Sleep deprivation had me on the brink of insanity, my body felt like it’d been hit by a freight train, twice, and I’d not showered in four days. But I’d experienced possibly the best weekend of my life. There’s an enchanting quality about the musical festival that draws people in, and once you’ve crossed that line, there’s no looking back.
The music festival seems to be something of a musical and experiential terminus for many people; it’s something you arrive at, moreover, something you’re initiated into. Popping your festival cherry can sometimes be a daunting thing, but what is concealed in this transition is the very idea of uncertainty, discomfort – and embracing it as an opportunity for growth; but after the initial challenge, we begin to learn that it is a gateway in many ways, to great things.
You’ll find that the people there are far more content, tolerant, and open than if you had met them the week before on the commute to work or in the queue at Tescos
Everyone remembers their first festival, it’s etched deep into the memory. The idea of spending a few days in a field with your mates is for some reason exhilarating, and while it’s easy to over-intellectualise the epistemic meaning of what a music festival is – or could be, what we can really reduce it to is simply a free and open space that is shared by a group of people for the pure purpose of enjoyment. Yet it is such a simple concept that seems to fundamentally move us.
The music festival as we know it today is a recent phenomenon. Many regard Woodstock ’69 as a turning point; from a social, political and ideological point of view, it was a paradigm shift of immense proportions. Regarded by many as the nexus of the counterculture generation, it is here that the musical festival began to embody something greater than the surface level pleasures that it was able to offer. Predicated by the historical ‘Summer Of Love’ that had erupted two years before, it would seem that quite literally a large group of people having fun in a field epitomised that of a much sought-after global society, one of open mindedness and free-thinking, collaboration, inclusiveness, tolerance, compassion and peace.
So maybe V Festival’s Katy Perry and Calvin Harris, sponsored by Bacardi, isn’t a bastion of counterculture; or Bestival a global proponent of progressive, nu-age socio-political notions… or are they? While examples like these don’t seem to provoke anything groundbreaking or substantial, they inherently possess the opportunity for these underlying ideas to permeate the minds of its people. Regardless of which festival it is, you’ll find that the people there are far more content, tolerant, and open than if you had met them the week before on the commute to work or in the queue at Tescos. Though this may feel like an obvious observation, the implications are that a festival environment has an almost magical affect on people; and we return to the mundane motions of the 9-5 and the hostile beat of the metropolis, wondering why things can’t be different…
what the festival allows us is a break from the monotonous rhythms of every day life
Since 1969, a multibillion dollar industry has emerged, catalysed by an increasingly robust infrastructure, bespoke sound systems providing increasingly high sound quality, competing food vendors, and continuously innovative creative collectives. Gone are the days of £1 Glastonbury tickets, and gone are the days of fence hopping and hitchhiking – there are now considerable budgets for things like security, production, and contingencies such as adverse weather and power shortages. Indeed, looking at the UK Festival Market Report from 2010, research suggested that in 2010 there were around 800 UK festivals, compared to the mere 10 that were in business in 2000. Moreover, the average price of a ticket more than doubled to around £160 during a similar time period.
Inside this escapism is a suspended reality
Over fifty years of intense growth and activity has resulted in an approaching excess of choice, as well as an established system and network of competitors. A piece on the BBC actually revealed that festivals were struggling due to a saturated market, with over 30 festivals having to cancel in 2011 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/14446562). While we can look at this in some negative ways, it is no overstatement to say that we are living in an age of abundance, and a golden age of music festivals.
Twenty years ago you wouldn’t have been able to hold as many high quality, techno-specific festivals on such a large scale. Filling a couple of warehouses, sure, but a yearly crowd of over 100,000? No chance. Thirty years ago techno didn’t even exist! Perhaps the area that has prospered the most out of all music has been underground dance music. The arrival of the internet has enabled small, local independent labels and brands to take on a global presence, branching out to places that would normally be physically out of reach. As a consequence, we have more consolidated communities, a greater connection and dialogue between these communities, and a more democratic model that no longer favours geographical location.
