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One of a kinder: Roskilde at 50

It’s a fair bet to assume that, back in 1971, when Mogens Sandfær and Jesper Switzer Møller – two high-school students – decided to put on a festival, they had no idea how momentous an event it would eventually become. Sound Festival, as it was called, was a cultural success but a financial disaster – “10,000 people turned up, but less than half of them paid to get in,” remembers Leif Skov, the event’s former director and head of booking.

But the seed was sown and, slowly and organically, it grew in size and reputation. For 50 years now, music fans across the globe have flocked to Roskilde, its golden anniversary a fitting milestone for a festival that means so much to so many and has retained its unique character and vibe.

The event started out with a noble goal. “The idea was to bring people together,” says Skov, who notes that that remains the main ethos today. Inspired by Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, and based on their experience from a concert they had organised to support jailed Black civil rights activist Angela Davis, Sandfær and Møller were encouraged by a local Copenhagen agent, Karl Fischer, to do something that was unusual at that time – an outdoor event.

Twenty bands – mostly Danish but including US and UK acts like Stefan Grossman, Mick Softley, and The Grease Band – graced the single stage, with those fans who did pay coughing up just 30 Danish Kroner (approximately €4 euros, equivalent to €29 today) for the privilege.

That theme continued in the event’s early years – acts were mainly Danish and drawn from the world of folk, rock and pop. But behind the scenes, things changed. “In 1972, none of the 1971 organisers were involved,” says Skov. “Instead, it was organised jointly between American folk singer Tony Bush’s Kaunos Ltd, and the Roskilde Charity Society – about 16,000 people turned up. And from 1973 onwards, the Roskilde Charity Society became the main organiser under the name Roskilde Festival.”

The festival’s primary icon, the stage, had previously belonged to the Rolling Stones

By 1975, the festival had grown to three stages and a capacity of around 25,000. Bigger names began to appear on the bill, too – the likes of The Kinks, Canned Heat, Fairport Convention, Status Quo, and Procol Harum all played prior to 1978, with the festival’s booking committee looking to entice the most popular bands of the day. But that year also saw another important development, one that came to shape the festival’s image for years to come – they introduced the Canopy Stage, better known as the Orange Stage.

The festival’s primary icon, the stage, had previously belonged to the Rolling Stones. But a chance encounter with a photograph set Leif Skov on a hunt to track it down. “In 1977, I saw a photo of the orange canopy roof in Hyde Park, in NME – it had been used by Queen, I think. This was long before the fax, web, and mobile phones, so I wrote a letter to NME: ‘Who owns this stage?’ Early in 1978, Roskilde bought the roof from a company in liquidation, and since then it’s been the main stage and the logo for the festival.”

That year “started a new era for Roskilde” says Skov. Bob Marley and the Wailers and Elvis Costello entertained 36,500 fans, who had started to come from further afield – Sweden, Norway, and Germany among other countries. The festival also started to invite more NGOs and intensified its charity work; Skov started seeing Michael Eavis off-season to “exchange ideas and experiences.” In 1982, U2 headlined, with 49,000 in attendance; the following year, it was Simple Minds and Echo & The Bunnymen, with over 60,000 fans. Roskilde was starting to come of age.

“The festival was founded and built by volunteers ever since the first edition”

One of a Kind
Many things stand out about Roskilde and make it somewhat unique in the festival world. There is, of course, the charity aspect – it has been a non-profit since the very beginning, donating its profits in full to initiatives that benefit children and young people. “All proceeds are donated to humanitarian, cultural, and social charities,” notes Skov. “Roskilde today is still not primarily a music industry event.” But there is also the famed army of volunteers – the current iteration sees 30,000 contribute every year.

“The festival was founded and built by volunteers ever since the first edition,” says Malte Vuorela, Roskilde’s head of press. “It wasn’t until 1986 that the festival began employing a selected few as paid administrators. Today, we have around 30,000 volunteers – some are active all year, others only during the festival. They come from all over Denmark, but a large group – around 5,500 volunteers – are from the local Roskilde area.”

