Feel the Rhythm

Mc­Don­ald’s and cheap tents bring Rhythm and Vines pun­ters into the New Year. But what has kept this fes­ti­val go­ing for 16 years? Glenn McCon­nell re­ports.

Sunday News - - WELLBEING -

Half the peo­ple here don’t know who’s play­ing, or at least they didn’t when they bought their tick­ets. Rhythm and Vines is un­usual that way. It’s amu­sic fes­ti­val, sure. With four stages and three nights of mu­sic, the fes­ti­val plays host to hun­dreds of artists and sup­port staff.

But the fes­ti­val’s own event man­ager says he, and his pa­trons, ‘‘don’t re­ally think this is about the mu­sic’’. So what does keep it go­ing?

This 16-year-old New Year’s gath­er­ing sells its vibe and rep­u­ta­tion, which is pos­si­bly more im­por­tant than its lineup. Rep­u­ta­tion, the fes­ti­val di­rec­tors say, is the only rea­son it’s able to sell half its tick­ets each year be­fore the lineup is even re­leased.

It started with fewer than 2000 peo­ple, at a rolling vine­yard north of Gis­borne. The vine­yard stayed, the crowd grew ten­fold, and the mu­sic has changed a lot.

Fes­ti­val founder Hamish Pinkham re­mem­bers when he started it with friend, as a fes­ti­val for mates who liked reg­gae. Most of the artists these days are DJs or hip-hop artists. Pinkham says his goal for the fes­ti­val is to stay ‘‘on trend’’ with its tar­get mar­ket of 18- to 25-year-olds.

‘‘It’s a cer­tain type of au­di­ence who come to a fes­ti­val like this. They’re a young, dy­namic, dis­pos­able-in­come kind of crowd,’’ he says.

For the fes­ti­val to suc­ceed, and stay into the fu­ture, he wants it to be a ‘‘rite of pas­sage’’ for New Zealan­ders.

It’s a rite of pas­sage that at­tracts 21,000 peo­ple a year, ef­fec­tively takes over an en­tire town, and has a rep­u­ta­tion as a loose, any­thing-goes New Year’s party.

With thou­sands of school leavers, job starters and stu­dents mak­ing what are fairly ex­pen­sive trips for the three- to five-day fes­ti­val, it’s no sur­prise things can get crazy for the pun­ters and tough for those or­gan­is­ing it.

The rep­u­ta­tion keeps peo­ple com­ing back but has also in­creased the pres­sure on se­cu­rity teams work­ing to keep drugs and home-brought al­co­hol out of the fes­ti­val.

That’s a rep­u­ta­tion that event man­ager Dan Turner and chief ex­ec­u­tive Kieran Spil­lane are fired up about.

When fes­ti­val se­cu­rity seizes what ap­pears to be ec­stasy tablets but is ac­tu­ally pes­ti­cide-laced an­tibi­otics, the district health board de­cides to is­sue a pub­lic health warn­ing.

The warn­ing is car­ried as break­ing news through chan­nels such as Stuff and Rhythm and Vine’s own app, and within min­utes Turner said his team was field­ing calls from wor­ried par­ents.

He’s an­gry and wor­ried for the brand of Rhythm and Vines, which – as the most in­fa­mous fes­ti­val in New Zealand – has come un­der heavy na­tional scru­tiny. Last year the fes­ti­val made all the wrong head­lines, around the world, when aman groped a woman on cam­era.

At a press standup, Turner re­fuses to be filmed say­ing he has to act ‘‘in the best in­ter­ests of the com­pany’’ and ‘‘wants the story dead by to­mor­row’’. Spil­lane po­si­tions him­self be­tween a tele­vi­sion news team and Turner, but does not com­ment on the safety warn­ing.

A rite of pas­sage

SEB KLINKUM/ STUFF It all starts on Jan­uary 28. That’s ‘‘set-up’’ day, the day 14,000 fes­ti­val campers will be al­lowed on site.

The early­birds have ar­rived at ridicu­lous hours, lin­ing up be­fore the gates and bag checks are open. There’s not a lot hap­pen­ing. No mu­si­cians will play un­til the fol­low­ing day.

But, as the fes­ti­val di­rec­tors say, it’s not just the mu­sic that keeps peo­ple com­ing back.

The fes­ti­val has in­vested into the Rhythm Roadie idea, in the past hir­ing so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers and bring­ing ra­dio sta­tions on board to lighten up the road trip be­fore­hand.

For those slower off the start­ing line, the drive to Gis­borne is prob­a­bly un­like any other.

Cars, packed to the brim, flood into Gis­borne from all over the North Is­land. A few roofs get dented, as ex­citable young­men, who can’t seem to stop jump­ing, whip off their shirts and start fun­nelling booze off cars parked on the side of high­ways.

Their cars will typ­i­cally have some bor­der­line mes­sage or ‘‘R&V Roadie’’ painted on the side.

When they ar­rive at the fes­ti­val, how­ever, they

Rhythm and Vines hosted 21,000 pun­ters to wel­come in the New Year.

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