The Big Chill. The Independent on Sunday (London), 7 December 2003

Outside the field rehabilitation clinic, the queue is growing uncharacteristically restless. Baked by the midday sun of a sweltering British summer, some are jostling for position, while others are beginning to encroach on the makeshift tent. Pandemonium threatens. A bearded, swarthy doctor and his two khaki-clad assistants are moving up and down the line, barking out names and ignoring the entreaties of everyone else.
After what seems like an age, my name is yelled out. The crowd seems to part, and I am shepherded towards the tent by the doctor and his officious helpers. Once inside, I am strapped down to a surgical table and a set of huge headphones is clamped around my head. After a few moments, deaf to the outside world, I hear what can only be a crackling medley of dolphins singing over an electronic beat. Just when I am on the verge of nodding off, my bearded minder returns and yanks off my headgear, before ushering me back outside into the heat.
Chilling out can be like that, an all-too-fleeting interregnum between bouts of laborious struggle. If my short stay in the rehabilitation unit seemed somehow unsatisfactory, maybe that was because I was still a novice, an uncouth arriviste at The Big Chill, a three-day carnival dedicated to the transcendental art of chilling. My spiritual journey had only just begun, even if on this occasion it seemed to have ended prematurely.
The woman who ferried me across a field to get to the rehabilitation unit, Katrina Larkin, didn’t bother to sign up for treatment herself. Then again, it didn’t seem like she needed it. Larkin, a hippyish woman in her mid-30s, is the organiser of the festival and a leading entrepreneur of chill. She is also the most laid-back company director I’ve met. I had first been introduced to Larkin two months previously, at the club in central London where she was running the last of a nationwide series of mini-events which serve as an appetiser for her annual summer festival. With a packed house, everything seemed to be running smoothly. Outside, in the cool breeze of an open-air bar, Larkin was talking income sources, brand loyalty and product tie-ins. Inside, a portly crooner in beige suit sung inaudibly while an audience of smartly dressed young adults sashayed with such modesty that it was difficult to know whether they were moving at all.
TURN ON, TUNE IN and chill out might be the rallying cry of contemporary popular culture. Just a few years after it won a toe-hold in street slang, chilling has become a linguistic free-for-all. With an eye on the younger spiritual market, Britain’s chief rabbi recently described Yom Kippur as a kind of temporal “chill-out zone” for Jews. In an incontrovertible sign that chilling had arrived in the mainstream, the Conservative party announced last year that delegates to its conference were to be offered “chill-out rooms” to escape the acrimony of political debate.
The idea of chilling has its origins in the mood music – a hazy formula of gentle melodies and soporific beats – which weary clubbers like to play at home to round off a night of hard partying. After a false start in the early 1990s, the chilling bug came back with a vengeance at the turn of the millennium, having incubated itself in the interim in the Spanish holiday islands where British young people go to let their hair down. In the last three years, “chillout” – an activity mummified into a noun – has become a music industry phenomenon, burgeoning to encompass just about every musical genre and spawning endless compilation albums. Much more than the simple act of winding down, chilling has become the main event.
At least in its musical guise, chilling can claim to be a uniquely British export. Ten years ago, in a dingy Islington club in a graveyard slot of a Sunday morning, Katrina Larkin and a musician, Pete Lawrence, founded an organisation called The Big Chill. What started out as a social thing – Katrina baked cakes for each event, Pete mixed the records and the takings on the door for the first event were pounds 45 – quickly became a living. “Our original idea”, Larkin told me, “was to invent a forum where people could actually talk to each other and chill out too.” Today, both Larkin and Lawrence preside over an organisation which boasts eight staff, an office in London’s uber-fashionable Hoxton Square and an annual turnover of pounds 1.5m. They have branched out to take the gospel of chill as far afield as Prague and Naxos in Greece.