Thanks to music festivals, “underground” music isn’t so underground anymore. If you have a facebook page, chances are, people are going to find you. In the unprecedented growth of the festival industry, we find “underground” house and techno permeating even the most mainstream of festivals. Despite being the warring ground of volatile, hormonal teenagers, Reading/Leeds has consciously branched out from its Rock-Metal heritage to accommodate acts like Hudson Mohawke, Gorgon City, and drum n Bass A-listers like Wilkinson and Camo & Krooked. Similarly, historical Rock N Roll mecca Isle of Wight Festival has at least two stages dedicated to electronic music, while simultaneously pushing headliners like Bruce Springsteen and The Sex Pistols. While this seemingly schizophrenic behavior might indicate a mild identity crisis, what it really says is that what were once niche, esoteric music genres, are now more accessible and readily consumable by the wider general public.
Interestingly however, the ‘music festival’ is the one place where music doesn’t necessarily have to take precedence
Yet this progression is one of two parallel but entirely connected entities. On the one end we have the transgression of underground sounds seeping into the mainstream, but really its root cause is found in the burgeoning scene that lies below ground level. Times are changing, and the cyclical nature of culture is now shining the spotlight on a new wave of house and techno collectives that are almost singlehandedly pushing things forward. We now have specialist festivals that focus on the more refined curation of underground dance music, such as Dekmantel, Dimensions, Weather, and Nuit Sonores pulling in huge lineups, and the crowds to go with it. As righteous as we are to feel that this is long overdue, it is actually quite a remarkable phenomenon that is very easily taken for granted.
Interestingly however, the ‘music festival’ is the one place where music doesn’t necessarily have to take precedence, and you will find that when going to festivals like Glastonbury, you can spend five days there and not actually see any music but still have an amazing time; likewise aside from the fact that it’s one of the world’s most fascinating social experiments, Burning Man can offer up life-changing experiences and genuine forms of ‘enlightenment’. Curiously, the same report mentioned earlier concluded that festival goers deemed “impressive headliners” and “scheduling and programming” as less important factors when deciding to go to a festival. Though festivals such as Nachtdigital can assure quality line-ups, tickets sell out well before any of the acts are announced – which actually says something key about the inherent non-musical value that lies within music festivals.
It is this inherent non-musical value that leads us to the possible essence of the ‘music festival’ (though of course symbiotic to the actual musical component). Despite being a crucial aspect, it isn’t always about the music. In reality, we crave festival culture for the pure experience; while the music gives us something to keep us occupied between 6pm and sunrise, it is really the greater prospect of escapism that seduces us into making the commitment. The word ‘commitment’ is used here because included with your four days of fun in a field is a c.£3-500 investment, an obscene lack of sleep, and the risk of losing not only your belongings, but also your memory of the whole thing – not to mention the long, painful, depressing week back at work (always book Monday off).
For the majority of people, festivals are one of the only ways to fully release
Yet after all this, people will still go to great efforts to be at a festival (if a transatlantic flight to the US followed by an intimidating road trip into the Black Rock desert of Nevada while lugging all your essential supplies for the week isn’t enough to put you off, then it’s got to be pretty worthwhile). Inside this escapism is a suspended reality; and it’s the prospect of sheer possibility that makes it so exciting. For the majority of people, festivals are one of the only ways to fully release; regardless of what kind of festival we find ourselves at, what the festival allows us is a break from the monotonous rhythms of every day life, and the opportunity to experience something completely otherworldly. For the grace of but a handful of days, you can do whatever you want to do, and you can be whoever you want to be.
The question of the day among 20-somethings is no longer “where are you going on holiday this summer?”, it’s: “what festivals are you doing this Summer?”
Festival culture wouldn’t be what it is without its relationship with drugs and alcohol. While some refrain from such indulgences, it is arguably the widespread use of substances that have become the crux of festival experiences. Humans have been experimenting with perception for thousands of years; there’s something restless and inquisitive about the human condition that compels us to pursue altered states of human consciousness. For it is beyond the realms of the norm, that we can truly explore the emotional, spiritual, existential recesses of the human psyche. That, or it’s just a matter of getting absolutely sloshed on the cidré. Regardless, any degree of intoxication breaks down barriers, and has enabled the most unlikely of interactions to take place. It is logical then, that the music festival provides a desired environment for these voyages, and is the reason why the festival will remain perennial feature of live music.
