Outlook Festival: A Celebration of Sound System Culture
University of Bristol (United Kingdom)
Outlook Festival is a multi-day music event held in coastal Croatia every year since 2008. A Resident Advisor review called it “probably the best bass music event in the world” (Unicomb 2018), and the festival frequently brands itself as “Europe’s biggest celebration of sound system culture” (Outlook Festival 2015). The festival emerged just as dubstep was exploding into the mainstream of electronic dance music culture in the late 2000s. It was established by a group of five event promoters in the United Kingdom some of whom were already organizing successful multi-genre sound system events, such as SubDub in Leeds. As such, Outlook Festival has always been about bass, centering on jungle / drum ‘n’ bass, garage, grime and dubstep, a cluster of low-end driven dance musics that emerged in London during the 1990s and early 2000s but have roots in the “dub diaspora” (Sullivan 2014).
Dub itself—and its flipside, roots reggae—is also ever-present at Outlook. Sound system heavyweights Jah Shaka, Channel One and Iration Steppas are regular performers. Younger generations of dub-inspired sound systems such as Sinai and Firmly Rooted are also increasingly powering their own stages at the festival, alongside bespoke audio providers like Neuron Audio, Void Acoustics and Danley Sound Labs. In short, Outlook Festival is a microcosm of the sounds, technologies, people, practices, values and ideas that make up contemporary UK bass culture. It’s a convergence of sub(bass) cultures where low-frequency fetishism is par for the course. The event is worthy of attention from a variety of scholarly perspectives, especially festival studies and electronic dance music culture (EDMC) research, as well as interdisciplinary inquiries into sonic materialism and sound systems, an emerging field that I loosely term “bass culture studies” (Mouraviev 2022).
This article reports on my fieldwork at the first Outlook Festival held in the UK, from 30 June to 3 July 2022 at Cholmondeley Castle Gardens, Cheshire. I will begin by introducing the festival’s history, exploring its musical programming and identity as a bass music event. I then turn to the preliminary findings from my research, drawing on interviews and first-person journal entries to consider the overriding narrative of the event: disappointing sound quality and strict noise control. What happens when the raison d’être of a bass festival—crowds submitting themselves to days of amplified sound below 50 Hz—is challenged by local residents and authorities?
Outlook was established by the aforementioned group of British event promoters who, together with the organisers of Garden Festival, ran their first collaborative event in Croatia in 2008. The first festival was in Petrčane, a small beach-front village near Zadar, with approximately 800 participants (Jenkins 2018). It featured DJs such as Digital Mystikz and Gilles Peterson and was successful enough that the group returned to organise another event in 2009. In 2010–13, Outlook quickly came into its own. The organisers expanded the scale of the event significantly, selling approximately 4,000 tickets in 2010 and 11,000 the following year (Jenkins 2018). The festival has since settled on average audience sizes of 10,000 to 15,000 and a duration of four days, with participants camping onsite or staying in local accommodation. Most performers are DJs; talks, workshops and film screenings are occasionally held; and “launch parties” are regularly hosted around the world to promote the festival, from the United States and Europe to South Asia and Australasia.
Musically, while the festival’s early emphasis on UK bass music has remained stable, its period of rapid growth in 2010–13 and beyond has seen many established artists invited as headline acts. This includes dub-reggae stars such as Barrington Levy and Damian Marley, hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, grime MCs Stormzy and Skepta and more recently neo-soul singer Jorja Smith. From 2013 to 2019, the festival also held an annual opening concert by “the Outlook Orchestra” featuring artists such as Lauryn Hill and re-orchestrated live renditions of hip-hop and reggae songs.
Space and architecture are key to Outlook Festival’s identity. In 2010, the festival moved to a new site in Pula that would become an icon of the event: the nineteenth-century Fort Punta Christo, an abandoned naval base-turned-music venue. Known colloquially as The Fort, this structure was a strategic asset of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before falling into disuse and being largely abandoned until 1980 (Big Up Magazine 2012). Outlook’s organisers were able to clear old overgrowth and transform pockets of The Fort into multiple unique stages enclosed by ruins and stone walls, as well as a nearby beach stage (Jenkins 2018). Of these spaces, one of the most popular was The Moat, a tall and narrow passage built in a canal surrounding The Fort (figures 1 and 2).
