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.
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.