Food and drink is headlining at a new kind of festival where the music plays second fiddle to grocery brands and celebrity chefs. But how much of an appetite is there for such events, asks Samantha Lyster

A decade or so ago food at music festivals constituted a sweaty burger, greasy chips - and if you were lucky, a half-decent falafel.

It was low on quality, low on quantity and high on price. But in recent times, festival food has undergone a radical makeover. Buoyed in large part by the emergence of a new generation of music-loving young foodies, the UK festival scene has become an important breeding ground for up-and-coming food and drink brands.

There are numerous examples of brands that started out at festivals and went on to gain listings at the multiples Innocent and Shaken Udder to name but two. Many more brands, including Higgidy and Yeo Valley, have used festivals to enhance their relationship with consumers as well as improve the quality of food on offer.

Now, however, it’s not just festival food that’s getting a makeover. It’s the festival itself. Following in the footsteps of Innocent and Ben & Jerry’s, which have both hosted their own music festivals, a slew of new food and music events notably Levi Roots’ Lazy Sunday festival at Brockwell Park in May, Jamie Oliver’s The Big Feastival in July, and Sainsbury’s Super Saturday on 10 September have joined the busy festival calendar this year.

Unlike their music-orientated cousins, their headline acts are as likely to be celebrity chefs as rock bands. But will their foodie credentials be enough to stop them meeting the same fate as the 31 festivals cancelled or postponed this year due to a lack of ticket sales?

Some commentators, including Glastonbury organiser Michael Eavis, speculate that the music festival only has a few more years left in it. Not only are there too many events, they are also too expensive and too similar, they argue.

David Atkinson, managing partner of marketing and event consultancy Space, which works with brands such as Heineken and Relentless, disagrees. He believes the new breed of food and music festival marks an important evolution of the format, one that potentially has greater appeal than its conventional music counterpart if it is distinctive enough.

‘Me-too’ events won’t work in such an over-saturated market, he warns. “If anyone is hoping it will become a cash cow, that’s a fool’s game,” he says. “The festival scene is crowded. You have to offer them something they want rather than what the brand may want them to have.”

That’s not to say the brands won’t benefit if they do focus on the consumer’s needs rather than their own, however. By running the event, “the brands can keep the purity of their image,” he says. “They can curate the content to how they want to present themselves.”

The best existing example of a food producer offering up this winning formula is Jimmy Doherty’s Harvest festival, which takes place between 9-12 September. Such is the popularity of Harvest, launched in 2009 on Doherty’s Suffolk farm, that a second location has been added this year at celebrity cheesemaker and former musician Alex James’ farm in Oxfordshire.

Bands and chefs will rotate between the two locations, explains James, who says the festival provides the ideal opportunity to bring together his two passions: music and food. “I’ve wanted to do a festival on my farm for a while so we’re throwing open the gates for an end-of-summer celebration of food and music,” he says. “I love food and I love festivals. Add to the pot great music, family and beautiful English countryside and I’m a very happy man.”

Like James, festival lover Doherty decided to launch the festival because of the lack of great food at traditional music events. “I was approached by Big Wheel [promotions company] about putting together a new type of festival, one where the food mattered as much as the music,” he says.

Doherty echoes Atkinson’s point that the goal should not primarily be to make money, but adds: “We couldn’t do it if it didn’t make some money. We’re a working farm and need to spend time concentrating on that. We’re adding new lines and at the moment raising 8,000 turkeys to go into the multiples.”

So blown away by the event’s success has Doherty been that in addition to the second site, he has decided to add new food producers and gardening to the festival line-up this year. It’s important to get the mix right, he says. “A lot of festivals go for the 16 to 25-year-olds. We’re offering a family-friendly and safe environment experience,” he says, highlighting the wealth of family-oriented events and attractions.

The price tag also makes a difference at £36 a day it costs significantly less to go to Harvest at Jimmy’s than it does to go to most music festivals. This potent combination of affordability and broad appeal were also at the heart of Jamie Oliver’s inaugural Feastival, held in aid of the Prince’s Trust and Jamie’s own foundation on Clapham Common last month.

