Bestival, the famed U.K. music & arts festival that has been running strong for the past 12 years is making its international debut in Toronto next month. Known to be eclectic and a little eccentric, Bestival is unlike any other festival that has come to Canada before. They pride themselves on their innovative lineups that invite attendees to spread their wings and discover new sounds and acts.
EDM Canada had the pleasure to speak with Ben Turner, a Director of Bestival and long time electronic music insider, about Bestival Toronto and find out what sets this festival apart from the rest. Enjoy:
Tell me about the history of Bestival.
Ben Turner: Bestival has had a very natural evolution from intimate and eclectic parties in London which Rob da Bank set up 15 years ago. These events had a very intense music eclecticism about them and they quickly built into bigger events. We put together a Sunday Best party at Glastonbury, which is the name of our label, and it was a huge success. It had a really special magic about it and Rob da Bank then turned to his wife and said that we could do this ourselves. Both of them has had a huge history in festival culture and they set about creating a special experience with Bestival. At the time there was no one else, apart from Glastonbury, that were doing these type of parties.
Bestival's success came by year 1 with 7,000 attending and everyone was completely inspired by the eclectic nature and curation of the music that was playing. DJs were next to live bands, and you could even learn to tango. There was rock, comedy and hip hop, and a bit of everything that you'd want during a weekend festival at one location. The other realization was that how much love and creativity we can put into the actual fabric of the site. At this time in the U.K. festivals were all about beer, bands, and burgers. After Glastonbury, Bestival took festivals to a whole new level with huge creativity and investment in the creative experience of what you're seeing. It wasn't just about stages and tents, it was about the beautiful trimmings, the flags, and the colour. It really turned heads.
I'll be honest, when you look at most festivals around the world, you can work out very quickly what its motivations are. Are they there just to make a quick profit and therefore there is very little money spent on production. Or you walk into a festival where you see a dream like landscape where a lot of love, creativity, and vision has been put into it. People really responded to that as they saw the dedication that was put into it. Bringing this into a different international country is a big challenge but it will be done in the same way with the same love and creativity as the original. We love the site, the Toronto Island, and feel we can bring some of that magic there. Rob da Bank's wife, Josie, she was very much the creative visual genius of it all, and she will sprinkle her genius on this site.
Were you involved in Bestival since day 1?
I've been Rob's manager for 16-17 years, and Bestival is in its 12th year. I'm the director of the festival and have been around everything that Rob's has done since the early days when we were both journalists running an influential magazine from 1995 to 1999. Now we have Bestival, and Camp Bestival, which is a family version of the festival, and we still have the record label, Sunday Best, which we still run. We have the director David Lynch signed to the label, Kitty Daisy & Lewis – it's just an eclectic label which is very reflective of what Bestival is as well. We're completely open minded as individuals and had headliners that ranged from Stevie Wonder to Florence + The Machine, to Elton John, and The Cure. I think you can see that in this year's lineup with Nas and Florence + The Machine. I think this is an amazing look for us and it continues the work we've done in the U.K.
"Bestival has a very unique eclectic nature where we can have a major headliner right next to a cutting edge DJ."
Why did you choose Toronto as the first international destination for Bestival?
We've had a lot of approaches in the last 12 years from every corner of the world. From Australia, to Chile, to Asia. I can trace all of these conversations back, and you get really inspired by a place and be sent down a rabbit hole, and 6 months later you realize it was all about for nothing. We've been down a lot of those and some other territories we felt it wasn't a fit for Bestival. In the last 3 years we really focused on getting one off the ground somewhere where we felt there was a gap in the market. There was no point in going up in certain parts of America where it's already pretty clear cut and everyone has got their big show. We looked at the Toronto market and saw it as a prospering and growing market with some great festivals already here. We love with what the Field Trip guys are doing. But we felt that Bestival has a very unique eclectic nature where we can have a major headliner right next to a cutting edge DJ. We didn't feel like there was something quite like it here.
We look at America as a whole and it reminds us what happened in the U.K. about 10 years ago when we launched Bestival. We feel that we were bringing a different experience to a region, and that's how we see Toronto. We're bringing our eccentricities, our colour, character, and it will be well served and appreciated here. We hooked with Embrace as I have worked with Adam Gil for many years and felt they were right partners for us.
We looked at many locations and felt that Toronto Island was the right place for us to try to replicate in some way what we do. It is an incredibly exciting market with an eclectic music taste which is similar to our music curation. We feel there is a lot of synergy between what we like and what Toronto likes in terms of music. The stars were aligned and it came together quite quickly after many years of trying to find the right location.
"The fancy dress theme is part of our DNA..."
What makes Bestival different from other festivals?
One of the main features from year 2 was the fancy dress theme. Pretty much 90% of the attendees are dressed in a certain style all day Saturday and in some cases all weekend. It just really accentuates the whole festival feel of leaving your world behind as you are entering an alternative reality. That's what great festivals do. The fancy dress theme is part of our DNA and we've released a coffee table book called the art of dressing up which is about this exact theme. This even translates to people on the stage as we have had Florence dress up. To see artists make that effort is really rewarding to us. That alone creates humour, it creates bonds, and it's a very fun visual part of what we do. Year 1 at Bestival Toronto we will introduce people to it and encourage them to dress a little bit differently for the Saturday.
