Rhythm and Vines’ co-founder Hamish Pinkham talks about the highs and lows of the first 15 years of his hugely popular New Year’s Eve festival.
In the past 15 years, Rhythm and Vines has gone from a small New Year’s Eve party intended for 400 people, but attended by 1800, in 2003 to a sprawling drunk tank of 30,000 people in 2013 (and a riot at a festival-related campsite in 2014) to a more manageable 18,000-20,000 people over the last couple of years.
Festival co-founder and programmer Hamish Pinkham says the festival had grown too big to be safe and sustainable. “We had a lot of success and it’s hard to maintain momentum with a big event like that. We got too big, but there was demand for it. People kept buying tickets so we kept building more campgrounds. And probably broadening the demographic too far.”
At the time, Pinkham and his company were running Rhythm and Vines, the Gisborne Wine and Food Festival, stadium concerts in Auckland, touring of electronic and indie acts with ten full-time staff. “At our peak, we were looking to do 30 different shows a year and we lost focus on keeping Rhythm and Vines on track,” he says, adding that the safety issues in 2014 (largely confined to the campsite) were the final straw. “It was really tough professionally and personally, and we had to change our whole model, change our team, and change our vision.”
He stopped promoting other events, sold Rhythm and Alps to the company’s South Island partners and scaled the team back to a skeleton crew to get back on their feet. Pinkham wanted to regain the focus that had been lost to relentless growth and ensure that the festival was a safe, secure space where people could lose themselves (in a good way) for a couple of days. The campsites are no longer BYO and the entire festival exists under a liquor licence, with the festival selling cheaper drinks on the day to get people out of their tents.
“Gone are the Scrumpyhands, gone are the chilly bins filled with Double Brown, gone are the beer bongs. What we’ve put in place is a more civilised, almost European model of drinking, which is what the market expects. A culture grew around the festival that was unbecoming to the vision, but I think we’re back on track.”
Musically, as touring acts get more expensive the festival has tried to get away from being overly reliant on headliners. “We’re not trying to sell a Chance The Rapper concert, we’re trying to sell an experience that features Chance. If you become a flagship festival based on talent, it just becomes an arms race each year trying to top it up.”
Rhythm and Vines CEO Kieran Spillane says the festival’s strength is offering a complete experience that one-day festivals in cities can’t. “I think the term ‘festival’ gets thrown around a little bit more than it should. A concert for one day is not a festival.”
“It’s true escapism as well,” Pinkham says. “Especially being in Gisborne – the road trip, getting away for three or four days, you just lose yourself. It’s a real journey of discovery.”
The other big evolution for the festival has been going from an almost exclusively reggae/dub line-up, to a broad-based festival that included indie rock and folk, to a more streamlined line-up of dance, electronica and hip-hop.
“We harnessed that Kiwi sound that was coming through,” says Pinkham. “Salmonella Dub was a big band down in Otago; we booked them our second year and we had 5,000 punters. The next year we booked an up-and-coming band called Fat Freddy’s Drop, who had just released their debut album, and by the end of the year they were the hottest thing in New Zealand and we got 10,000 people. Shapeshifter the next year. We had some great foresight and vision on the booking policy to pick that next big thing.
“I like to think we took a pretty good lead in the early days and that’s why we were successful. We rounded up a lot of that Kiwi sound that was up and coming, and chucked them in a vineyard. It was a great summer recipe. We were the first to headline the Black Seeds and Kora and we were right there when it all happened. But we’ve found on New Years Eve you wanna let your hair down, hands in the air, and I don’t think that reggae music lifts people to those heights. And the trend dropped off.”
“We’re back to focusing on what we are. We’re a party for a certain demographic. It’s a New Year’s Eve event where people are there for a fun time and to let loose, so we’re just focusing on that party aspect. In the past we were trying to be everything to everyone, focusing on bands and heavily reliant on Kiwi music, where now it’s dance music and bass music – drum and bass, trap, dubstep. That’s what works for our audience, what they expect and what the festival’s been known for. But jangly guitars, not so much. Reggae, now, not so much. Tropical house and things, not so much.”
Now, the festival sells 80% of its tickets before the line-up is announced, with the audience trusting there’ll be acts they will love, whether or not they’re already fans of them. “That gives us the freedom, from the local perspective definitely, to push some of these acts through, giving them decent stage time, acts like SWIDT and Saachi and LAB, helping promote that next wave of talent coming through,” says Pinkham. “It also gives us that flexibility to take risks on acts that are playing big stages but aren’t as familiar to a wider audience. It’s a good position to be in, to be a bit more creative than sticking with the tried and tested, say the Six60s and Shapeshifters that other promoters rely on.”
“We’re lucky that we really believe in our recipe – it’s a sense of occasion, it’s New Year’s Eve, people want to party, they want to travel to the beach – we’ve been able to harness that,” says Pinkham, when asked about the festival’s future. “As long as we keep on trend, keep the edge, keep it safe and secure, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t survive. We’d maybe taken our eye off the ball there, a few things were off-trend, we were not looking after our punters as well as we could. And maybe that led to a bit of a stall, but things feel like they’re back on track.”
This New Year’s Rhythm and Vines features Schoolboy Q, Mura Masa, Big Shaq, SWIDT, JessB and more, 29-31 December 2017 in Gisborne.
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