Katrina is fiercely loyal to the young people who attend her events – she likes to call them “chillers” – and has a nuanced understanding of their needs. The original mission of The Big Chill, she tells me, was to promote a laid-back approach to clubbing – one in which the music was downplayed in favour of a distinctive ethos of rest and relaxation. Unlike other music festivals, The Big Chill steers clear of headline acts who are keen to strut their stuff on a mammoth stage. It prefers to offer a choice of less well-known acts, and combine those with other diversions like alternative therapies and art installations. The idea, according to Larkin, is to foster a more holistic experience than the traditional festival. Larkin is happy to admit that her fortunes have ebbed and flowed with changing fashions. Now, however, she is convinced that her time has come. The chillers, she says, “are people who get up in the morning, and have to deal with a work environment that they don’t want to be in. They get up in the morning, do the job, pay the rent, go home and switch on the TV and get depressed by the news.” More and more young people, she believes, are searching for “a breathing space and an escape.”
She also knows how to communicate with her audience. Eschewing any attempts at mass-market advertising, Katrina believes that the best way to reach her target group is through word-of-mouth recommendation. Doing so, she believes, lends the festival an aura of exclusivity: people begin to feel that it’s their secret, that they’ve discovered it for themselves. It’s an approach which seems to work. Last year, she sold 6,500 tickets for the summer festival. This year, on the back of a simple post-card sent to those who had come the previous year, she plans to sell twice that. Next year, she tells me with, she plans to extend the festival to accommodate 22,000.
But a festival is only the most laborious part of what The Big Chill does. Recognising that the time is ripe to capitalise on the burgeoning sub-culture of chillout, Katrina is moving to take advantage of her position at the avant-garde of that movement. She is happy to talk about her organisation as a brand: she has already registered The Big Chill logo as a trademark, and licenses that brand to organisations and companies that she trusts. The Big Chill imprimatur now graces a small but growing record label owned by the company. It is the title of a weekly music show, with music chosen by Katrina and Pete, which goes out on the MTV cable channel. Katrina is currently investigating ways to take the brand into radio and publishing. Beyond that, she reels off an impressive list of blue-chip companies – everyone from Japanese car manufacturers to British toilet roll makers to Jamaican beer producers – who are blazing a less-than-chilled trail to her offices in the hope of associating their brands with her festival. If The Big Chill is a brand, Larkin knows very well that it is one which others will pay to be seen with.
THE BIG CHILL, IT seems, is the forum for yet another negotiated compromise between the remains of a counter-culture and contemporary commerce. It would be churlish to accuse the chillers of selling out to the business world. They do, after all, have the expensive business of a festival to run. More interesting is the reason why the business world is buying in.
Cutting-edge companies like design consultancies are snapping up chill- out rooms, where their employees can play pool or football or just relax. Even fusty British financial services companies like First Direct, Barclays and Egg have all experimented with putting “chill-out rooms” on the premises, sometimes complete with a lawn and swings. Almost every kind of consumer good – everything from ice cream to body lotion to lip gloss – now comes in Chill Out flavour. Meanwhile, retailers are busy incorporating “chill- out zones” in their stores, where punters can relax and take a break from the orgy of commercialism.
Chilling has now gone global, and in its rapid expansion it has become a marketing label and a cliche. In search of an American perspective, I spoke to Marian Salzman, a prominent New York trend-spotter and the chief strategic officer for the global advertising agency Euro RSCG. Salzman has a nuanced understanding of the contradictions of chilling. “Americans,” she told me, “are now the most hectic relaxers in the world. We tell one another to chill out constantly, and yet we don’t know how to flick the off switch.” This may explain, she says, why we buy whatever we think will allow us to chill: from candles to tea bags that promise relaxation, from cassette tapes of waves crashing to books that promise to restore our souls in 164 easy pages. She draws attention to the chill-out zones in bookshops and the “chill cars” which are proliferating on American trains. People, she says, not only want to have their own private space but they also want to avoid the demands of other people. “If sleep is the new sex,” Salzman told me, “quiet is the new nirvana.”
The success of Katrina’s organisation, however, also intersects with a story about how mainstream brands are adapting to the changed economic and cultural climate of the 21st century. Buffeted by the historic plunge in their fortunes in the past two years, and acutely aware that mass-market advertising is giving way to a number of cheaper and more targeted alternatives, advertisers and marketers are poking their noses into the most unusual places.