We booked the Village People at 6 pm on a Saturday afternoon before a brand new live act is on and we get away with it. People go with our fun, with our curation. We don't just put the hottest names of now as we always look for good musical stories. Nile Rodgers was a great example as we have been booking him for the past 7-8 years at a time when no one would book them apart from weddings. Bestival is the only core festival that gave Nile a platform and he continually thanks Bestival for their support. Daft Punk came along and took him to another level but it was Bestival put him up on a bill.
What was your philosophy in creating this year's lineup?
It's very similar to what we do in the U.K. We want to be eclectic, we love electronic music as it was what we have been brought up for most of our lives. To have Florence, who has headlined the festival before, and then having Nas whom we have never booked before but is someone who we wanted to book for many years. From the headliners to the smaller electronic acts – we just tried to get the eclecticism across the whole festival. It's not just DJs, it's live bands. It is guitar music, it is hip hop – it's just good music. People felt very comfortable knowing our history and pedigree, feeling that we would run a quality event. When we're at year 1 of a festival it is usually hard to get acts to work with you but we've been at this a long time and have got a reputation for giving artists a great platform. That's what we plan to continue here.
If you could choose one artist that fans cannot miss at this year's Bestival Toronto – which one would it be and why?
We have given Caribou one of the best billings possible at Bestival. Being from this region, it feels like a special moment and we're proud to have him on the bill. We have been fans with him for many years and he's using electronic music in a very interesting way. It's going to feel like a proud and special moment. When we told him that he's going to be play before Nas, he was overjoyed. For him there was no hesitation in joining the lineup because he really wanted to be a part of it.
What's your current view on the electronic music scene?
I think musically in a creative sense it is strong and vibrant. It is as creative as ever. There are incredible takes on electronic music out there. As a global scene I think it is entering into a vulnerable stage. I think potentially we are going to enter into a bit of a downturn. But that's only because things scaled to such ridiculous heights that it will just settle back down, but settle down to a much higher position than it was before. These huge peeks and explosions will inevitably enter into a sort of downturn. With so many new festivals, so many new tours – everybody gets a bit carried away with a quick buck to make. But now I think it will settle down into a good space.
I've been involved in this music for 23-24 years and I've seen it explode and retract at various moments. The good thing is that when it calms down then it will really start to get interesting in terms of the experimental nature of the music. I think that's what needs to happen. I think Calvin Harris deserves to be called a credible dance recording artist but the truth is that he's now making modern day pop music. All the power to him but that's a very different world to what techno artists are putting out from Berlin. It has become two very different sounds. It's all an ecosystem and I am a firm believer in that ecosystem that you need the underground and the mainstream to help progress everybody forward to create new opportunities. I live part of the year in Los Angeles and I now see the infiltration of electronic music into Hollywood. It is incredible and it nothing but positive to hear electronic music in major Hollywood films and HBO TV dramas. That is the esthetic of our generation and finally filmmakers and TV directors have understood it. None of this would have happened with the global EDM explosion.
Do you think that the global festival scene is getting saturated? Do you think there's going to be a shake up?
Rob and I set up something in the U.K. called the Association for Independent Festivals (AIF) which is there to protect the independent sector and ensure that it can thrive. We started off with 10 festivals and now there are 60+ festivals involved. Today there is a festival for every day of the year in Britain. Now look at America when at one time there wasn't a festival in every market like Coachella or a Bonnaroo. Now there is one in every single territory. So why do people need to travel when the artists are coming to their doorstep?
It is a fascinating time where there is definitely a huge over saturation globally of festivals. But I think the strong brands will survive but you also have to make sure the smaller festivals survive as well. 1 out of every 10 of those small festivals can become the next Coachella or Bestival. All of these festivals have to begin somewhere and some of them have success right from the beginning, but some of them took 5 years.
And Coachella was originally bankrupt after it's first year.
Absolutely, it is a very tough business to survive and operate in. To our own credit Bestival has remained independent for 12 years and still is fully independent. That's not easy to do when you've got Live Nation and AEG trying to buy everything up. It's not easy to stand up against that and succeed. It's being different that makes you succeed because these big companies don't quite comprehend what our magic is. They don't understand the way we curate and make the festival as cool as it is. Booking talent is a difficult business and having relationships that go back 20-25 years is important.
Make your best pitch – why should fans attend Bestival Toronto?
Bestival stands for fun, creativity, musical diversity, and musical discovery. We really about people stumbling across a new band or DJ that they have never heard, or they've heard of it but they never got to see. That's what we deliver. In short, we throw a good party. We guarantee great people, great music, great colour, great food, great cocktails, and great fun with like minded people in a landscape that you've probably never seen before.
My thanks to Ben Turner for this interview.
Bestival Toronto will take place from June 12th to 13th on Toronto Island. Tickets are still available, click here for more information.