Music festivals as a force for good: Reflections on GRASP Festival

Music festivals as a force for good: Reflections on GRASP Festival

Back in November, our MarComms Director, Becka Whiteley, was invited out to Roskilde in Denmark, to speak as part of a panel on the topic of Music Festivals as a force for good. Here are her reflections.


Having never been to Denmark before, but having always been very curious about European festival behemoth Roskilde, I was very excited to check out GRASP festival (let’s be honest, leaving the UK for any reason at the moment seems a real treat, if not a little surreal)

GRASP Festival is a brand new event concept from the Roskilde team – and what a lovely bunch they are. I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little jealous of the team’s set up out there – Shambala HQ is a beautiful building but we certainly don’t have a huge pop culture museum or a carousel sized giant vinyl player in our digs!

GRASP is a ‘festival of ideas’ which seeks to explore some of the most burning issues of our time – sustainable development across disciplines, urban development through music, activism and art and communities in the wake of the pandemic.

The topic of my panel was ‘Festivals as a force for good’ – a discussion of the modern festival’s role as a social agent…. which conveniently, is one of my favourite topics to bang on about.

I was joined on the panel by Søren Eskildsen – a director from Smukfest – an eye-wateringly stunning festival that takes place annually in a Beech forest in Sweden, with a stellar music line up, packed with big hitters. It looks incredible – you should all go check it out – what a setting for a festival:

Photo credit: Smukfest – Thomas Nørremark

We were also joined by two academics who really, really know their stuff when it comes to festival culture: Jo Haynes – Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Bristol, whose research focuses on popular music, ethnicity/race, festivals and entrepreneurship in the cultural industries, and Ian Woodward – Professor at the University of Southern Denmark and author of ‘Vinyl’, ‘Labels’ and ‘The Festivalization of Culture’ amongst many other books and papers.

Despite one hairy moment (pun intended) when my mic got caught in my hair and treated the audience to a noise not unlike a banshee being hit by a truck repeatedly, the panel was an absolute delight to be a part of. After a couple of years stuck in our Kambe ‘bubble’ due to the pandemic, I’ve been feeling the loss of our usual industry events, assemblies and gatherings – it’s felt a little like operating in a vacuum and it’s been easy to feel somewhat isolated from the rest of the industry. It was so refreshing to be meeting other festival industry folk again and getting stuck into a bit of healthy debate.

We were asked if, as festival organisers, we consider it important for the modern music festival to act as a social agent. In a time when corporate social responsibility becomes more and more important, will the future of the festival be more a celebration of values than a celebration of music?

…Why not both?

Don’t get me wrong, music is a core aspect of a music festival – obviously. But we do things a bit differently at Kambe. We’re deeply proud of Shambala Festival’s annual music offering but rather than it being the main focus, we see it as the soundtrack to the weekend – the back drop, not the end game. Our line up is diverse and packed with absolute gems, but we’re not the festival for you if you’re looking for huge, arena-filling names. Shambala traditionally sells out months before we announce our acts, showing us that our audience trust us to put together a banging line up, but that’s not what motivates them to book their spot.

Not every festival organiser will feel they have a duty to use their platform to raise awareness, drive behaviour change or to impose certain behaviours/campaigns or viewpoints on their audience. Some might actually feel quite uncomfortable at the thought of doing so. That’s fair enough – it’s a party at the end of the day. Some will focus purely on the music and creating an incredible space for their audience to do their thing and leave it at that.

At Kambe Events however, we do strongly believe in using our platform to push campaigns and issues that are close to our hearts. Being able to unashamedly live your values is, in my opinion, one of the joys of remaining fully independent with zero sponsorship, corporate investors or brand partnerships. This gives us a freedom to get political and mouth off to our hearts content. A festival is a microcosm, an ecosystem, a tiny temporary city – making them a fantastic opportunity to showcase better, kinder, more sustainable ways of living. This does involve occasionally making bold decisions that not everyone will agree with – and it’s certainly not always an easy ride.

I well remember the days of the ‘bacon rage’ – when, back in 2016, we announced we would no longer be serving meat or fish at the festival, to draw attention to (and spark conversations about) the catastrophic impact of the mass animal agriculture industry on the planet. My inbox was filled, overnight, with vitriolic emails* – some well thought out and compelling, some just apparently wanting to showcase how many very-bad-swear-words they know – all of them railing against the removal of their ‘personal choice’**. And yet, 5 years later, our audience overwhelmingly vote to keep Shambala a veggie paradise every year – and a solid proportion of our audience have even either cut out meat altogether, or drastically reduced their meat intake as a consequence of this campaign.

*I should also note that it wasn’t all bad – we received a lot of love from certain segments of our audience for this decision – from vegans, veggies and committed carnivores alike.

**The concept of personal choice at a festival has always struck me as an odd one anyway – so much of a festival is chosen ‘for’ the audience – from the bands that play, the food that served, the entry price, where you’re allowed to sleep, where you’re allowed to wee, etc!

In my experience, people are far more receptive to change when they’re having a ball anyway. As long as you back up your bold choices, campaigns and commitments with integrity, good planning and throwing a bloody good party, you can’t go wrong.

As friend of the festival Ed Gillespie once put it: “If you want to subvert the dominant paradigm…you need to have more fun than they are. And let them know while you’re doing it”

I absolutely loved my time at GRASP Festival – a huge thank you to Søren, Jo, Ian and Rasmus for making my time in Denmark so enjoyable – and for the team at Roskilde/GRASP for making me feel so welcome. I’m really looking forward to seeing where GRASP goes, I’m expecting great things!