Latitude Festival 2011
And so we wave goodbye to Latitude Festival's sixth edition. I have been a dedicated fan of the festival since 2007, attending 5 out of 6 of the Beccles based arts fest. I have always considered the festival to be the highlight not only of my summer, but of my year. Previous years have seen acts such as Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Death Cab For Cutie and Snow Patrol grace its stages. It's been one of the fastest growing festivals in the UK and has a brilliant reputation. So why did this year's edition leave me feeling somewhat empty afterwards instead of the usual buzz I feel in hindsight of the festival?
As I said in the festival preview, this year's line up - particularly the headliners, were seen by many (judging by the official forums content) as a step too far in the wrong direction. Whereas Latitude was once seen as a niche arts festival with early headliners including Mogwai and Arcade Fire, the punters have become noticeably more mixed and not in a diverse sense. Many dedicated Latitude fans were disillusioned by the mainstream announcements of Florence and The Machine in 2010 and the final nail in the coffin in the form of Paulo Nutini this year. No one really knows exactly what kind of festival it is anymore. My theory is that those expecting a more alternative line up as in previous years have switched alliances since the line up announcements looked more reminiscent of a V or T in the Park bill and those expecting more of the latter as a result of Florence's appearance were equally disillusioned to see an unconventional act such as The National headlining, hence everyone is confused and no one buys tickets. The crowds have become obviously younger for a family festival, with many young teens making up the majority of the campsite. Whether Latitude is deliberately changing its demographic, I don't know - but that's certainly what's happening.
On far too many occasions, I found myself getting to the front and centre of an act I would consider to be hugely popular as little as 5 minutes before the set started. This was far from a gratifying feeling and on the contrary felt rather pathetic. It's a terrible sign if I find myself feeling sorry for an act because their audience simply isn't there. It results in a rather underwhelming feeling and can even affect an artist's motivation to put on a show, which is how I felt about Iron & Wine's Obelisk set. Latitude had slow ticket sales this year, but it sold out nevertheless. The ticket sales didn't however translate into punters, as almost everything I went to - including headliners - felt sparse and scattered.
Latitude isn't alone in its struggles this year. As Michael Eavis, founder of Glastonbury recently controversially said, large festivals in the UK are dying. I would have disagreed had I not seen it with my own eyes, but there seems to be an element of truth behind those words. I'm not saying that within 5 years all festivals will cease to exist, but times are changing and festivals need to adapt to accommodate that change. In this economic climate, many people consider themselves lucky to be able to afford one festival a year. I'm not sure what the answer is, but Latitude took a huge gamble in its booking this year, a gamble that ultimately didn't pay off. An act that immediately springs to mind was the annually anticipated Sunday lunchtime slot, this year given to Scala & Kolacny Brothers. Whereas this slot is usually reserved for the biggest names (Joanna Newsom, Thom Yorke, Tom Jones), the intention of the slot this year seemed to be to purposefully allow this group of Belgian choir girls more exposure. I caught the end of this set out of curiosity and this view was mirrored by the act themselves, with the band plugging their myspace at the end of their set...as if Tom Jones would have needed to do that. Envisioning a mere two years ago when Thom Yorke was playing to a packed out crowd (many of whom queued and ran to get a good spot which is always part of the festival fun) and comparing it to the scattering of indifferent middle-aged men in corduroy suits sitting on picnic rugs, it just didn't feel right.
Of course, the relentless rain and wind didn't help. In fact, it was the worst and most incessant weather imaginable for a festival that was already struggling. There were noticeably less after hours activities this year, not that many people were in the mood for it anyway as there weren't even campsite parties which was nothing short of eery. It can't be a good sign if I can get a peaceful night's sleep at a festival of 30,000 people. I'm not sure if the lack of post music entertainment had anything to do with the allegations that circulated last year, but it was a confusing move nonetheless. At a festival like Glastonbury or Reading, mud is expected, tolerated and in many cases wanted for a true festival experience. The mudfest of Latitude split people; I would often catch an earful of a middle-class mother complaining about getting her crocs muddy or something similar.
In terms of facilities, the infamous toilets improved tenfold and the positive elements of the festival remained unchanged. Little things that can otherwise be overseen on a good year would benefit from a change, in particular the massively uncomfortable and poorly organised Comedy Arena and the Film Arena being way too small. But in terms of music, there were a few artists acting as the anchor of the festival this year, with strong sets from My Morning Jacket, Eels, Gold Panda, Caribou and James Blake. There is a fine line between a diverse bill and an inconsistent one. As unfortunate as it is to say, Latitude 2011 displayed the latter.
I must point out that any negative comment is relative. I wouldn't have gone to the festival for 5 years in a row if I didn't think it was one of the best in the country. It's like being cruel to be kind, Latitude feels like a younger sibling that's started hanging with the wrong crowd now that its growing up and I as the older sibling feel partially responsible for its well-being. With any luck and common sense, the Latitude organisers will learn its lesson from the poor ticket sales and lower than usual turnout this year. Having just signed a contract for 15 years worth of Latitudes, I'm very interested to see which direction it takes in 2012 in order to preserve its well-earned reputation and ensure its continuation. Until next year!