The Hop Farm Music festival’s short history hasn’t exactly been spared its share of inconsistency and, to some degree, calamity. Whilst known for maintaining grand, often icon-heavy line-ups, former promoter Vince Power reluctantly had to cancel 2013’s edition due to poor ticket sales, an issue which had been a threat to the festival’s health at more or less every attempt up until that point.
Last year’s ticket problems can be traced to its line-up. The high-profile inclusion of more alternative and thus polarising groups such as My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. was inevitably going to alienate the festival’s most popular sector of ticket buyers: local families. Though what makes less sense is how the Hop Farm had been struggling to meet targets in its years prior to the disaster, years that saw the likes of Prince, Neil Young and Bob Dylan topping jaw-dropping bills. Even this year, with a line-up that again boasted three enormous headline acts, the weekend failed to attract anything more than a safe volume of fans. Its new promoters, it would appear, are also unable to eliminate the festival’s ongoing problems.
Unfortunately the issues seem to stem from that very core contingency of family ticket buyers that up until last year had been keeping the festival marginally afloat. And with Power buckling under the task of rejuvenating his audience, the new promoters obviously decided the festival required a return to safety, and therefore a return to the exact same problems, in 2014.
The trouble families impose on the modern three-day festival rota is a lack of balance. With Friday’s being dominated by work and school commitments and Sunday’s restricted by the demand for early nights, Saturday’s stand to be the only day of the week that the whole family can attend festival itinerary’s dutifully. It’s no wonder then that the site appears twice as busy on entering the arena early Saturday afternoon, which consequently asks questions of whether we’d even have a festival this year were it not for the option of day tickets. The change of pace is visibly intoxicating. In fact the larger turnout appears to shock the surrounding atmosphere so much it almost deludes fans into thinking Brian Wilson puts on a decent performance.
Whether the audience were simply too overwhelmed to take Wilson’s lazy, disinterested habits to offence or just plain distracted by the polar opposites in behaviour emanated by Al Jardine and the new ensemble, it’s difficult to tell. Paying closer attention to the latter, however, could certainly at times trick the casual onlooker into thinking it was just a very convincing tribute act embracing the stage. But for the mature crowds perhaps that’s where the satisfaction resides; not in witnessing your heroes perform with timeless enthusiasm and a refusal to let old age take the reins, but in the ability to rejoice with the songs that bring back those fonder memories, never mind the dubious performances up front. Of course, being a younger mind, it’s a little more difficult to see that appeal.
Unsurprisingly there’s a return to fewer crowd members by Sunday’s evening events, a mass abandoning that leaves every stage minus the main space stretched for adequate attention. Even comic Rich Hall can’t dissuade himself from chipping in on the mild turmoil, lamenting over how he’d actually thought the festival had been cancelled whilst observing his approach into the arena.
With the larger herd preoccupied by sets on the main stage from popular 80s idols Marc Almond and Billy Ocean, there’s little turnout to witness Peter Hook run through a series of post-punk and new wave classics from his Joy Division and New Order songbooks. Those who do show up try eagerly to suppress their embarrassment by doubling efforts to sing and dance for two, not that it matters to Hooky though, who needs a lot more than a half-empty tent to discourage him from having a ball with the set list. A similar story plays out for the majority of the Daptone Super Soul Revue, a two-hour showcase which features solid sets from acclaimed revivalists Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones. To the revue’s misfortune, however, the shuffling of onstage performers isn’t enough to sustain the safe Kent crowd and quickly many begin receding out of the tent and toward the exits.
It’s no wonder then that Grace Jones is left to entertain what is arguably the smallest headline crowd of the weekend. But of course, being Grace Jones, entertainment is a task that requires minimal difficulty to accomplish. Fearlessly working the entire stage, exiting in order to sport a dramatic change of costume for every song, then casually climbing aboard the shoulders of security personnel to reach the perimeter of her crowd, it’s hard to believe how effortless Jones makes it all appear, especially now in her 67th year. With so many promoters deceived by the idea that generation-old bands and artists are somehow capable of reclaiming golden eras many years later, she stands as a powerful exception to an otherwise harsh reality that is threatening the development of many music festivals worldwide today. Aside from Jones, and perhaps also 10cc – who deliver a Friday afternoon set so unexpectedly liberating they incite middle-aged men and women to pogo left, right and centre – the same argument is representative of Hop Farm’s growth dilemma.
It may be hard to understand now considering the facts but Vince Power was actually approaching something close to the right path in 2013. What eliminated his festival from the running was too heavy a reliance on young artists and music too isolated from the fan base he had retained from previous years. Yet after another season of scraping by with a line-up predominantly arranged to tarnish the audience’s conceptions of musical legends, now might be time to revisit the drawing board once again, at least if only to realise that you can’t sustain even a festival of this size with families alone.