In 2013, the first opening concert was held in the nearby ancient Roman amphitheatre, the Pula Arena, solidifying the role of imperial structures in the festival’s design and marketing appeal. Reflecting this, from 2014 to 2019, Outlook produced ‘Site Walkthrough’ videos showcasing the Pula Arena and each stage at The Fort:
While The Fort may have been effective at driving sales and imparting a sense of timeless significance to the music performed within, it still carries a cult following amongst Outlook fans today. This is partly owing to the particular acoustics of each stage and the sonic intensity they afforded. I learned this because Outlook participants like to share (sometimes highly technical) opinions on the quality of each stage and sound system; this was the basis of daily conversation at the 2022 UK festival. As one participant said about The Moat, “you go in there and come out a different person”; another attendee of the 2019 festival argued “[the] moat was alright if you were past the halfway point [but] Sinai Sound in the SubDub Arena was uncomparably [sic] the best—it was a whole new dimension”.
The closing of a chapter that was Outlook’s final year at The Fort in 2019 was further underlined by the 2020 event being cancelled due to COVID-19. Since then, the festival has transformed considerably, moving to a smaller venue in Tisno and rebranding as “Outlook Origins”. Croatia recently joined the European Union but the UK has left, affecting both audience demographics and the festival’s ability to import bespoke sound systems (Minamore 2017; James 2019). Outlook is also not necessarily unique as a bass music festival. It takes cues from established dub-reggae festivals held elsewhere in Europe, such as Dub Camp and Rototom Sunsplash, and in the UK, events such as Notting Hill Carnival and Boomtown are comparable in their musical programming. Croatia has also become a popular site for similar events over the last decade. New festivals such as Fresh Island have emerged alongside smaller local efforts; Croatian bass music event Seasplash celebrates 20 years of operation in 2022. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Outlook remains its close relationship with “golden-era dubstep, drum & bass, [and] UK garage” (Unicomb 2018), with “golden-era” being code for the UK-based formations of these genres prior to their assimilation into mainstream EDM culture post-2008. The celebration of “authentic”—read: not from the USA—dubstep is core to the festival, and some performers still consider Outlook a dubstep event “at its heart” (Duploc 2018).
Before delving into fieldwork, it is worth observing how festivals like Outlook expand beyond the immediate confines of British club music while retaining a singular emphasis on low-end pressure. A productive conceptual framework, I suggest, is post-genre “vibes” discourse: an increasing tendency to reject supposedly outdated generic categories in favour of affective modes of production and consumption (James 2017, 2021; Garcia 2020). Post-genre thinking is easily identifiable on apps such as Spotify, where users are ushered towards mood-based playlists such as “chill hits” and “POLLEN”, the latter of which has the tag-line “Genre-less. Quality first always.” There may be deeper underlying synergies to uncover, though, between an affect-first approach to music and the already “sonic-materialist” epistemology of dub-diasporic sound system cultures (Henriques 2011). Are bass-centric events such as Outlook—where the main priority is vibration, from which affective vibe emerges—not a prime example of post-genre thinking come alive?
My earliest conversations at the 2022 UK festival suggested as much. As one fellow festival-goer told me on the first day, “I don’t really believe in genre. I’m just interested in bass”. But of course, Outlook Festival is not genre-less. This is symbolised by its “sister festival” Dimensions, established in 2012 by the same organisers to cater to fans of house, techno and more experimental corners of EDM. Held at the same site in Croatia immediately before or after Outlook, Dimensions can be read as entrepreneurial—why not run a second festival when you’re already importing expensive equipment and occupying the site for weeks?—but it also invites critical analysis of how the boundaries of bass music are negotiated.
