For many musos on the South Coast one of the best ways to start the New Year is a trip to Rockaway Beach; an indoor Boutique Music Festival, featuring an illustrious core of established indie legends and banquet of new music. Founder and curator Ian Crowther spoke to GIITTV about their inspired line-up saying, “I think that diversity of music era, race and gender make Rockaway a really interesting place to be…Diversity makes society a better place to be, so Rockaway is just a little bit of society that I help to shape once a year, I suppose.”
The curators seem to be onto a winning formula, with legendary acts keeping things fresh by creating new music whilst inspiring the next generation of artists. It wasn’t always easy in the early days, said Crowther, but, “Over time we have a bit of a reputation as the kind of festival that artists want to play at. Artists and management now reach out to us. I am always astonished that people want to pay their hard-earned money to come to a party that I have organised and I am delighted that musicians really want to play it too.” Many artists echoed this sentiment on stage, saying how pleased they were to finally be able to play at Rockaway.
Artists at Rockaway Beach over the years, have included indie legends like Peter Hook, Johnny Marr, The Undertones, Suede, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Jarv Is.., Gary Newman and Suede with headliners like Tricky, Porridge Radio, Panda Bear and Sonic Boom, with many like Self Esteem, Fontaines DC, Nova Twins, Yard Act and Wu-Lu being booked well ahead of the curve. Many attendees discover their new favourite band at the festival. When asked about his intuition for booking bands that eventually become huge, Ian said,
“There is a bit of luck in that, but talking about Fontaines DC, Nova Twins, Self Esteem, Squid and Black Country New Road we had on early too. When I grew up I was the person who made mix tapes and made mixed CDs and gave them to my friends because I wanted them to hear them and the artists that you talked about. I just believed that everybody needs to hear them and if I think think that they can play a bigger stage and can reach a bigger audience then I do it…. I can’t do it every year, with every artist but every now and again I want to say I really believe in this artist I think there is something incredibly special about them and go for it- and I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to do that.”
“There is a lot of thought around joining the dots in the music, between artists and emerging artists.When an emerging artist is giving a nod to someone who has inspired them, I think about those things when I think about the flow of the weekend and think we know you like this artist so I’m pretty sure you will like this one too so let’s try it that way…I work with Alex of the Greenhouse group and some of the teams that work for his business have got an AMAZING taste in music. They are great sounding boards.”
Ian described how he finds new music, like lots of other musos, at record shops gigs and festivals, and how he gets inspired by other festivals like The Great Escape and SXSW. Rockaway Beach fans send him music which he always tries to listen to and get inspired by.
One thing that many attendees were impressed by was the diverse line-up, with a clear balance of male, female and non-binary acts as well as a breadth of cultures genres and eras. High-quality music was evident across the board making diversity almost look effortless and enhancing our experience as an audience. Each artist’s gender and diversity was clearly secondary to their raw talent with artists like Panic Shack, The Anchoress, Billy Nomates, Dream Nails, Big Joanie, Pagans SOH, Anna Meredith, Self Esteem, Deep Tan, Personal Trainer, Vlure, Life, Goa Express, Scalping, The Primatives and The Beat together with bands that had travelled from Poland and the Netherlands, like the excellent Personal Trainer. Rockaway Beach is where many attendees discover some of their new favourite acts before they explode and it’s this diversity and trust in the upcoming festival that keeps us coming back every year, often before the line-up has even been announced.
Is the balance and diversity in your line-up a conscious decision?
“On one hand it’s not a conscious decision. It’s a reflection of who I am and what I like. Rockaway is a very personal project for me, I decided to do it because it was the kind of party that I would like to go to and if I would like to go to it, then I figured that other people would and it kind of grows from there. I don’t have a formula. It just evolves naturally and reflects the things that I think are important and the artists that I think are great and that’s at its heart. That’s the booking policy…. but I don’t want to be too casual. I also hold a strong belief that diversity and inclusion are important things that we can promote and whatever walk of life we are in whatever our job, hobbies or interactions are with other people.
“I think that if we make a bit of an effort to promote those that are under represented or to give opportunities to those who have barriers that we don’t have. It’s probably quite obvious that you are sitting talking to a middle-aged white man and I know that I have a bunch of privilege. I have taken some time to try to understand what it’s like not to have that privilege and I think it’s important to create a space where everyone can thrive. There’s LOTS of great music and great talent that isn’t getting a platform or as much of a showcase and if I’ve got a tiny opportunity to give a little bit of profile or help somebody reach an audience then I want to take that opportunity.
There are a number of underrepresented communities that could be better represented on a stage. Gender is the biggest call out because women aren’t a minority yet they are have a smaller number of bookings at festivals overall.
I think that Rockaway works because there is breadth and diversity in what we put on offer. First and foremost, the music that I get most passionate about, are the artists that play earlier in the afternoon (the newer acts.) I only just heard them for the first time when I decided to book them. I am equally excited when artists like Suede decide to play because I have loved them since I was in my twenties which was thirty years ago.”
Festivals like Primavera, End of The Road, Standon Calling and 72 Festivals across the UK have signed up to the Keychange Pledge aiming to ensure a 50% gender balance across their line up and two-thirds have met their target. Rockaway Beach met this target by having Self Esteem as their headliner this year and Porridge Radio last year, with a clear balance of genders across their line-up. Do you think this Keychange Initiative could be rolled out universally?