We only need to hop on a short coach ride to go and experience some of the most impressive line-ups in the world
A holistic, anthropological overview of contemporary socio-cultural movements is beyond the scope of this piece, though it’s worth re-iterating that a combination of technological advancement, industry growth, and a fortuitous musical progression has landed us in the thick of it. We are currently at an interesting juncture. As genres like house and techno continue to become increasingly saturated, we find that this remarkably healthy scene has inherited an uncertain future indeed. Where dance music goes from here is almost impossible to say, though as we can see, music festivals play a focal part in not only highlighting these issues but also allow us to subsist through them.
It is no mystery then, that music festivals have become the staple to an increasing majority of Summer itineraries, with enticing options for both the newbie and the seasoned veteran. From the manageable and contained arenas of Farr and Gottwood (with capacities of only around 5,000), to the behemoth that is Glastonbury (if Glastonbury was in New Zealand it would be the 5th largest city in the country), from the tropical sounds of the family-friendly WOMAD to the heaving subs of Outlook, there is really a festival for every shape, size and occasion. The question of the day among 20-somethings is no longer “where are you going on holiday this summer?”, it’s: “what festivals are you doing this Summer?”.
Moreover, affordable budgets make international travel more feasible, with places like Croatia, Poland and Holland becoming hot destinations for punters. In his book ‘Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjet Set’, Tobias Rapp talks about how this new cosmopolitan world we live in accommodates international club-culture and they way leisure activities are becoming increasingly continental. A cheeky little weekend trip to Berlin or Amsterdam is just as expensive as getting the train up to Manchester, and the bottomless repositories of the internet enable us to create tailored itineraries with ease.
If anything, what festivals have most progressed in is their accessibility. We’re now spoilt for choice in our own country, let alone considering the international festival circuit. We only need to hop on a short coach ride to go and experience some of the most impressive line-ups in the world; here in the UK we are blessed with access to the finest music on our doorstep. In other ways, accessibility has progressed through improved on-site facilities, continuously innovative festival businesses and through the internet. Consider that over the last five years social media has suddenly become an integral part of our lives; where once upon-a-time festivals would struggle to access a potential market, now almost anyone can tap into the wealth and attention of the masses – providing you’ve got the resources and strategy to stand out from competition.
Within the confines of a festival the rules change, anything becomes possible. Realising the serendipity of your social interactions adds weight to the singularity of the event
Yet punters often overlook the risk and hardship involved in running a festival. We tend to forget the countless brands that have come and gone, and it’s not really that easy to comprehend the sheer amount of planning, resources and co-ordination required to successfully pull-off even the smallest of festivals. Believe it or not, despite the sometimes extortionate drinks prices and a fully sold-out tickets, many festivals live just inches above the bread-line, and the amount of perpetual risk that comes with the annual scramble for customers means that even after ten years of business you can never feel secure enough.
There’s a tendency to hyperbolise the music festival. By all means sometimes a festival can just be a chilled couple of days away from home, but the sheer potential of a festival experience is something that must surely be acknowledged. For me it’s about bridging the gap between the normal and the extraordinary. Within the confines of a festival the rules change, anything becomes possible. Realising the serendipity of your social interactions adds weight to the singularity of the event. Never again will the same selection of people be located at that point in space and time. What this implies, is that for each festival you’re helping to create something wonderfully unique and ephemeral.
It is this moment that we are so obsessed with. But it is the impermanence of said moments that we seem to grapple with to our deathbeds. We take selfies and shoddy video clips in a futile attempt to artifact pockets of time, special moments, yet we know full well that it’s impossible to catch with fidelity simply because it is experiential. To put it bluntly, we still can’t deal with Loss. But it is this ephemeral nature of music and people that makes it so special to us; it’s not something you can replicate. There are few things more beautiful than sitting back in your room, strangely relishing the post-weekend fatigue and reflecting back on the adventure just gone. Yet the sensation is one of inner conflict; a post-euphoric haze leaves you with a contented afterglow, while simultaneously an uncomfortable yearning begins to set in. Take me back, take me back…