The volunteers don’t just make the festival happen, however. According to Henrik Bondo Nielsen, head of division, service & safety, they shape the festival’s unique vibe and ethos, making it very special indeed. “What is characteristic of our volunteers is that a very large group of them are also participants in the festival – it’s just another way to participate. We don’t make a sharp distinction between volunteers and participants, so it is the co-creation between people that is the core of Roskilde Festival.”

This means that a large part of what happens in the first four days of Roskilde Festival is participant-created. Nielsen goes on. “A notable difference from, for example, Glastonbury, is that when you arrive there, you pitch a tent in an area where basically nothing happens. All the fun happens inside the festival site. Instead, we have chosen to spread out the party. If you want to be part of the community-based camping area, called Dream City, you can start up 100 days before the start of the festival and help build up a city. We don’t curate – we just facilitate. I don’t know many other places that give so much freedom to the participants – that, I think, is quite unique.”

“In those years, there was no upper limit for the number of participants, and more than 90,000 tickets were sold in 1996”

It’s a testament to the scheme’s effectiveness that many volunteers return year after year – and some, like Nielsen, end up working for the festival full-time. He started in 1980; Signe Lopdrup, the current CEO, first attended in 1985 as a regular fan. “I was fascinated by the organisation – the volunteering and the community,” she says. “And I was really impressed that you could create something that engaged so many people.”

Anders Wahrén first came as a 13-year-old fan in 1996; by 2001, he was volunteering as a stagehand at the Camping Stage and a few years later joined the booking team. He notes that in the 1990s, “It was very big and quite wild. In those years, there was no upper limit for the number of participants, and more than 90,000 tickets were sold in 1996. My first concert at the Orange Stage was the Sex Pistols. They had reunited – but apparently not everyone thought that was such a good idea. Some felt that as old punk rockers they had sold out by going back together, so bottles were thrown towards the stage; the band had to leave and return three times!”

By the mid-nineties, Roskilde was firmly established as one of Europe’s biggest and best festivals. For the 25th anniversary, in 1995, the event had grown to nine stages and accommodated 95,000 fans – with tickets selling out even faster. And it was more international than ever. “Two out of three visitors were not Danish,” says Skov, and the headliners were iconic names drawn from rock, pop, and indie – Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Radiohead, Ray Charles, R.E.M., and Nirvana.

Live Nation’s chairman of international and the Nordics, Thomas Johansson, is one of the few people who has worked on all 50 editions of Roskilde Festival. “I booked the headliners for the very first festivals – acts like The Kinks, Status Quo, Fairport Convention – when the audience was 8-10,000 people, and I just kept booking the headliners ever since,” he tells IQ.

In addition to the previously listed talent, Johansson has also helped Roskilde secure the likes of U2, Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Roger Waters, The Clash, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, Metallica, Nirvana, Rammstein, Coldplay, Blur, Kendrick Lamar, Rage Against The Machine and many, many more.

LN’s chairman of international and the Nordics, Thomas Johansson, is one of the few people who has worked on all 50 editions

Less is More
Despite the success, Roskilde’s management team worried that the event had grown too unwieldy and that the fan experience was suffering as a result. In order to protect what they had, they did what almost no festival would do – they reduced the numbers, first to 85,000 in 1996, then down to 75,000 the following year. “We wanted to give the audience a greater experience,” says Skov; they also refocused their humanitarian and environmental work.

For Nielsen, such a move encapsulates what makes Roskilde so special. “What captured me was building something big – like Lego bricks, only on a larger scale,” he says. “Many other places you have to fight to make changes, but Roskilde Festival has a driving force that says that we must innovate all the time because we cannot offer our guests a copy of previous years.”

This feeling is echoed by those who work with the festival in a professional capacity, some of whom have been involved since the very early years – loyalty here runs very deep. “Soundforce first got involved in 1982,” says Vagn Olsen, the company’s CEO. “We rent them every imaginable piece of musical gear, instrument, and backline, and we’ve now worked together for 40 years this year. Which is absolutely crazy when you think about it.”

