This time exactly 10 years ago the inaugural Outlook Festival was just four months away…
Yet behind the scenes the collective responsible for the now staple al fresco session had yet to pick a name for the event. Or even know if it was definitely going to happen at all. It wouldn’t be two months later than they confirmed the line-up and booked the flights.
10 years later, in an industry where line-ups are booked almost a year in advance and the competition for our attention and ticket money is more intense than ever, this seems unimaginable.
But, in hindsight, it suits the spirit of the five-strong team behind Outlook perfectly. Unified by a shared love for soundsystem culture and its many musical strains and hybrids – all with strong backgrounds in events and performing – they were only going to do this if it felt totally right. A passion project, pure and simple; a chance to translate what they’ve achieved at events such as New Bohemia, Subdub and Vagabondz into a weekend-long experience in the sunny Croatia, a country that most UK promoters had yet to explore. A deep dive into the party unknown…
800 people took the leap of faith and followed Outlook to Croatia that year. Within three years that number had risen to 11,000. Within four years they’d launched a whole other festival (Dimensions) and within five they’d been invited by the local town to host an opening performance in a near-2000 year old Roman Amphitheatre where they’ve hosted cult agenda-setting acts such as Damian Marley, Lauryn Hill, Grandmaster Flash and even their own Outlook Orchestra.
Back to the future: September 5-9 2018, Outlook Festival will host its 11th edition and still things keep developing, growing and setting new benchmarks. Now its ninth event at its iconic Fort Punta Christo location, they’ve opened up a brand-new rave den in the shape of Zerostrasse, a network of secret tunnels built for WW1 (and atomically reinforced for WW2) that are opening strictly for Outlook 2018. The line-up tunnels deep into the culture, too… The opening concert features Bonobo’s full live troupe, Wiley, David Rodigan with the Outlook Orchestra and Children Of Zeus.
Meanwhile the rest of the line-up reads like an all-star cast from all your favourite root genres; from Andy C to Jah Shaka, Calibre to SASASAS, Stefflon Don, Nadia Rose, J-Hus, dBridge, Dillinja, Johnny Osbourne, Noisia, Lenzman, Peanut Butter Wolf, Digital Mystikz, the list goes on and on. It’s looking set to be another landmark year for Outlook, so we called up two of its directors – Jonny Scratchley and Joe Barnett – to understand how they got here, and how, even though it’s now one of the most respected European events in global bass music and soundsystem culture, it’s always remained a passion project.
The audience really strikes a chord for me. Unlike so many other products people sell, an event is made by the people who come to it. We can put on the best line-ups and the best soundsystems but if the crowd don’t respond then the event is nothing. Over the last 10 years we’ve been influenced by the passion, care and love for the music and each other… Joe Barnett
Jonny: It was the early months of 2008 and one of our partners Noah had been approached by a group of people who’d gone out to Croatia with a view of setting up a festival ready venue. Noah gave a few of us a call; myself, Joe and Jack (who ran the Vagabondz night together and Simon who runs Subdub and Exodus in Leeds. So five personalities from three different nights across the UK. Then it was a case of calling on the wider network of artists we’d supported regularly through our events and the network of music fans we were connected to across the UK. Basically everyone involved or interested in dub, hip hop, grime, dubstep, drum & bass and jungle. Soundsystem music.
Joe: It was so last minute, looking back. We were still discussing whether to do this in May! By the end of May we decided on the name Outlook and started booking artists in June and delivered the event late August. It was about calling everyone we knew. We thought ‘okay let’s give this a chance.’
Jonny: It was a crazy affair. Most of us had never been to the site before. To be honest I have very few clear memories of what happened. There was a lot of running around like headless chickens. It was very intense. It took me until late September to come out of the tiredness and exhaustion and start reading reviews and responses. That gave me the sense we’d done something worthwhile. It was much more than a club night could ever achieve.
Joe: It was founded purely from the desire to bring through sounds we were passionate about. A lot of the dubstep guys were having their first international shows. Also putting on dubstep alongside hip hop. Grouping together different genres makes Outlook unique today. No one quite has the same parameters of music. It’s allowed us to stay relevant.
Jonny: Just as felt we got our heads around the venue and had ideas on how to improve it, we got asked to move just months ahead of the event….
Joe: There was friction in the town based on the bass and the frequencies were allegedly scaring off the fish. We had a few months to find a new place and ended up on Zrce Beach on the island of Pag. It was a club environment and not quite idyllic but we’d sold 50 percent more tickets and were still very much doing it for a bit of fun. Just an extension to the club nights we were operating already.
