Behind the scenes at Europe’s most eco-friendly major music festival
Roskilde Festival started in the Danish town of the same name in 1971, and has grown to host over 110,000 attendees each year. As well as being one of the longest running major festival events in Europe, it also has a few other unique traits.
Anders Wahren is head of programming for the festival and gave us an insight into how to build what is Denmark’s 4th largest city.
How did you get involved in the festival?
My first year visiting Roskilde Festival was in 1996. I was 13.
I’m a local Roskilde boy born and raised, and it was pretty normal for all my friends to go to the festival from a very early age. For some of them this was before they could even walk as their parents were working at the festival, running food stalls or helping with production.
I continued going to the festival throughout the 90s and had some great experiences. In my late teens I start working as a volunteer at a local venue and when the festival needed help with some stage production in 2001 I became a stage hand. I worked my up through the production chain and started working a bit on booking in 2003.
In 2004 I got a kind of internship with the festival where I learnt how to book bands. After 3 years I went to Live Nation Denmark, mainly booking gigs for Danish acts, and also helped start Copenhell festival in 2010.
Then in late 2010 I got asked to come back to Roskilde to run the music booking team. This week is my 6th anniversary here.
How did Roskilde Festival start?
The festival started in 1971. Two high school students had heard about Woodstock and wanted to do something similar. They did the first edition with a promoter from Copenhagen, but he ripped them off and took all the cash, so things didn’t exactly start as planned.
For the second edition the Roskilde Society took over - that’s what became the Roskilde Festival Charity Society which is the non-profit organisation running the festival today.
Each year all the profits are donated to other projects before the next event is started — no money from one festival is carried into another — we start from scratch each year, just with a little more experience. Since 1972 the organisation has donated €36.2m to charitable causes.
What does the festival look like now?
The festival has grown a lot over time. It grew really quickly in the late 80s, and the peak was around 1994–96, where we had 90,000 attendees for the full week plus around 30,000 volunteers, artists and staff.
Today we sell around 80,000 full week tickets. We introduced 1-day tickets around 2010, and whilst those have been popular they’re a small proportion, around 5,000 per day.
The main festival itself is 4 days, but most festival goers are with us for a full week because so many want to come and camp for the days before the main event. This year the campsite opens on Saturday 24th June, and from Sunday to Tuesday we run two stages with around 45 Nordic artists, plus talks, arts, and sports events as well. Then from Wednesday to Saturday, the inner site opens which is where the 6 main stages are located plus our biggest arts area.
This year, some of the acts we’ve already announced include Foo Fighters, Justice, Arcade Fire, Moderat, Trentemoller, A Tribe Called Quest and Bonobo. We’re announcing the rest of the lineup in early April.
How does the booking team operate and what do you look for when programming talent?
Our music booking team is 6 people including me. Four of us are full-time employees and 2 are volunteers.
We have volunteers on the team as we’ve found it helps us to have input from music fans who are very up to date with what’s new but are also outside of the wheeling and dealing that happens in the music business. It helps us to take new chances and go in new directions that you may not expect from a major music festival.
We start music programming way in advance, and it’s getting earlier and earlier — we’re already talking about some artists for 2018.
Just like most people working with new music we’ve had to take a broader scope in the last few years; watching what’s going on around us and using more digital channels. However, one of the most important things for us is still to get to see as much music live as possible, especially because we book so many acts from around the globe that aren’t so well known. We need to be sure that they can perform well, have the material to do a full live show, and can win over an audience in a live setting.
Our smallest stage is 1200 capacity and the main stage is around 60,000. It takes some experience to be able to play these stages and it’s not enough just to have millions of plays on Spotify or YouTube.
Of course everyone has good days and bad days, but we need to be as sure as we can that whatever we book will do a great job so we can deliver to our audience what we promise: at Roskilde you can go and find the music you will come to love.
What are some of the things that make Roskilde so special?
Our approach to music booking is very important, but also the food, the full-week experience and the volunteer aspect.
We’re still very much based on volunteer work, and not just during the event itself, but all year round. For most of the volunteers it’s a hobby — instead of playing football twice a week, they’ll do Roskilde Festival twice a week.