“The uniqueness of Roskilde is also the fact that no year is the same, and it feels like a new production each year”

“We have been lucky to work with almost the same people behind the scenes for around 28 years, so that makes a huge difference of where we are now. The uniqueness of Roskilde is also the fact that no year is the same, and it feels like a new production each year. So even though you have many years of experience, you never know quite what to expect.”

It’s a similar story for Meyer Sound, who have been providing sound reinforcement systems for Roskilde for years – and, since 2018, all stages have been powered by Meyer Sound. “In 2017, the Roskilde leadership team realised the best sounding stages were those with Meyer Sound,” says John McMahon, Meyer Sound senior vice president. “This inspired the festival to seek a sound partnership that would elevate the artist and fan experience at all stages, with a festival 100% powered by us.”

McMahon also believes that the partnerships the festival team foster, and the idea of equal collaboration, is what makes their working relationships so strong. “The Meyer Sound and Roskilde Festival teams are truly collaborative. The area where this is most apparent is on the technical side, where our team is embedded within the festival team to deliver the festival.”

He also notes that their actual festival work is just one aspect of their relationship. “We have partnered with the Roskilde Festival leadership on many levels, from the education of the audio teams to university research and development projects related to the impact of weather on festival sound and other scientific research, as well as creating the ‘Orange Feeling’ with our collaborative team approach.”

“That accident led to massive development of safety in general – not just for festivals but for all events”

Safety-ing Numbers
While the festival went from strength to strength during the 1990s, tragedy struck in 2000. A crush developed during Pearl Jam’s headline set, with people falling close to the stage after a series of wave-like motions in the audience. Nine people died, with a further 26 injured – three of them seriously. It was a “total shock and a warning for youth culture in general,” remembers Skov; “a wake-up call for the entire industry,” adds Nielson.

“There had been other accidents elsewhere, but this one was so big it caused tremors all over Europe. People said that if it can happen at Roskilde Festival, it can happen anywhere.” The official investigation ruled it an accident and that there had been no criminal actions, but Roskilde took it as a spur to lead change – and to make every effort to prevent something similar from happening in the future.

“That accident led to massive development of safety in general – not just for festivals but for all events. Now, Roskilde Festival is present in all important networks in the industry,” says Lopdrup. “Before the accident, safety was not something that was discussed across the industry. It had the effect that we in Roskilde decided that it was a theme we should engage in – a legacy, and one way to move forward was to take responsibility for it being put on the agenda,” adds Nielsen.

“This means that today we have a very close collaboration across Europe. We have created a network of festival safety managers who are in close contact, and we have organised more than 35 seminars across Europe. We also try to keep up with developments in youth culture, to create as safe events as possible.”

“One achievement is that we have managed to move and stay relevant through five decades”

Since then, and with extra safety measures in place, the festival has continued to grow – Roskilde now welcomes 130,000 music fans every year and continues to draw the biggest names in music. Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Eminem, Metallica, and Paul McCartney all headlined through the 2010s, and this year had a distinct pop flavour – Post Malone, Dua Lipa, and Tyler, the Creator sit atop the bill. It’s all part of what Skov says is a desire to “develop respectfully rather than grow – the world and its people need leadership based on values that you can feel but not buy.”

Celebrating Roskilde’s carefully curated evolution, Wahrén notes, “One achievement is that we have managed to move and stay relevant through five decades. We’ve gone from being a festival where you could not experience hard rock, to having it as the primary thing and to having electronic music, to being able to present the biggest acts in pop and hip-hop, which we also embraced early on.”

As a personal highlight, he mentions Eminem, someone they chased for many, many years. “We tried for 17 years before we managed to book him, and it was his first and only concert in Denmark. At the same time, it was the show with the largest audience ever on Danish soil. We don’t know exactly how many people attended but probably over 90,000 – it has been interesting to see the change from hip-hop being an underground genre at the festival to the fact that it is now the most unifying.”

