The Downs Festival is not just good times, it’s doing good too

There's more to festivals than music and beer – increasingly they're blazing a trail towards a better way of living

The appeal of a great festival is perfectly simple – it’s a place to get together with hundreds or thousands of likeminded souls, take time out from everyday reality and feast on discerningly curated music and culture, washed down with quality food and drink. But increasingly, there’s a growing trend across the festivals landscape which determines that such mass gatherings shouldn’t just be about good times, but also about doing good.

The best festivals create an alternative reality for their audience for a few days – a microcosm of a better society, an environment rich with potential for exploring new ideas, harnessing people-power to help others and exposing festival goers to positive new concepts and practices.

The Downs Festival in Bristol is a prime example of an event that stands to not only entertain, but also to effect positive change far beyond its boundaries. By booking big-name headliners such as Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Paul Weller, Orbital and Goldie & The Ensemble in 2018, Downs will attract 25,000 people to its picturesque site at Bristol’s Clifton Down public park. Yet, unlike other more corporate-minded and controlled events, the fully independent Downs doesn’t treat its popularity purely as a mandate for making money.

We want to enable people to make a positive difference to the communities they live in,

In everything from its deep-rooted environmental policy to the way it raises funds for charities, sets up internships with music schools, prioritises local and independent traders and provides a platform for grassroots community, social and political organisations, there’s a sense of the festival at all turns existing to do what it can to help make a better world.

Anyone who knows anything about the Glastonbury Festival will know that none of the above is anything new – Britain’s biggest festival at Worthy Farm in Somerset was founded out of the counterculture and has a rationale for effecting positive change built into its foundations. As Downs Festival co-founder Tom Paine puts it: “We consider ourselves ‘children’ of Glastonbury Festival. Its ideals have helped shape us and everything that we do.” As Glastonbury has grown to epic proportions, to the extent that it has to take an occasional “fallow” year such as in 2018, it’s fallen to smaller, more grassroots events to take up its positive mantle – with Downs just one example.

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The concept of festivals for good can be seen in everything from the Green Man Festival in Wales – with its trust set up to create development and training opportunities for people within the local community and its subsidised Settlers programme which encourages patrons to arrive early and explore the local landscape and community – to the way in which festivals such as Greenbelt, Shambala and the Green Gathering have all but eliminated single-use plastics in a bid to generate a landslide of influence that improves recycling practice in wider society (Glastonbury will follow suit next year). The Byline Festival in East Sussex aims to promote and celebrate independent journalism and free speech in the era of fake news. Luxury camping company Tangerine Fields donates tens of thousands of disused tents and sleeping bags to charities for refugees and homeless people every year, while the Doune the Rabbit Hole Festival in Scotland this year will become another event to welcome a Big Issue vendor to sell on site.

People visiting Downs Festival are incentivised to reach the event, which takes place not far from Bristol city centre, either by bike or by bus – to the extent that no parking facilities are provided. When on site, festivalgoers can listen to a range of speakers on The Information Stage, which in the past has welcomed the likes of Kate Tempest, Vivienne Westwood, Ken Loach and Akala to discuss topics ranging from Brexit to the refugee crisis, austerity and the NHS. Downs in the past has also welcomed representatives from the likes of Help Refugees, Help Bristol’s Homeless, Protect our NHS and the Humans for Rights Network, and will do so again in 2018.

“We want to enable people to make a positive difference to the communities they live in,” says Paine. “We believe that by bringing people together to enjoy and celebrate music and creativity we can also encourage them and give them the information to leave the show and hopefully inspire them to make positive changes to their world – no matter how small they may be.

“We are trying to lead by example in all that we do, be it prioritising sustainability with all of our production, working with local food traders with proven ethical sourcing of food, working with local drinks companies and running an educational yet entertaining kids’ area. On top of this all is The Information Stage, where people can listen to and engage with positive initiatives.

“We aim to amplify and mirror the spirit of Bristol and its people, its independence, non-conformity and willingness to try to do the right thing in all that we do.”

The Downs Festival takes place on Saturday September 1. 
thedownsbristol.com