During the festival we have 30,000 volunteers on site, and many of them work for the festival but also participate just as any ticket buying guest would do. The mix of the many of the audience also being representative of the festival creates a special vibe, as well as the event’s history of course.
The volunteers work across all aspects of the event, and many of them will be also be connected with us through clubs and societies like the local soccer team. It’s always been a big part of Roskilde to have a close engagement with our local culture.
We are serving more and more organic food, and we’re aiming for at least 90% organic food this year. For some years now, the leftovers from the food stalls go towards creating good, healthy meals for homeless people — we’ve donated nearly 35,000 meals over the past few years.
Being a camping festival is important — people come and live in a temporary city for a week which is unlike anything they would experience in their normal lives. We try to keep food and drink prices low so it’s accessible for young people to stay for the week. Usually after a couple of days, even before the main festival starts, people have made new friends and get into the Roskilde vibe. This is why we think a lot of acts tell us that playing Roskilde is a special experience; the audience are living together for a week — they’re not going home every night before coming back the following day; they really get into the Roskilde state of mind.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face delivering an event of this size each year?
Creating what is Denmark’s 4th largest city is complicated, and there are some facilities we have to build, but we try to work with the local council to do some long term development on the grounds so we have plug-and-play solutions for things like drains, water supply and power so we don’t have to run everything from generators. We are moving towards a festival that is carbon-neutral, where all waste is a resource, and we have a 100% fossil-free energy supply.
A big challenge is being an outdoors event in Northern Europe — we’ve seen bad weather strike several other events in Europe in the past few years and cause a lot of problems. We’ve been lucky recently but have still worked hard on the drainage and other weather protection measures.
Another big challenge is trash. People bring a lot of stuff and they don’t necessarily expect to bring it all back; cheap tents, raincoats, boots, things like that. We spend a lot of time and money collecting and sorting the trash. It’s not legal for us to just take stuff that’s been left behind so we have to try to make it easy for people to donate things that are still useful, and then we can give them to the homeless, refugees or other people in need.
Which new technologies have you been introducing?
We’re going cashless this year. This is something several festivals in Eastern & Southern Europe have had for a few years. The main difference is that for them it’s a transition from primarily cash payments at their festivals to card/chip/wristband, whereas in Scandinavia we’ve been moving towards going cashless not just in festivals but in society more generally. We hope this means it’ll be an easy transition as so many people are used to card transactions.
Technology in many forms is becoming a more important thing for us to think about and our main focus is how technology help us to give our guests the best possible experience.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to start out in the live music industry?
Go out and do it. Pretty much everyone I know started out on a DIY level, working in a venue or a bar, or volunteering at a festival. You can go to universities now to learn about the industry— that’s very helpful but in the end it’s a network business so you need to get out there; get phone numbers, know faces and learn the business from different angles. It’s hard to sit down at a desk and say ‘ok here’s how we book a festival’ — you’re dealing with 100s of people and you need to take different approaches with many of them so the best way to go is to dive in and see where it takes you.
What does the future look like both for Roskilde and festivals more broadly?
There are so many new festivals now, I wonder if we are getting towards saturation point.
You can see from the way people are programming, some are focused on booking safer headliners that can be confirmed way in advance. This risks making these events seem a bit dated by Summer because everything is booked before Christmas so it’s half a year where no one can bring in any of the new talent. We try to avoid this, but to a degree we have to follow the market to secure the headliners we want in advance so it’s a tough balance.
The digitalisation of the business means things are happening extremely fast and acts are now blowing up extremely fast, so festivals being locked in on their lineups already seems a bit in contrast to that. We’ll see how it plays out.
It’s worth noting that a lot of the new festivals are being run by big companies promoting several events. Some try to take their original concept and take it on tour and some look to adapt to different markets.
We also have the split between the city and camping festivals. Not many of the new ones are camping events. Maybe that’s because less people want to camp — we don’t see that at Roskilde but maybe it’s a different audience now being catered to.
Either way, I think the growth in the types of festivals happening mean it’s more important than ever for managers and agents to pick the right events for their bands to play.