Ashley Blythe, a 42 year-old US expat living in Bangkok, has never been on a cruise. The idea of holidaying on a boat and docking at a succession of ports has simply never appealed. Yet this August, she will fly from Thailand to Barcelona to embark on a five-day cruise around the Mediterranean aboard the 2,500-berth luxury liner Norwegian Pearl, at the cost of around £3,000. The reason? Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian are hosting a music festival on the ship, and the chance to attend is a “once in a lifetime kind of thing”.
“I’m a long-time Belle & Sebastian fan, and [the opportunity] to spend five days with music and bands that I love was too much to pass up,” Blythe says.
The so-called Boaty Weekender, a name that both reflects the twee whimsy of the Belle & Sebastian universe but also echoes the name of a 1999 dry-land festival they held called the Bowlie Weekender, is one of a new breed of upscale music-themed holidays that represent a new frontier in live entertainment.
As well as multiple concerts from Belle & Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub and Yo La Tengo, the Boaty Weekender will feature ironic takes on traditional cruise pastimes: there’ll be yoga classes taken by band members, nautical knot tying art classes, games of Band Name Bingo and hipster cap decorating contests.
Two weeks later, rocker Jon Bon Jovi takes over the same ship for his Runaway to Paradise Med cruise, featuring concerts and wine tasting sessions with his son Jesse. "Gig-cations" are not confined to the high seas. Later this month, fans of US singer-songwriter Ben Folds can spend four days in a Highland castle hotel with the former frontman of Ben Folds Five. Billed as “four days and nights of music, photography and fun in the Scottish Highlands”, the Ben Folds Scotland Getaway also includes a talent show and the Ben Folds Highland Games, featuring caber tossing and welly wanging.
So what’s going on? Gig-cations mark the spot where two growing trends meet. Firstly, music fans’ growing appetite for live music shows no sign of slowing. Brits’ annual spend on live entertainment stands at a record £17 billion, with growth set to continue, according to Deliotte. Secondly, people today want to spend their money on experiences rather than stuff: a recent report by market analysts at Mintel found that 50 per cent of adults would rather spend cash on luxury holidays than on luxury things.
Other factors are buoying up the phenomenon. Technology has torpedoed the notion of scarcity in music. Streaming lets us listen to any song ever written at the touch of a button. And where once we could only glimpse our heroes on Top of the Pops or in weekly music magazines, we can now see them on YouTube or Instagram whenever we want. Promoters are therefore looking for ever-more unusual ways to make our interactions with artists memorable and immersive. As the world becomes digital, we crave the visceral. Add nostalgia and the comparatively deep pockets of the middle-aged music fan into the mix, and the movement – already reasonably established in the US – looks set fair.
“We’re going to see more of these things… People want something special,” says Stephen Budd, co-creator of the not-for-profit travelling world music jamboree Africa Express and the DMZ Peace Train Music Festival, a concert which takes place close to the border of North and South Korea, among others. “I mean, there is always going to be room for Glastonbury and the major festivals but people want something a bit more intimate, I find.”
Such events could become particularly commonplace from bands who enjoy “extreme brand loyalty” from fans, Budd says. Rock band Kiss, whose painted faces inspire fevered devotion among fans, have been operating Kiss Kruises out of Miami for some time (the holidays feature motivational talks from bassist Gene Simmons and cooking demonstrations from bandmate Paul Stanley). Ben Folds is another cult hero, once even co-writing and producing an album for fellow quirky star Star Trek’s William Shatner.
Belle & Sebastian are perhaps the ultimate cult concern. The gentle Glaswegians have gained a fiercely loyal following on both sides of the Atlantic over their 23-year, nine-album career (so keen is Bangkok-based Blythe to see the band that that she doesn’t really care about the liner’s route around the Med). A militarily organised campaign by the indie band’s fans famously saw them win a public vote to be named Best Newcomer at the 1999 Brit Awards, beating pop behemoths such as 5ive and Steps. These fans are still with them. But they’re now floating voters.
Take Colin Aitken, a 48-year-old from Devon. The Boaty Weekender will mark his first-ever overseas holiday. A Belle & Sebastian fan since the mid-Nineties, he is attending with his partner Michelle Navin, 47. “Music’s changing, [and] the way we’re consuming it and watching it live is changing,” Aitken says. Part of the attraction was that the cruise looked “so different” to everything else out there. And it is. Where else can you play shuffleboard with Camera Obscura?
Loyalty costs, though, and these holidays come at a price. The average per-couple cost for Boaty Weekender attendees I’ve spoken to is around £3,000 (including getting to Barcelona) but this doesn’t include alcohol, soft drinks or water. Meanwhile the cheapest Ben Folds stay (in a shared room with two beds) costs £1,530 per person. The most expensive suite, for two, is almost £5,000. On top you’ve got to travel to the Atholl Palace Hotel in Pitlochry. Alcohol is extra, as – the event’s website (presumably) jokes – are kilts and haggis.
There has been an inevitable online backlash by some at the “crazy” prices. “That castle is going to be full of Atholls,” said Japes on Drowned in Sound. Another wag said he’s “waiting for the Netflix documentary”, in reference to 2017’s infamous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, which ended in chaos.
There is no suggestion that the Ben Folds Scotland Getaway will be anything other than an enjoyable weekend. Neither Dreamcatcher Events nor Sixthman, the organisers of the Highlands and Med events respectively, responded to requests for comment, so there’s no way of knowing attendance levels or what profit margins they make.
But if the demand is there, it makes sense that artists and promoters capitalise on it. These bands may not be stadium-fillers but they’ve carried their fans with them since they were playing grotty beer-soaked student bars. So what’s wrong with everyone enjoying the music in more age-appropriate environments? Indie kids have grown up and got proper jobs. You can’t wear a duffle coat and be socially awkward for ever. Even Stuart Murdoch, Belle & Sebastian’s singer, admitted in Q magazine that his festival is “not cheap”. But he said it’s a chance to “break down a few walls” in a casual environment with the creature comforts that people “of our age” are accustomed to.
Boaty Weekender attendee Caroline Hughes, 40, knows it’s expensive but believes it’s worth it. She’s looking forward to watching gigs without having to crane her neck from the back of a dark smelly room. “We’ve had absolutely no money living in mouldy flats before and the aim [in life] was to be able to go and do things like this. I think it’s great that these things now exist.” As one of the first 350 parties to book, she and her husband get to attend an exclusive, intimate theatre performance of the band’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant album.
What would Hughes’s student self have said if she knew her future self would spend thousands on a cruise to see some bands? “I think my younger self would be very impressed that I was able to go on something like this. My younger self may also have done some sort of ‘mutiny on the boaty’ type thing, but I probably wouldn’t do that now as I have to go back to work.” And what of Belle & Sebastian? Have they sold out their indie cred by doing something corporate and expensive? She’s having none of it. “Haven’t they sold out already by being popular?”
Budd, who knows the music industry inside-out having started his career as a teenage roadie in the punk days, believes gig-cation-style events could mark the start of a golden era of live music. Plus bands who put on unique, different and interesting shows have the opportunity to earn “meaningful money out of live music in a greater way” than ever before.
“That doesn’t mean that there’s not more competition than ever. There is. Competition is through the roof. But those that get it right can earn significantly more than their counterparts in previous decades,” he says.
So long as fans are willing to splash out.