A defining trait of dub-diasporic music is, as Tricia Rose once wrote metaphorically of hip-hop, “deliberately working in the red”, pushing bass and recording technologies to the limits of distortion—in both studio and performance contexts (1994: 75). This approach is arguably opposed to the groove-based construction of genres with roots in disco, like house. But the distinction falls apart in hybrid contexts: listen to the meditative bass loops of, say, steppa dub, where aspects of Chicago house and Berlin techno fuse with 1970s dub sensibilities, and DJs express their own particular mixture of distortion and groove in performance. Returning to the context of Outlook, DJs who perform at the festival frequently also play at Dimensions and vice versa; during fieldwork I met several participants who had attended both festivals. All of which is to say that “bass music”, like most generic categories in dance music, is hard to distil and highly contingent, especially when set against supposedly distinct categories like house and techno. This underlines the methodological value of scene-specific ethnography and other methods, such as performance analysis, for understanding bass music’s terms of engagement.
As I venture towards the stages on the first day of Outlook UK 2022, I notice the crowd is relatively thin. It’s my first time attending an Outlook Festival, and I’m full of anticipation. The mood is mellow. The average age seems closer to 30 than 20 and there are more men than women around. Reflecting on the relaxed crowd, a tall man named Joe summarises the atmosphere to me as “chill […] there’s no assholes and I’ve got more space to dance”.
The site itself is a large, flat and open field surrounded by farmland at Cholmondeley Castle. The castle isn’t visible from my tent. When it comes into view on the horizon behind the main stage, the brief moment of excitement is dampened by the realisation that it’s beyond the bounds of the actual festival site (figure 3), making the environment a far cry from the immersive ruins of Fort Punta Christo.
The first stage I arrive at is the SubDub arena, tucked away to the left of the main stage area alongside a lake on one side and food stalls on the other. It’s now clear the SubDub arena was responsible for the booming bass I heard at a distance shortly after setting up camp. This aligns with who’s scheduled to play here for the first two days: Leeds’s Iration Steppas, a dub-reggae sound system known for pushing extreme volume. This also ends up foreshadowing the narrative that would cloud the festival from Friday onwards; the organisers supposedly received over thirty noise complaints from local residents on the first night alone with the Iration Steppas, as dubstep MC Sgt Pokes would say on Saturday, “cocking it up for the rest of us”. But for now, I’m enjoying the total immersion in sound that is SubDub, a circular grassy space enclosed by haybales and four speaker stacks on the inside, with a dancefloor measuring less than 100 square metres.
Throughout the first 24 hours, I find myself gravitating towards the SubDub arena every chance I get. There’s something meditative about the music and sound systems here, no doubt aided by the record selection skewing heavily towards steppa dub, a UK-based subgenre. Ganja smoke periodically floats through the air; people are dancing quietly and freely in slow but spontaneous movements. The arena is also a de facto thoroughfare between the food stalls and another stage down the same path, the Smuggler’s Cove, which is mostly hosting dubstep and garage DJs. This makes the SubDub crowd a constantly shifting mix of experienced dub-heads and younger dance music fans who are passing through, but stick around for ten minutes to discover something new. One minute, there’s a passer-by exclaiming “just get another deck?!” in response to the traditional selecta style performance on one turntable; the next, there’s a seasoned steppa fan waiting shrewdly for the security guard to wander away, so they can shove the steel barrier aside and get as close as physically possible to the bass bins.
By far the most intriguing stage, however, is the Sinai Arena in the main festival site (figure 4). This stage is powered by Sinai Sound System from Sheffield. Sinai’s reputation precedes it, with their clean sound respected across dub and electronic dance music circles. Headline acts such as Skream are among the many DJs set to play here over the weekend. Expectations are high.
