We're back in Paris after a great weekend at La Route du Rock in Saint Malo. Check out our reviews of day one, day two and day three. Our highlights were St Vincent, Bill Callahan, Telepathe and Deerhunter. There were also good performances from Tortoise, Camera Obscura and Papercuts, but Grizzly Bear and My Bloody Valentine were a little disappointing.
Organisation-wise, we can't fault La Route du Rock. We laugh at how Irish festival-goers, having already paid hefty prices for a bloated line-up that guarantees time clashes and missed favourites, must then pay for a bus to the site AND a programme to find out what time the bands are on. La Route du Rock has a free regular shuttle service between the site and Saint Malo. The bus even stops at a hypermarket to allow campers stock up on provisions (i.e. booze). Speaking of which, the campsite seemed to be in neat condition (no rain this weekend) and we heard no reports of any trouble.
If you don't know Saint Malo, it's a large town on the north Breton coast that's famous for its cité corsaire, an old walled town surrounded by the sea. The cité corsaire is quite touristy, though - the old stone streets are lined with restaurants and bars, and on Saturday afternoon there were two stag parties doing the rounds. Yes, the old city is the Temple Bar of Saint Malo. In France, 15 August is a public holiday (La Route du Rock traditionally takes place around this date) and so a lot of shops and businesses were closed this weekend. We didn't find any local record store, and so had to do our music shopping on the festival site where small French labels had a marquee to display their wares.
There wasn't even one tricolour or GAA jersey to be seen in Saint Malo all weekend - it seems that the only Irish people at La Route du Rock were Kevin Shields, Colm Ó Cíosóig and the CLUAS Foreign Correspondent (Paris). And after MBV's anti-climactic run-out on the first night, we reckon your correspondent was all alone in representing Ireland for the remainder of the weekend. (Don't worry: we didn't embarrass you.) While it was certainly easier for the large numbers of UK indie kids to cross over to Brittany, Irish travellers can come by air to nearby Rennes, by ferry to Roscoff or even hit Paris first and then take a three-hour TGV ride directly to Saint Malo. And if you get homesick, there's even an Irish shop in the city that sells essential provisions like Barry's Tea and McVities Caramel Digestives. Mark it in your diary: mid-August in Saint Malo.
The attendance at this year's festival was down slightly on last year's turnout - about 5000 people for the Friday and Saturday night but only 4000 on a Sunday night without any big international act. Nonetheless, La Route du Rock will go ahead in 2010 for the festival's twentieth birthday. François Floret, the festival director, has spoken of how he wants Portishead and Arcade Fire to headline next year's event, but he admits that his meagre budget may not allow this. The wealthier Rock en Seine in Paris at the end of August this year nabbed Faith No More, an ideal act for La Route du Rock's target audience, so the battle for an attractive headliner is fierce. Even with just one big name to feed, Floret was complaining about My Bloody Valentine's proposed fee, which he claims to have negotiated down to a half of the original figure. Last year the festival's website featured an open letter begging for support.
How come La Route du Rock is always in such financial trouble? Well, it has a tempestuous relationship with the local government, who don't seem to be as generous or co-operative as those of other regions. The cost of bringing full festival gear to a remote and inflexible location is quite high - and this year the site had to be drained pre-festival at considerable expense. Indie music isn't as fashionable or popular in France as in the UK, US or Ireland, so there's less chance of persuading French businesses to hand over large amounts of advertising-revenue cash.
That said, La Route du Rock has an ambiguous relationship with the notion of corporate advertising. Traditionally the festival has been regarded by French rock fans as being independent of the business shilling, a last bastion of the punk spirit. But at the same time there were prominent concessions around the site this year to a certain soft drinks maker, telecommunications company, sneaker brand, French bank and French beer. And the telecommunications company even got to re-name the festival's secondary venue back in Saint Malo. We understand how many French people, especially young rock fans, are vociferously left-wing and anti-capitalist (in public at least) - but will we soon see the day when La Route du Rock is made financially secure by allowing one of those concessionaries to fly a banner over the site entrance or put their logo on the wristband? Or is François Floret's annual poor-mouth routine simply part of La Route du Rock's tradition by now?
We might have figured out a solution to both the lack of Irish and lack of money problems. La Route du Rock should advertise in Ireland, just as Sziget and Benicassim do in the Paris metro. As the success of Irish festivals and indie music media (including CLUAS) testifies, there's a considerable alternative music audience in Ireland. Many Irish indie fans also like to travel abroad on holidays, but the recession has nixed all those trips to Asia and South America. There are already healthy Irish contingents at Glastonbury, Benicassim and other European festivals - La Route du Rock may be smaller but certainly offers great value and acts to the discerning indie fans. The low cost of a weekend pass (under €90 to see an excellent line-up) offsets travel expenses which can be further reduced by booking the TGV from Paris at least two months in advance.
La Route du Rock could even look for partnership with a friendly airline. If there's sufficient interest (e.g. by counting online sales to Irish computers) the airline has a flight from Ireland to a nearby Breton airport, say Dinard or Rennes, that it promotes as a special all-in travel/festival package. (The Jersey ferry companies did something similar this weekend.) La Route du Rock gets an adrenaline shot of extra fans, who all spend their money in Saint Malo and thus sweeten the local government into writing a bigger cheque. With a bit of on-site advertising, the airline can attract young French people to Ireland. Et voilà: without having to support sweatshops or stockbrokers La Route du Rock can sell some extra tickets and look the bank manager in the eye again.
So, we might see more of you in Saint Malo next time.More ...