looking to join new cohabiting groups, ‘Clean Out Loud’ and ‘Leave No Trace’ camps for those with fresh ideas on how sustainable camping can be best achieved, and a ‘Roskilde Road Trip’ for international travellers looking to make friends. 

Infamous audience-led camp ‘Dream City’ sells out the quickest, with several festival attendees assuring us that this is where the “real” festival takes place after hours – one person likened it to a miniature Burning Man within a Glastonbury – this camp treats its residents to glitter fights, slip n’ slides and DIY dance floors around the clock.

Regardless of where you sleep, the festival’s overflowing event selection makes it easy to find like-minded attendees, with drag shows, quiz nights, meditation classes and a 2000-square-foot painted dancing platform (also christened as the World’s Largest Dance Floor) all designed to encourage interaction and group fun.

The site is immersed in artworks

Unlike other hybrid festivals on offer, Roskilde does not separate its arts activities from its music venues. On the contrary, artworks by over 60 artists and activists could be found across the festival site. While music acts followed a typical staggered time schedule throughout the day, the festival’s commissioned artworks lived within the festival site on pathways to stages, between food trucks and well, just about everywhere. Woven walkways, tree trunk installations, green hair-adorned chandeliers, Moon Goddess sculptures, film screenings and more await those looking to fill their time between sets – there’s certainly no aimless milling around at Roskilde.

The festival’s activism-focused events at FLOKKR – including talks from climate crisis front line fighters in the Amazon and Africa, speakers from Ukrainian-Danish Youth House about the war in Ukraine and feminist activist Emma Holten – kept the festival’s themes front and centre and made space for necessary conversations about accountability and justice. If you’re feeling emboldened, C:NTACT is giving the audience the power in a theatre performance where viewers have to resolve a conflict between three actors. Elsewhere, science experiments, group dreaming and wild foraging are set up in sessions to ease stress and encourage togetherness. 

Roskilde’s schedule truly feels as though the art and activism programme has been given the same care and attention as the music line-up, and the resulting effect on the festival was evident – everywhere I looked, I saw people jumping on things, singing things, stopping to look at things. So many things.

The festival practises what it preaches

Roskilde Festival prides itself on its sustainable approach, providing attendees with tools to make sustainable choices and implementing the same throughout the event’s infrastructure, including simple reusable drinks cups at bars and stickers explaining the carbon footprint of each meal highlighted on food trucks, which was achieved through a partnership with WWF’s One Planet Plate.

At the Green Design Market, independent sustainable brands were celebrated, from biodegradable glitter and burlap sack handbags. The makers also hosted workshops on upcycling and dyeing, growing your own urban garden and the benefits of biodesign. “I feel honoured to be here surrounded by so many fellow makers who really care and to speak to so many people who are interested,” said Niah, a maker hosting a coffee-dyeing workshop.

The festival also encouraged everyone attending to travel by public transport wherever possible, with cycling routes, shuttle buses and even a make-shift train stop at the edge of the festival site in place. Cycling in particular was a popular choice for many attendees, with thousands of bikes lining the entrances to the main site.

It reimagines how we interact with live music 

One of the standout activities at Roskilde this year was UNIFY from producer and musician Noah Rosanes, who locked himself in a mobile studio 24 hours a day during the festival to create musical art with different guests. Attendees could stand outside and listen live to the artists’ creation process. “The interactions with the crows standing outside the studio watching us were so helpful,” Rosanes explains. “They came with so many ideas and song lyrics inspired by the festival, and at one point I threw out a microphone so someone could record backing vocals.”

The recordings have culminated in an album with more than 20 invited musicians that had played at the festival. “There is a great connection between the musicians and the people at Roskilde and we created some great music that really captured the essence of the festival’s spirit.”

New to the festival this year, Roskilde’s Platform venue was created as a space dedicated to hybrid formats for “curious and poignant” art and music performances. Over the four days, the space hosted German artist and choreographer Tino Sehgal’s multi-sensory performance This Variation along with various DJs, dancers and Danish musicians experimenting with the building’s unique adaptable design.

At FLOKKR, literature and music were intertwined when Danish band First Hate and novelist Cecilie Lind created a “novel concert”, performing live music and readings together to reimagine the novel for a live audience.

Noah Rosanes’ UNIFY studio.

There is balanced gender representation across the festival

Having a diverse gender balance of artists on line-ups has become a contentious issue for many attendees, and as recently as last year The Guardian conducted analysis of 31 post-COVID events taking place in the UK, and found many still had as many as 80% male headlining acts. 

Roskilde’s billing felt refreshing – on my first evening, I saw Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa on the main headline stage back-to-back before laying out on the grass, stargazing into the night and listening to Phoebe Bridgers from a neighbouring tent. The line-up’s sheer variety felt totally unique, with the main stage alone boasting Post Malone, Robert Plant, Kacey Musgraves, Tyler The Creator, The Strokes, Haim and St Vincent across four days. The additional seven stages covered rap, R&B, pop, rock, indie, dance, jungle and hardcore, all moving fluidly throughout the event so fans of every genre could experience the full scope of the festival’s site.

The same balance could be found amongst the artwork, from Caroline Falkholt’s ‘Pussy Ass Peace’ mural to Marie Munk’s giant inflatable Placenta sculpture, which quickly became the go-to place to re-find friends in a crowd or lean against while having a bite to eat. Other events organised by women had a wide appeal but kept a distinctly female gaze – ‘rebel’ knitting workshops, protest songwriting sessions and woodworking courses by the Log Ladies were attended by vastly diverse audiences and made for an inclusive environment throughout the festival.

Roskilde understands what true inclusivity & accessibility looks like

From artwork content warnings to adapted event schedules and additional transport links – everything was thought of to make the audience experience at Roskilde enjoyable for all. You might imagine this was all made possible due to vast security and unimaginable budgets, but the festival boasts more than 30,000 volunteers working to ensure the venues fit all attendees’ needs, and the community spirit kept high throughout meant audience members remained respectful of one another throughout.

Accessibility can oftentimes feel obvious, and yet it’s these easy, oftentimes simple adjustments that regularly get forgotten about. At Roskilde, every platform had ramp access, every performance had appropriate warnings for flash lighting and every port-a-loo included a disabled cubicle, and these did not go unnoticed. 

I spoke to one attendee, Alice, who was visiting from the UK and who uses a wheelchair. She told me this was her second time at Roskilde. “I wouldn’t think I would be able to come to somewhere like this,” she explains, “I’m glad there’s one festival that feels prepared for people like me. Most festivals, I don’t think they think that many disabled people will come but if they made it more accessible then we would.”

To find out more information about Roskilde and to buy tickets for 2023, visit the website.

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