“It has been a period of great uncertainty – we planned two festivals that were never brought to life”

Golden Year
And so to the 50th-anniversary celebrations, something that was postponed not once but twice due to Covid. Having such a special edition of the festival essentially “on hold” led to many challenges, but as ever, the Roskilde team rose to the occasion. 2022 will, they say, be the best yet.

“It has been a period of great uncertainty – we planned two festivals that were never brought to life, says Lopdrup. “But it also means that there are some things we have been working on for a long time – and that has given us great strength, too. So we are making a new, crisp festival this year.”

“We chose not to try to keep the whole line-up from 2020,” adds Wahrén. “Instead, we look at it as a new festival and evaluated everything again. It is difficult to assess what the right balance is because, on the one hand, we have to live up to what people bought tickets for two years ago so that we can keep the value. But we must also create what is Roskilde – there have to be surprises and progression. We have not moved away from our core, even if it is not exactly the same names as in 2020.”

That means doing things differently and thinking outside the box. As part of the celebrations, the festival published several books, including one about graffiti, which has been an important part of the festival for more than 20 years. They are also, says Wahrén, “being far-sighted and taking new paths through art and music.” For example, they presented a 2,000-square-meter, colourful dance floor, created by the internationally renowned visual artist Katharina Grosse. And the acclaimed German artist Tino Sehgal has co-created their brand-new venue, Platform, featuring both concerts and boundary-pushing hybrid art.

With 13 stages, this year’s festival was the biggest iteration yet – but the team are confident that Roskilde remains Roskilde

With 13 stages, this year’s festival was the biggest iteration yet – but the team are confident that Roskilde remains Roskilde. “The core values of all involved in putting on this festival represent the spirit of how festivals first came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says John McMahon. “The Roskilde Festival team remains true to those values 50 years later.”

That, more than anything, is what keeps everyone – the volunteers, the fans, the bands, and all who participate – coming back. “For many of our volunteers, creating Roskilde Festival is a lifestyle,” says Nielsen. “And we manage to deliver experiences that people did not expect,” adds Wahrén. “You know you’ll miss something if you’re not here. People also come to cultivate friendships and the communities that exist at the festival.”

“With a non-profit event like ours, the strength lies in the local grounding,” says Lopdrup. “That there are people who support us and fight for us. We are greeted by this because our organisation extends beyond itself. We want to take the lead, but we also want to make a difference for [people other] than ourselves. That’s the secret – the community of volunteers, participants who held on to their tickets through the pandemic, and partners and suppliers who support us all the way.”

One person delighted to still be involved in the historic event is Live Nation chief Johansson. “The people at Roskilde are inspiring to work with because it’s not about someone who wants to buy a new Ferrari – they give all the money to charity, and the artists love that aspect, too, as they get to hand cheques to their favourite causes,” he says. “It’s the mother of festivals in Europe, and it has been a fantastic ride to be involved with it for 50 years: a true privilege.”

“We can become a community for even more people…where everyone can feel at home”

The future certainly looks bright, for 2022 and beyond. And with some of the seismic changes currently affecting the wider world, Roskilde’s focus is changing, too – sustainability looms large on the agenda, as does diversity and inclusion. Says Wahrén: “We can become a community for even more people – not in terms of capacity but in terms of becoming a more diverse community where everyone can feel at home. Some of it starts in the line-up, something else starts in the relationship with the participants – but those two things must fit together.”

“We must continue to be a fantastic eight-day event,” adds Lopdrup. “But our ambition is to expand the community to be more vibrant and present throughout the year. We need to develop within sustainability, and we are well underway. It is essential for an organisation like ours – no one is perfect, and we can always get better, but we want to inspire a more sustainable way of at- tending festivals in the future.”

So here’s to the next 50 years, then, and an even bigger celebration in 2072 for the 100th edition? Why not? “If there is one thing we have learned during the pandemic, it is that gathering around art, food, music – all the sensory experiences – cannot be replaced by anything else,” says Lopdrup. “We believe that this is what Roskilde Festival can and must do. And I bet that there will still be a need to make a difference together in the future – that won’t change.”


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