“I think it could be rolled out. I think it’s important to have representation across a line up if that’s the kind of environment that you want to create, if you don’t want to create that kind of environment and if you only want a certain type of person at a festival and you have people who only want to identify with people who look like them on a stage then, maybe there is a place for that, it’s not where I choose to be …and that’s okay.
The other thing is that there are many dimensions to diversity and inclusion, there are all kinds of different races and ethnicities, beliefs identities within British society that don’t all find their way onto every festival bill and the more that that can be true, the better, but having a booking policy that represented the exact makeup of the UK population might be quite hard to land but I think making some commitments to having a certain level of representation is no bad thing. Proactively committing to having a more representative line-up is a good thing. it sets a challenge and it’s worth setting a standard because others might begin to follow.“
Some artists have inclusivity riders where they make a deal with the organisers saying that they will only play if another ethic minority, female or non-binary person plays on the bill or they have it written into their contract. Do you think that is a good idea?
“Yes. Artists have a a lot of power particularly headliners. If they are able to use that influence positively then that is good. I recognise that some people don’t like that sort of thing and my view is that they don’t have to go or set up their own festival.”
Do you think that this gender balance is replicable in bigger festivals overall?
“Well I don’t know. I’m not going to criticize how other people run their businesses at all (especially at bigger festivals) …but in our case, it hasn’t been as hard as some people make out to find strong female artists to top a bill. It is work…but booking a festival is work. It takes time to build a relationship with Self Esteem which we did by booking them early having them on our second stage three years ago so that it was the right thing to put them on the headline stage this year and I’ve got a long list of female artists that I think could headline Rockaway Beach. I keep asking and sometimes they say no because of other commitments but I just keep going back to them because I think they are all fabulous and we get to put on a really cool festival.“
There is a good balance of eras including both established and emerging artists on your line up
“Yes. We have established artists; whether it’s John Cale, Johnny Marr, Hooky or The Undertones, these established artists are still touring or creating new things John Cale has just put a record out Johnny Marr and OMD are still putting out music and that, for me, is what’s important just because some of us are older, we are still REALLY open and excited about new things be it created by 17-year-olds or 70-year-olds. It’s important that they are still creating. Every generation has its influence whether its music that was made by people who are older, dead or your next door neighbour, everyone has influences and they make new things out of that. That’s why I keep doing it anyway “
I noticed that The Undertones were not headlining on the last night of your 2023 festival and that Panda Bear and Sonic Boom were headlining instead. The Undertones seemed really happy with that.
“Yes. Some artists are more bothered about whether they are called a headliner or not and it gives you a bit of flexibility if you can be CREATIVE with it. Traditionally two out of our three headliners are more established and even though Panda Bear and Sonic Boom are both pretty established in their own right that collaboration is BRAND NEW and fresh, as is the record. I was so excited about Panda Bear and Sonic Boom album and was excited that we were the first UK show that they performed together and I thought that, for me, is a Rockaway Headliner. That’s a Sunday, it’s something different. But then equally The Undertones are an amazing band. Lammo plays them every time he DJs and they fit as well.
In terms of ethnic diversity, we had Tricky as a headliner last year and bands like The Pagans SOH playing (which you said was a highlight) and The Beat playing this year. Having Wu-Lu as an early booking then amazed everybody last year with their album. They are not consciously diverse choices but at the same time I do reflect as the line up is building and think (Let’s call it out) I don’t want to go to an all-white bloke festival, where only white blokes are there and only white blokes are on stage .” ( People who attend Rockaway Beach probably feel the same.)
I noticed that there was a team of French Festival organizers who came to Rockaway Beach this year for inspiration
“Yes. In terms of the International dimension….it is a shame that it is harder to have international artists at a small independent festival with limited budget. Without getting political, its much harder to cross boarders now, but we have had artists from Poland and the Netherlands” (like Personal Trainer who were also a fan favourite) “We hope to have more but it really is getting harder...Where Rockaway has a disadvantage is that if artists come in the summer they can do more festivals.” But then again, some flights are cheaper in the winter. Rockaway beach ended up being one of the last festivals of 2020 before lock down.
Talking of inclusivity, The Anchoress played Rockaway for the first time in years using air purifiers. In a Tweet after the festival she said “they’re air purifiers to make it safer for me as a clinically vulnerable performer.”
Yes it was fabulous to have her there. There were really strong unique female artists across the bill- right across the festival, every day on every stage. Self Esteem as the headliner, The Anchoress, Anna Meredith, and Big Joanie, even though they weren’t headlining. For me Anna Meredith was one of the highlights for me and Panic Shack were one of the fan favourites of the weekend. They generated more comments on our Facebook page than any other.”
Other female fronted highlights included Billy Nomates, Dream Nails, Deep Tan and The Primitives, while Rats on Rafts, Personal Trainer and many other emerging bands had a mixture of genders in their group.
“I’m pleased that you keep coming back to Rockaway Beach and I hope that we do you proud with next year’s line up. It’s incredible that so many people have bought tickets without knowing the line up. It shows that something is working and there is a degree of trust between the organizers and the audience that it will be good again …I hope we do you all proud with the line up announcement for next year.”
The Next Rockaway Beach Festival will take place on 5th-7th January 2024 in Butlins, Bognor Regis.
Find more details here: Rockaway Beach Festival