Roskilde Festival

Photo credit: Christian Hjorth

Proudly emblazoned on posters around the expansive Roskilde Festival site were the words ‘non-profit since 1972’. In my comprehensive conversation with the festival’s Head of Corporate Communications, Christina Bilde – in which we discussed Roskilde’s sustainability policies, health & safety philosophy, political activism and more – I asked whether 1972 was the inaugural year. “No,” she replied. “That was the year before. It’s an interesting story actually.”

Inspired by the most iconic iterations of Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival in the immediate past, two Danish high school students decided to put on a festival in 1971. To do so, they worked with a Copenhagen based music agent who helped to source the talent. Attracting 10,000 attendees to its debut, the event was a resounding success even by today’s standards. Unfortunately, said agent hid all of the proceeds in the back of his Mercedes and drove off into the proverbial sunset. Undeterred by betrayal, the duo teamed up with a local foundation – now known as the Roskilde Festival Society – to stage a non-profit follow-up. It has since become one of the top five most successful festivals in the world.

All of the profits made by the festival are distributed through the Society to a variety of local, national, and international humanitarian causes. “The particular institutions we donate to depends on how profitable the last edition was, and also how well their work ties into our current theme,” said Bilde. “We aim to create a bridge between what we’re doing and what they’re doing.” Last year’s festival raised roughly 15,000,000 Danish krone, and in the past Roskilde has donated to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, amongst many others.

Cultural and musical organisations also receive monetary support, however a separate foundation that benefits from the festival organisation’s year-round work handles this aspect of its philanthropic efforts. This is owing to the Danish tax system’s need to ensure that charitable causes achieve quantifiable results for each donation received from businesses. This makes causes with more abstract and creative goals more difficult to approve than efforts related to disaster relief, for instance. For reasons more complex than this layman is able to comprehend, foundation’s are exempt from these stipulations.

In tandem with its financial backing of human rights and humanitarian organisations, Roskilde promotes an inclusive and humanist ethos onsite through various means. Its conscientious worldview permeates everything from its security policies to the annual theme, which this year was ‘Equality: Stand Up for Your Rights’. The two bookings that best exemplified this agenda were Damon Albarn & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, and Danish activist duo The Yes Men’s live interview with exiled US whistleblower Edward Snowden via satellite. The two rather unconventional curation choices, especially concerning Snowden, were well received according to Bilde: “They were very much appreciated, and more importantly people understood why we chose to host them at the festival; they made the connection between our theme and their work.”

Watch The Yes Men’s short documentary on the project with Snowden below:

The Yes Men have worked with the festival for three years, and Roskilde were biding their time for an opportunity such as this to arise. It was difficult to orchestrate, according to Bilde, but The Yes Men’s professionalism and experience facilitated the process. In addition to the live streamed interview, The Yes Men created satirical signs as an affront to invasive digital surveillance, which were placed around the festival site. The message stated [in more elegant terms] that by entering the festival grounds, each attendee implicitly agreed to have their texts and phone calls recorded and sold on to third parties by the festival’s management. “It was obviously satirical in retrospect, especially if you’re familiar with what we stand for,” said Bilde. “But at the time a few people thought it was for real.”

With a similarly preternatural commitment, Roskilde’s health & safety policies exceed that of any other major festival I’ve experienced. Following the tragic accidental deaths of nine festivalgoers during a crowd surge in 2000, Roskilde partnered with Mojo Barriers to create an effective flow-controlling pen and traffic light system on its main Orange Stage. Its dedication towards ensuring the wellbeing of its attendees extends far beyond that though, demonstrated through its recent implementation of highly visible symbols during ‘high energy’ performances that serve to warn both security and attendees that the crowd they’re part of is likely to be wilder than the average. “The ‘high energy’ signs have worked really well,” said Bilde. “Crowdsurfing is always banned at the festival, but during these certain performances we at least allow for mosh pits so that people can express themselves more freely. The signs mean that everyone is aware of the risks, and enter crowds with increased awareness.”

The security personnel at the festival have an attitude entirely alien to the one you’d see employed at certain UK festivals, eschewing brickwall intimidation tactics in favour of a cooperative and dialogue-centric approach. “If a conflict arises, which is inevitable in a festival of this size, our approach is to start out by talking to people,” said Bilde. “We find that people react to that trust you put in them – they live up to it. That trust is at the core of the way we do things, and it works. The police tell us that in eight days we have a comparable amount of crimes to the town of Roskilde on a Friday night.”

Roskilde’s sustainability policies are similarly forward-thinking, where they work closely with food stalls to ensure that 75% of the produce onsite is organic. Last year, for reference, managed to have 54% organic produce, and next year’s target is for 90%. Additionally, each food stall must provide at least one vegetarian dish if they wish to trade at the festival, and “french fries don’t count”.

The area of food wastage is also addressed forthright, with the festival collecting over 40 tonnes of entirely edible leftovers alongside Roskilde-born organisation The Roundtable, which is then repurposed into meals and distributed to those in need.

The often condemned tendency of festivalgoers to leave their camping equipment, tents and other miscellaneous trash behind is mitigated by Roskilde’s recycling programme. Sorting waste for recycling isn’t a widespread phenomenon in Denmark, according to Bilde, so the festival hosts a workshop on the following Monday to teach people the correct way to do so. They also invite various experts to analyse the types of materials left behind to speculate on how they can be repurposed. Taking this idea further, for the first time this year the festival tried ‘upcycling’, bringing in designers, start-ups, and assorted artists to utilise all things abandoned for creative purposes.

Finally, the most egregious and difficult to solve issue is the one of transportation. Fortunately, the festival has its own train station, which drastically cuts down on its environmental impact. Shuttle buses are also employed and ride-sharing encouraged, but Bilde insists that there is always more that can be done. A new addition to the festival’s ecological arsenal is a series of smaller generators – in lieu of one large one – that can be activated or deactivated depending on the site’s power requirements at that exact time. This is supplemented by solar and wind power, plus an association with the pioneering Technical University of Denmark, that has already seen some of its prototypes turned into successful business ventures.