The event boasted acts such as Soul II Soul, Athlete and The Charlatans, but Oliver’s cookery demonstrations proved as much of a draw to the event’s 23,000 visitors underscoring how compelling a blend music and food can be. The question Sainsbury’s is now asking itself is whether music and sport will be as compelling a mix. Oliver’s former retail partner is hosting Sainsbury’s Super Saturday, also on Clapham Common, on 10 September to celebrate the beginning of the countdown to the London 2012 Paralympic Games, which it is sponsoring.

The festival is the largest public event the retailer has ever put its name to, so it has called in extra expertise to ensure it goes smoothly, says the supermarket’s head of sponsorship, Jat Sahota.

“Sainsbury’s Super Saturday will be a unique proposition, combining music and entertainment with Paralympic sport something no one has really done before,” he says. “It’s a huge undertaking for us. We want to increase the profile of the Paralympic Games and we see this event as a brilliant way to do this.”

Sahota says the business has been delighted with the positive customer, and media, response to its marketing campaign ahead of the event. “People seem to understand and appreciate what we are trying to do,” he says. 

“The event has already generated a great deal of publicity and it will be broadcast on Channel Four. This is great for the Sainsbury’s brand, but more importantly it is also great for the Paralympic Games and the athletes that will compete. After all, the primary purpose of the event is to raise the profile of Paralympic sport and Paralympic athletes.”

For any brand entering the festival scene even for primarily worthy causes such as Sainsbury’s Super Saturday, which aims to raise money for the British Paralympic Association there is obvious marketing mileage to be gained. But not every company has the reach of a UK-wide supermarket, so if a brand is looking to raise its profile nationally, having one big event in one area may not be as fruitful in terms of customer loyalty as it might appear.

For this reason, a number of brands, such as Courvoisier, have decided to partner with established regional festivals rather than create their own large-scale event. This summer, Couvoisier hosted pop-up bars at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals and the Thames Festival.

Marketing controller Eileen Livingston says she can’t see what there is to gain from running a full-blown festival, especially given the costs entailed. “In terms of budget, it is more cost-effective to be involved with events like the Edinburgh Fringe, where we know our target consumers of 28 to 40-year-olds are going to be, rather than put all our resources into one big event,” she says.

Others clearly disagree, and they’re shelling out big money on a new breed of festival that taps into growing demand for affordable, family-oriented fun. If festival fatigue has crept in, it has affected the traditional music festival, they contend, not the all singing, all dancing not to mention all cooking, all eating new food and music festival.

Whether they’re right will not just depend on the quality of the food or music on offer or even the ticket price. It will also depend on that great variable, the weather. Mud and Glastonbury is one thing, but mud and food? The sun may need to shine on the new food festivals if food is indeed to be the new rock and roll.n

Sainsbury’s Super Saturday
Date: September 10
Venue: Clapham Common, London
Cost: Family (2 adults + 2 children), £90; child ticket, £20; adult ticket, £30
Headline act: Pixie Lott

Harvest at Jimmy’s
Date: September 9-12
Venue: Jimmy’s Farm, Suffolk and Alex James’ farm, Oxfordshire
Cost: From £36 for a day ticket
Headline acts: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jimmy Doherty, Alex James and The Kooks

Ben & Jerry’s Double Scoop Sundae
Date: July 23-24
Venue: Clapham Common, London and Heaton Park, Manchester
Cost: £17
Headline Acts: Maximo Park/Ocean Colour Scene

The Big Feastival
Date: July 1-3
Venue: Clapham Common, London
Cost: £35 per day or VIP tickets £125 per day
Headline acts: Jamie Oliver, Soul II Soul, The Charlatans and Athlete

Levi Roots’ Lazy Sunday
Date: May 29
Venue: Brockwell Park, London
Cost: Free
Headline act: Levi Roots