Just how far marketing is moulding itself around the activities of its elusive young prey struck me on a morning in July, when Katrina invited me to her cramped offices to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between her and Jake and Sarah, two fresh-faced representatives from a marketing agency working on behalf of the BMW-owned Mini car company called Cunning Stunts. Cunning Stunts is, I learn later, notorious for its unorthodox tactics: it once paid students to wear temporary tattoos on their foreheads and hang out at the trendiest night-spots. By way of introduction, Jake tells me that he is just back from an exercise in “bumvertising”: parading models with brand-embossed behinds along the seafront at Blackpool. Last year, Mini and Cunning Stunts sponsored the festival toilets. But busy festival toilets get blocked, and that, apparently, sent the wrong message about Mini to festival-goers. Not so cunning. This year it’s time for some fresh thinking, and the marketers have opted to take control of the design and implementation of a 24-hour cafe in the festival marquee.
The kinds of companies Katrina trusts, it transpires, are those which are prepared to abandon the hard sell. The chillers, Katrina never fails to remind me, tend to turn hot under the collar when advertising messages are pushed down their throats. Keen to protect her own standing among her loyal punters, Katrina reminds Jake and Sarah more than once that there can be no visible logos at the event. Luckily, the marketers are in rough agreement. Just as the chillers prefer ambient music, explains Sarah, the marketers prefer what Sarah calls “ambient marketing” – the promotion of a product through subtle environmental changes which don’t push the brand directly into the consumer’s face.
There will, however, be plenty of brand activity. A 16-strong team from Cunning Stunts will be on hand at the event, many of whom, in an attempt to drum up “buzz” or word-of-mouth publicity for the product, will drive brand new Minis around the site. The agency has also thrown in the loan of two Minis to Katrina and Pete: in an interesting inversion, these are to be stamped with the logo of The Big Chill. Within the cafe itself, the tables and sofas will be dressed up in subtle Mini iconography, and remote-control Mini cars will be on hand for the chillers to play with. But what, Katrina asks, if they spin off the track? The team from Cunning Stunts agree to investigate. Joining the toy cars in the cafe, Jake announces, will be Mini fridge-magnets appended to the giant notice boards where chillers like to message one other. Again, Katrina’s facial expression reveals her concern. “I don’t”, she says, “want a giant poster campaign for Mini.” The result is an amicable stalemate, with both sides agreeing to go off and examine the plans more closely.
Experiments in “ambient marketing” like that recommended by Cunning Stunts are on the increase. Supported by research from within the “neuroscience” school of marketing – which argues that consumers draw on advertising as background information as a source of emotional warmth in their environment – chill-out zones are looking increasingly attractive to mainstream brands in search of fickle youth. When Lee jeans announced a retail makeover for its Indian stores earlier in this year, for example, it gave pride of place to chill-out zones equipped with listening posts and drum sets. When Cola-Cola wanted to launch its new Vanilla Coke line for Australian 18-29 year-olds late last year it sponsored a series of “Chill Out Lounge” trucks to drive around the country dispensing an endless supply of the beverage. In an attempt to compete, Pepsi Australia launched its new Blue drink a few months later in a “chill-out” area at a music festival in Sydney.
The biggest chill-out zone in the world, however, remains Pete and Katrina’s three-day annual jamboree in the Malvern Hills in Herefordshire. Finding it is not easy. After three hours going round in circles with an out-of- date map and a carload of Brazilians yakking excitedly in Portuguese, I am finding it difficult to get in the mood. Eventually, shortly after midnight, we notice a gap in the forest and pass into a secluded, tree- lined path bounded by torches and notices which read “Slow down: 5mph”. My travelling companions are lulled into a respectful silence.
Set in 500 acres of forest and green fields and overlooked by the medieval Eastnor castle, the chillers have chosen an impressive venue for their rural retreat. True to her word, Katrina has shifted twice as many tickets as last year, and has sold them out with a month to spare. Together with the crew and the artists, Eastnor is now home to 16,000 twenty-something and thirty-something city-dwellers. Most are so beautifully turned out that they look like they have just emerged from a dressing room rather than spent the night in a poky tent. The result feels like an immense but rather intimate garden party, a kaleidoscope of colour in the matt green of the English countryside.