Arriving at the Sinai Arena on Thursday, I’m immediately unsure of the sound. The stage is an open tent measuring about 30 by 30 metres with four speaker stacks, one in each corner, padded by haybales (figure 5). There’s a raised stage in the centre. It’s quiet: groups of friends are having free-flowing conversations throughout the space without earplugs on, going against the unspoken but ingrained expectation that a bass music event should be so loud as to prohibit speaking more than a few words at a time. This has multiple flow-on effects: while I can hear kicks and bass below 100 Hz, I’m hardly feeling them. The sound is also oddly directional, with bass pressure drastically fluctuating depending on where I stand. Further distracting me from the music are some strange high-frequency reflections that I attribute to reverberation created by the tent’s architecture. In our interview after the festival, Nik, an attendee from New York who I befriended early in the festival, described it “like we were listening to someone’s boombox at times […] it wasn’t worth even hanging out there”.
When I meet Sinai’s owner-operator, Huw Williams, outside the tent on Sunday afternoon, he’s chatting casually with a group of friends. I gingerly spark up a conversation about the sound issues, wary that he may have already spent the entire weekend fielding questions and complaints from disappointed festival goers. But Huw is more than up for it. He explains how the apparent reverberation effect was most likely from him setting the rear speakers about 16 dB quieter than the front, in an attempt to excite and draw the crowd in towards the front while also preventing excess noise from escaping at the other end. Huw also explains the full extent of the police and noise control presence at the festival, describing how, by Sunday morning, there were multiple wireless noise detectors dotted around the site, with police ready to “shut down the entire event” should a signal exceeding 98 dB be detected.
Later that evening, the festival is nearly over and the number of noise complaints apparently received by the organisers are in the hundreds. A blog post published by a local council on Friday states that “Removal of sub-bass elements from the loudspeaker systems” is being implemented (Robinson 2022). Festival staff with earpieces are hovering behind DJs to keep overzealous performers from pushing gain knobs too high. It’s also been announced on the festival app that Sunday night’s schedule has been brought forward by four hours—ending at midnight rather than 4 am—“to show respect and consideration for our local environment”.
People are rightly annoyed, but many dancers are also seemingly unaware of the last-minute change and continue to happily rave to a mix of genres across each stage. Frustration still bubbles up, though. During one of the final dubstep takeovers at The Tiltyard stage, a few members of the crowd start shouting towards the DJ, gesturing with upward-pointed index finger asking them to turn it up. Though these exclamations are initially brushed off as drunk antics, they lead to a final interaction which sticks in my memory: MC Sgt Pokes eventually replies, mid-performance: “you know we can’t do that, you’ve been here all weekend […] Focus on the unity. The unity is bigger”.
In this article I have explored Outlook’s past and present and highlighted elements of the festival worthy of critical attention from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives in EDMC and festival studies. Outlook Festival has been an important player in UK bass culture for nearly 15 years. It continues to attract ravers from around the world to its unique site on the Adriatic coast and championing dub-diasporic sound system music. The 2022 UK edition of the festival was not without its problems; it seems unlikely to return to the same Cheshire site next year. Predictably, fans took to social media after the event to reflect on the sound issues, with one informant in a private Facebook group suggesting a more isolated site will be required in future years if sound restrictions are to be avoided. In closing, this comment is worth quoting for how it highlights the centrality of loudness in the ontology of bass culture (emphasis mine):
Outlook UK; beautiful place, absolute vibes everywhere, no drama, ridiculous sound restrictions […] Outlook origins: exact same situation except it seems to be a bit too close to residential areas again meaning silly sound restrictions. I'd be more than happy to go a festival that's just in a field somewhere and be able to listen to all the sound as it's meant to be heard.
Ivan Mouraviev is a DJ-producer and PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, UK. His thesis investigates bass materialism through the lenses of DJ culture and performance in three contemporary spaces, focusing on Bristol, Outlook Festival, and an online Discord community. Broader research interests include music & the internet and video game music.
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 Although US hip-hop has never had a strong foothold in the UK—rap in local accents and grime find more favour—the viability of hip-hop at Outlook Festival is suggestive of bass culture as a broad church. Hip-hop is indeed bass-centric in its production, and more importantly has roots shared with genres like jungle / drum ‘n’ bass in the dub diaspora, genres in which the MC and sound system are foundational to live performance.