Co-op movement makes its mark on festival season

From Knockengorroch to Glastonbury, co-operators are set for a summer of music

This year a co-op presence will be felt at festivals in the UK and abroad, bringing co-operation to a mass, and often muddy, audience as well as providing opportunities for the movement to gather and celebrate together.

The Co-op Group is running pop up stores in nine UK music festivals including Leeds, Reading and Glastonbury – with a click and collect service at selected festivals, where punters can order their groceries up to six weeks in advance for collection on arrival at the event.

Last year, when Covid forced many festivals were forced to delay their events for the second year in a row, the Group announced a new partnership with Kendal Calling and said it wanted to show its commitment to the live music industry during “tough times”. Amanda Jennings, director of marketing live and local at the Group, said at the festival stores aren’t “just about building and running a store in a field for the weekend, [they are] about serving a specific community’s needs while also highlighting how Co-op does businesses differently”.

Another retail society getting in on the festival act is Radstock, which sponsored the community stage at a free local arts festival held over the Jubilee weekend.

The family-friendly event saw live performances, stalls, food and workshops, bringing the community together and celebrating the Platinum Jubilee. Radstock’s stage showcased local performers, and the society fed all of the festival’s crew and volunteers on the day. 

Mr Burn was among performers at the Radstock Festival (Photo: James Price)

Morwhenna Woolcock from festival organiser Creativity Works says that local festivals like Radstock offer a “very accessible artform – it is free, and is performed in and around where people live – you don’t have to go to a special venue or place to take part in it. Festivals also help bring people and communities together, different ages and different people enjoying the same experience”.

Ms Woolcock adds that: “It’s really important that local businesses support their community in many ways including sponsoring community events – it helps integrate businesses into the local community and give back to their customers and help build trust in a local brand/business.”

Related: How Ulysse Maison d’Artistes performs the art of co-operation

Nikki D’Ovidio from Radstock Co-op says that giving back to the local community is a key element of the society’s values and principles, adding: “The arts festival is a great opportunity for the co-op to come together with other local businesses to support this fantastic event.

“Festivals and  cultural events play an extremely important role in bringing the local community together. They are also a great opportunity to open the local community up to experiencing new things, learning a new skill, building community spirit and reinforcing the identity of a town.”

The Iguanodon Restaurant was another attraction at Radstock (Photo: James Price)

Globally, a number of festivals who have adopted the co-op model to support their work with their communities.

Knockengorroch festival, held in the Scottish mountains of Galloway, is run by a community interest company whose chief aims are to promote multi-culturalism through world music, support new Scottish performers, develop public awareness of the country’s Uplands heritage and spur local socio-economic and cultural regeneration. Its annual World Ceilidh has been running since 1998 and now attracts crowds of around 3,000.

Anross the pond in Marquette, Michigan, the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival is on a similar mission, to promote traditional local music and dance, such as bluegrass, Cajun, Celtic and acoustic blues. Around 4,000 music fans, including many of the co-op’s 300 members, attend the festival each year in July.

The co-op’s executive director Susan Divine says the founders of the festival, now in its 42nd year, felt it important that the organisation be a member focused, non-profit business. Its members pay an annual subscription fee to support the festival and get involved in the running of the co-op through its board. They receive discounts on tickets and many volunteer time to the organisation, which runs with just one paid member of staff. 

Through its co-op structure, Hiawatha can offer something more to its community and members, adds Ms Divine. “Because our mission has to do with music, that in itself speaks to a lot of people who like to belong to organisations such as ours and who value being a member and value volunteering.” Members feel a sense of partnership with the organisation through their subscription and volunteering, she adds describing it as a “reciprocal relationship”.

The co-op movement also has a history of running festivals to re-enforce and celebrate its own identity. Recent notable examples include Cooperatives United World Festival and ICA Expo, an event which saw 12,605 co-operators from 88 countries gather in Manchester, UK to mark the International Year of Cooperatives in 2012. 

In the US, the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA) launched its Co-op Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 2017, and South American news co-op Mundo Coop has been running its Festival Federal Cultura Cooperativa in Argentina for the past decade.

And this July, Stir to Action will bring together hundreds of co-operators for a weekend of camping,  workshops, food and live music at its Playground for the New Economy festival.

Related: Stir to Action gets ready for its festival

Perhaps the earliest examples of co-operative festivals were held at London’s Crystal Palace between 1888 and 1910, when the co-op movement was gaining momentum in the UK. The National Co-operative Festival would attract tens of thousands of attendees from across the country for a jam-packed day of talks, exhibitions, flower shows, sports and music. In an 1897 issue of The Windsor Magazine, Flora Klickmann describes the scenes:

“During the week of the festival the Palace is, from one end to the other, one vast exhibition of flowers, fruit and vegetables… to say nothing of the thousand-and-one other commodities in which co-operators deal, and the works, both useful and artistic, entered in competition for many valuable prizes that are offered annually.”

Festival guests would often travel into London on overnight trains arriving into the capital at dawn, writes Ms Klickmann, who paints a picture of an almost arduously active day of merriment, describing attendees as “vigorous, indefatigable workers” who undertake a “concentrated, all embracing method of taking a day’s pleasure”.

Whether it be trading, supporting its community or simply celebrating itself, co-operators have been well aware for some time of the power of cultural gatherings across the movement. If nothing else, the basic value derived from festivals by co-operators is summed up by Ms Klickmann when she writes:

“To watch the varied scenes and endless interests at the Crystal Palace on these festival days might confirm the foreigner in his ideas that we are a ‘nation of shopkeepers,’ but should also remind him, so far as the co-operator is concerned, of the words of Mr W. S. Gilbert: ‘His capacity for innocent enjoyment is just as great as any other man’s.”

With thanks to Alice Toomer-McAlpine, the

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