Jonny: One thing that massively changed this year was bringing out our own soundsystem. That was a body shattering experience. It paved the way for us to create something that was unique to the festival and production. It wasn’t a cheap way of doing it but if you’re going to try and create that environment then you have to go to those lengths.
Joe: Our first year in the fort. I’ll never forget arriving in the fort and thinking ‘wow, what can we do here?’ It took our breaths away. It allowed for creativity and making Outlook an event in its own right, rather than a party in someone else’s venue.
Jonny: It brought out our inner child. We had free reign over the place and it was very overgrown. We were exploring, climbing hills, running around. We could all feel its exciting potential. The second time we went there for another visit the excitement had gone and it was a lot more serious like a realisation of ‘shit, we’re doing this now, this is a step up!’
Joe: The commitment to risk was very daunting. Securing the site, making sure the customers were safe, selling enough tickets, getting power to the stages, building bars. It was a moment where we thought about changing bookings to bring more people in. Do we have to book commercial artists to sell more tickets? We had to go from 1500 tickets to 4000 which was a big leap at the time. We talked about artists but felt it wasn’t who we liked or what we wanted the brand to be pushing. So we believed in what believed in so far and had Roots Manuva and Skream headlining and continued pushing what we loved.
Jonny: To this day, it’s still my favourite year. It had an energy that is impossible to recreate. The freedom of the venue, the energy and creativity of the music at the time. Suddenly we had our spiritual home.
Joe: This was another big step-up. We sold around 4000 tickets in 2010… But sold that on the first day of going on sale for this year’s event. We eventually sold close to 11,000 tickets. Again, it was daunting. We realised we had a business this year and thought ‘we could probably do with a production manager here’ So there was a lot of scale and it allowed us more freedom in terms of bookings. We had Barrington Levy and Pharoahe Monch, Jamie xx, Horace Andy. Which wasn’t a huge leap from what we’d done anyway.
Jonny: We had The Bug on the main stage playing to six thousand people. I’d never seen that before. Dubstep was exploding. It was like the music was surrounding us and we didn’t have any control of it. We had to ride it and stay true to our heart and define our own musical story a lot more.
Joe: What was exciting was that a lot of the dubstep guys were just getting their first international shows. They would come out for holidays so it would be amazing to see Skream and Plastician in the front row with everyone or Chef and Quest and Silkie mucking around the beach. For the customers it was amazing to see the artists on this level. There was that feeling of a community.
Jonny: This year was an interesting one. Dubstep was massive globally and what we were doing was at the heart of that. The audience became a very interesting and diverse crowd. It started to appeal to a wider audience and the music had changed a little bit. There was a focus on the higher end, more jump up sound that was removed from where we were.
Joe: As popular as dubstep had become, we made sure we didn’t explode. We grew a little bit but, in order to prevent getting too big or diluting our musical message, we launched Dimensions. For me this year was a definition of the Outlook sound, solidifying what we’d done and working our heads around the site. 2011, behind the scenes, was chaotic. That site is not an easy thing for any professional production company and we had no idea how crowds would engage with the space on that. So a lot of this year was about tweaking and making things more efficient.
Joe: This was a big year for us as launched the opening concert of the festival in the Roman amphitheatre in the middle of Pula. That changed things significantly. We were invited by the town to come and host the show and it was a real nod. It wasn’t easy to win over the locals with thousands of largely British kids and loud music. To be given that fantastic platform has been amazing and allowed us to put on artists on a different scale.
Jonny: We had The Original Wailers and Grandmaster Flash. I remember it so vividly. It was such a huge step to host events in a venue like that. We were right in the city, not hidden away on the peninsula, right there in one of Croatia’s most famous venues that had been a gladiatorial arena. We were very humbled to do this and it set the tone and levels for the rest of that festival.
Joe: This was also the year that one of my favourite dubplates came from the festival. Flowdan’s Outlook City. I remember seeing that live and thinking ‘wow it’s so nice that people feel they can do that here!’
Johnny: Dubplates and breaking new music here has become a real culture at Outlook. That feeling of hearing a tune for the first time. It’s also about the crowd and how they know the music and the groove. I’ve played at Outlook every year and there’s no other festival crowd like it. So festivals you need to play high octane music to capture the imagination but at Outlook people get the groove, they don’t even need to know the music, they already feel it.