The chillers are as far removed from the festival-going stereotype as it is possible to imagine. Perhaps because the food is more exotic than the usual festival fare and the facilities more luxurious, the festival tends to attract young, ambitious professionals: accountants, lawyers, and media workers. So many are working in IT that I begin to fancy they might be here for the networking opportunities. Very few make their way here for the music. Many are attracted by the family-friendly environment – the festival offers a raft of activities for mini-chillers – while others tell me they’ve been to other festivals and are ready for something a little less raucous. Most of all, however, the chillers converge on Eastnor because of its ethos. They want the experience of a summer of love without any of the aggravation, and trust that everyone else will come with a similarly laid-back approach.
In the afternoon, Katrina invites me to join her on a tour of the site. As we circle around in her brand new Mini, the festival grounds begin to resemble an awesomely beautiful safari park: all around us bodies are stretching out on the grass and occasionally reaching up to glance lazily at the passing automobile. A giant beanbag has gone missing from one of the tents, and Katrina and I go to investigate. On the way, her walkie- talkie informs her that Wizard Wonky, the children’s entertainer, has parked a conspicuously new, bright yellow Volkswagen outside one of the tents. It seems unlikely that Wizard Wonky has been compromised by a relationship with the marketers at Volkswagen. All the same, the people from Mini are not happy. Wizard Wonky’s car is ordered to be removed from the premises immediately. I never see it again.
For the most part, however, the chillers are so relentlessly good-natured that the festival is largely self-policing and Katrina and Pete have little for to do. In any case, both are firm believers in delegating responsibility – they want to mix with the punters and chill out themselves. After leaving Katrina, I walk with Pete as he roves around checking out the bands he has booked. A grey-haired, genial man in his mid-forties, Pete is unusually shy for a musician. Reflecting on the philosophy of the festival, Pete tells me that it works best “for people deciding to take stock of their lives, to contemplate what they’re really interested in.” He concedes that it is not for everyone. When he took his chill-out music to Brazil, he tells me, the people in the audience looked at him incredulously: they were, he admits, looking for looking for something a little more up-tempo.
Later that afternoon, in the Body and Soul tent, Janee has pinned me down on a mattress and is stubbornly pressing her foot into my upper thigh. Indian Yoga Massage, she explains, is designed to make the body more supple and overcome corporeal barriers to the release of energy. Katrina has advised me to pace myself, and I’m taking her advice. After Janee has unlocked my natural chi, I lie down in the middle of the main festival area, a makeshift courtyard between the music stages and the rows of teepees which serve food and drink. Around me, the chillers are jutting back and forth on spacehoppers and shooting bubbles at each other with toy guns. I follow the path of the bubbles and watch them disappear upwards into the afternoon sky. I am, I think, close to achieving chilled oblivion. Stumbling up the hill on the way back to my tent, I see the “bumvertiser” Jake driving past in his brand new Mini. I try to hitch a lift, but he’s already gone.

AS CHILLING SWEEPS LIKE a slow-motion tornado throughout the culture, it threatens to redefine everything in its wake as a form of rest and relaxation. The latest craze within the music industry, for example, is classical chillout, a formula which puts classical pieces put through an electronic grinder and which seems oblivious to the fact that relaxation is the last thing which classical music, if played properly, ought to induce. Even drug-taking, once a bastion of youthful rebellion, has been recast as a chill-out experience. In a study last year, academics at Manchester University found evidence that soft drugs like cannabis and alcohol have changed in the role which they play within young lives. Young people, the survey found, now “see their substance use as de-stressing – a chilling out activity – an antidote to the working week.”
