Quality, coherence and giving the right importance to territory are all it takes to be a successful model
Back in spring 1968, hordes of lively hippies were expected to pour in the streets of Rome for the first ever international music festival held in Italy. The event was aptly named First International Pop Festival, and its bill included exorbitant names such as Pink Floyd, Byrds and Captain Beefheart, plus a wide selection of Italian beat bands like Camaleonti and Giganti. Everything was ready for the sports hall that now goes under the name of PalaLottomatica to become the biggest international music gathering that ever took place in Europe.
Except the festival was a flop, with less than a thousand people attending each day. The organizers were two young Americans who hadn’t considered the fact that young Europeans didn’t own a car and that therefore a Woodstock-like invasion would have been impossible, other than drastically underrating the importance of good communication and promotion. Still, it feels like the festival industry in Italy has been cursed ever since.
Italy vs Europe
While in the rest of Europe a large number of historical music festivals resist and renovate themselves over the years, think Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Sziget in Budapest, not to mention Glastonbury and the eventful diptych of Reading and Leeds in the UK, Italy has always seemed to fall behind. At first glance, the reason seems obvious: while the line-ups of such festivals are dense with names, with big acts placed next to young emerging artists coming from all the corners of the globe, Italian mainstream festivals suffer from what we could call “headliner syndrome”. In 2018, a now Milan-based festival called I-Days saw the likes of bands as The Killers, Pearl Jam and Queens of The Stone Age, but its line up consisted of just 20 artists total over the course of four days. Just two more names than Firenze Rocks, its much more hard rock-oriented counterpart in Florence, and far from the numbers of the main festivals in Europe.
Part of the reason why festivals work this way lays in the way the majority of Italian gig-goers like to image them: comfort zones made of worldwide famous artists, no unknown acts, no mud, no days spent under the rain watching a myriad of unknown bands. That’s why single shows paradoxically draw many more people than festivals — after all, in 2017 Italy was the six biggest industry of the world in terms of live shows. And that’s why events such as Lucca Summer Festival last up to a month rather than being concentrated in a weekend, with just a big name each day, sometimes even without a supporting act.
Lack of public funding and absence of venues
One of the problems is certainly the lack of public funding and the absence of venues and public spaces that are suitable enough for a festival, allowing for example enough room for camping. Though, the main aspect to consider when analyzing the difficulties of such industry is probably the bureaucratic constraints and relationships with local and national administrations and their often shortsighted provincialism. Take Rototom Sunsplash, one of the main reggae festivals in the world: the event was born in the ‘90s in northeastern Italian, but it had to be moved to Spain in 2010 because of the shallow equation administrations made between reggae music and soft drugs.
There are some exceptions to the rule, of course: Home Festival is one of the few Italian festivals capable of recreating the same atmosphere of big festivals abroad, and next summer it will move from Treviso to a huge park in Venice. Apart from that, though, it seems that to find the most interesting Italian festivals one have to dig in the underground worlds of electronic music and indie rock. There, some small festival curators seem to have realized the potential that Italian territory can have when it comes to choosing the locations for a festival, and figured out that the enhancement of a certain area might be as important as the line-up.
Music is still alive
It’s the case of festivals such as Ortigia Sound System, in Sicily, where several shows on stages built all over the center of Syracuse and raving boat parties animate one of the most beautiful cities in southern Italy. Also based in Sicily, Ypsigrock takes place in the medieval town of Castelbuono and saw the recent presence of acts such as Crystal Castles, Daughter, Beach House and more. Moving to Italy’s East Coast, the beautiful town of Vasto is home to Siren Festival, while Beaches Brew call the freshest indie and electronic artists to play for free on a beach near Ravenna, the main stage directly facing the Adriatic sea.
The same symbiosis between music and environment is taken to the extreme in the woods of Villa Arconati, a rural palace with huge gardens located North-West of Milan. Every year in June the most interesting and experimental acts of the electronic music world perform here during a festival called Terraforma. It’s in this same electronic scope that operates what’s widely considered as the most relevant festival in Italy these days: Club To Club (C2C).
C2C began in 2005 in Turin and has moved to several city locations over the years, eventually establishing itself in the Lingotto, a monument to the industrial soul of the city. It’s the ideal venue for the dark, sometimes asphyxiating and other times liberating atmospheres that some of the best electronic acts of the world (in the past editions: Kraftwerk, Beach House, Nicolas Jaar, Arca, Thom Yorke and more) bring to Turin every November. Not only C2C is envied all over world for the top quality selection of its artists and DJs, it also launched a connection of electronic music festivals in Italy — for example, a small version of Club To Club called VIVA takes place in the evocative town of Locorotondo in Apulia every summer. Yet another proof, if needed, that quality, coherence and giving the right importance to territory are all it takes to be a successful model, much more than big names that end in themselves.