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As festival season draws to a close, here at Data Transmission we’re readying ourselves to wave goodbye to summer and start spending our weekends getting lost in a dark and dirty basement. There was still one final chance of some outdoor indulgence. And it presented itself in the form of The Social. So we hit the road towards Kent, on a typically autumnal weekend.

Despite evidence suggesting the UK market has been at saturation point for several years, the festival phenomena shows no signs of slowing down. It seems that nowadays everyman and his dog wants to throw their own festival. It seems lucrative. Glamorous. A money-spinner. But the reality can be far-removed from the fantasy. A quick Google search reveals that many are in dire financial straits – including some you might not expect! The South East is no different, and has been beset by a spate of festival casualties. The once popular HD Fest fell off-the-radar and into administration a few years ago. More recent victims include RvS Weekender, which boasted a secret lakeside location that never came to fruition. The Social then – celebrating 5 glorious years and what should be landmark occasion – was one final jaunt in the wilderness and a great advert for our home county. Unfortunately, it left us dreamin’ of by-gone Socials and wondering where it all went wrong…

There was a time not so long ago, that such was the monopoly of The Social, smaller local promoters struggled to gain a foothold in Maidstone. Years of A-list artists in the town meant anyone booking lesser-known acts was met with scepticism amongst the crowd. There was no trust; little support. And it was often the road to losing money. It was symptomatic of a market that been spoilt. On today’s evidence, it would appear the status quo has been flipped on its head.

Attendance is visibly down. There can only be a dozen or so people rattling-around to Function in the middle of proceedings. No doubt the close-proximity of last week’s Abode In the Park fest has hurt numbers. Rumours of ticket giveaways en masse are rife, and we overhear one girl exclaim she only paid a nominal booking fee for a weekend ticket. When did the youth become so apathetic?

The VIP area looks hap-dash. At best. A handful of hay bales have been dumped unceremoniously in a fenced enclosure. And it’s deserted. It would appear corners have been cut. Hay is dragged indiscriminating across the rain-and-windswept terrain by the latest gust. Like a shit British tumbleweed. It looks like a scene after the wreckage of a moderate-magnitude storm. Rightfully, VIPs have questioned what exactly they’ve paid extra for?

Conscious we’ve painted a grim picture thus far, now is a good opportunity to point-out that, actually, The Social is far from a terrible festival. In fact, it’s not even the worst festival we’ve been to this year. There are plenty of positive talking points.

Firstly, their tremendous booking power has again come-up trumps. They have form for putting on line-ups capable of making larger competitors weep in envy. This year is no exception. In a similar vein, there are brand-partnerships with some of the scene’s biggest players. Resistance have been called-in to host the Meadow, while fabric takeover the Barn complete with Pioneer sound system. Both huge coups which should not go unnoticed.

Also well worthy of mention is the giant haystacks stage situated at the site’s entrance. Featuring largely unknown and local DJs, this corner of the festival is more modest but has an engaging crowd and buzzy atmosphere throughout. Quite why it was overlooked to be incorporated into the VIP area remains a mystery.

Elsewhere, the 2 outdoor arenas are examples of where the festival excels. The Stables boasts an incredibly well-honed timetable, evident that much thought and consideration has been paid to its curation. Consisting of Adriatique, Guy Gerber and a standout set from Black Coffee – say no more. The Caravan is kitsch, but works. Kudos to Santé & Sidney Charles for supplying the energy in the face of adverse weather. The addition of these arenas make The Social a UK rarity in dispensing with the 2D “big-top” format, and ensure the site is worthy of exploration. But as good as they are, they’re not enough to save the festival from its short-comings.

Okay, so let’s talk about the music. If we can walk away with any praise, then this is it. The production in The Meadow is top-drawer and the sound is crisp. It’s where we spend most of our time. Monika Kruse delivers a devilish set and our favourite of the day. It’s great to see her get higher billing on this line-up. Hopefully, it might persuade other UK promoters to trust her with a peak-time set. One of the nicest people in the industry as well as one of hardest working, she exudes likability. There’s lots of material from her own Terminal M label and its affiliates. Highlights include Felix Krocher – ‘Saviour’ and Ilija Djokovic – ‘Andromeda’. Next-up Music On residents Apollonia underline exactly why Marco Carola has entrusted them with the second-room at Amnesia numerous times this season. The French trio lay down a groove so infectious, Marco himself would be proud. Paul Nazca’s ‘Memory’ is one track which gets our seal of approval.

Finally, closing duties are left to Sasha and John Digweed – returning to the scene where they reunited 12-months ago. Perhaps they don’t quite live up to the standard they set on that occasion. But we’re happy to have caught them again, nevertheless. Since then they have toured extensively with Resistance, including appearances at Ultra Miami, Kappa Futur and of course their exclusive seven-date residency at Privilege Ibiza. It could be this very factor which has taken a little shine off the spectacle this time around.

The Social appears to be floundering amid an identity crisis. No longer the boutique festival it was when starting out. Yet not nearly worthy enough to be considered one of the big contenders either. If the festival is to continue – and we sincerely hope it does – questions must now be asked if moving the festival out-of-town has really paid dividends? Whether the move to the isolated Detling Showground was borne out of necessity or politically-motivated, we ask whether moving back to the centre of town might be in the festival’s best interests? Even if at the sacrifice of a few decibels. If it meant losing one of the fringe stages, we don’t think there’d be tears from too many regulars.

Having the support of your local demographic is paramount to success. And they too must now stand-up and be accounted for. If you are bringing the calibre of acts as The Social are to a town the size of Maidstone, then the local community should be your biggest ambassadors and loudest cheerleaders. And they should be the first to be buying tickets.

What they shouldn’t be doing is waiting it out, in the knowledge that closer to the time the organisers will panic and release swathes of freebies. But, really, who can blame them? Who pays top dollar for anything, if you know you can get it cheaper? And here lies the problem – and perhaps the biggest hurdle facing The Social: is there enough credibility left in the tank to salvage their reputation? Is there even any incentive to pull things back, when their overseas territories are romping home? Could the future of The Social lie in South America and other long-haul destinations? It would be a crying shame if it was to lose all presence in the UK.

A shadow of its former self it may be, but we’d sooner have it in some capacity than not have it at all.


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