The urge to chill is so resonant, perhaps, because of our inflated fears about change and disruption. Katrina told me that she believes there is plenty of room for competitors in the burgeoning market for chill: the more people who chill out, she says, the better for us all. The real danger to her business, she admits, is that people may overdose on chilling and refuse to budge from their living-room. “If you ask any young person now what is their ideal night out”, she tells me, “they are likely to say it’s sitting on their sofa with their friends, listening to some music and chilling out.”
But when we are too chilled even to make it out the front door, something would seem to have gone awry. The conventional explanation for the urge to chill is that people need a kind of respite from the hectic world of work. But there is, contrary to popular prejudice, nothing so uniquely hectic about the modern world of work that we have to spend the rest of our time lulling ourselves into a general anaesthetic. The 20th century has seen a gradual contraction of the working day, even if the rate of that contraction has stalled over the past two decades.
Rather than anything to do with the pace of modern life, the urge to chill seems to express a political statement. To chill is not only a lifestyle choice; it is, if the chillers are to be believed, a shared ethos and the morally responsible thing to do. One of the most popular slogans among British protesters against the recent war in Iraq was: “Chill Out: Sort it Out.” And chilling, it is worth noting, increasingly meets with the approval of the Government. Last year, the Home Office issued guidelines advising clubs to provide chill-out rooms to help clubbers wind down after overdoing it with more hyperactive drugs like ecstasy. In the same year, officials from the Department of Public Health in San Francisco who were trying to combat aggressive driving distributed bumper-stickers adorned with the slogan “Chill Out” to the 30,000 commuters who drive into the city.
But if the urge to chill is a political slogan, the politics of chilling are ineffectual and self-absorbed. A kind of aural and visual balm for the senses, the aesthetics of chill are, after all, worryingly reliant on the therapeutic idiom. When I ask Katrina how The Big Chill differs from legendary music festivals like Woodstock or the Isle of Wight, her response is measured and reflective. “The people at Woodstock”, she says, “thought they could change the world, whereas now people are much more cynical about being able to do anything on a larger scale. Chillers just want to have a little peace in their own little world.” If the 20th century gave the world the twin stimulants of entrepreneurship and rebellion, it seems, the 21st century may have produced a flaccid rejoinder: relax, just chill.
By my third day at The Big Chill, jaded by the heat, I’m so chilled as to be almost comatose. The night before, I had paid a visit to the arts trail, a brilliantly atmospheric installation at the top of a hill. Under cover of darkness, semi-comatose adults were easing themselves back and forth on playground swings to the accompaniment of faintly sinister fairground music. Faced with the prospect of another day with nothing much to do, however, I’m beginning to get twitchy. I begin to crave one of those rare bursts of unadulterated energy, such as the banter among the crowd outside the rehabilitation clinic, or the night that the audience in the cabaret tent rounded on a lacklustre comedian, only to be kept at bay with the entreaty: “Chill out, people. Come on, you’re supposed to be chilled.” It was the only funny thing the comedian had said all evening, but it still wasn’t enough to save him.
In the afternoon, Pete Lawrence is billed to play on one of the main stages and he invites me to join him. Having been introduced to his audience as “the Godfather of Chill”, Pete proceeds to a huge sampling machine which obscures most of his entire body from the audience. A few moments later, the delicate pitter-patter of his electronic chords emerges from the huge stage speakers. The drummer, a natty, wiry Londoner, soon drifts away from his post and joins me for a chat. After a few minutes smoking a suspiciously weighty roll-up cigarette, he asks me if I think he ought to go back on. Yes mate, I reply, I think you probably should. But by now I feel an involuntary spasm in my lower leg, and fantasise about upstaging Pete with a staccato blast of salsa or some impromptu ballroom dancing, having roped the drummer into hitting his drums with a little more vigour. The crowd, zonked into a state of utter blissfulness, probably wouldn’t have noticed.
On my way out of the stage area, I check my mobile phone for messages and fail to get a signal. I remember Katrina telling me that the chillers vetoed a proposal to build a mobile mast for the event, on the grounds that gabbling on mobiles would hardly be conducive to winding down. As I strain with my mobile keyboard in the vain hope of making the thing work, a beefy, shaven-headed man stares back at me, his T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Fucking relax”. I consider myself warned.