Joe: Not to dis The Original Wailers but having Lauryn Hill at our opening show was a huge level-up. She absolutely killed it, too
Jonny: Obviously we’d had Pharoahe a few years before, too. Having big US hip-hop at a European festival is so special. Especially people we’ve grown up listening to and being inspired by but also having that continuity between the UK and US sound and building on that relationship. It’s really special.
Joe: Actually with the hip-hop in mind, Busta Rhymes pulled out last minute of this one. We were already on site but we managed to bring in Action Bronson with two days notice. It went down an absolute treat. He was blowing up hugely that year and he launched himself at the crowd, did a tune from within the audience, he just killed it. It was chaotic and summed up what we we’ve always wanted to it.
Jonny: This year, for me, was all about Boy Better Know on the mainstage in front of 8500 people. It was mental. I remember being stood by the side of the mainstage with Sian Anderson from Radio 1 and she said there was nowhere in the world like this. Now it’s happening all the time but to see JME and Skepta coming up on the stage at the time it was unthinkable that this music could have this scale. It was wicked time for music that year, full stop. By now I could go around and see the event and realised how important it was to experience it that way, be a host and talk to the artists and not just run around like a headless chicken. That’s how you understand the event and make those changes.
Joe: Looking through the line ups it’s amazing. Stormzy is also on the bill. Grime had been part of Outlook for a few years, it was growing but not what it is now. Those guys smashed it, getting them on the mainstage would hold that big crowd and was relevant with our crowd. Had you put BBK on the mainstage at a larger festival at that time it wouldn’t have had the same resonance.
Jonny: Instant first memory was having Damian Marley play. He was amazing. We’d been trying to do it for years.
Joe: We actually mentioned this to Lauryn Hill a few years before and she said ‘trust me, once I’ve told him what the venue is like, he’ll want to come and do this.’ True to her word, her team reached out to him, mentioned how good the show was and a few years later we could secure the booking.
Jonny: It felt like a coming of age for us. It’s a real personal thing. It’s our job, it’s what we do, our daily routine and we’re normalised to things but moments like hearing Road To Zion from the side of the stage, I’m instantly back to being an 18 year old fanboy. This is the best I’ve ever felt. It’s such a humbling experience.
Joe: Any year, if you ask why we booked a particular person the answer is always because that’s who we would like to see ourselves. We’ve never changed to have to sell tickets, we’ve built a brand and every single experience that you go through is being shared with everyone else there. Seeing guys like Damian on that stage gets me feeling emotional and you can see it does with the crowd, too. We continue to book things that move us and hopefully it captures the zeitgeist of the people who come to that event.
Jonny: Last year was obviously heavily dominated by the Outlook Orchestra. We wanted to do something special that really celebrated the musical genealogy and how we’re merely holding the baton. We wanted to tell the musical story through the music and, through Tommy Evans, the drummer in my band who is classically trained in jazz but understands the sensibilities and dynamic within this music, we were able to get 21 musicians together, mostly from the London jazz scene, and put together a playlist of artists we wanted to tell this story wtih. We got Dawn Penn, we got Horace Andy, we got Pharoahe Monch, Foreign Beggars, Jehst, Congo Natty, Newham Generals. This mix of sounds that came from the last 10 years of Outlook told in 90 minutes of music. It developed in the same way the festivals themselves developed; when it happened it came to life, it wasn’t ours, it was the artistic music and the audiences’ experience.
Joe: The audience really strikes a chord for me. Unlike so many other products people sell, an event is made by the people who come to it. We can put on the best line-ups and the best soundsystems but if the crowd don’t respond then the event is nothing. Over the last 10 years we’ve been influenced by the passion, care and love for the music and each other and it was the same with the first orchestra show. No one knew what to expect, we didn’t know how it would go down but that moment 21 musicians on stage at a prestigious venue like Royal Festival Hall perform Simon Says was incredible. Half the crowd stood up not quite sure whether they should, the other half couldn’t help themselves. Within two tunes everyone was up, people were in the aisles. The ushers were petrified!
Jonny: That held a lot of gravitas for the festival. Doing something for 10 years really cements things even more. There’s a culture and tradition there. And a lot of that is just us doing what we think is right and hoping for the best! But you get these moments and stand back and think wow. I had more of them last year than any other festival and now there’s an even stronger sense of rolling on and telling that story. It’s a story that’s constantly being told by the musicians and we’re just the fortunate ones who can house it and create that experience….
Outlook Festival 2018 takes place September 5 – 9, Fort Punta Christo, Pula, Croatia. Tickets start at £135. Full ticket details, line-up and travel info.